The 'Splintering' Of America's Black Population

Disintegration
Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America
By Eugene Robinson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

"You can no longer talk about what black America thinks or feels," writes Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, in a new book about the increasing disconnect between America's African-American communities.

In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Robinson argues that America's African-American population can now be divided into four distinct groups: the abandoned poor; immigrants and people of mixed race; the mainstream middle class; and the small but powerful elite. He describes how each group has a different 'black experience' and largely remains detached from the others.

Robinson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that generational changes have also changed what it means to be African-American, using his own family as an example. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, while his sons grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood. His father, who was born in rural Georgia in 1916, served in a segregated Army during World War II.

"If you look at those three generations, you see how much has changed," he says. "My father grew up at a time when basic fundamental civil rights battles were being fought. By that's totally different from the time I reached adulthood, when those rights were guaranteed, and totally different from the world in which my kids grew up."

On election night in 2008, Robinson was working as an analyst on-air for MSNBC when he momentarily left the set to call his parents. (His father, who was 92 at the time, has since died.)

"It was a night I'll never forget," he said. "I got to call and tell them that they had lived to see the election of the first African-American president and then spent several days thinking about that, thinking about the fact that [my father's] life had spanned such a period. The world in which he was born and the world in which he died were two different worlds."

'Disintegration' Of America's Black Neighborhoods

U Street Barbershop, Washington D.C. i i

In 1942, Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood was a cultural center for the city's African-American community.  Today, gentrification has pushed many longtime black residents out. Marjory Collins/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division hide caption

itoggle caption Marjory Collins/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
U Street Barbershop, Washington D.C.

In 1942, Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood was a cultural center for the city's African-American community.  Today, gentrification has pushed many longtime black residents out.

Marjory Collins/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Writer Eugene Robinson grew up in a segregated world. His hometown of Orangeburg, S.C., had a black side of town and a white side of town; a black high school and a white high school; and "two separate and unequal school systems," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

But things are different now. Just look at the nation's capital — home to the first black U.S. president, a large black middle class and many African-Americans who still live in extreme poverty.

Robinson details the splintering of African-American communities and neighborhoods in his new book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

His story starts in America's historically black neighborhoods, where segregation brought people of different economic classes together. Robinson says that began to change during the civil rights era.

"People who had the means and had the education started moving out of what had been the historic black neighborhoods," Robinson explains.

Disintegration by Eugene Robinson
Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America
By Eugene Robinson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

He cites Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood as a prime example of this because of how Shaw was home to a vibrant black community and a thriving entertainment scene in the 1930s through the 1950s. By the '70s, Shaw had become a desolate, drug-ridden area.

"In city after city, African-American neighborhoods that …once had been vibrant and in a sense whole — disintegrated," Robinson says.

He attributes that change to African-Americans taking advantage of new opportunities, resulting in a more economically segregated community.

"There have always been class distinctions in the black community," Robinson says, "but what I believe we've seen is an increasing distance between two large groups, which I identify as the Mainstream and the Abandoned."

Robinson says that while a "fairly slim majority" of African-Americans entered the middle class, a large portion of the community never climbed the ladder. It's getting harder and harder to catch up, he says, "because so many rungs of that ladder are now missing."

So as formerly segregated neighborhoods begin to gentrify; rents increase and longtime residents get pushed out.

"What happens to this group that I call the Abandoned is that they get shoved around — increasingly out into the inner suburbs — and end up almost out of sight, out of mind," Robinson says.

Of course, that's not to say that life was better before the civil rights movement. Robinson says Americans can't forget what life was like before integration.

"Forty-five years ago, only two out of every 100 African-American households made the present day equivalent of $100,000 a year. Now it's eight or nine," he says.  "No one would turn back the clock and go back to those days."

But Robinson says opportunities for African-Americans to climb into the middle class are quickly disappearing, putting black families that did manage to make it into the middle class in a difficult position that involves a certain amount of "survivor's guilt" and plenty of frustration that efforts to help — haven't.

Eugene Robinson i i

Eugene Robinson works at the Washington Post where he has served as a foreign editor, an associate editor, a columnist and the London bureau chief. Julia Ewan hide caption

itoggle caption Julia Ewan
Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson works at the Washington Post where he has served as a foreign editor, an associate editor, a columnist and the London bureau chief.

Julia Ewan

"I know very few middle-class black Americans who are not involved in ... attempts to reach across the gap — through the church, through mentoring programs, by spending time reading in the schools," Robinson says. "Yet, you need something much more holistic ... and purposeful if we're frankly ever going to have the kind of impact that we need to have on the people left behind."

There's a good deal of friction between African-American communities, Robinson says, but it doesn't get talked about very much.  People living in poverty "have the resentment and sourness that comes with having been left behind," he says, "the feeling that, 'Well, these people think so much of themselves, and they've moved away to their fancy places.' "

According to Robinson, there's a word for that feeling. "Sadity" is used to describe someone who is "stuck up" or who thinks he or she is better than everyone else.

"It reflects this outsized importance that is given in poor black communities to this concept of respect," Robinson says.

And if the black poor remain mired where they are right now, he says, it will be bad for everyone — that's what gives the cause a sense of urgency.

So while the changes the civil rights movement has inspired over the past 50 years have absolutely been for the good, there's still important work to do.

Excerpt: 'Disintegration'

Disintegration
Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America
By Eugene Robinson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

1

"BLACK AMERICA" DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

It was one of those only-in-Washington affairs, a glittering A-list dinner in a stately mansion near Embassy Row. The hosts were one of the capital's leading power couples — the husband a wealthy attorney who famously served as consigliere and golfing partner to presidents, the wife a social doyenne who sat on all the right committees and boards. The guest list included enough bold-faced names to fill the Washington Post's Reliable Source gossip column for a solid week. Most of the furniture had been cleared away to let people circulate, but the elegant rooms were so thick with status, ego, and ambition that it was hard to move.

