The Weight Of Being A (Young And Successful) Black Male

by Guest Contributor Edward Williams, originally published at Policylink

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that most notably stated, “all progress is precarious and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” I had never contemplated my personal success as precarious progress or that my success to this point could bring any non-materialistic problems, but I now find myself–like many of my fellow successful, young, black men–in a moment of crisis.

Before I dive into what exactly this 21st-century identity crisis is, what it is caused by, and what it ultimately means, I need to get some preliminaries out of the way to open some critical minds. First, this article is not intended to be braggadocious: I will discuss some of my personal success as I explicate this issue, but I will also share the success of several other young black men that I am close with. Neither their stories of success nor mine are expressed from a place of haughtiness but instead from a place of humility. I fear that it is out of concern for being perceived as arrogant or out-of-touch that this side of the young black male’s story is so rarely told.

Next, this article is not intended to complain about success. I recognize that success is usually not a word associated with black men, and I spend most of my article writing time trying to shed light on the crisis in our inner-city schools. It is not lost on me that most young black men will never be in a position to engage in the dialogue that I am about to embark on, because their potential success has been stifled.

Finally, I recognize that much of what I will discuss at length not only applies to successful young black men, but also to successful young black women and young successful minorities generally. I have consciously chosen to focus on the young black male success crisis because I understand it best first hand. It would be disingenuous of me to attempt to articulate the myriad of different pressures that other minorities or women experience as they climb the ladder of success. Therefore, for risk of speaking on that which I know little about, I have chosen not to explore those topics, but I hope that my fellow successful young minority colleagues and female colleagues will soon treat us with their own version of this crisis.

Now that preliminaries are out of the way, let’s get down to the issue; what exactly is the young successful black male’s 21st century identity crisis?

What is the crisis?

The crisis is epitomized by questions like: What am I going to do next? Where should I go from here? What should I aspire to? Do I have to choose between money and my commitment to my community? If I stay where I am in my career, am I settling? What do the people I am surrounded by expect from me? Do I want to meet their expectations? If I do not meet their expectations, have I failed?

At first glance, these seem like the types of questions that every twenty-something-year-old with boundless potential and opportunities are asking themselves. But when coupled with the pressure of constantly being an anomaly, these questions take on a different level of intensity. Young, successful black men in our society are just as easily defined by their accolades as by their status as an outlier.

For me, like many other young, successful black men, the reality of being outside of the mainstream started very early in life. I was no more than nine years old when the path of divergence started. Having transferred from a black Christian private school, where I had been a student from daycare to second grade, to a local public school, I was initially placed in a remedial third grade classroom, despite the fact that my records demonstrated I was doing work several years ahead of my peer group. Because my parents have been and continue to be my strongest advocates, they pressed the administration to put me in a classroom where I would not be bored and the work would actually be challenging. A few weeks into the school year, I was transferred into a more rigorous third grade classroom, where I was still bored and probably not the least talkative student. Again due to my parent’s pressure, I was tested for the school’s gifted program and admitted.

This point was the beginning of an academic path that would lead me to my present-day success. In the gifted curriculum, I was the only black male. I formed my friends from my peer group, mostly white females, and matriculated with this group of peers up to high school. The academic impact is best illustrated by the progression of math courses I took through the end of high school. In middle school, I took Pre-algebra, Algebra I, and Geometry, while all of the other black males in the school took two years of general math, finishing middle school with pre-algebra. In high school, I took Algebra II, Advanced Trigonometry, Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and, by my senior year, the school created a new math course called Analysis taught by a local university professor, for me and a group of classmates–none of whom were black men–who had opted not to spend our senior year at the local college. On the other hand, the majority of my black male peers finished high school having matriculated through trigonometry.

All of my classes were predominated with white and Asian students, even at my 97% African-American, inner-city high school, where I was in a magnet program (school within a school). The feeling of being an anomaly was my normal. Desiring to be surrounded by other brilliant African-American minds, I decided to attend Howard University. I achieved academically and otherwise and met some of whom I am convinced are the best minds in our generation. I left the haven that alumni affectionately call the Mecca–because of its centrality for the black community since its inception–and joined Teach For America. I taught third grade in inner-city Atlanta, where I came face-to-face with the students who were not in my classes as I matriculated from K – 12th grade. My students were educationally deprived and living in economically deprived communities.

