TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
There was a time when there was a clear black agenda, when we could talk confidently about the state of black America. But not anymore, writes Eugene Robinson in his new book, "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America."
Desegregation, affirmative action, urban decay, the decimation of the working class, and waves of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are some of the reasons why instead of one black America there are four increasingly distinct groups with their own mindsets, hopes and fears.
Robinson says there's the mainstream middle class; a large group of the abandoned poor; a small transcendent elite with enormous wealth, power and influence; and two newly emergent groups, individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist who won a Pulitzer for his commentary on the 2008 presidential campaign. He's also a news analyst for MSNBC.
Eugene Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you know, in your book, "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America," you've divided black America into four separate categories, just just have a way of thinking of black America, not because everybody fits so neatly, but...
Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Washington Post Columnist): Right.
GROSS: But anyways, so the two possible categories I could see you fitting into would be the mainstream middle class or perhaps the transcendent elite - not that you have Oprah Winfrey kind of money or Barack Obama kind of power, but you are a Washington Post columnist and an MSNBC news analyst, so you do have a lot of sway, and a lot of visibility.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, I would certainly put myself in one of those two categories. If you're just talking bank account, obviously I'm in the mainstream category. But you know, I put other people in the book who had that sort of juice and influence.
So I guess as long as I have these platforms that I have, and I blame it mostly on the platforms and not (unintelligible), but I guess I probably would put myself in that category.
GROSS: You grew up in South Carolina, in a community that was very educated. You grew up, like, a few hundred feet from two African-American colleges. There were a lot of African-Americans with Ph.D.s, a lot of African-Americans who were affiliated with colleges in one way or another, where a lot of the white people in the town weren't nearly as educated.
Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct. I grew up in what was kind of like a college town. Most of the adults I knew had advanced degrees. And white Orangeburg was basically an agricultural community. So I kind of grew up thinking that black folks had all this they didn't necessarily have a lot of money, but they had a lot of sophistication, and they traveled widely, they read books all the time. And white people had more money and power but maybe not as much culture or learning. It was the impression that I got as a little kid.
GROSS: Now, did that impression that you got as a little kid jive with what you were seeing in American popular culture? Though at the time there were far fewer African-Americans in - represented in American popular culture on TV or in the movies. But nevertheless, how did it jive with what you saw?
Mr. ROBINSON: It well, as you said, there wasn't all that much to see. I remember when "I Spy" with Bill Cosby as one of the two lead characters in a network series - this was revolutionary.
I remember whenever Leslie Uggams would appear on Mitch Miller, we would all be...
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GROSS: Oh God.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes - dating myself and maybe you too. We would all be called into the living room because Leslie Uggams was on, or if one of the jazz greats was on Ed Sullivan, for example, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan.
What we were able to see, we held onto, and it was so exciting to see African-Americans, even if in a very small way, kind of break into popular culture. And it was exciting that they were being seen by the rest of the country at the same time.
GROSS: Now, you went to a school that was part of a series of schools built by a philanthropist at the turn of the 19th century, the Rosenwald Schools. And I had never heard about this before. So I'd like you to tell the story of your school and how it fit into this chain, or whatever, of schools.
Mr. ROBINSON: Right, this I went to a school called Felton Training School. That was the name of the school at the time. It was on the campus of South Carolina State University. It was a very simple kind of literally four-room schoolhouse, four big rooms, two grades per room.
And there were four main teachers, but the schoolhouse itself was one of some thousands built throughout the South by a Chicago philanthropist named Julius Rosenwald. That's where most of the money came from.
And he started doing this as a result of a meeting he had with Booker T. Washington, who had the idea that he could fund schoolhouse-building projects in the South, and that this was a great vehicle for a kind of black uplift.
GROSS: You grew up in a kind of African-American elite, in a way. You know, you were in a small town, but your community was built around two colleges, and your family was connected to those colleges. You got a good education in a small school, but a good education. And yet you were growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South.
So you were an elite, but you were also not part, you were not allowed into mainstream America. So what was your sense then of where you and your family fit into America?
