THE SPLINTERING OF BLACK AMERICA (2010)
by Eugene Robinson
Affirmative Action has been an unqualified success. A legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action forced employers to give “preferential” treatment to those who had been discriminated against in the job market. For hundreds of years—or ever since the dawn of society—certain elements of society have been singled out and given privileges on the job market. For the most part, hiring has always benefited the male and excluded the female from all desirable occupations and from most paying jobs. In American, people of color joined women in the ranks of the historically discriminated against. But then came a series of Supreme Court decisions and laws that were passed over a decade, starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and ending in 1967 when President Lyndon Bains Johnson issued an Executive Order, extending President John F. Kennedy’s of 1961 to include women. And with these decisions, laws and orders, Affirmative Action began to transform American society.
There is no way to go back in time and measure the loss that gender and racial prejudice caused to American society but one gets a sense of the magnitude when one compares this country as it existed in 1960 to the way it is today in 2012. What was lost, thrown away and denied for generations is incomprehensible. One can only grieve for the lives lost and contributions never realized. Thanks to Affirmative Action women and people of color have risen from the position of being excluded and oppressed to being leaders in business and politics and have become powerful voices and presences in society. Eugene Robinson, author of Disintegration. The Splintering of Black America (2010) notes that
The biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action over the past four decades have been women—mostly white women—who occupy a place in the workforce and the academy that previous generations could not have imagined. (When the feminist revolution came, black women already worked for a living.) Second, in terms of gains, have been middle-class African Americans..
The achievements of these people who just needed to be “affirmed” in the same way that the white male had always been affirmed have been remarkable. Even more striking, the advances were made within the space of one generation. In the 1950s it was “common knowledge” that Blacks were incapable of…fill in the blanks…and women were unable to do….fill in the blanks. Over half the population of American were systematically stigmatized on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Given that prejudice is often internalized, the success of women and people of color is all the more remarkable in that each and every individual has had to fight discrimination both internally and externally. There is no doubt that few of these individuals could have acquired an equal education or a well-paying job or a decent home to live in without affirmative action. The fact that women are still routinely paid half of men and the continued complaints about Affirmative Action indicate that, if the federal government had not intervened, the white male would still dominate and discrimination would be unchallenged.
In a culture where the normal political processes no longer function and governments at all levels seem clogged and dysfunctional, it is important to take the time to measure the impact of social policies intended to bring about economic, social and political equality. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson, who writes for The Washington Post, has set out the assess the progress of the African American community since the Civil Rights movement. Written in the wake of Katrina and the shocking sight of the dead floating in the flood waters, Disintegration describes what the author has designated as four categories among African Americans: the first and most familiar, thanks to Bill Cosby, is the Mainstream middle class upwardly mobile group, then there is the equally well-known, thanks to popular culture and politics, the Transcendent: the Ophras, the Obamas, the Tigers, the third group, less visible, is what the author calls the Emergent, or the recent African and Caribbean immigrants, and the last category is what America saw on television in the summer of 2005, the Abandoned.
The African American citizens of New Orleans, who had been left behind, were caught up in one of the most horrific hurricanes of the century. These helpless people had been abandoned in more ways than one—it wasn’t just that the buses to take them to high ground never came, it was also that somehow the Civil Rights Movement had not been able to lift them up out of poverty. Robinson dissects the reasons why some African Americans succeeded and some failed and continue to fail, and, even worse, will probably continue to fail. He stresses that the “disintegration” of the African American community refers to the splintering of the once solid group into faction in terms of income and class and historical memory. As these elements move further and further away from one another, the result is an increased diversity where the term “African American” means less and less or to be more precise, needs to be rethought.
