More relevant now than ever.
Read Time: 7 minutes
Should blacks learn sought-after trades in lieu of "higher education" and earn a way into society over time, or should the approach be cerebral and disruptive?
This was perhaps the most significant social debate of post Reconstruction America, and was embodied by two giants of the era. W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington had a decades-long running debate on the issue, with Dubois taking the position of the former, and Booker T. supporting the latter.
Washington was actually born into slavery in the antebellum South. His contemporary Dubois was a Northern African-American who earned a liberal arts education from renown academic institutions. Washington generally believed that poor uneducated blacks in the south should focus on learning trade skills and build their standing and respect in American society over the course of several generations. Dubois was much more militant in his approach, believing that blacks should focus on the same higher education attainment as the "privileged" population and make a disruptive (and positive) impact on the economic, political, and social institutions of the United States.
Yes, all of this sounds very archaic. Not irrelevant or invaluable for sure, but an argument that belongs to a bygone age. Or so one might think. After some consideration* I must say that the epiphany fell on me that this debate may actually be more relevant to 21st century America than it was to the turn-of-the-century era.
• • • • • *My Confession
I'm embarrassed to say I had no idea about the history behind this. I minored in political science in college and took many, many history classes. And I attended college in the deep south. I can't believe that I did not know about the W.E.B./Booker T. debate. Some time back I recorded an MWB Podcast with Dr. Cory Wiggins, Director of the HOPE Policy Institute. Dr. Wiggins and I were chatting after the recording session and he began referencing the debate between Dubois and Washington. As I said, I had no idea about this and began reading up on the public dialogue. The more I studied the matter, the more I realized that with a change in premise of their discourse, this debate is highly relevant to the 21st Century! Replace "race" issues with "workforce," - particularly youth - and we have one of the grand questions of our time.
I want to take a moment to let the reader know I'm not glossing over the context the Dubois/Washington debate. I understand that is was about determining the best manner for former slaves and their descendants to recover from generations of institutional oppression and subsequent poverty. Yes, of course it was a debate about race and racial integration. In fact, I've been thinking a lot lately about "race relations" and our current snapshot in the historical narrative. Mississippi's bicentennial statehood celebration is coming up in 2017. The Mississippi territory was organized by the U.S. government in 1798, so if we take that year as a "beginning," it means that slavery was a political and economic institution in Mississippi for 67 years. If we consider the end of the Civil War as the de jurie end of slavery in Mississippi, this means we have been a "free" state for 150 years. Of course you can't really consider a state with legal segregation as "free." Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, with the Civil Rights Act passing Congress 10 years later. Mississippi's school districts weren't effectively desegregated in earnest until 1970. All of this doesn't count years of de facto segregation practices by citizens and businesses - an issue BTW that was/is in no way exclusive to Mississippi, or the deep South for that matter. (As a side note, I just finished watching the first season of The Nick on Cinemax. It is a drama set in a NYC Hospital in 1900 - The Knickerbocker - that serves a relatively poor neighborhood. Race relations both personal and cultural are front and center and although I realize it is a fictionalized account, much of the social commentary is historically accurate. The takeaway one draws from this is that in the "progressive North," and even it's epicenter of New York City, non-white-northern-European ethnicity wasn't integrated so much as mildly tolerated. And I do mean 'mildly'. The series is definitely worth a look. I am in no way compensated by Cinemax, although I am open to the idea : ).
Anyway, as I said, the Mississippi bicentennial has me thinking a lot about race relations. The recent and apparently ongoing confederate flag debate certainly keeps the issue in the forefront, at least philosophically. I do think the strides that have been made over the past several decades are tremendous. Some readers might remark that is easy for a (relatively) successful white male to make such an observation, but please stick with me. I try as I can to make impartial observations, but I also realize that observations can never be recorded by a human mind without filtering through some degree of bias. However, I will say that I believe racism as an institutional practice is just about dead. I also understand that pockets of personal racism persist. We can hang it up on ever achieving the goal of "eracism" relative to this. Unless, that is, we're also able to wipe out ignorance. The latter begets the former, and no degree of education, legislation, evangelizing, mesmerizing, or mass epiphany will ever rid our race (the human race) of ignorance. Again, certainly not a problem confined to Mississippi, the southern United States, the nation, or any region of the globe (there are idiots everywhere...).