Teaching was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life…and also some of the most meaningful work I have done to this point. I finished my Teach For America commitment and reluctantly left the classroom to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, where I am presently a 2L. I did well my first year in law school, where there were no more than fifteen black men in my 1L class of nearly 600, and now every possible opportunity one might imagine is open to me. This is the beginning of my crisis.

The exact contours of my story do not parallel every young successful black male’s life: for some their path diverged in high school or college, for others they did not feel like an anomaly until they took their first job after school, and still for some the crisis has yet to make itself apparent. By way of example, I have several black male friends who recently graduated from law school and are trying to figure out what their impact will be with their newly attained degree. At the same time, I have black male colleagues who work at major Wall Street firms and are now trying to figure out where they should be spending their time and energy. Yet, despite the differences, the common threads of educational attainment, exceptionalism, and ambition are apparent. And now many of us have realized that we are in a metaphorical no-man’s land, where no one can guide us or point the way.

We are now forced to make it up as we go along and for many of us this is a nerve-wracking reality. Up to this point, we simply did the next logical thing, graduated from high school, went to college, took a career-oriented job track where we would be an associate for a few years before trying to move up, or went to professional school where we would pass the requisite exams and enter our professional careers. But now that we are here, where there is no next logical step, simply a vast number of opportunities, many of us find ourselves trying to answer the larger questions of life, like what I am supposed to do while I am alive, in order to gain a sense of direction.

What makes this crisis unique to young, successful black men?

I am sure that everyone who continues to be ambitious and pursue ever far-fetched goals eventually comes to the place that I just described. So, what makes it a crisis for young, successful black men, but simply a part of life for some others? The short answer is that it is a crisis because there are so few examples of high levels of success from which black men can mold a path.

Over the last 200 years of American history, there has been one African-American male President, one African-American male Attorney General, one African-American male Secretary of State, and two African-American male Supreme Court Justices. There is currently one African-American male governor, there have only been four in American history. Five (0.83%) of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African-American men. Approximately 1% of all law firm partners are African-American men. There has been one African-American male Surgeon General in American history. And fewer than six percent of all high-ranking military officers are African-American.

All of these statistics are an attempt to paint the picture that these laudable successes reinforce the crisis. The rarity of these accomplishments sends the message to similarly aspiring black men that getting into these positions comes with no guidebook, nor general path. Some might suggest that for many of the positions I cited there is no general path for anyone because so few people ever rise to those levels of success. However, this critique misses the point. For each position I named, there is a more or less common route, but those routes have not applied to African-American men who attained those positions.

For example, most presidents are governors before running for president; Obama was a U.S. senator. Most Supreme Court justices appointed directly from a seat as a court of appeals judges prior to becoming a justice; Thurgood Marshall was a solicitor general at the time of his appointment.

If I were a white male and I wanted to be a Fortune 500 CEO, it would make the most sense for me to get my undergraduate degree and possibly my MBA from Harvard, Stanford, U. Penn., or Columbia, which account for over 25% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. However, of the five black male Fortune 500 CEOs, three of the five went to one of the four named schools at some point, but the low sampling size makes it insufficient to call it a pattern or, even more, a potential path. For the white male CEO aspirant, the patterns is set, go to one of these schools and then have a one in four chance of being CEO. For the black male CEO aspirant, going to one of these four schools is probably a good idea, but in no way dispositive of increasing your likelihood of achieving your goal.

Before delving into suggestions for how young, successful black men should deal with the crisis, I want to deal with an issue that some who are reading this article closely may have noticed: I have purposefully avoided discussing industries where successful black men predominate; this was not a mistake.

When many Americans think of successful black men, besides President Obama, most think about NBA stars, NFL stars, black actors and music moguls. I have avoided these industries because more often than not, despite the fame and wealth of these black men, their team owners, record label owners, production companies, and movie studios are attaining more wealth. In fact, the dearth of black men in the ultimate decision-making positions in these industries simply reinforces the crisis previously articulated. If you consider athletes, actors, and musicians pay as a percentage of their respective company owners’ profits, they start to look a lot more like mid-level associates in large firms far away from the CEO suite.