Officially the dinner was to honor an aging lion of American business: the retired chief executive of the world's biggest media and entertainment company. Owing to recent events, however, the distinguished mogul was eclipsed at his own party. An elegant businesswoman from Chicago — a stranger to most of the other guests — suddenly had become one of the capital's most important power brokers, and this exclusive soiree was serving as her unofficial debut in Washington society. The bold-faced names feigned nonchalance but were desperate to meet her. Eyes followed the woman's every move; ears strained to catch her every word. She pretended not to mind being stalked from room to room by eager supplicants and would-be best friends. As the evening went on, it became apparent that while the other guests were taking her measure, she was systematically taking theirs. To every beaming, glad-handing, air-kissing approach she responded with the Mona Lisa smile of a woman not to be taken lightly.

Others there that night included a well-connected lawyer who would soon be nominated to fill a key cabinet post; the chief executive of one of the nation's leading cable-television networks; the former chief executive of the mortgage industry's biggest firm; a gaggle of high-powered lawyers; a pride of investment bankers; a flight of social butterflies; and a chattering of well-known cable-television pundits, slightly hoarse and completely exhausted after spending a full year in more or less continuous yakety-yak about the presidential race. By any measure, it was a top-shelf crowd.

On any given night, of course, some gathering of the great and the good in Washington ranks above all others by virtue of exclusivity, glamour, or the number of Secret Service SUVs parked outside. What makes this one worth noting is that all the luminaries I have described are black.

The affair was held at the home of Vernon Jordan, the smooth, handsome, charismatic confidant of Democratic presidents, and his wife, Ann, an emeritus trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a reliable presence at every significant social event in town. Known for his impeccable political instincts, Jordan had made the rare mistake of backing the wrong candidate in the 2008 primaries — his friend Hillary Clinton. There are no grudges in Vernon's world, however; barely a week after the election, he was already skillfully renewing his ties with the Obama crowd.

The nominal guest of honor was Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner Inc. Months earlier, he had relinquished his corner office on Columbus Circle to tend the Tuscan vineyard that friends said was the favorite of his residences.

The woman who stole the show was Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's best friends and most trusted advisers. A powerful figure in the Chicago business community, Jarrett was unknown in Washington until Obama made his out-of-nowhere run to capture the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. Suddenly she was the most talked-about and sought- after woman in town. Everyone understood that she would be sitting on the mother lode of the capital's rarest and most precious asset: access to the president of the United States.

Others sidling up to the buffet included Eric Holder, soon to be nominated as the nation's first black attorney general, and his wife, Sharon Malone, a prominent obstetrician; Debra Lee, the longtime chief of Black Entertainment Television and one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry; Franklin Raines, the former CEO of Fannie Mae, a central and controversial figure in the financial crisis that had begun to roil markets around the globe; and cable-news regulars Donna Brazile and Soledad O'Brien from CNN, Juan Williams from Fox News Channel, and, well, me from MSNBC — all of us having talked so much during the long campaign that we were sick of hearing our own voices.

The glittering scene wasn't at all what most people have in mind when they talk about black America-which is one reason why so much of what people say about black America makes so little sense. The fact is that asking what something called "black America" thinks, feels, or wants makes as much sense as commissioning a new Gallup poll of the Ottoman Empire. Black America, as we knew it, is history.

***

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. Not after decades of desegregation, affirmative action, and urban decay; not after globalization decimated the working class and trickle-down economics sorted the nation into winners and losers; not after the biggest wave of black immigration from Africa and the Caribbean since slavery; not after most people ceased to notice — much less care — when a black man and a white woman walked down the street hand in hand. These are among the forces and trends that have had the unintended consequence of tearing black America to pieces.

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 the chance to denounce a racist 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.

Barack Obama's stunning election as the first African American president seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was the result of a transformation that has been unfolding for decades. With implications both hopeful and dispiriting, black America has undergone a process of disintegration.

Disintegration isn't something black America likes to talk about. But it's right there, documented in census data, economic reports, housing patterns, and a wealth of other evidence just begging for honest analysis. And it's right there in our daily lives, 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

These four black Americas are increasingly distinct, separated by demography, geography, and psychology. They have different profiles, different mind-sets, different hopes, fears, and dreams. There are times and places where we all still come back together — on the increasingly rare occasions when we feel lumped together, defined, and threatened solely on the basis of skin color, usually involving some high-profile instance of bald-faced discrimination or injustice; and in venues like "urban" or black-oriented radio, which serves as a kind of speed-of-light grapevine. More and more, however, we lead separate lives.

And where these distinct "nations" rub against one another, there are sparks. The Mainstream tend to doubt the authenticity of the Emergent, but they're usually too polite, or too politically correct, to say so out loud. The Abandoned accuse the Emergent — the immigrant segment, at least — of moving into Abandoned neighborhoods and using the locals as mere stepping-stones. The immigrant Emergent, with their intact families and long-range mind-set, ridicule the Abandoned for being their own worst enemies. The Mainstream bemoan the plight of the Abandoned — but express their deep concern from a distance. The Transcendent, to steal the old line about Boston society, speak only to God; they are idolized by the Mainstream and the Emergent for the obstacles they have overcome, and by the Abandoned for the shiny things they own. Mainstream, Emergent, and Transcendent all lock their car doors when they drive through an Abandoned neighborhood. They think the Abandoned don't hear the disrespectful thunk of the locks; they're wrong.

Excerpted from Disintegration: The Splintering Of Black America by Eugene Robinson. Copyright 2010 by Eugene Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House.

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