Mr. ROBINSON: First of all, even as a kid, I think I was, and I think most of, if not all of my friends were acutely aware of the civil rights struggle and what was going on. And I think we really defined ourselves in terms of that struggle, as participants, as soldiers in the struggle for freedom and equality.
And there were, you know, pressing issues about the right to vote and about public accommodations. There were stores in Orangeburg that you you couldn't go in the front door. You had to go in the back door.
In 1968, when I was in high school in Orangeburg, there was an incident called the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were killed by highway patrol, state troopers, at the culmination of a three-night demonstration that started as a protest over a segregated, whites-only bowling alley in 1968.
So the kind of reality of Jim Crow was a huge factor in forging really my sense of myself. At the same time, if I'm being honest, because it was essentially a college town, there was a certain intellectual arrogance that we all shared, and you know, when I go home to Orangeburg, or when I run into folks from Orangeburg, then I think, you know, we still share in a way.
GROSS: What do you mean by intellectual arrogance? How would it express itself?
Mr. ROBINSON: It was said at the time that Orangeburg was the town with the most black Ph.D.s per capita of any town in America. You know, I never tried to truth-squad that, to be honest, Terry. So I don't know if that's true. But that was always what was said.
And that, I think, gave those of us who came from that community just a sense of ourselves as special and as capable and as, you know, smart and kind of special.
And that feeling of specialness, really, in the context of Jim Crow, at least, was a kind of armor, I think. It certainly helped me at Orangeburg High School. I didn't go in with any sort of feeling of, you know, gee, can I measure up here. It was like, you know, wait till they see this, you know.
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Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I'm not taking any stuff from these people. And I had a geometry teacher who seemed to really resent the presence of black students. And so I resolved that I would never give her the satisfaction of grading me down one iota in geometry.
So I would study geometry for hours every night. I'm not really good at math. And I don't really have a good spatial sense. But I got an A-plus in geometry just because I wasn't going to give anybody the satisfaction of not giving me an A-plus in geometry.
GROSS: My guest is Washington Post columnist and MSNBC News analyst Eugene Robinson. His new book is "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Eugene Robinson. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and an MSNBC News analyst. His new book is called "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America."
We're talking about his coming of age. Earlier he said that growing up in the segregated South, he and his friends defined themselves in terms of the civil rights struggle.
So being very caught up in civil rights movement, when you went to college - and this would have been early '70s?
Mr. ROBINSON: This was 1970.
GROSS: Okay. So this is a period when the Black Panthers are active. There's still a very strong civil disobedience movement. So you've got, like, both ends there. You've got, you know, a much more, like, aggressive, angry movement, and a much more, you know, Martin Luther King-oriented movement. Where did you fit in, and how did your family feel about where you fit in to that?
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Mr. ROBINSON: I kind of that was kind of the period when I kind of didn't, in a way. I mean, I got to I went to the University of Michigan in 1970. And everything was going on.
My father had gone to school at Michigan. I remember he drove me up to school, and he's showing me around the campus and, you know, this is this hall, and this is that hall. And we went to the Michigan Union, this old gothic kind of building in the middle of campus.
And we're walking upstairs and look out the front window, and down in the plaza, you know, in front of the union, radical lesbians are doing street theater, complete with fake blood and simulated copulation and everything. I thought my dad was going to have a heart attack.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: But I, I was thrilled. I was, like, oh wow, actual lesbians, you know. You know, I've read about them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: And there were like actual Jewish people. I had met one in my life until then. And there - so I was kind of very fascinated with the whole what was happening with young people at the time, and much less fascinated at the time with specific questions of race.
And then I stumbled into the student newspaper. I had wanted to be a architect. I was a lousy architecture student, but I stumbled into the student newspaper, and that was love at first sight. And so kind of the combination of everything that was going on in Ann Arbor in 1970 plus this whole new way of looking at the world, this journalistic way of going up to people and asking them questions that were none of your business, and they would answer you, and you could write about it. You know, I found that a really interesting and satisfying way to experience the world, and thrilling in a way. And so that's kind of what I did in college.
GROSS: So you grew up in an African-American community, very college-oriented, and then when you had children, you were bringing up your children in a predominately white neighborhood, predominately white middle-class neighborhood. How did your sense of what it meant to be African-American compare to your father's?
