12 Things You Must Know To Survive And Thrive In

Those of us with forebears branded by history hold in our hearts an awful truth: to be born black and male in America is to be put into shackles and then challenged to escape. But that is not our only truth, or even the one most relevant. For in this age of new possibilities, we are learning that the shackles forged in slavery are far from indestructible, that they will yield, even break, provided that we attack them shrewdly.

Today's America is not our grandfathers' or even our fathers' America. We are no longer forced to hide our ambition while masking our bitterness with a grin. We don't face, as did our forefathers, a society committed to relentlessly humiliating us, to forcing us to play the role of inferiors in every civilized sphere. This doesn't mean that we are on the verge of achieving the all-encompassing revolution, of reaching that lofty state of exalted consciousness that sweeps all inequities away. What it does mean is that we have a certain social and cultural leeway; that, in a way our forefathers could only dream about, we are free to define our place in the world.

That freedom is nowhere near absolute. But today's obstacles are not nearly as daunting as those faced by our ancestors. It's the difference between stepping into the ring with both hands lashed behind your back and stepping in with one hand swinging free.

Still, if the one hand is all you have, you must use it twice as well as your opponent uses his. And because you have so much less room for error, you must fight strategically, understanding when to retreat and when to go all out and how to deflect the blows that inevitably will come your way. You must understand, in short, how to compete in this new arena, where the rules are neither what they seem nor quite what they used to be. So what I have set out below is a list of things that may help us in our competition. Call them new world rules, or keys to survival, or Cose's commandments; or, better yet, call them hard truths of this new age--an age of both unlimited potential and soul-crushing inequality.

1. Play the race card carefully, and at your own peril. As Johnnie Cochran cleverly demonstrated when he saved O. J. Simpson's hide, there is a time when playing the race card makes perfectly good sense. In November 2000, researchers at the University of Michigan published a study showing that white mock jurors were especially likely to find blacks guilty in seemingly racially neutral situations. But when an explicit racial context was provided, when an assailant's offense was provoked by a perceived racial insult, whites were no longer so likely to see blacks as more guilty; they treated black and white defendants more or less equally. The lesson seems to be that there is some value in certain circumstances in reminding people about the reality of racism; for when they are reminded of racism (which is different from being accused of it), they make a greater attempt to be fair. Life, however, usually is not conducted under controlled experimental conditions. And as the Simpson trial demonstrated, Americans see racially charged incidents very differently. We (meaning blacks) have been so battered by and sensitized to racism that we sometimes see it where it doesn't exist. Whites have such an emotional investment in denying that they are racists that they often refuse to acknowledge racism when it is perfectly obvious to us. Other racial groups, depending on their experiences and sensitivities, also view racially tinged incidents through an ethnocentric lens. Given such psychologically complex phenomena as racial guilt and racial pain, you are not likely to find much empathy or understanding when you bring racial complaints to whites. The best you can generally hope for is an awkward silence accompanied by the suspicion that you are crying wolf. This is not to say that you should grin and bear bad treatment, but that you are generally better off finding a less charged terrain than that of racial grievance on which to fight the battle.

2. Complain all you like about the raw deal you have gotten in life, but don't expect those complaints to get you anywhere. America likes winners, not whiners. And one of the encouraging developments of this new, more enlightened age is that America even, at times, embraces winners who are black. There is a certain strong incentive to do so, since the very existence of black winners can be made into a rather fantastical argument that discrimination no longer hinders black advancement. Whiners, on the other hand, simply remind too many Americans of history they would prefer to forget, and of unpleasant current realities they would prefer not to face. Thankfully, we have moved past the time when whites collectively spent much time hating us; these days they mostly just don't care. Did that boss (teacher, classmate, administrator, stranger) call you stupid because of your color, or despite it? Were you assumed to be a ballplayer instead of a scholar simply because you're black? Was your rival promoted ahead of you because he's white? Was your intellect (ability, judgment) questioned in an instance where your white colleague's would not have been? You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out and also end up wasting a lot of energy that could be best directed elsewhere. An editor in Chicago, where I began my writing career, gave me a valuable piece of advice. "If you're going to be a writer," he said, "you'd better develop a thick skin." Much the same could be said about just being a black man in America. If you are going to survive with your sanity and emotional health intact, you're going to have to learn not to sweat much of the routine stuff that makes being a black man difficult. If you can engage life with a certain amount of humor, or at least with a sense of charity, you'll not only be happier but a lot less likely to need blood-pressure medication.

