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The Integration Jitters

This book is Eugene Robinson’s two cents on the dissolution of the old-school black identity, an identity largely based on grievance. The choicest passage comes four pages in: “Ever wonder why black elected officials spend so much time talking about purely symbolic ‘issues,’ like an official apology for slavery? Or why they never miss a chance to denounce a racial outburst from a rehab-bound celebrity? It’s because symbolism, history, and old-fashioned racism are about the only things they can be sure their African American constituents still have in common.” The question is whether these things alone can undergird a true “community” in 2010. And Robinson’s answer is ultimately more interesting anthropologically than philosophically.

Robinson classifies black Americans in present-day America into four groups: the Mainstream middle class; the Transcendent elite (Vernon Jordan, the Obamas); the Emergents (black immigrants), their children, and those now identifying as biracial; and the Abandoned, or the underclass. Yet questioning the coherence of the “black community” was already common in the 1970s; it is only Barack Obama’s election that fuels the urgency that Robinson feels in revisiting this territory. “Psychologists can search all they want for combinations of words and images that penetrate the chamber of our collective subconscious labeled ‘race,’” he writes, “and still they won’t do better than network-television crews that follow the president wherever he goes, cameras rolling as he motorcades to a summit or helicopters to Camp David.”

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post, and Disintegration is a columnist’s book, essentially a string of extended op-eds, so many of them rehashing well-trodden ground that the text would be useful as a young person’s introduction to Race in America 101. We are reminded that even affluent blacks used to be subject to the indignities of segregation; that segregation had an ironic benefit in necessitating cross-class, self-sufficient black communities; that to today’s young blacks, Jim Crow is ancient history; that an uneducated black man used to be able to raise a family with a low-skill manufacturing job; that the disappearance of those jobs and the suburbanization of the black middle class isolated a black underclass; that race still matters in America—just look at Hurricane Katrina—and don’t you forget it, and so on. The book will be more interesting in years to come as invaluable documentation of a slice in time when thoughtful blacks are seeking cognitive adjustment to the paradigm-busting implications of Obama’s election.

“I was raised to honor and cherish this ethic of absolute, unquestioned, unqualified African American unity,” Robinson remarks—but then he continues: “Then again, that was some time ago.” The sense of blackness as a single experience has long been fragile. Today it is founded largely on blacks’ relationships with the police. Robinson fears for his sons’ fate if nabbed for “driving while black,” and expounds at gratuitous length upon Henry Louis Gates’s front-porch arrest last summer. The problem is that relations with law enforcement, albeit important, are a thin basis for a collective identity. This one issue cannot suffuse the wholeness of millions of diverse and individual souls, black though they be. Especially beyond the inner city, this focus on the fuzz becomes more sentiment than self-perception.

This gestural quality is neatly illustrated by a Pew study that Robinson cites, in which blacks making over $100,000 a year were the most likely to insist that black people remained a single community (Robinson notes that blacks of this stratum were also more deeply skeptical of the plausibility of Obama’s election). Clearly, the affluent are burdened less concretely by racism than the middle class and the poor, and one senses a hyper-enlightened survivor’s guilt in their pessimism.

To refuse to step outside of the “unity” box requires, today, a degree of doubletalk, and Robinson exhibits this himself in places. He bemoans whites’ unawareness that there is a substantial black middle class (“It’s almost like failing to notice the existence of Australia”), but then also assails whites’ misimpression that racism no longer holds blacks down, with the bugaboo then being the “invisibility” of the black poor. True to form, Robinson treats Hurricane Katrina as “revealing” black poverty to America—an America in which rap music celebrating the ghetto is the nation’s most popular music and the film Precious is a blockbuster hit. Sensing the dissonance, he allows that black poverty in 2005 was “something the nation knew,” but in a fashion “increasingly abstract—useful as a statistic to cite in arguments about affirmative action.” But how, exactly, would we determine that America’s awareness of black poverty was sufficiently non-abstract? Especially if it is insultingly concrete to make a movie about it?

Here is a typical passage of Robinson’s book: “I would argue that mandatory sentencing laws and the differential treatment of offenses involving crack cocaine versus powder cocaine boost the African American incarceration rate, as does the fact that Abandoned black neighborhoods are generally policed with Fort Apache-style aggressiveness. But I don’t believe these factors are enough to explain the entire disparity. Family breakdown, untutored parenting, failed schools ...” I need not even quote further; we know the drill, to which Robinson appends: “The impact is more easily defined than the cause.”

As earnest as this is, it is old news and it is static, as is Robinson’s verdict that the abandoned underclass can only be rescued with a “Marshall Plan” of funding and programs, a conviction put forth with too few specifics and too little engagement with data. This is more of a pose than an analysis, with grievance rather than policy-mindedness animating the discussion—another race discussion going in circles. Obama’s election threw a stick into the spokes: no American can help wondering whether a racism that is powerless to keep a black man out of the White House is really still poor blacks’ main problem.

Inevitably, Robinson’s “Mainstream” tends to feel a peculiar dislocation. He nicely nails why so many black movers and shakers hesitated to support Obama for so long: “They saw in Obama a man who gave no outward sign of harboring within him that hard nugget of suspicion—who seemed as if he were not artfully concealing the chip on his shoulder but in fact did not have one.” Robinson admits that “we have reservations about assimilation if it means giving up our separate identity,” even saying that he derives “motivation and strength” from that identity.

Legions of human beings have felt similarly throughout history. But unless black Americans are to live in social and geographical isolation like the Amish, new generations of blacks will develop a self-conception ever less akin to that of people who grew up under Jim Crow and regarded white America as an alternate universe. It is conceivable that in a hundred years, and maybe even sooner, there will be no “black American” culture that we would recognize.

The notion of this as “disintegration” is handy as a book title, but is as delicate as August Wilson’s conceit that black Americans will lose themselves without a self-image as the eternally plangent descendants of slave ancestors ever on call in spiritual form. If it is any consolation to blacks uneasy with the prospect of losing themselves, it is worth noting that in countless ways mainstream America has become culturally “black” in the same fashion that blacks are becoming “white.” The appropriate term, applicable to the nation as a whole, is integration, pure and simple—although not as purely or simply as we might prefer. As Robinson allows, despite his nugget of suspicion, “I have seen the future, and it is beige.”

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.