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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: A Model for Black Americans to Reach their Full Potential

Updated on February 21, 2013

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Model for Black Americans to Reach their Full Potential

From the beginning of black American history in 1619 to President Barack Obama’s first inaugural speech in his second term, black Americans have been inching toward their full potential, although sometimes at a snail’s pace, sometimes at a tortoise’s speed, and sometimes at a walker’s pace—but never at a runner’s speed. The period from slavery to emancipation (1619-1863) was the longest and slowest, the period from emancipation to the March on Washington (1863-1963) was a bit faster, and the period from the March on Washington to the Obama’s inaugural speech (1963-2013) has been a bit faster. How long it will take for black America to reach its full potential is an unanswered question.

From the beginning, black Americans have been seen by many as being inferior. So often they have been stereotyped as “lazy,” “not very bright,” and “unqualified” to hold responsible positions. Recently, these three labels were hurled at one of the most accomplished black Americans in the history of this country. During the 2012 presidential campaign, a Mitt Romney adviser, John Sununu, on Andrea Mitchell’s show, said, regarding the president’s lackluster performance during his first debate, Obama was “lazy, incompetent,” and “not very bright.” Of course, his supporters argued that he had no reference to race. Whether he did or didn’t, one thing is certain: Blacks know the terms as stereotypes. Donald Trump’s thinking is in the same vein. He wants to see Obama’s transcript from Harvard, because he thinks he was not qualified to have been accepted as a student at such a prestigious school, despite his graduating with honors. The idea that blacks are not smart enough to be equal to whites is as old as the race itself. In fact, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott Decision, said: “It is difficult, at this day, to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the constitution was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displayed it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had been more than a century before regarded as being of an inferior race, and altogether unfit to associate with the white races, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…” To be fair, the decision was overruled by the 14th Amendment.

Admittedly, blacks are still lagging behind whites in the most important areas of life, such as employment and test-taking. The unemployment rate for blacks is higher than whites. In December 2012, blacks were at 14 percent, whites were at 6.9 percent, while the national stood at 7.8 percent. Blacks test scores on intelligence tests and the SAT are lower than white scores.

Do blacks score lower on tests because they are less intelligent? Is the unemployment rate higher because blacks are lazy—“takers” rather than “makers?” Some say “yes” to both questions; others say “no.” The truth is: Blacks, in general, are not lazier than whites. And they are endowed by the Creator with the same potential as whites. But they have been hindered from reaching their full potential by social and economic blocks in the road.

Using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a model may shed some light on the issue. Maslow’s believed that people are naturally motivated toward self-actualization, which means they are naturally inclined to realize their uniquely human potential. To put it another way, people are created with the drive, motivation, and expectation to become all they can be.

Maslow’s highly structured plan to explain the path toward self-actualization—or full potential—is called the “hierarchy of needs” and takes the form of a pyramid. The pyramid is split into two sections, with deficiency needs on the lower part, or base of the pyramid, and growth needs on the higher part. Deficiency needs include physiological needs (air, food, drink, sleep, warmth, and exercise). They also include safety needs (security, stability, health, shelter, money, and employment), love and belongingness needs (acceptance, friendship, intimacy, and relationships), and self-esteem needs (achievement, recognition. respect, and competence). Growth needs include cognitive needs (knowing and understanding), aesthetic needs (order, beauty, and symmetry), and self-actualization (fulfilling personal potential). Maslow theorizes that all of the deficiency needs must be met before one is able to reach for greater intellectual satisfaction through growth needs. For centuries, black Americans have been basically stuck at the point of deficiency needs.

Drive, motivation, and expectation end at any level where the lower needs are blocked—or unmet. The need for air, food, sleep, warmth, and exercise is easily met, but the need for security, stability, health, shelter, money, and employment is more difficult to achieve. The need for acceptance, friendship, intimacy, and relationships is even more difficult to achieve—not to mention the need for achievement, recognition, respect, and competence. If these deficiency needs are blocked, there is no possible way, according to the theory, for persons to reach their cognitive and aesthetic needs and, thus, reach their full potential.

During the 244 years of slavery, aside from the physiological needs that kept slaves alive and strong enough to work, only a few needs were met. Safety needs, love and belongingness needs, and self esteem needs were out of the question. During the 100 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington, at least some safety needs were met and even a few love and belongingness needs, too; but basically Jim Crow laws and the residual effect of the Dred Scott Decision blocked “love and belongingness” and “self esteem needs”—with some exceptions. During the last 50 years, from the March on Washington to President Obama’s 2013 inauguration, acceptance, friendship, intimacy, relationships, achievements, recognition, respect, and competence needs have been easier to achieve—but much harder than they should be. Until all the deficiency needs are met, blacks will not have the motivation, the drive, and the expectations necessary for achieving the growth needs and, thus, reaching their full potential. After all, why should one continue pushing forward when the mountain in front is too hard to tunnel through, too huge to go around, too high to go over, and too deep to go under? One would become distressed and even go berserk. So, in order to survive, one gives up and surrenders to fate and lives in the world of unhappiness, anger, and crime.

Constitutionally, black Americans have been given a promissory note that has come back marked “insufficient funds,” Martin Luther King said in his I-have-a-dream speech. And yet, in a large measure, blacks are still confident that America will make good on its promise.

Black Americans don’t want pity, nor to be pampered; they want acceptance, recognition, respect, money, gainful employment, and a level playing field. This will unblock the path to their full potential; unblock the path that leads to meeting their need to become rational thinkers, to achieve inner harmony, to gain a sense of attractiveness, and to become all they can be. Without such, each limited generation will produce another limited generation. But, on the other hand, each generation whose deficiency needs are met will produce a generation that moves closer to full potential. If that continues, blacks, as a race, will soon be able to stand as equals with whites in test-taking, in gainful employment, and in every other area of American life, and the nation will truly become “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Perhaps it will take two more generations for blacks’ deficiency to be needs to be met, but the grand bargain is that they will be met. Standing on the precipice of ecstasy, a young black preacher and civil-rights leader proclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen to the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, you will get to the Promised Land.” Martin Luther King was right.

Have an informative black history month.

So may it be.


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