Dealing with the crisis

1. Accept and acknowledge that you are now writing history

As we continue to wrestle with the question of where to go from here, we need to accept the reality that whatever we do will be historical. Therefore, we should be inclined to make it a story worth reading. This reality comes with a certain sentiment of adventure and a simultaneous pressure of responsibility. The adventure is derived from a sense that you can really go anywhere, do anything, and become anybody. But, the pressure results from a simultaneous reality that wherever we go, whatever we do, and whoever we become, everyone will watch us. We owe it to little black boys to give them something to strive toward, and we owe it to our communities to continue to defy the common stereotypes.

2. Do good

Money cannot be our only motivating factor. Many young, successful black men, like myself, come from mid- to low-income families, we are often the first members of our families to graduate with any kind of degree, and we have the opportunity to gain wealth that no one related to us has ever been able to fully contemplate. However, this is not an excuse to selfishly seek personal wealth with disregard for doing good, especially for our communities. I cannot say what doing good means, it is subjectively different for everyone, but it should be a goal nonetheless.

3. Surround yourself with other young, successful black men

Once many of us graduated from our undergraduate institutions and attained our first job, we had surpassed every expectation placed on us by close relatives. Not because they do not want more for us, but because they have no idea what to want. This is the time to surround yourself with like-minded, and similarly successful black men who will keep pushing on you. The main question that you should be asking and that should be asked of you is: what am I/are you going to do next? There must be a visceral aversion to settling or getting too comfortable.

4. Mentor other young black men

Being a resource, confidant, and friend to several young black men attempting to climb their own ladders is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, but it is a requirement for every young, successful black man. If we are going to ever see a day where we are not the anomaly, then we have to coach other young black men to the point that we have achieved. This does not mean waiting until you are CEO, president, or attorney general to start mentoring. You can start by helping someone just below your current position. If you made it to college, mentor young black men from your high school who are trying to get there. If you have already graduated from college, then mentor young black men are trying to get through their undergraduate years. If you are in professional school, mentor young black men that are trying to get into your profession. This is community uplift at its essence, everyone reaching back just a little bit to pull at least one person up to their level.

Conclusion

In sum, the 21st century identity crisis for young, successful black men is an inevitable reality of black men achieving greater levels of success than previously attainable but still in extremely small numbers. The crisis will continue until enough black men have attained high enough levels of success from which a pattern or path of success can be forged. We are decades away from such a moment, and perhaps even further away if black men continue to be the least educated, most imprisoned, and generally least successful group in our country. It is this sobering reality that makes the crisis so poignant, if those of us in a position to get there–wherever our individual there are–don’t reach our fullest potential, it could be decades from now, or maybe never, before a black male ever has the opportunity to reach for it again.

  • KTW

    This is a great response, and I think it gets at a bigger question: how should black people navigate power/oppressive hierarchies? Using your metric, Chicago community organizer Obama was a much greater success than President Obama. I think that being President of any nation forces you to compromise yourself in ways that an activist would not. Is there a ‘responsible’ way to behave as a head of state, or does the nature of the position turn anyone into a cog in the machine? Should young black boys and girls aspire to be President/Secretary of State/a Supreme Court justice, or would they be better off as activists and teachers? And do we have the right to tell these young people what to do? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think they’re all worth discussing.

  • Shannon E. Wells

    Can you help me (and probably others) understand why you feel it is not possible or desirable to follow the same routes (e.g. Harvard, Yale, etc –> CEO/other executive) as your successful white peers? Is it because of the business and social connections or lack thereof? Is it that you don’t really want to be a Fortune 500 CEO, or that is not possible, or, as it seems, you also want to include socially responsible action to your career path? Perhaps I just don’t get how the high-level exec, law or finance world works.

    • linkgx1

      That depends though. I guess what the author is trying to say is that in most cases of blacks being prominent figures…they did not get there by traditional means. Yes a black guy can go to Harvard, but it’s statitstically proven IF the candidate as the same credentials as a white counterpart AND has a white sounding name….and gets interviewed the white candidate is twice as likely to be called back. It’s a catch 22 when many employers will want people that ‘fit’ into their culture..

