Robert Smith’s Real Gift to Morehouse

The billionaire didn’t just pay off graduates’ debts; he offered an invaluable lesson about the real nature of individual success.

Jason Reed / Reuters

In 1969, Denver began busing a small contingent of black children across town to a better-resourced white elementary school. “Every morning, we were loaded up on Bus No. 13,” Robert F. Smith told Morehouse College graduates the other weekend, before announcing that he’d pay off all their student loans.

Black parents had been complaining for years about Denver’s black schools having the oldest books and the most inexperienced teachers. But white northerners and westerners resisted busing in the 1960s and ’70s as massively as white southerners resisted the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the 1950s. Arsonists firebombed a local activist’s home and nearly one-third of Denver’s school buses in February 1970. But the terror did not stop Smith’s parents from loading him up on Bus No. 13 every day from the first to the fifth grades.

“Those five years drastically changed the trajectory of my life,” Smith concluded, comparing the successes of the black kids from his community who rode the bus with those of the kids who did not. And Smith’s life trajectory has been meteoric. He founded and led America’s best-performing private-equity firm, became the wealthiest African American, and emerged as one of the transcendent philanthropists of our time. And yet, he added, “the window closed for others just as fast as it had opened for me.”

Lost in all the shocked, critical, and jubilant responses to Smith’s historic gift to Morehouse, lost in all the serious debates about soaring student-loan debt and the role of philanthropists in solving societal ills, was the priceless gift behind Smith’s projected $40 million gift.

At Morehouse, Smith offered the gift of “Bus No. 13,” the title of his commencement address. He wanted to tell them about the community-made Americans who recognize their buses of opportunity and strive to equalize opportunity, especially for the underprivileged whom the buses often bypass.

Smith identifies as a community-made man, prominently diverging from conventional American male identity, particularly wealthy white male identity, which is built on the projection of the self-made, superior man. White men like Donald Trump ignore or downplay the role of the massive buses that carried them for most of their life. Trump claimed that his father’s role was “limited to a small loan of $1 million,” whereas The New York Times estimated that Fred Trump gave his son more than $413 million. Americans seem more apt to recite Horatio Alger lines such as “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you,” and ignore Alger’s line that implored: “Make yourself necessary to somebody.”

With the United States now the most unequal nation in the Western world, I suspect that every person on the higher end of the divide had buses somewhere along the way. But do they acknowledge all the buses—the policies, initiatives, schools, mentors, networks, familial assistance, friendships, institutions, and programs that benefit certain groups or individuals more than others—that changed the trajectory of their life? Or are they more apt to claim that their personal abilities and efforts are the only driving force of their accomplishments while paradoxically resisting efforts to equalize opportunity?

If a billionaire can humble himself and declare himself community-made, then why can’t we? Then why can’t I?

Smith’s speech moved me to reflect on my many buses, and perhaps you should, too. Growing up in south-side Queens, New York, my parents bused me in a different way—not to white public schools, but to black private schools. From third to eighth grades in the 1990s, most of my private-school teachers encouraged me and challenged me. I responded in kind to this unique opportunity with high grades. But I wasn’t totally appreciative. I disliked wearing a uniform, attending chapel every week, and traveling so far from home each day. I disliked the small class sizes and yearned for anonymity. Spoiled in multiple ways, I took the opportunity for granted then, and for most of my life. I remained shamefully blind to how this bus shaped my own trajectory until a few years ago, when I started intensely self-reflecting on my history to compose my forthcoming book.

I tested into one of the best private high schools in Queens. My parents, nurturing my independence, allowed me to choose my high school. I did not get on this bus, enrolling instead at one of the lowest-performing public high schools in Queens. Why? Because my best friend was there. I know: one of the stupidest decisions of my life. My grades plummeted to near-failing as the overcrowded school environment of checked-out teachers failed students like me.

Then again, it ended up being one of the most impactful decisions of my life. When I look back, I can’t help but compare this new high school with my previous private schools, and later with the heavily resourced high school I attended after my family moved to a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. I can’t help but acknowledge the unequal opportunity that shaped my life.

In Virginia, my parents nudged me into International Baccalaureate courses, a bus that didn’t exist at my Queens high school. With parents and teachers pushing and challenging me, and with a black male guidance counselor taking me under his wing, my academic performance soared.

However, I hate that I was so pliable back then—low performing in the low-performing school, high performing in the high-performing schools. I refuse now to let opportunities shape my efforts. But back then, I was rather normal—opportunity often shapes one’s ability and effort. I was a rather impressionable child who needed a Bus No. 13 to be successful. And fortunately for me, I received many buses throughout my life. And now I’m community-made.