3. Expect to do better than the world expects of you; expect to live in a bigger world than the one you see. One of the most unfortunate realities of growing up as a black male in America is that we are constantly told to lower our sights; we are constantly nudged, unless we are very lucky and privileged, in the direction of mediocrity. Our dreams, we are told in effect, cannot be as large as other folks' dreams; our universe, we are led to believe, will be smaller than that of our nonblack peers. Franklin Raines, head of the Fannie Mae Corporation, speaks of his early exposure to a life beyond inner-city Seattle as "a period of time when my world grew bigger," when his sophistication and exposure increased. What Raines really is describing is the natural progression of knowledge and the optimal progression of life. When Arthur Ashe wrote that his "potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity," he was speaking for all of us. When Maurice Ashley, America's first black grandmaster of chess, talks of a "rope of destiny pulling me along," he is talking of something we all should feel. For those of us who are accustomed to hearing, "You will never amount to much," dreams may be all that give us the strength to go on. And as we dream big dreams, we also must prepare ourselves to pursue them, instead of contenting ourselves with fantasies of a wonderful existence that will be forever beyond our reach.

4. Don't expect support for your dreams from those who have not accomplished very much in their lives. The natural reaction of many people (especially those who believe they share your background) is to feel threatened or intimidated or simply to be dismissive if you are trying to do things they have not done themselves. As a very young man and a "junior leader" in my neighborhood Boys Club, I was invited to a dinner at which multimillionaire W. Clement Stone spoke. After delivering a stirring talk detailing his personal journey of success, Stone handed out an inspirational book (whose title I can no longer recall), which I took with me to bed that evening. Don't share your dreams with failures, warned the book, which went on to explain that people who had not done much in their own lives would be incapable of seeing the potential in yours. While that is certainly not true in all cases, it is true much too often. The book's observation helped me to understand why some people I knew seemed more interested in telling me what I could never accomplish than in helping me achieve what I could. It also helped me understand why I owed it to myself to tune out the voices around me telling me to lower my sights.

5. If someone is bringing out your most self-destructive tendencies, acknowledge that that person is not a friend. No one should, willy-nilly, toss away friendship. People who will care for you, who will support and watch out for you, are a precious part of a full and blessed life. But people who claim to be friends are not always friends in fact--as Mike Gibson, an ex-prisoner who is now a Morehouse student, ultimately learned. His time behind bars taught Gibson to "surround myself with people who want to see me do good." On the streets he learned that when things got tough, the very buddies who had encouraged him to break the law were nowhere to be found: "When I was in the cell, I was there by myself... I always found myself alone." It's easy to be seduced by those who offer idiotic opinions disguised as guidance. It's even easier to find people who attach themselves to you for their own selfish reasons, or who will say they have your back when, in reality, they're only looking out for themselves. It's sometimes a bit harder to let them go, which sometimes is what you must do in the interest of your own survival.

6. Don't be too proud to ask for help, particularly from those who are wiser and older. While working on a previous book, "Color-Blind," I interviewed mathematician Philip Uri Triesman, who has had astounding success teaching advanced mathematics to black students who previously had not done very well. Unlike Chinese-American students who typically studied in groups, blacks, he had discovered, tended to study alone. For blacks, the solitary study ritual seemed to be a matter of pride, reflecting their need to prove that they could get by without help, that they were not inferior to whites. By getting them, in effect, to emulate some of what the Chinese-Americans were doing, Triesman spurred the black students to unprecedented levels of accomplishment. Too often (and not only in math), we feel we have to face our problems alone. We are uncomfortable admitting our pain, our inexperience, our incompetence; and, as a result, we sometimes ignore resources we usefully could tap. Whether in schools, in the streets or in corporate suites, too many of us are trying to cope alone when we would be much better off if we reached out for help.

7. Recognize that being true to yourself is not the same as being true to a stupid stereotype. A few years ago when I visited Xavier University, a historically black college in New Orleans, I was moved by a student who proudly proclaimed the university to be a school full of nerds. At a time when many black men and boys are trying their best to act like mack-daddies and bad-ass muthas, Xavier (which sends more blacks to medical schools than any other university) is saying that it has another image in mind: blackness really has nothing to do with projecting a manufactured, crude street persona. Xavier celebrates accomplishment instead of denigrating it, and it makes no apologies for doing so. We desperately need to promote archetypes other than rappers, thugs and ballplayers of what it is possible and desirable for us to be--if for no other reason than that so few of us can find success on such limited terrain.

8. Don't let the glitter blind you. Almost invariably when I have spoken to people who had made their living selling drugs, they talk a lot like "Frank," who said, "I didn't want to be the only dude on the streets with busted-up shoes, old clothes." They talk of the money, the women, the cars, the gold chains--the glamour, the glitter of the dealer's life. Only later do most acknowledge that the money, for most dealers, is not all that good, and that even when it is, it generally doesn't last very long--partly because the lifestyle so often leads to either prison or an early grave. Maybe you don't care about that. Nonetheless, I urge you to realize that you have a better chance (provided you prepare for it) of getting a big job at a major corporation than of making big money for a long time on the streets--and the benefits and security are a hell of a lot better.