Mr. ROBINSON: Entirely different. And it's really, if you look at those three generations, you just see how much things have changed. My father as an infant made the great migration. He was born in 1916 in rural Georgia. His family was kind of gradually making the trek north.
Every there were six siblings, and every one was born in a different city. As they made their way north out of Georgia, they went someplace else, and then to Columbus, Ohio, and finally ended up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where my dad grew up.
And he served in the segregated Army in World War II, as did his brothers. He moved to the Jim Crow South to marry and be with my mother, whom he had met during the war years.
So he grew up at a time when those basic, fundamental civil rights battles were being fought. He was there in Orangeburg when there were NAACP meetings at our church, and Dr. King came to speak at our church. And it was a question of basic, fundamental rights that were being denied.
And that's kind of different from the way things were by the time I reached adulthood, when those sorts of fundamental rights were guaranteed and totally different from the world in which my kids grew up.
You know, one evening I will never forget was the election night in 2008, when I, from the MSNBC set, got to call my mom and dad. My dad was 92 at the time. He has since passed away. My mother at the time was 87. And I got to call them 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, the fact that a life had spanned such a period, thinking about the world in which, into which my father was born and the world in which he died, two different worlds.
GROSS: Do you think that President Obama's political opposition is using language or positions that are a reaction in one way or another to his being African-American?
Mr. ROBINSON: I do think so. I see it in the emails that I get from critics, and fortunately this is just a small portion of the email that I get.
But I've got to tell you, I get some flat-out racist stuff of a kind that I don't think I've seen since the old Jim Crow days, and...
GROSS: Really? Like what's the tone of it? I mean, what's the what's it focused on?
Mr. ROBINSON: Sometimes just flat-out racism. You know, the coloreds, you know, couldn't organize a two-car funeral. And then, you know, a caricature of the president's a monkey and, you know, that sort of stuff.
Again, that's not most of the email I get, and I get a lot of very reasoned, fair, I think, conservative or progressive criticism of the president. But I get more of this really racist stuff than I thought I would get and than I've ever seen before.
And I'm talking, you know, I get a few of these things a week, and they're not all coming from the same person.
GROSS: So what do you think it is that has empowered people to think it's okay to write emails to you like this and to express overt racism like this? I mean, there was a time not too long ago when even racists thought it was socially inappropriate to express it publicly or that there'd be too much criticism for them if they expressed it publicly. But now you're finding that it's okay in some circles to just let it rip.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, it's okay to just let it rip. And I think there are a number of different reactions that I think President Obama's election and inauguration have provoked. To some people, and I don't think this is a whole lot, but to some people it provoked them to write me emails or comments on my column that essentially say, you know: What more do you people want? You've got a black president. What more do you people want? That sort of thing, that sort of you people construction that we used to hear and we haven't heard a lot of recently.
And what I think it has done to some people is kind of stoke anxieties that are partly demographic, about the fact that, you know, in 30 years or so there won't be an ethnic or racial majority in this country, there won't be a white majority, everybody'll be a minority; anxiety about the economy, and not just about the recession but about the kind of structural economic problems and whether or not my kids are going to have more opportunities and a better life than I have; and if they're in danger of not having more opportunity and a better life, well, who's to blame for that? And they look at President Obama.
So that's why you can finding, like a poll I saw a few months ago in which really a staggering number of Republicans, I don't think it was a majority, but it was a huge percentage, who really and I think honestly felt that President Obama's policies had somehow favored or were designed to favor African-Americans, when in fact the White House has kind of gone out of its way to not propose policies that have that sort of overt goal, that speak specifically to African-Americans, precisely, I think, because that's the sort of thing they'd be accused of.
So I can't think of a single one that they've come forward with, and yet there's this sense out there, and I think it's I just think it has to do with these anxieties, and there's something about Obama's election that brings them out and for some people I think makes them more acute.
GROSS: Well, Eugene Robinson, thanks so much for talking with us. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, Terry, it was great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Eugene Robinson is the author of the new book "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America." He's a Washington Post columnist and an MSNBC News analyst. You can read an excerpt of his book on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.