Robinson undertakes a task that is extremely difficult. On one hand, there is a sizable portion of America that automatically responds to any African American as the Other and reflexively join together in an atavistic racial solidarity, whether to establish voter suppression laws or to defend the killer of a teen-age boy carrying nothing more than a bag of Skittles and an iced tea and a cell phone. On the other hand, the African American community is losing the solidarity that enabled its very survival during the dark centuries of slavery and segregation. In addition, Robinson points out, this community has become assimilated into the mainstream. As he stated,“…black American experience is nothing more or less than an integral and necessary component of the American experience.” Indeed, much of what we define as “American” comes from the Black culture—jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, fried chicken. Robinson quotes the
MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner Charles Johnson published an article in The American Scholar titled The End of the Black American Narrative. He posited that a ‘unique black American narrative, which emphasizes the experience of victimization, is quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people, even when it is not fully articulated or expressed. It is our starting point, our agreed-upon premise, our most important presupposition for dialogues about black America.’ This narrative is based on ‘group victimization,’ Johnson writes, and it is obsolete; it blinds us to ‘the inevitability of change’—and the fact of change..
While Katrina proved that there are numerous African Americans who are victimized as a group, it would seem that they are also the remnants of a tragic legacy of generational disadvantage compared to the other groups that managed to escape the “victim narrative.” Robinson begins this narrative, not with slavery, but with the end of Reconstruction. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the gains made by the former slaves after the Civil War were astonishing, which makes the fact that all the hard work and all the accomplishments were taken away by
…the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans and a return to what racists like Grady considered the “natural” order of things. Nowhere was this bitter pill more difficult for black people to swallow than in Atlanta, where the former slaves and their descendants had come so far. There, a critical mass of black ambition had ignited what seemed an unstoppable reaction. Black educational institutions such as Atlanta University and Morehouse College were producing an educated elite. Black businesses, while still small in relative terms, were expanding and producing real economic benefits for the whole African American community. The grand project of black uplift looked so promising; now it was being snuffed out. In Atlanta, which was the intellectual center of black America, prominent thinkers waged a vital debate: What could black people do about this brutal campaign to kill the black American dream?
To take away not just the dream but also hope meant that the bitterly disappointed African Americans would have to be crushed though a reign of terror carried on the dominant white population. The memory of the remarkable achievements of the post slavery decades had to be exterminated and wiped from the memories and the hearts and the hard lessons of inborn and innate inferiority had to be forced into internalization. The fact that African Americans daily evidenced abilities equal to whites was apparently particularly galling and the what Robinson calls “re-enslavement” was enforced by public lynchings and brutal Jim Crow laws. Any rumor of any infraction of the elaborate system of creating a second class (non) citizenship would draw instant retaliation. Robinson gives a frightening account of a “race riot” in Atlanta—one of many during the first half of the twentieth century—and notes that the term referred to whites rioting against Blacks and their property. He writes of the aftermath,
The full psychological impact of the Atlanta riot may be incalculable, but one specific result is clear. Many whites—even those who disapproved of mob violence, lynching, and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan—were deeply shaken by the many instances during the melee in which blacks displayed the will and the means to fight back. Segregationists pointed to the resistance as proof that they were right—that blacks had to be kept down, had to be kept in their place. Measures to deny black citizens the vote throughout the South were perfected. Public accommodations were labeled whites only and blacks only; merchants began requiring black patrons to enter through the back door. This whole blueprint for the New South was codified into law as a way of delineating two ostensibly ‘separate but equal’ societies. Black Atlanta was effectively walled off from the rest of the city, left to make its own way in the world. The long, dark night of Jim Crow segregation had fallen..
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Great Migration sent waves and waves of African Americans to northern cities and the South lost the best and the brightest, those most able to survive the wrenching sacrifices of abandoning friends and families and homeland to start anew in alien territories. But the diaspora of the African American culture enabled the next generations to enter into the Mainstream and allow some to become Transcendent. Not that the Northern territories were hospitable and welcoming. As Robinson stated, “It’s true that racial segregation in the South, enforced by law and terror, wasn’t the same as racial segregation in the North and West, which was often enforced by housing covenants but also had to do with custom and clan.” Recalling the solidarity within the Black community when he was growing up, he also noted, “We were all black, and to be black was to live under assault.”