9. Don't expect competence and hard work alone to get you the recognition or rewards you deserve. For all our skepticism about the so-called system, it sometimes seems that people of color are the only ones alive who truly believe in the meritocracy. We work hard, pour all our energy into our jobs and then are stunned and shattered when our hard work is not rewarded. Why, we ask, is our ability not being recognized? Why is our hard work being overlooked? Why can't they see our talent? The answers are as varied as the possible circumstances, but the general rule is that any organization (government, private business, educational or other) is essentially a social body that rewards those fully engaged in the game. To the extent we try to hold ourselves above that process, we end up losing.

10. You must seize the time, for it is already later than you think. When working on "The Rage of a Privileged Class," a book I published in 1994, I was touched by a confession from Basil Paterson, lawyer, high-ranking Democratic National Committee official and former deputy mayor of New York. "It's too late for me to get rich because I spent too much time preparing for what I've got... Most of us are 10 years behind what we should have been. We didn't get credentials until we were older than other folks," he said. Paterson was talking of a particular generation, one hobbled by a much more blatant, more virulent form of discrimination than exists for the most part today; but the essence of what he said is still true--at least for those without well-to-do parents or fancy educations. Daniel Rose, founder of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, tells his young disciples: "Your chief competitor started yesterday. And you are already a day behind." While it is never too late to accomplish something in life, lost ground is hard to make up, and it only gets harder the longer one waits, as competition becomes even stiffer and opportunities dry up.

11. Even if you have to fake it, show some faith in yourself. Confidence, lightly worn, can be contagious, and you might even manage to fool yourself into letting go of your doubts. "A lot of our kids don't believe in themselves because they've been told by so many people that they ain't worth s--t. I was labeled the bad kid, so I know how that feels," says Chicago youth worker J. W. Hughes. "Go to any high school with black males and tell them they are smart enough to go to any university in the world. Many of them will say, 'Not me.' I know that because [I was] one of them," says Zachary Donald, a member of the Omega Boys Club, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing young souls from the street. So much energy has been expended undermining our confidence, picking apart our faith in ourselves, that we sometimes forget faith does not depend on the beliefs of others or on demonstrating a list of accomplishments. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," says the Bible (Hebrews 11:1). And there is so much that we have not yet seen, so much waiting to be revealed when it comes to our potential on this planet. But the first step is to believe that we can go where others say we can't.

12. Don't force innocent others to bear the price of your pain. Sister Simone Ponnet, executive director of Abraham House (a New York Roman Catholic organization that works with prisoners and their families), spoke feelingly of ex-convicts and prisoners who lamented growing up fatherless, or with abusive fathers, and then ended up treating their own children no better. Even some of us who haven't been locked down at times feel so much pain, so much anger that we feel justified in taking out our frustrations on everyone around us. Threatened in so many realms, unable to control the forces enveloping us, we sometimes try too hard to exert control in the few areas we think we can: sometimes over women, sometimes over children and sometimes over random souls unlucky enough to get in our way. Before giving in to the temptation to turn loved ones into targets, we should remind ourselves that those who love us are the best hope we have to regain whatever humanity we have lost; that they, in other words, are our salvation.

All that I have said above focuses on the personal, on what we, as individuals, can do to improve the quality of our lives. This is not to say that I believe the only problems we have in America are individual ones. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Huge and systemic problems remain that prevent America from being the best country that it can be. We continue, as a country, to leave our young people uneducated and, often, illiterate. We continue to stress incarceration where we should be stressing human reclamation. We continue to confound the dream of true equality by rejecting the investments in remediation and infrastructure needed to achieve it. We continue to permit society to label young black men as undesirable, as troublemakers, and we throw up our hands in exasperation when the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes fact. I could go on, but those are subjects for another day.

Here I am purposely less concerned with the systemic than with the personal, with some things you might want to consider as you figure out how to live your life. And, as such, I would like to end on a hopeful note, by restating what I sincerely believe to be true: there is more leeway than there has ever been in history for you to become whatever you would be; for you to accomplish whatever you dream; for you to escape the prisons of stereotypes and caricatures that our forefathers could not avoid.

We are entitled to our big dreams, just as we deserve an America that is as welcoming to us as it is to a white kid from Cuba, Croatia or Ireland. We deserve, in other words, the fairness we have always been promised, and the opportunity to compete free of the burdens we have always carried, burdens economic, emotional and historical, burdens that still stand in the way of our receiving our due and of America achieving a true meritocracy.

Adapted from"The Envy of the World" by Ellis Cose. To be published by Washington Square Press. Copyright 2002 by Ellis Cose.