Remembering Elizabeth Wright

Gail Jarvis, Lew Rockwell, August 15, 2013

Although it seems like a much longer time, it was only two years ago this month that black essayist and social critic Elizabeth Wright died. In 1985 Ms. Wright inaugurated her website Issues & Views to counter the racial proselytizing that was aggravating feelings of victimization and entitlement in the black community. The masthead of her website bore the inscription: “So you still think all blacks think alike?” Elizabeth Wright’s opinions certainly didn’t conform to the way blacks were stereotyped by the establishment media. Like her mentor Booker T. Washington, Wright felt that racial conflicts were best resolved by conciliation rather than militancy. This represented quite a change from the belligerent approach used by the NAACP and other adversarial groups. Ms. Wright believed that the shrill accusations and ultimatums of these contentious groups had become counterproductive. She used her website to encourage a more pragmatic, less bellicose racial dialogue but, as we would expect, Wright’s columns were ignored by the mainstream media.

Wright’s website is now dormant but some of her writings are still accessible and the philosophy she espoused can be found in columns by black journalists like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell. The Booker T. Washington Society, created in 2005, established a Wright award, presented annually to to the person who best exemplifies the vision, values and virtues that comprise the legacy of Booker T. Washington. The award was named after Elizabeth and she was its first recipient.

One of Elizabeth Wright’s concerns in the 21st century was what concerned Booker T. Washington in the nineteenth century: the mass immigration of cheap labor from foreign countries. Washington knew that blacks desperately needed to acquire work skills in order to compete with the huge influx of cheap labor in the late 1800s. He also knew that a classical education would not prepare them for the types of jobs they would be contending for. Likewise, agitating for social change would not be the best use of their energies at such a crucial time. However, some of his contemporaries, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass, were urging classical educations as well as inciting agitation for social change. With today’s massive immigration, vastly exceeding the number of immigrants in Booker T. Washington’s time, Ms. Wright realized that her black community will be facing job market competition similar to the 1800s but even more daunting. Wright put the problem in perspective with this comment: “Prior to the immigration deluge, native-born minorities were able to sustain families on the salaries earned from jobs.” While encouraging the need to acquire job skills, Elizabeth Wright tried to dissuade minorities from thinking that they could rely on government munificence indefinitely.

It also disturbed Ms. Wright that a substantial segment of the black community was fixating too much on Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that society must improve conditions for blacks while ignoring Booker T. Washington’s advice that blacks should make the most of what they’ve got; – in his words: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Dr. King’s analogies of “mountaintop” and “Promised Land” might have been inspiring themes for a sermon, but they were ideals to aspire to, not necessarily attainable in the here and now. Booker T. Washington wanted blacks to realize that complete racial equality was a utopian vision rather than a realistic goal. Consequently, acquiring job skills made more sense than agitating for social change. Furthermore, Washington contended that with job skills blacks could prove to the white majority that they could be self-supporting. This would demonstrate their capabilities and put them in a better position to negotiate for a larger piece of the pie. This strategy follows the old equestrian adage: “Don’t kick until you’re spurred.”

The enactment of a federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King prompted this comment from Elizabeth: “The total acceptance of King by whites, confirmed when this preacher was granted a federal holiday, fixed for all time the notion that the path on which he took blacks was the only correct one.” Ms. Wright thought that King’s strategy would not only diminish self-reliance but would also encourage more groups to feel aggrieved and decide for themselves what was just or unjust. {snip}

Elizabeth Wright recognized that an agenda-driven media and deleterious federal activism was worsening rather than improving our nation’s racial environment. She excoriated black males for behaving as though they were still being restrained by long departed Jim Crow restrictions. However, she came down hardest on white males; those docile participants of society, too craven to publicly rebut hyperbolic racial accusations. Wright would be disappointed that the these unproductive behaviors of black males and white males are largely unchanged.

{snip}

Ms. Wright herself had no qualms about publicly taking politically incorrect stances; a case in point is her defense of Confederate organizations and symbols. She knew that Southern symbols were not offensive to all blacks but she also knew that the media would give voice only to blacks who found them offensive. {snip}

Although Elizabeth Wright was a very private person, I was fortunate enough to exchange a few emails with her. Being a fan of LewRockwell.com, Ms. Wright contacted me after reading one of my articles. As I would have expected, her brief emails were as insightful as her columns and my responses to her columns were appreciatively acknowledged with her usual savvy. It would take more than an Internet piece to do justice to the memory of Elizabeth Wright. She was never in awe of the power structure and never reluctant to expose faults wherever she found them. One of her especially chastising columns ended with this line: “Sometimes, it takes a lot of hollering to wake up the clueless.” With the clueless becoming one of the fastest growing segments of America’s population, we could use more voices like Elizabeth Wright’s.

[Editor’s Note: See here for Jared Taylor’s remarks on Miss Wright’s death.]

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