Robinson compared the mood within the African American community before and after Jim Crow—optimism became pessimism and resignation. He writes of the
…enormous deficits that newly freed blacks faced. Without assets or education they had to start from scratch, but during Reconstruction they made rapid gains. The problem was that those gains were promptly and often brutally taken away by Southern officials when Reconstruction was abruptly halted. This betrayal was committed with the acquiescence of the federal government—which was more interested in reaching an accommodation with the South..
In the South, African Americans lived under a regime of terror; in the North, African Americans had hope and possibilities but the optimism was replaced with the need to survive and make the best of the new opportunities. He discusses how the deep despair and rage lying just beneath the surface broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It is no wonder that, sixty years after migrating from the South to the Promised Land, that the community would react violently. It is at this point, in the spring of 1968, that “race riot” became linked to Blacks. Robinson writes,
The King assassination was too much to bear. It was not just a murder but a taking—the theft of our leader, our future, our reason for continuing to hope that America was finally ready to accept us as true Americans. The paroxysm of violence that followed was deliberately destructive: They take from us, we take from them. In the end, of course, we took from ourselves. The self-destructive nature of the 1968 riots was evident to all, even as the mayhem was unfolding.
Although Robinson does not note the link, this self-destructive act of internalized self-loathing explains the intensity of the hopes projected onto Barack Obama. Only when one understands the history of slavery, segregation, discrimination, prejudice and terror endured day after day, century after century does it become clear why the election of a Black President felt like the Second Coming. But Robinson points out that the 1968 “race riots” were the final act, punctuating, these centuries of injustice as with an exclamation point. Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, the African Americans who could escape from the confines of the ghettos became part of a second Migration. As he reports, some managed to get out and refugee to the suburbs while others were left behind in the slums.
Robinson makes an important and little noted point, that the White Flight was also a Black Flight that, as he said, “split” the African American community once again. First, those who could not or would not leave the South were left behind, and then, second, another group, once again, “did not make it.” With these migrations came increasing Black-White contact that would, over time, produce another category—the bi-racial individual. Most African Americans are distinguished from “Africans” by the presence of white blood, white ancestors, usually due to the slave masters raping the female slaves. But for centuries these somewhat whitened people were forced to remain behind the color line, due to the “one drop” rule. Robinson points out that, unlike other nations, such as Brazil, America was racially rigid and enforced its codes, imagining that somehow “racial purity” could be maintained.
However in 1963, interracial marriage became legal and by the early twenty-first century, the young generation thinks noting of racial mixing. Intermarriage encourages, even necessitates assimilation into a larger community that becomes a third alternative characterized by tolerance and acceptance. But by and large the progeny of these unions are, like Barack Obama, considered “Black,” because, as Robinson points out, the culture will not allow them to be anything else. Presumably, due to ties to the white comity, this group is considered Mainstream and, thanks to federal laws, can live anywhere they want, go to school anywhere they want, and are guaranteed equal opportunity to any job to which they aspire. these gains are the result of sixty years of waiting for the door to open again.
If Mainstream means “assimilated” out of the Black community and into the White community, then the African American Mainstream differs in significant ways. First, this affluent and successful group has a large number of single women, living alone or raising their children alone. Uninterested in dating outside their race, they are also disinclined to spend their time hunting for suitable African American husbands. Robinson muses over whether or not this situation of female independence is the result of a narrative of the Matriarchy, but it should be said, that regardless of the historical roots, the aloneness of these women is but part of a larger trend: the majority of the adults in America live “solo.” The other interesting aspect of this Mainstream group is the loss of deference to adult authority, from parents to community elders. More and more, the African American teenagers are acting like their white counterparts—typical rebellious teenagers. Unlike their parents and grandparents they have no memory of the hard times when family was all there was.
