Tag: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Overcoming Bias

Here Dr. Washington was introduced by Judge W. S. Bullock, in an address that for sincerity and the highest praise can have no equal.

“Dr. Washington, you are engaged in a great work.  We sympathise with you in the delicate and arduous undertaking… My countrymen and my friends, I commend to you our distinguished guest on this occasion.  He comes upon a mission that we welcome.  He is the leader of the negro race in America… He is taking the benighted, vicious, ignorant and superstitious negro from their [his] condition and clothing him in the garments of industry, intelligence, and morality.  In short, he is qualifying the negro for citizenship.”

~From The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume Eleven, page 484.  The above is a press release issued by the office of Dr. Washington

When reading the above, the most striking thing about it is how absolutely insulting it sounds, towards both Booker T. Washington, and to black Americans in general.  It would sound horrible if anyone today said this about the accomplishments of Dr. Washington.  It would be unforgivable if anyone said this about any contemporary person.  But at the time, he himself categorized it as the highest of praise.

What is the point of this example?  Well, for starters, that context is often everything.  We know all of the words, but they mean much different things to us today than they did to people then.  At the time, that was the height of progressivity about race in America, while today, it would be too insulting and antiquated a perspective to even voice public ally.