Almost a year ago, I was teaching a class on leadership at a private university in Southern California. The class had ten sessions, lasting four hours each. At each class session, I spent about 30 minutes or so (as I recall) discussing the contributions of a different leader from history — all of them deceased. The leaders I selected for that particular semester, in order of their year of death, were as follows:
- Alexander The Great
- Leonardo Da Vinci
- Martin Luther
- Abraham Lincoln
- Brigham Young
- Ann Sullivan
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Winston Churchill
- Mother Theresa
- Ronald Reagan
I remember when I announced at the tenth and final class session that the featured leader I would be profiling was Ronald Reagan, an African American student expressed his view that I had done a grave disservice to the several African American students in the classroom by failing to profile a black leader.
While I have some contrarian views about what that particular student said, I am not writing this blog posting to debate that issue. Suffice it to say that if he was implying I might be a closet racist, he’s patently incorrect.
Be that as it may, I do believe there are a number of noteworthy leaders from our past that happen to be black and quite a number of them focused on black issues such as civil rights and equality. It’s hard not to think immediately of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurgood Marshall is another. Marva Collins surely stands out in the field of education. Frederick Douglass, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, must stand out as one of the most significant human rights activists who ever lived, and Sojourner Truth is not far behind. Thought-leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, and Alex Hayley have made significant contributions through their writings. And if the world of sports can be said to produce “leaders” then blacks have many standouts, including such household names as Magic Johnson and Jack Johnson, Carl Lewis and Joe Louis; Bo Jackson and Reggie Jackson, Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson, not to mention other luminaries such as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Willy Mays, Jesse Owens, and Michael Jordan, to name a few.
But here is the question for you, the reader: Is it insentive to students of a given race (in this case, blacks) not to profile a black leader? Or would doing so be pandering? Is it “racist” on some level to profile a black leader simply to passify or placate black students? If I had Austrailian students, or students from Iceland, or students from Morocco, should I have profiled leaders from those various countries just to make those students feel good?
I don’t think so, but I am interested in your views. Fire away!