The “disintegration” of the Mainstream community has begun in Robinson’s own lifetime. He provides the reader with interesting sections on the solidarity of the professional educated Black community, held together by links of acquaintance and old school ties, held together though a network of fraternities and sororities. Robinson states,
They were established, beginning about a hundred years ago, to provide mutual support and encouragement among blacks who knew that when they graduated from college they would be taking their hard-won learning into a cruel, openly racist world. Obviously the world today is a different place. But the black fraternities and sororities have endured—and they have remained black.” He added, “Pi Phi, known colloquially as the Boule, from an archaic Greek word meaning ‘representative assembly.’ The Boule (pronounced boo-lay) is for high-achieving black professionals, and its reach is nationwide.
One wonders if the new generation of the Mainstream will continue to join these societies, for, as Robinson observes, “My generation, like those that came before, was forged in an all-black context amid a hostile society.”
Since 1990, Robinson notes, African immigration to America, still thought of as the Promised Land, has exploded. The result was a net community, composed of people of color who had no history of victimhood and slavery: the Emergent group.
Immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive in larger numbers after passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. The law loosened restrictions on immigration based on geography—a system that favored Europeans over nonwhites—and shifted the emphasis to professional qualifications and family reunification. Subsequent measures in 1976 and 1980 made it easier for immigrants to come to the United States as students or refugees; an attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 1986 allowed many undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, including 135,000 from the Caribbean and Africa. For Africans, the key impetus was passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of immigrants admitted on the basis of their skills..
Allowed to enter, as Robinson writes, due to their skills and education, these immigrants had many advantages compared to the “local” African Americans. Although he does not mention the relative lack of prejudice against them, in fact the African African has had a somewhat easier path. For some reason white Americans consider such individual to have a higher status than those who are descended from slaves. Robinson notes that
Today, Africans coming here voluntarily on wide-body jets are the best-educated immigrants in the United States—better-educated than Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans, or any other regional group.” Indeed, he added, …wherever African immigrants had settled in substantial numbers: Their children were performing so well in school that they were overrepresented, relative to their overall numbers, in the lists of overachievers.
The author attributes this outstanding success to the mindset of optimism. I would also add that the psychology of the African immigrants is somewhat akin to that of the African Americans who migrated northward. Robinson writes,
Most immigrants who surmount all the obstacles and make it to the United States are accustomed to success. Whatever degree of political and economic dysfunction their home countries might be suffering, the immigrants managed to master or escape the local context. By virtue of their presence, they are among the winners in their societies. Optimism comes easily, and with it a certain sense of entitlement. All or some of this gets passed down to the next generation..
One could site the same thing of the Great Migration, if the word “hope” is substituted for “optimism.” That said, Robinson makes an interesting point: while the first generation of African immigrants were immune to the “stereotype effect” or the internalization of inferiority, the second generation were more susceptible to the narrative of certain failure. He also makes another important distinction between African Americans and African Africans and Caribbean Africans—they know their ancestry and have retained their heritages. In contrast, part of the process of conquest and enslavement in the American South, entire cultures from many parts of Africa were erased. He recounts,
“When our ancestors were brought here, slave owners waged a deliberate, thorough, and successful campaign to erase all traces of our prior cultures. There were, for example, many slaves who left Africa as Muslims; Islam had been established on the continent for centuries by the time the Americas were discovered and the Atlantic slave trade began. Once in the Americas, Muslims were given no leeway to practice their faith. Christianity was the only religious option, and it was all but mandatory..
In contrast the Africans who were taken to destinations with a Catholic culture were allowed or were able to retain elements of their heritage. He writes,
“In Cuba and Brazil, they managed to fuse their religious tradition with Roman Catholicism in a way that was Catholic enough to satisfy the slave owners, but Yoruba enough to allow the slaves a sense of connection with their ancestors. These syncretic faiths came to be known as Santeria, candomblé, macumba—there are many names and many distinctions—and they basically associating specific Yoruba demigods, called orishas in Cuba and the other Spanish-speaking slave-owning islands, with specific Catholic saints.”
