05/23/2013 06:29 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

President Obama and the New Talented Tenth


President Obama's commencement address at Morehouse College, the nation's only all-male historically black college, was a call to action to for its graduates to be local, national and international leaders. It was mostly well-received, but his reference to the "Talented Tenth" -- the antique notion that the black race will be led by its college-educated men of superior intellect and natural ability -- will be the subject of much conversation in the African-American community.

Over a century after it was first introduced, President Obama has offered a refocus of the Talented Tenth, which in its basic form is an increasingly unpopular concept. Though the original version is largely tied to exclusivity and makes use of savior language, the president intimated that the 21st century update focuses on a part often drowned out by the loudness of the theory's promotion of academic elitism: character and duty to others. And, perhaps most importantly, the Obama version would not be commissioned to "save" the black community, as the original conception emphasized, but rather to be a better, more present participant in it, as well as the national and global communities.

Without question, the Talented Tenth is a sensitive touchpoint among many African-Americans. The implication that 90 percent of us are helpless victims whose prospects are solely reliant on the book-learning of the others is literally logic from another century, and not well-received today. But President Obama's bet is that the concept is still of some utility when the emphasis is shifted to promoting an inclusive black collective that inspires and leads others by example and empathy.

It is quite fitting that the president would offer this new focus at the institution that bears the name of the term's originator. In 1896, Dr. Henry L. Morehouse wrote a short essay titled "The Talented Tenth" where he argued that "an ordinary education may answer for the nine men of mediocrity," but the properly educated talented tenth man has enormous influence and is "an uncrowned king in his sphere." The sentiment was that limited opportunity was appropriate for most blacks since they'd only squander it. The gifted ones were the only means by which the race could make progress, and, as such, they deserved favorable treatment.

W.E.B. DuBois popularized the term in a 1903 essay of the same name. His assertions that blacks will "be saved by its exceptional men" and the Talented Tenth pulls up "all that are worth the saving" particularly rankles many African-Americans today. DuBois' formulation took on a snobbish tone that seemed to advocate for a black, lettered oligarchy that would lead ignorant sharecroppers and homemakers from the pits of an empty existence towards enlightenment.

But one aspect lost in the brashness of DuBois' presentation is the premium placed on how one lives. DuBois admitted it was not "a mere matter of schools," but required teaching men about life as well as how to earn a living. He was most worried that blacks would "mistake the means of living for the object of life." The counsel Obama gave the Morehouse graduates aligns perfectly with this sentiment. He told them "it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do." While he encouraged them to pursue advanced degrees, he exhorted them to use those degrees to do more than secure a comfortable living, but use them to reduce disparities (health, economic, and otherwise). This is the Obama Talented Tenth doctrine.

In the president's formulation, the new Tenth is a cohort of those who value individual responsibility and hard work, yet do not eschew social obligations in favor of personal success. They do not return to communities to save them, but to be a participating member in them. They do not bring an air of elitism and a value determined by academic achievement, but honed talents and skill sets that contribute to solutions to the many extant challenges. And, above all, the president's version is not bound to a tenth of the population, to a gender, to an academic degree, or even to a race. He clearly stated, "it's not just the African-American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you." As the president noted, this is the responsibility he's placed before all Americans.

In essence, the Obama Talented Tenth is the notion that no one segment of the population is the savior of others. Rather, we are all needed to address injustices and secure equal opportunities. It turns the concept on its head in that the "tenth" is symbolic of all us contributing something -- like tithing -- instead of some of us being the key to everything. The New Talented Tenth does not rescue, but encourages. It is egalitarian and ensures "everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table."

If this sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, well, it's because it is. It is a tall order for every one of us to put the needs of others before ourselves. And in a capitalistic American society where competition and self-sufficiency is part of our sacrosanct ethos, we have to draw on our best selves to place the needs of others before our own desires. But the largeness of the task should not detract from the necessity, and the importance, of the charge itself. It is this same high-minded spirit that led to the nation's Declaration of Independence and Dr. King's dream.

Certainly, the name "Talented Tenth" carries baggage that may be insurmountable. It is rather difficult to redefine an infamous concept that has existed for nearly 120 years. Many will note that the president could be considered, and is often accused of being, the type of academic elitist to whom Drs. Morehouse and DuBois wanted to entrust the race's fate. And it is also evident that the characteristics of the new Talented Tenth the president detailed in his speech could be interpreted as rather autobiographical.

Yet even with the term's history, the president still believes, right or wrong, this updated concept can be a viable one. And if there is anyone that can recast it, it's the nation's first black president delivering a commencement address at Morehouse. By focusing on the duty of one to another and making it inclusive, President Obama's new Talented Tenth may prove to be more durable, applicable, and palatable than its predecessor.