Monday, May 09, 2011

Coming up, coming apart, now what for Black Americans?

Somewhat oddly, the Washington Post -- the man's employer -- labels Eugene Robinson an "opinion writer." The rest of his bio points out he's an experienced reporter as well as a columnist, with experience covering venues from city hall to Buenos Aires and London. His recent book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America is very professional, if sometimes intimate journalism, a collection of reporting from which Robinson derives some potentially controversial conclusions.

Robinson writes that, "if we allow ourselves to notice" ...

instead of one black America, now there are four:

  • a Mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society
  • a large, Abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end
  • a small Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect
  • two newly Emergent groups -- individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants -- that make us wonder what "black" is even supposed to mean.
The structure of the book is simple: several chapters on the black experience in this country, beginning with "When we were one" leading into "Parting of the ways" followed by sensitive descriptions of these four contemporary subsets of African-Americans.

It's not as if Robinson's central point -- that Black America is not a monolith -- isn't obvious to anyone who is looking around and willing to notice. But only someone who had never needed to feel that there was a community standing in solidarity with him -- say a comfortably-off, unimaginative, white man -- would suggest that there isn't something a bit daring about discussing the fissures in the African American community out in full view of all, including the community's detractors. As a white lesbian who has for years made a habit of pointing out cynically that the mark of a successful LGBT civil rights struggle is that individuals within the community win the freedom to assume the class position they would have occupied if they hadn't been stigmatized, I get that Robinson is being mildly transgressive here. When an ascribed identity has given you strength as well as made you vulnerable, you don't announce its "disintegration" lightly.

There's lots to like and to learn in this short volume:
  • Robinson's description of how black community came to be and worked to provide a relatively secure base for some African Americans before the civil rights revolution is going to become more and more vital to new generations who didn't come up in this world. If not articulated, this history gets lost.
  • Some of the most interesting important parts for me were the material about the "Mainstream." His discussion of the lives of successful, single black women as a large slice of that Mainstream describes several friends, but I've not seen their situation spelled out without prejudice before.
  • Perhaps because I've lived most of my life in California, I'd been unaware of the extent to which black-majority urban neighborhoods burned out in "rebellions" in the 1960s never came back up, remaining blighted, set up for later drug epidemics, and the violent misery that characterizes the lives of the subset of the African Americans Robinson names "Abandoned."
  • This is very much a book that draws on the experience of Washington, DC. It is rooted in the life of the District and its inhabitants, rather than the self-referential government and media cluster progressive bloggers call The Village. Black citizens have made lives in the capitol for generations. Unsurprisingly in this time of community fragmentation, this year's census finds that the District will soon cease to be a black-majority city for the first time since the 1940s. Many blacks have done just what whites used to do: move to the suburbs for better housing and schools. Meanwhile gentrifiers, mostly white, have known a good thing when they saw it and moved in.
  • Robinson brings forward a statistic from a Pew Social Trends Survey that is worth some pondering: nearly four in ten Black Americans say "that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race." Immigration of people with African appearance but different histories from both Africa and the Caribbean, in addition to the growing group of multi-racial children with some African ancestry, has called historic U.S. understandings of "race" into profound question even among the population most impacted by "racial" categories.
Though Robinson's thesis is that a splintering has taken place, his most provocative suggestion is that it is time for Mainstream African Americans to show enough residual solidarity with the Abandoned (the "underclass") to be willing to forego affirmative action for their children. Their children no longer need help to succeed; poor African Americans (and some immigrants) should have preference for whatever hand up the society is still willing to offer. This is certain to seem premature to lots of people, especially since most proponents of substituting economic for racial and gender criteria within society's small attempts to increase social equality have been viscerally hostile to the African American community.

Disintegration is a quick, smart read. Nobody has to agree with all of it. Highly recommended.


Kay Dennison said...

Noted for my next trip to the library. I worked for the local chapter of a well-known black organization for a couple year and saw, to a degree, what this book is about! Thanks!

Majid Ali said...
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