In conclusion, Robinson notes that no amount of DNA research can do any more than give an African American any but the vaguest idea of his or her ancestry. “…our ancestors’ history was obliterated,” he states,
In that sense, we really have no idea who we are.” One of the central theses of this book is how the lack of ancestral knowledge was, for a long time, overcome though a shared history of slavery and deprivation and group solidarity. But this common identity is “disintegrating” as the community is moving away from its roots, which were domination and oppression, towards a new upward mobility. Here is where the African American group identity splits apart into two extreme segments. If Eugene Robinson places himself within the Mainstream which socially and economically is linked to the Emergent group, then on either side are the Transcendent and the Abandoned.
Like the fraternities and the sororities, the Transcendent are bound together through ties of friendships and circumstances. Robinson uses President Obama as a prime example of a Transcendent, that is an African American that is beyond the reach of the narrative of race. He illustrates the network of the Transcendent by writing that
…the first African American president, confronting the direst financial crisis since the Great Depression, was able to summon an experienced African American CEO (Richard Parsons) out of retirement to oversee troubled Citigroup. It meant that when the president went to work on his campaign promise to bring the treatment of terrorism suspects back into line with civilized norms, he could task an African American attorney general (Eric Holder) with the job. It meant that as President Obama decided on diplomatic steps he could take to rid the United States of its Crazy Cowboy image in the world and chart a new course, he could pick up the phone and call two African American former secretaries of state (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice)..
However, no African American is forever free of race. The Transcendent Obamas are a case in point. Robinson makes the good point that the couple has de-raced public assistance by going to causes that are universal—obesity and health care. But he also writes of the suspicion of the other Transcendents towards the President—with his white mother and his privileged position among the white community, is he “Black” enough? For a significant segment of the white community, Obama is too Black. Although Robinson does not go into the ways in which the President has been treated, the disrespect shown to him by his Republican and conservative opponents can be explained in on fashion other than open racism. I have something of an issue with Robinson when he writes, “I dwell on Obama’s candidacy because it was such a Rorschach test for the Transcendent class.” Unlike some Transcendents, such as Oprah, Will Smith, and Sean Combs, Obama is under constant scrutiny and attack. He has lived the first years of his Presidency like Jackie Robinson in Ebbets Field.
Those who find the preternatural cool aloofness of Barack Obama irritating may not be aware of what the “first Black” must endure. When Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he knew that the athlete would be under constant siege. The exchange and bargain between the two men is famous:
Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Far from Transcending, Obama cannot fight back and he cannot speak up with the same freedom that a hip-hop star has. That said, Robinson makes a good point, that Obama is part of a generation that has little or no memory or experience of segregation. Unlike Jackie Robinson who was the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper who migrated to California, Obama was not raised with a narrative of being a second-class citizen. Indeed, Robinson states,
These young Transcendents, generally in their forties, are indeed too young to have lived through Jim Crow. They are not too young to know what it was, and certainly not too young to believe as passionately as their elders in the need to keep fighting to advance the unfinished project of black uplift. But there is a difference between knowing what it is like to face racism and discrimination, which this next-generation black elite does, and knowing what it is like to be consigned by law and police authority to second-class citizenship, which it does not. In that sense, the post-segregation Transcendents carry less baggage through life.
It remains to be seen if Obama’s restraint is due to an incomprehension—after being schooled in non-racist environments by white people—Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard University—at how he is being treated—or a deep knowledge of—like Jackie Robinson—how carefully he must tread. Robinson pictures Obama as an Insider and he is, in the parts of America that have become “post-racial.” But in the Red States, he is not only an Outsider but an Interloper. While the President, in an interview with the author, talks of his awareness of the increased opportunities, he is also aware of the dark history behind the achievements. In an interview with Robinson, Obama said,
I do think it is important for the African American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside, we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, or at least to have family members who have been discriminated against. And if we ever lose that, then I think we’re in trouble. Then I think we’ve lost our way..
