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Not so long ago, black parents drilled into their children the importance of pursuing excellence, doing one’s best, as a key weapon in overcoming economic disadvantage, social inequities, injustice, and discrimination. We were taught that as black people, we had to be twice as good to get half as far; that the way to counter low expectations was to exceed them–make that, obliterate them. Excellence was not just a laudable ideal to strive for; it was a survival strategy and our most effective response to those who would denigrate, humiliate, and marginalize us. This strategy was neatly bottom-lined by esteemed clergyman, educator, and former Morehouse College President Dr. Benjamin E. Mays: “not failure, but low aim is sin.”
Clearly, things have changed–unfortunately, not for the better. Today, it has become OK to do just enough to get by. Low aim is not only acceptable but celebrated in American popular culture, especially when black people are the focus. Too often mediocrity in black culture is presented as a form of entertainment for the rest of the nation and the world, a widely acceptable butt of every joke. One result of this is that William J. Drayton Jr. is more closely identified by most Americans with who we are and what we aspire to as black people than, say, John W. Rogers Jr., even though both men are about the same age. Drayton is better known as Flavor Flav (most recently of VH1’s Flavor of Love infamy), while Rogers happens to be the founder, chairman, and CEO of Ariel Capital Management L.L.C., a BE asset managers firm with $16 billion in assets under management.
To be sure, the popularization of mediocrity and low-brow behavior, particularly by marketers of entertainment media (and in particular, the seemingly endless supply of “reality” shows), is not new and is far from unique to the black community. And the high-achieving businesspeople celebrated by be–including Rogers and McDonald’s USA President Don Thompson, our 2007 Corporate Executive of the Year–are living testament to the fact that not all black Americans worship at the altar of low aim.
However, in an ultracompetitive global marketplace, where discrimination and negative stereotyping of black people remain deeply entrenched social realities, we as African Americans simply cannot afford to deliver less than our best. The fact remains that while the embrace of mediocrity and relaxation of standards may have little effect on the perception of the competence, qualifications, and performance potential of our white counterparts, it has a chilling effect on how we and our children are perceived. Bringing less than our very best creates more reasons, more justification, for black people to be denied access to the education, career, and business opportunities we need to continue to progress toward gaining a full measure of the American dream.
It is especially critical that we recommit to the pursuit of excellence now, as many of us are preparing our young people–or gearing up ourselves–for a new school year. This is as good a time as any to communicate,