DOUGLAS OLSON — The incredible shrinking Negro ability to succeed

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The Olson file

The incredible shrinking
Negro ability to succeed



The one good thing about Black History Month, that tiresome annual orgy of arrogant chauvinism and arrant fantasy, is the occasional new story of some gallant black man or woman who beat all the odds to become fantastically successful in a time which such things just were not supposed to be possible. Assuming arguendo, as the shysters say, that those tales are true, they provide a fascinating lesson in possibilities — a lesson that today's yellow-striped white "leaders" are badly in need of learning.

One of this year's "discoveries" is William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr., a half-black man described by the Sacramento Bee's Molly Dugan as a "debonair seafarer who became a business and civic leader in San Francisco, where he threw parties for high society in the 1840s." ("William Leidesdorff was a businessman and politician long before Gold Rush," December 7, 2003) Another article refers to him as a "tycoon" — quite a dangerous word to use when writing about a black man in these days of super-sensitivity and lexicological ignorance.

According to Dugan, Leidesdorff obtained vast real-estate holdings, donated money and land for the Golden State's first public school, and served as vice consul to Mexico, making him the first black American diplomat — all of it at a time when his "brothers," or half-brothers at least, languished in slavery!

Presuming that the Bee reporter is not following in the footsteps of another prominent black, Jayson Blair, late of the New York Times, one must concede that Mr. Leidesdorff certainly did lead an amazing and successful life.

Born in the Virgin Islands in 1810, the son of a Dutch planter and a native woman, Leidesdorff earned a fortune through cotton speculation in the horrible, oppressive, racist South, shamelessly profiteering on the forced labor of his shackled brethren. After moving to New York he went to sea, eventually migrating in 1841 to San Francisco, where he owned a general store and opened the town's first hotel. "According to legend," writes the Bee's Dugan, he fell in love with a woman whose family rejected him because of his mulatto status, and he never married.

A prominent businessman and treasurer of the city council, Leidesdorff acquired a 35,000-acre land grant from Mexican authorities in 1844, on which he raised wheat and cattle. Dugan credits him with commanding the first steamship voyage on the West Coast, proposing that his vessel may have been the inspiration for the ship illustrated in the state seal. Despite that vaunted success, he was $60,000 in debt when, in 1848, he died "mysteriously."

According to California State Librarian Kevin Starr, our hero "resonates with African Americans today because he was sophisticated, educated, and oozing with charisma. He spoke several languages fluently and mingled among dockworkers and power brokers with equal ease." Leidesdorff "was one of the state founders, with a capital 'F,'" rhapsodizes Starr, who doubles as a prof at the University of Southern California.

Leidesdorff's dramatic legacy has not been ignored. In Folsom, Calif., a plaza on Sutter Street and a residential road bear his name. In San Francisco, a small street also honors his memory, as does a plaque at his burial site. Last year, the State Assembly voted unanimously to name a 15-mile stretch of Highway 50, near the Sacramento County line, for him. Action by the State Senate on that is still pending.

This is just one such black success story. There are dozens, hundreds of others, which are trotted out every February — about Madame C.J. Walker, black hair-care product entrepreneur and one of the first female millionaires of any race in America; about scientist George Washington Carver; and about reporter Ida B. Wells, diplomat Ralph Bunche, Dr. Charles Drew, et al.

My point here is not to glorify those individuals, but to ask a very simple question: If they could accomplish all that they accomplished as Negroes during the darkest days of slavery and segregation, then what is wrong with black people today?

Are today's blacks dumber — or lazier — or less talented than these people? In light of the amazing accomplishments I've mentioned, can anyone really believe that today's blacks have no chance for success without affirmative action, racial set-asides, preferential treatment, special government programs, and the thousand-and-one other advantages that they enjoy today?

It is a tribute to the schizophrenia — or plain dishonesty — of today's "civil rights leaders" that they can celebrate the accomplishments of Leidesdorff, Walker, Carver, and the others while at the same time demanding racial privileges in the name of "opportunity." The playing field is not level for whites vis-à-vis other whites, or for anyone else — it never has been and it never will be. The gifted, the determined, and the clever of every race have always won out over the stupid, the incompetent, and the shiftless of their own and every other race, despite seemingly insurmountable disadvantages — and perhaps even because of those obstacles.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, whine for affirmative action.

January 27, 2004

© 2004 Douglas Olson.

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