On the other end of the spectrum are the Abandoned. In contrast to the high achievers, they are invisible, tucked way in slums and fringe neighborhoods or incarcerated in jails. Pushed out of gentrified neighborhoods, these individuals are caught in a spiral from which there is no recovery. Despite his horror at the ugly spectacle of human suffering during the aftermath of Katrina, Robinson regards the Abandoned with a despairing realism and a surprisingly conservative stratagem. The Abandoned are those who have been left behind, weighted down by the preceding generations inability to escape poverty. Whether the Abandoned were Abandoned in the South during the Great Migration—almost certainly the cause of the poverty of the Katrina victims—or were Abandoned in the inner cities of the North, there is little hope for these people.
Commentators who had no understanding of the culture of New Orleans asked why the Black community had not evacuated. But these are people who had no means of transportation and who were unwilling to leave their homes. As Robinson discovered,
An unusually high percentage of poor African Americans in New Orleans own their homes rather than rent, and some were determined to protect their property against looting. The parts of the Lower Ninth Ward that are closest to the Mississippi sit on relatively high ground, and those streets had never flooded before Katrina..
The lack of transportation meant that the African Americans of the Ninth Ward and other poor neighborhoods could not follow the jobs and industries to the suburbs. The only jobs available were in the tourist industry that favored the kind of talent that could service and entertain the visitors. Robinson explains the tragic and unintended consequences of the Civil Rights Movement on those who would be left behind:
At the same time that jobs were moving out of the cities, African Americans were winning unprecedented rights and freedoms. Those who were best prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities moved away from places like the Lower Ninth, leaving the least-prepared behind. The 1960s riots hastened an exodus that had already begun. As the black Mainstream made for the exit, what had been economically diverse African American neighborhoods became uniformly poor..
The gaze of the television cameras on New Orleans allowed America to see what had become of those who had been Abandoned. But the same story—without hurricanes—could be told in many other cities, such as Detroit and Baltimore. Lack of education, lack of transportation, lack of self-esteem, communities divided between rootless males and female-headed families, hopeless anger and self-defeating behavior are generational pathologies and survival strategies. Robinson looks with empathy upon these communities where lives come and go, lived out in a flat line of neglect. “The web of restraints that keeps Abandoned black Americans from escaping into the ..middle class has been examined from every angle, described in great detail, and lamented ad infinitum. But the web continues to tighten.” He concludes, “It begins in the womb..
The African American child born to an Abandoned mother has almost no change in life. His or her plight is all the more stark, given the astonishing progress of the Mainstream. As Robinson states,
..As the Mainstream have risen, the Abandoned have fallen. To be black, poor, and uneducated in America is, arguably, a more desperate and intractable predicament today than it was forty or fifty years ago…for all intents and purposes, Mainstream African Americans have arrived. The Abandoned, however, have not. And the question is whether they ever will…Increasingly, between the Abandoned and the rest of black America, there is a failure to communicate, much less comprehend…Abandoned black America—increasingly isolated from the Mainstream—develop a cultural ecosystem that makes sense internally but nowhere else..
Robinson explains that young black females are well aware of the facts of life and of condoms but they deliberately get pregnant so that they can establish their own households and lives and have someone to love them. While Robinson approves of the independent single Mainstream mother, he understands the consequences of this pattern of single motherhood on a young girl without financial resources. He recommends a conservative approach—a two parent family—without explaining how the young males will be educated to take on such a responsibility. The young man is caught up in his own needs. If the girl needs to be love, the boy needs to be respected. As Robinson explains,
..For young people especially, material possessions, such as the most fashionable brand-name clothing and jewelry, are important because they command respect. The same is true in Mainstream society, of course, but the stakes are higher in communities where people struggle to afford necessities, let alone luxuries. Any teenager who obtains and flaunts high-status items—the right North Face jacket, for example, or the right Timberland boots—has to be willing and able to defend them. Taking such accoutrements by intimidation or force from the owner is the kind of bold action that can enhance another young man’s status among his peers, and in turn provide inoculation against those who might be tempted to try something like that with him..