  • Shannon E. Wells

    Can you help me (and probably others) understand why you feel it is not possible or desirable to follow the same routes (e.g. Harvard, Yale, etc –> CEO/other executive) as your successful white peers? Is it because of the business and social connections or lack thereof? Is it that you don’t really want to be a Fortune 500 CEO, or that is not possible, or, as it seems, you also want to include socially responsible action to your career path? Perhaps I just don’t get how the high-level exec, law or finance world works.

  • Anonymous

    How ironic that today Sherman Hemsley, who brought to life one of the iconic characters in TV history died today. The character George Jefferson was successful but also acknowledged the class issues you mentioned. He was self-made man who had even fewer role models than the rest of us, but lived a good life, was proud of his accomplishments, up to the point of arrogance, and knew where he stood in the world.

  • S.

    Are you single? Can I marry you?

    • linnea

      Not if I marry him first :P

  • Squidbrains

    Law school will try to point you toward a big firm and big money, regardless of what color or gender you are. The messages and the dynamics may differ substantially, and the advice that career counseling gives to their black male students I am sure is quite different from what they tell white males, or women of any color, but the overall thrust I think is pretty consistent. Don’t let it eat you. Ambition to join the ranks of the powerful tends to lead to wielding that power the same way others have done it, not changing the game. Especially in D.C. – eish!

  • Anonymous

    ” I finished my Teach For America commitment and reluctantly left the
    classroom to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, where I am
    presently a 2L. I did well my first year in law school, where there were
    no more than fifteen black men in my 1L class of nearly 600, and now
    every possible opportunity one might imagine is open to me. This is the
    beginning of my crisis.”

    Why did you leave the classroom?

  • Anonymous

    ” I finished my Teach For America commitment and reluctantly left the
    classroom to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, where I am
    presently a 2L. I did well my first year in law school, where there were
    no more than fifteen black men in my 1L class of nearly 600, and now
    every possible opportunity one might imagine is open to me. This is the
    beginning of my crisis.”

    Why did you leave the classroom?

  • Anonymous

    ” I finished my Teach For America commitment and reluctantly left the
    classroom to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, where I am
    presently a 2L. I did well my first year in law school, where there were
    no more than fifteen black men in my 1L class of nearly 600, and now
    every possible opportunity one might imagine is open to me. This is the
    beginning of my crisis.”

    Why did you leave the classroom?

  • Derrick

    Still not clear as to what the “crisis” is that the author of this post is referring. Read it twice. Still scratching my head. Is the crisis too many choices? Too many options? If so, that’s not a black successful male crisis. That’s an American crisis.

    • http://twitter.com/screwdestiny screwdestiny

      My impression was the lack of role models and support from people who really understood your position. I’m a black female, but my background is quite similar to the author’s and there really is NO substitute for seeing and being around other black people in your situation or having just gotten out of it. It’s calming, gives you hope for you future, and it makes you feel normal. So much of what everyone is stressing these days is networking that you if you feel like you’re all alone out there or you look around and see that you actually are literally the only one, it’s suffocating realizing all the work you essentially have to do for yourself with little indicators of pay off. It’s like you can’t afford to make a mistake, but figuring out what to do is excruciating – especially since if you fail, it’s pretty much going to be chalked up to you being black/Affirmative Action by others and disappointment by your family members who have invested so much hope and time in your future. At the same time, community is something you want to foster but if you focus so much on achieving financial/career success where you’re primarily going to be surrounded with white or Asian people, you can end up missing out if you’re never seen as nothing more than a business partner/classmate. So yes, it’s an American problem that a lot of young graduates are going through these days, but there’s more caveats to it when you’re a graduate of color and essentially a trailblazer because there’s so few others standing next to you.

  • Derrick

    Still not clear as to what the “crisis” is that the author of this post is referring. Read it twice. Still scratching my head. Is the crisis too many choices? Too many options? If so, that’s not a black successful male crisis. That’s an American crisis.