The Urban League recently released a report on the state of black America.

With unemployment at 22% in Black America alone, do you really need to know what that report said?

For historian Jelani Cobb, this calls for a treatment of the old Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Dubois argument. Whereas Dubois was calling for civil rights and the political enfranchisement of African Americans, it was Washington calling for economic empowerment. Cobb:

If we take a look at the State of the Black Union report on lagging wealth, home-ownership and income within the black portion of America it would seem as if that dispute remains unsettled; that one side has piled up the points only to see the game head into overtime. We (wisely) recognize Du Bois as the godfather of the civil rights movement but Washington’s stillborn economic dream shadows us, a silent signpost of the road not taken.

Quite simply black America has waged a more effective civil rights movement than economic rights movement.

This doesn’t mean that we have paid no attention to the issue of economic development — it has been a primary concern of figures as diverse as Madame CJ Walker, Marcus Garvey, Earl Graves and Louis Farrakhan. But it simply has not had the same bandwidth as the struggles for civil rights. This might be because a “Whites Only” sign is a tangible totem of the tilted social order; poverty is diffuse and relative. And I’m inclined to think that economic development posed a kind of threat that even social equality might not have — there were generally speaking far more black men lynched for demanding wages than for the faulty specter of threatening white women.

However we slice it, the result is black America occupying a status more asymetrical than at any time since some of us were free and the rest were slaves. It is March 27, 2009. Some of live in the White House; some of us live on the street.

And this is essentially what Booker would tell Barack, or more precisely, what he would tell the rest of us because if you think that a President can save you — even one with a swagger, who lives on the South Side of town and ditches auxilary verbs, then you’ve been missing the whole point.

The full post here.

I think that last sentence is on point. The rest of it?

Cobb makes two moves here that we need to think carefully about. Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Queen Mother Moore, Amy and Marcus Garvey….are all dead. We don’t know what they’d say had they been alive, what types of changes in their philosophies they would have made. We all use the dead as a form of shorthand to speak to the present. “[Insert Black Leader Here] would be rolling over in his grave right now.” But in as much as people like Booker T. Washington aren’t living in an age of turntablism, G-20 summits, Iphones, facebook, much less an age in which a black man is provost of Emory University, CEO of American Express, much less President, it’s hard to say with any degree of accuracy how they’d react to this age.

And it becomes particularly hard when we deal with Dubois and Washington. Not just because they came of age at a time when America was barely driving much less flying at the speed of sound. But because with all of the hype surrounding them we’ve really forgotten some of the key things they differed on. Booker T. Wasington didn’t differ from Dubois on the issue of economic empowerment. As time passed Dubois supported the idea of economic cooperatives, and of using black economic capital to help make black people self-sufficient. He differed with Booker T. Washington on the value of education, on the importance of developing black cultural capital, and on the value of black political enfranchisement.

The normal reading of Booker T. Washington, the one that Cobb presents, goes something like this. Booker T. Washington developed Tuskegee so blacks could develop the skilled trades (carpentry, masonry, etc.) that would enable them to be self-sufficient, and that would over time convince whites to give them political rights.

This is wrong. Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee did not to train blacks for the skilled trades, but trained blacks for industrial labor….work that didn’t build self-sufficiency, but rather dependency. Blacks who showed signs of independence, showed signs of wanting to be self-sufficient, received poor grades at Tuskegee-like institutions. Teachers who showed signs of wanting to TEACH self-sufficiency, were fired. The industrialists that funded Tuskegee and like institutions throughout the south wanted black workers who wouldn’t question orders, wouldn’t rock the boat, and wouldn’t compete against them.

(My reading here comes in part from James Anderson’s invaluable work.)

So the first move Cobb makes is to put his (and to a certain extent my) ideas about what Obama should focus on in the mouth of someone who isn’t alive to say anything one way or the other. The second move though is to misread Washington in doing so. Both moves are dangerous, but this last one is particularly so, because trying to make Washington and Washington style boot-licking palatable at a time where we need to fight aggressively for government intervention can cut into attempts to critically assess what we want and need from Obama.