One can understand how, to those who are Abandoned and who have no place in Mainstream society, territory and personal possessions would be important, worth fighting and dying for. The Abandoned have nothing else. According to Robinson,
…the unwritten code of insult, umbrage, and retribution that holds sway in Abandoned communities—enforced by a few, but followed by many—plays an enormously destructive role by choking off ambition and creating an atmosphere of randomness and uncertainty. Those capable of code-switching have a chance of leaping the chasm—those who understand, for example, that while “acting white” in school is seen as a sign of softness and weakness, it is possible to avoid showing vulnerability in public and at the same time earn the kind of grades that make it possible to go to college. Those who cannot live in both worlds, who do not understand both sets of values, are all but lost. The essential, and tragic, problem is that “keeping it real”—adhering to the code—requires either engaging in all manner of self-defeating behavior or finding elaborate subterfuges to avoid shooting oneself in the foot. The warping of values in Abandoned black America means that being successful requires being duplicitous—being literally two-faced. And that is never an easy way to live..
Robinson ends his book by presenting solutions to the seemingly intractable problems faced by the Abandoned. Regardless of the good intentions of the Mainstream or the Transcendent to help the Abandoned, these are individual efforts, well meaning but hardly adequate to the enormity of the task. He insists that Affirmative Action should continue but be targeted to the Abandoned or those in real need. He also suggests that the richest nation in the world can well afford a Marshall Plan for the inner cities. In a surprising move, Robinson suggests something akin to the badly received remark of Barbara Bush about the Katrina victims:
What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.
Robinson suggests that the gentrification or the taking of inner city territory from the Abandoned should be continued. As he states,
…gentrification breaks up tough knots of Abandoned poverty and scatters people to the winds, including to other areas that might be just as poor but are more racially integrated, the process actually can be to the displaced—with one big caveat. The caveat is that the displaced cannot simply be forced into another all-black ghetto—one that is more remote, with even fewer amenities and services. This is largely what has happened in Washington and some other cities, and the result is that the problem just gets moved, not solved. By far the best solution—and, yes, it costs money—is to preserve or create low-income housing that allows the Abandoned to stay in place while the neighborhood gentrifies around them..
I am not sure the author has thought through the consequences of such a contrast between the Abandoned and the Mainstream, nor is it clear how the “tough knots” are broken up if they are only transferred to a high rise. In addition, as the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis suggested, poor people don’t take kindly to being herded into containment communities. As Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard University wrote of the fate of the 1956 high rise development,
Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.
Whatever the problems with Robinson’s solutions, he asks the African American community to take responsibility for the Abandoned community. Without adding that the rest of America is loath to spend money on a cause that seems intractable, he suggests that,
“Mainstream and those of the Abandoned coincide in the long run; ultimately, the goal is for the Abandoned to become Mainstream. But those interests diverge along the way. Two obvious goals for African Americans are consolidating decades of impressive gains into solid, multigenerational wealth; and doing whatever it takes to uplift the millions still trapped in desperate, multigenerational poverty…Transcendent CEOs can’t rescue the Abandoned, but they can serve as localized engines of economic development for the Mainstream by making certain that their companies actually practice diversity rather than just preach it. If they ensure that qualified and capable African Americans are represented among their executive teams, suppliers, and outside bankers, lawyers, and accountants, they will leave behind a far greater legacy than whatever the final numbers say on the balance sheet.
Although Robinson was writing in 2010, he mentioned the unfathomable sums of tax payer dollars shoveled to the troughs of Wall Street to “rescue” perfectly able bodied white males only in passing and noted, also in passing that Americans were willing to sent money to Iraq and Afghanistan but not to the Abandoned in their own country. I wish he had made more of this comparison, because surely part of the persistent poverty among the Abandoned is the fact that, as he points out in his analysis of the film Precious, Americans believe that if you are poor, you brought this condition upon yourself and that “you deserve it.” An updated version of this book might be able to add numerous comments made in the last two years by members of Congress who excoriate the poor and extol the rich for the purposes of taking money from those in need in order to give money to those in un-need. This lack of compassion and this refusal of responsibility and this deliberate unraveling of the social and moral fabric of America is the real definition of Disintegration.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.