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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2002
DAYTONA BEACH -- When I was an undergraduate here at Bethune-Cookman College during the 1969-1970 term, my friends and I used joke that we would know we had "made it" when our alma mater invited us back to campus as a keynote speaker.
I have apparently made it because I have been invited back as keynoter for several events, most recently a few days ago. Bethune-Cookman, with an enrollment of 2,720, is a private, historically black college. Like other such colleges and universities, it serves as the only place where some African-Americans can receive higher learning. Even today, a student can enroll with a grade point average of 2.25 on a 4.0 scale.
Because I believe African-Americans are uniquely disadvantaged in a society where race and ethnicity matter more than most people acknowledge, my speech stressed the necessity of helping ourselves. The significance of Black History Month gives me a reason to share parts of my talk with Bethune-Cookman's students, most of them second-term freshmen.
Many black college students, like their white counterparts, believe they are "superior" when, in fact, they are merely privileged. Yes, to be born with a good mind, to have had fate assign you to a wholesome family life and to have responsible adults who make your early years safe and secure is to be privileged.
Privileged people have a moral and social obligation to serve others. This fact is highly salient for African-Americans. As a class of real victims of racial discrimination, blacks share a special duty to do for one another. If we do not give back, we should not expect any other group to help us.
To give back, we must make a personal commitment to make a positive difference. We should help others because we want to, not because we merely want to fit in or because we want to be well liked.
Students, especially juniors and seniors, should actively seek out a black neighborhood and establish legal ways to uplift the residents.
Following are some specific things students can do:
Regularly read to a child or a group of children. The simple act of reading to children can make a world of difference in homes where reading is not valued.
Speak to black students in public schools. Inspire them to follow your example. Even better, bring children to your college campus and let them attend class with you. Such an experience can be life-changing.
Establish a tutoring program. The good news is that several groups at Bethune-Cookman are doing just that. I am especially impressed with the work the Greek organizations whose members have official programs that have the blessings of the public schools.
In too many towns, students and local residents rarely spend quality time together. Students should actively find ways to form educational and social alliances with local black residents. Regularly meeting local residents for lunch or dinner, for example, creates long-lasting social capital. A Jacksonville senior has dinner each month with black men to help them write resumes and complete various applications.
When I was an undergraduate, my friends and I often found time to bring local children to the movies with us. To this day, I am amazed at the impact that simple act made in the kids' lives. For some, it meant the difference between fighting on the streets and having wholesome fun.
The personal commitment to make a positive difference should not stop with a college degree. In reality, the commitment should become stronger. Again, here are some specific ways to serve:
If you become a lawyer, perform regular pro bono work. One of the tragedies of our rich society is that poor people rarely get a fair day in court. They cannot afford it. Black lawyers have an obligation to help others get a fair shake.
If you become a doctor, sponsor free health clinics in low-income black communities where many working people cannot afford regular medical care. Over the years, I have visited many free health clinics for the purpose of seeing who donates services. Too often I am disappointed to see so few black professionals helping out. I commend those who serve, but we need many more to do so.
As a banker, you should try to find ways to make funds available to black applicants who may not qualify under traditional terms. I have a former classmate in Detroit who persuaded his bank to lend to a select group of small black businesses that have made a difference.
Black teachers have a special obligation to inspire black children. Each year, statistics show black children lagging behind most other groups in every academic measure. Black teachers should do whatever they must to reverse this trend. If visiting homes after school will help, then visit homes.
Blacks with the financial means should establish college scholarships for this and the next generation of black children. Education is the only real solution to the stubborn problems plaguing our communities.
If you have money, regularly write checks for good causes.
At the outset, I said that blacks are a class of real victims of racial discrimination. Indeed, we are victims. But we need not live as such.
We have to actively recognize that we must do for ourselves by loving ourselves, by serving others because we are committed to making a positive difference.