Excuse the contextual rambling. My actual point for writing this piece is to convey my impression of how the Dubois/Washington debate is uber relevant to the early 21st century, especially in Mississippi and other areas of the country with large numbers of under-served populations. The workforce landscape has shifted dramatically over the past two decades. Many economists would point to the fallout from the decay of the Soviet Union as the pivotal tsunami that capsized the labor boat. During the Cold War America was, in large part, a relative economic isolationist, or more aptly a modern mercantilist. This dissipated with the need to outproduce and outmaneuver a rival superpower. The means of production turned toward fast and cheap - utilizing the cheap workforce and mis-regulated operating environments of other countries to maximize margins. The great manufacturing exodus of the late 20th century scared us to death. We were losing "good jobs." In retrospect, this wasn't the great schism that we thought at the time. Few economies built on commodities and quantity are sustainable. The gold runs out, the oil dries up, and cheap labor gets more expensive. In the U.S.A, we have turned to technology to drive growth. Yes, this resulted in some famous "bubbles" for sure, but it also bred innovation and world-changing products/services the likes of which hadn't happened since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution.
The unintended consequence of this innovation-based economy is proving to be the actual tsunami that will re-calibrate everything. Off-shoring labor wasn't the labor-killer we thought it was. After all, it still required human labor, and given the ebb-and-flow of global eco-political trends, we were bound to see "re-shoring" at some point. Manufacturing and other skilled functions are coming back to our shores, but in a much different way. You see, the issue with the labor market now isn't declining manufacturing. The issue is the declining need for human labor.
Yes, the machines are here. Automate, or die?
I won't get into a further historical narrative of the macro-economic trend of automation, except to say that it is the real game changer. When you totally do away with the need for large human-based labor pools (as opposed to simply re-locating them), then the equation is totally different. Surf's up... the tsunami is here.
Scale vs. Skill
The demand for goods and services are growing, and there simply isn't enough "skilled" labor to keep up. Automation allows companies to scale their operations in either direction to react to market conditions in near-real time. This is a highly efficient method of production which fortunately or unfortunately - depending on how you look at it - takes humans out of the equation to a great degree.
And let's not limit this to line and shift workers, either. Americans have been prepped for all the robots taking over manufacturing jobs... but what about those "safe" white collar professions? A Bloomberg study from a few months ago forecasts that robots - be they actual or digital - could actually replace many functions that we think of as uniquely human. Take a look at the chart here. Financial advisors? Paralegals? Loan officers? Even epidemiologists??? Yep. In fact, pretty much any job that operates based on a strict set of standards and guidelines (rules) and punishes deviation from these will be replaced by robots. I actually have a piece coming out on this soon #teaser #SurvivingBotpocolypse.
Skill vs. Smarts?
So what we have been drilling into the heads of several generations of Americans is actually very Booker T. Washingtonian: 1) Make "the system" fair for all and then 2) Follow the rules set forth by the system and you will be able to eventually succeed... within the system. And this path did, indeed, pay dividends for decades. People who excelled within the system had good jobs, made good wages, and many built enough wealth to live comfortably and retire. Even countless other families living paycheck to paycheck could generally live relatively well through taking a mid-skilled occupations.
"Specialized skills" was the underlying economic driver in this advanced industrial/post-industrial age. At most every spectrum of the job market - labor, professional, or STEM - the greater the worker's degree of specialization the more compensation the worker could demand. This lead to highly specialized advanced manufacturing training, focused science courses of study, and highly, highly specialized professional worker skillsets. In many instances, the stricter/more complicated the set of rules a person could follow, the more specialized they could become and the more productive they could be in this specialization. Thus, their value was greater.
Then we started building ourselves out of human jobs. A recent piece quoted some futurists prognosticating that by A.D. 2050, half of the globe's eligible workforce would be unemployed due to artificial intelligence. The piece is a bit more dystopian than I think is proper, but it is true that some very smart, non-unabomer-esque individuals (read Sam Altman & Elon Musk) are concerned about the role humans will play in an AI dominated world.
I'll take a less Skynet-is-Falling approach in that I don't necessarily think this is a development to bemoan...the robots taking jobs operating on strict rules, I mean. It is actually a great chance for humanity to return to those great ages of advancement and excitement like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During these eras, more value was put on energy and creativity - branching out in many different areas of art and academics as compared to highly specialized areas of industry. How exciting would it be if the underpinnings of what is supposed to be the Age of Robot actually bring about the next great age of Mankind? However, that's opining better left another piece. Lets loop this back into the context of the W.E.B. vs. Booker T. debate.
Who's Right Now?
I think the reader already probably knows where I'm going with this. The Washingtonian path seemed to serve society well for the modern industrial age. As we move into an era when innovative disruption will likely be more highly valued than adherence, I believe youth of today and the near future are better served to take heed of the Duboisian philosophy of disruption. People equipped with the cognitive skillset to deviate from the rules in a productive way - a mental bob-and-weave - will likely be the top collective performers of the economy post-tsunami.
I, for one, just appreciate how much (if not more) Mr. Dubois and Mr. Washington's debate means to our modern era. Bravo to two heroes of American history. Let us not forget their struggles, the lessons they taught us, and how their disagreements continue to be relevant in the 21st century, and beyond.