Malcolm X once famously asked, “What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.?”
Years before I earned my doctorate, my mother and father migrated from Haiti in search of the American dream and running water. Today, I have chosen to raise my family in the States and in some ways, fulfilled the vision of my God-fearing parents. The backdrop of my Caribbean-American story is not unique; it includes overcoming several inner-city challenges to achieve my educational goals while witnessing many within my community succumb to systems not designed for the success of the majority. The viral footage of the police murdering a citizen in Minnesota served as the tipping point, and one of many thorns illuminating the savage inequalities that occupies several areas of our existence.
The Miseducation of the Negro authored by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in many ways applies to all, but began for me in Pre-k. I was sent to deficient schools that ensured the majority of its pupils would remain in the permanent underclass. Outdated resources, limited Afro-centric teachings and an overall curriculum that taught us to be workers not owners. The food deserts forced us to eat poorly and frequent the neighborhood bodegas and “supermarket” ultimately leading to lifelong treatment for preventable diseases within the local “health” care system.
Ask any man of African descent what has been their experience with discrimination and the stories are so horrific and plentiful that most instances are forgotten or too embarrassing to share. Since middle school, I have a collection of memories including but not limited to being followed in stores from Dollar Tree to Macys, told to my face in a DMV inspection center that “my car insurance was fake” and “I know your kind,” and accused of trying to return an item in Marshall’s that the cashier claimed they didn’t sell. Whenever I am in close quarters with others of ALL ethnicities, regardless of wearing sweats or a suit, I am often apologized to for no apparent reason. I witness clutched purses on elevators and from shopping carts, or I am compelled to create a non-threatening posture to make others feel comfortable.
While in college, my interactions with police was mixed and included being detained outside of a Burlington Coat Factory because I “fit the description” of a man who was allegedly stealing. I was pulled over several times within a month span on Route 17 near Upper Saddle River in New Jersey for “driving too slow” and “looking like I had a beer in my hand.” Although I was never issued a ticket, I later learned there were robberies in the local area so folks who “fit the description” were being targeted. Also, while traveling on a plane abroad, I politely asked the woman seated in front of me to not recline her chair on my knees and our exchange prompted the stewardess to threaten to have me immediately arrested when we landed in Europe. Returning to the States from another trip, I was detained by Customs for hours and searched for suspicion of drug trafficking. I once mentored five Black teens who attended five different schools and during the first group session they all shared instances of being called out of their name and how they faced overt racism. My own experience as a teen worker includes being hooked up to a Polygraph machine without parental consent to help identify alleged theft at the local ice cream parlor.
The American constitution states that I am 60% of a man. The paper currency we use reinforces the support of forefathers who believed we were subhuman, enslaved us, and destroyed generations of Black families. Historical terms such as “Middle Passage,” “Colonialism,” “Jim Crow,” and “Breaking the Color Barrier” do not truly illustrate the violent history towards African people. Several elements of the prison system are privatized which requires consumers, the majority of whom look like me. Discriminatory hiring practices continues in all industries. “Redlining” helped to further the separate not equal doctrine. College access programs such as EOF, TRIO are great, but are makeshift solutions to a larger societal problem.
So, what do you call a Black man with a Ph.D. in America? The tam, the robe, the hooding ceremony may not change the world’s view, but it altered my self-perception. Earning my doctorate is proof of intellectual grit, albeit in a fractured educational system. I am a card-carrying member of the talented tenth, or according to some research, a member of the more exclusive “2%” club. The non-violent dreamer who earned his doctorate from Boston University in 1955 served as a prime example of being an academic and an activist. In the spirit of the provocative inquiry raised by El Hajj Malik Shabazz, we must continue to rewrite the narrative and sadly similar to the agenda of the 10 point program of the late 1960’s: define and continue to work towards “What We Want Now!”
So #WhoGotNext? Who will be next to ensure current and future generations live in a better world by executing meaningful research that will permanently tan the ivory tower? In spite of the daily reminder and impact of institutionalized racism, who will continue to persist and resist? Who will work to create change? Although I believe discrimination on all levels will continue, we collectively can work to make our campuses and communities more equitable by challenging and changing the structures that govern our existence to make sure all systems work for all parties. Protests are one step. What is the next?
So Brother Malcolm, my response to your legacy and question of, “What do you call a Black man with a PhD?” is simple: A man who will move the needle forward with courage and purpose in changing the racist policies, procedures and consciousness that plague our nation in a continuous effort to truly make America great.
Dr. Daniel Jean is founder of PhinisheD/FinishEdD #WhoGotNext