By Lawrence Jackson
Sunday, October 10, 2010; B01
The Splintering of Black America
By Eugene Robinson
Random House. 254 pp. $24.95
Eugene Robinson's new book, "Disintegration," opens with an account of a Washington dinner party dripping with influential Americans whom the reader can only assume are white. But these kingmakers, gathering shortly after the election of Barack Obama, turn out to be black.
Robinson proposes that this group -- which included Eric Holder, soon to be nominated as attorney general; Valerie Jarrett, an Obama fundraiser who has Oprah Winfrey's private phone number; Franklin Raines, a banker with a reputation nearly as bad as Kenneth Lay's; and Soledad O'Brien, a hard-charging, racially ambiguous newscaster -- signals the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. Even if it does, a small part of Robinson regrets the achievement of the hallowed plateau. He contends that the exercise of respectable power by these black people actually splinters a formerly coherent and unified black community.
Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, carves modern American blacks into four categories. His dinner-party comrades are members of a tiny group he calls the Transcendent class of wealthy blacks, composed chiefly of athletes, singers and media darlings. The Transcendents are more than offset by the regular black headline-makers, a "large minority" of African Americans that sociologists famously called the underclass in the 1980s and that Robinson now labels the Abandoned. A third group he identifies is the Emergent, people who are biracial, the children of parents from Africa or the African diaspora, or, like Obama, both.
Although Robinson calls for a "domestic Marshall Plan" to tackle African American "poverty, dysfunction, and violence," he gives the heart of the book to the fourth group, the one he identifies with: the nebulously defined black Mainstream, a "middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society."
The notion of what constitutes a middle-class life has changed over the years. In the 19th century, Americans still clung to Thomas Jefferson's hope of yeoman farms. After World War II, a middle-class life meant home ownership, a college education, an annual vacation and the possibility of a cozy retirement. Always there was the hope that children would attend better schools, build larger homes and enjoy more material prosperity than their parents.
Being middle class means something different in 2010, and most black families with two college-educated parents are up to their ears in lingering school loans, extravagant mortgages and consumer debt. In other words, these black Americans compose a class without wealth, a feature common in the white upper-working class, as sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro reminded us in their 1995 book "Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality."
Sadly, Robinson skirts this issue, among others. He suggests that educated, financially secure black women living alone are "blazing another trail" to "redefine the concepts of household and family." This is glib at best, and at worst it cynically casts black women as the engineers of something beyond their control: a socio-historic dynamic that graduates many more women than men from college every year. Robinson contents himself with upbeat platitudes to reinforce a worldview in which Transcendent, Emergent and Mainstream have something deeply symbolic in common with American whites: In unison, they "lock their car doors when they drive through an Abandoned neighborhood."
Robinson is among the group able to take the fullest advantage of King's sacrifice, and his concern seems more closely aligned with King's focus on the "content of our character" than on the civil rights leader's other battle with "the inner city of poverty and despair." The ongoing plight of the black American poor -- really a people who never recovered from slavery -- bears an eerie similarity to the lives of black people living in Congo, Sierra Leone or Liberia. Americans like to keep a lot of distance between themselves and Africa, and African Americans who are not materially successful stir residues of guilt regarding the African genocides of our own day and the genocides of slaves and Native Americans. The mass incarceration of blacks is parallel to enslavement and peonage laws, as recent books by Michelle Alexander ("The New Jim Crow") and Douglas Blackmon ("Slavery by Another Name") make clear. As King understood, the black experience is shaped as much by the harshness of American society as by the content of the black character.
The black Mainstream that produced King was long on courage, determination and compassion, but short on cash. It was, and is, really a lower middle class, now tethered to an urban setting with compromised educational structures and weakened public services, and is only superficially like the white middle class. Consider this: Black autobiographers Malcolm X, Chester Himes, Nathan McCall and Dwayne Betts all seem to qualify for Robinson's Mainstream, yet all served prison time for armed robbery between 1929 and 2005. It is difficult to dismiss 80 years' worth of poignant testimony that black American "middle class" lives are extraordinarily different from those of their white counterparts.
Robinson evades the fact that the boundary between the black Mainstream (whose "historic" gains he admits are "precarious") and the Abandoned is a highly porous one. What often happens is that the Abandoned follow the Mainstream from one part of a city to another and then from the city to the suburbs and back again. It's a scenario of boom and bust that for more than a century has swamped ambitious black migrants who take advantage of residential and employment opportunities and then, 20 years later, have to pack up and move again in the face of a socio-economic tsunami. It happened to them in the inner cities of the 1960s, the larger metropolitan areas of the 1980s and the foreclosed suburbs of the 2010s. Moving is portrayed as a success, but the cycle of run-ruin-run should not really be thought of as part of the hearty prosperity of a new class. Robinson advocates gentrification as a solution to black urban blight, but that ship "been done sail," as it were. The next wave of the black Abandoned is already tucked into suburbia, in Dekalb County, Ga., and Prince George's County, Md. Ironically, these are Robinson's twin geographic locales that exemplify the successful black middle class.
Lawrence Jackson is a professor of African American studies at Emory University.