Society usually gives so much to those who have so much. In this time when bigotry and inequality threaten human society, the question for the privileged is this: How much are they going to give back before they have nothing to give back to? Why risk the lives of everyone they hold dear and wait for that next catastrophe to reduce inequality? How many privileged Americans today are going to walk in the footsteps of those atypical, privileged Americans of old who recognized they were community-made, and who started serving more than directing, started giving more than taking, and invested in the most far-reaching movements in American history for marriage equality, for civil rights, for power, for suffrage, for land, for abolition? How long until humans make sure every human has a Bus No. 13?

The equation that produces societal success seems simple: opportunity + ability + effort (+ luck). Incredible levels of opportunity can often make up for a lack of ability and effort (think of those meandering children of wealthy parents). But incredible levels of ability and effort too many times cannot make up for a lack of opportunity (think of those talented kids who aren’t being challenged and drop out of their low-performing schools. Yes, I considered dropping out of high school).

But Americans are unique in the Western world for commonly striking opportunity from the equation. Americans are more likely than people in other Western nations to believe that one’s ability and effort wholly determine one’s success. The growth of economic inequality and the decline of economic mobility have hardly affected this religious belief, according to one recent study. Perhaps indoctrinated by their parents, young upper-income whites are the most likely to believe that ability and effort rule. Older low-income people of color are the least likely, perhaps knowing firsthand how racist policies steal their opportunities and how racist ideas call them the crooks.

Smith discussed America’s dueling racial history: “the cycle of resistance to oppression, followed by favorable legislations, followed by the weakening of those laws, followed by more oppression, and more resistance, has affected and afflicted every generation.”

Today’s generation of African Americans is dealing with some unprecedented opportunities—and with the mass incarcerating of its opportunities and bodies and talents. Today’s generation is weathering the opportunity gaps that stem from the median wealth of white families ($171,000) being nearly 10 times the median wealth of black families ($17,600), according to Federal Reserve data.

For example, about 30 percent of low-income kindergartners with high test scores wind up graduating from college and securing a decent-paying entry-level job, while about 70 percent of high-income kindergartners with low test scores wind up reaching the same education and job levels, according to a new study. American education is “not a meritocracy, it is more and more an aristocracy posing as a meritocracy,” said one of the study’s authors, the Georgetown economist Anthony Carnevale.

It is hard to miss the posing when we hear about the $25 million college-admissions-fraud scheme, or when we hear that only seven black students this year were offered one of the 895 spots to New York City’s über-selective Stuyvesant High School through admissions criteria based solely on a standardized test. “A test is not racist, a test is not sexist, a test is not a homophobe; a test gives every individual an equal opportunity,” said one critic of New York’s plan to abolish the test. But how do individuals have equal opportunity to score high on a test—or in society—if they are not being prepared equally?

Too many Americans believe that success has only two parents: ability and effort. Too many people sit comfortably on the bus, imagine they are walking on a platform of equal opportunity, and shout to the walking people that something is wrong with them if they can’t keep up. Too many so-called self-made white Americans have an exaggerated sense of self instead of a sense of their exaggerated opportunities—a conceit that springs their racist ideas, as their racist ideas spring their conceit. Too many accomplished people of color dangerously believe that since they supposedly “overcame” racism, then anyone can. They believe the hype that they are extraordinary, that they are not like those ordinarily inferior people in their racial group, reinforcing the very racist ideas that oppress them. They refuse to acknowledge how they are community-made, since they believe that certain things are wrong with their community.

We must all admit our Bus No. 13, admit the opportunities that stemmed from belonging to wealthier families, from whiteness, from masculinity, from heterosexuality, from being able-bodied, from living on the coast, from being bused to better-performing schools and job sites, from that inspirational mentor choosing us and not her or him. These admissions distinguish us from the conceited “self-made” Americans and bigots reproducing inequality in word and deed. These admissions humble us before the altar of history, fusing our story of opportunities with our abilities and efforts, fusing our personal history with a larger societal history. These admissions lead to our mission of being an engine of world-shattering change.

“More than the money we make, the awards, or recognition, or titles we earn, each of us will be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us,” Smith told the Morehouse graduates. “True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people.”

For accomplished African Americans, that means realizing we took advantage of “a fleeting glimpse of opportunity and success just before the window is slammed shut,” to use Smith’s words. For anti-racists of all races, this means assuming power and changing policy and maximizing impact to reopen windows for all. Because we can’t be community-made if we are not making the community.