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Instead of one black America, today there are four.
“There was a time when there were agreed-upon 'black leaders,' when there was a clear 'black agenda,' when we could talk confidently about 'the state of black America'—but not anymore.” —from Disintegration
The African American population in the United States has always been seen as a single entity: a “Black America” with unified interests and needs. In his groundbreaking book, Disintegration, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson argues that over decades of desegregation, affirmative action, and immigration, the concept of Black America has shattered. 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;
• and 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.
Robinson shows that the four black Americas are increasingly distinct, separated by demography, geography, and psychology. They have different profiles, different mindsets, different hopes, fears, and dreams. What’s more, these groups have become so distinct that they view each other with mistrust and apprehension. And yet all are reluctant to acknowledge division.
Disintegration offers a new paradigm for understanding race in America, with implications both hopeful and dispiriting. It shines necessary light on debates about affirmative action, racial identity, and the ultimate question of whether the black community will endure.
From the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
© Publishers Weekly
A Good Effort
Mr. Robinson well-articulates something that most black people already know and will openly admit if we aren't being self-serving. Without a doubt, the sacrifices of people on whose shoulders we stand have resulted in such great progress in the black community that there is no longer one black community. So while I don't think that Mr. Robinson breaks much new ground, I very much appreciate the breadth of anecdotal and analytical evidence he brings in support of his thesis. Even for those of us who have been relatively first-hand witnesses of the disintegration process, Mr. Robinson reminds us of the confluence of the multiple factors - deindustrialization, desegregation in general society, riots borne of despondency - that together drove that disintegration. By the way, Mr. Robinson writes very well (no surprise there) so I very much enjoyed experiencing the unidirectional "conversation". I do recommend it for those who profess interest in or understanding of the issues faced by the black community as a whole and Mr. Robinson's work does challenge all of us in our thinking about what it means to be a "black community" if we are one at all. That said, I am struck by a number of issues that frankly throttle back a full-throated endorsement of the book.
While he takes a stab at offering a path forward, Mr. Robinson's prescription seems both incomplete and impractical. There is no doubt that government could and should play a significant role in addressing the challenges of the "Abandoned", but the political realities of present day Washington render assistance targeted to the underclass in general much less the black, urban underclass a bridge too far. Wars in multiple theaters, general economic malaise, budget deficits and record federal debt all strike me as competing issues that opponents would argue require more attention. Only a "Trojan Horse" strategy that folds the urban "Marshall Plan" inside of a larger effort is the best that anyone could possibly hope for. As well, there is so much more that he could have suggested as part of the comprehensive plan to which he alluded. While he correctly acknowledged the uplift efforts among BGLOs, black professional organizations and the black church, I don't think it would have hurt to call for a doubling or tripling of such efforts, with a challenge - particularly to Mainstreamers and Transcendents - that anyone not doing something to improve our collective lot should perhaps do some soul-searching. If those inner-city brothers and sisters are abandoned, isn't it because the rest of us have abandoned them? As well, perhaps efforts at direct intervention in child development through boarding schools and other facilities that completely remove abandoned children from their debilitating environments might be in order. Efforts to establish and patronize urban businesses also should be part of any holistic plan. Perhaps he made vague references to the more comprehensive actions of changes in drug laws, investments in education and other measures, but they don't jump out as deeply considered. Though I thought it incomplete, Tavis Smiley's Contract with Black America seemed a far more comprehensive work in terms of prescriptions.
Also, I felt uncomfortable with Mr. Robinson's seemingly conflicting descriptions of Affirmative Action. On the one hand, he seems to embrace the pejorative description of Affirmative Action as giving a hand-up to those who are unqualified, though he points out that it was those in the Mainstream who were prepared to take advantage of such efforts. This seems contradictory. Prepared strikes me as qualified and is consistent with my own view of Affirmative Action as the effort put forth to expand the pool of quality candidates through specialized recruiting and outreach efforts.
I believe Mr. Robinson's work to be a useful offering in the discussion of what the black community is and what it means to be black in America. I couldn't help but feel, however, that it was more useful to white people from an information standpoint - not a bad thing in and of itself - and that it fell a bit short from a prescriptive standpoint. Without a doubt, the black community, taken loosely as a group, has come quite far in a relatively short period of time. I am concerned, as Mr. Robinson clearly is, that our future progress as a black people in America will be driven greatly by our ability to move the Abandoned into the Mainstream. Perhaps our defining blackness by our commitment to broad social improvement of black Americans is a level of unity worth pursuing.