The 'Disintegration' Of America's Black Neighborhoods Historically black neighborhoods were known for bringing people of different economic classes together — but that all changed during the civil rights movement. Eugene Robinson writes about how post-civil rights social mobility tore black communities apart in Disintegration.

'Disintegration' Of America's Black Neighborhoods

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The author and newspaper columnist Eugene Robinson has been thinking about the way that black America has changed.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Author, "Disintegrated," Newspaper Columnist, Washington Post): Two or three generations ago, we lived in strictly segregated neighborhoods. I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There was essentially a black side of town and a white side of town. There was a black high school and a white high school, because there were two separate and unequal school systems.

INSKEEP: Now, the rules are different. Look no further than the nation's capital, where Eugene Robinson now writes for the Washington Post. There, you can find a black president, a large black middle-class and also many African-Americans who still live in poverty.

Eugene Robinson writes of a black America that's splintered, and he traces the consequences in his book, "Disintegration." His story starts in those old segregated neighborhoods, where, because of segregation, people of different classes lived together - a librarian next door to a laborer next to a lawyer. That began to change during the Civil Rights era.

Mr. ROBINSON: People had options that they didn't have before. And so, naturally, they exercised those options.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about how things changed then, because this happened in cities and towns all across America. You could talk about the Southside of Chicago, you could talk about the Shaw neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., you could talk about small towns like Orangeburg, South Carolina, where you grew up. So, what happened? Who moved and what was the consequence when segregation began to end?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, the main consequence was that people who had the means and had the education started moving out of what had been the historic black neighborhoods. You mentioned the Shaw neighborhood here. In the book, "Disintegration," I talk a bit about the Shaw neighborhood and how it ratcheted down from being a vibrant black community with theaters and all the great entertainers performed there in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

Well, by the '70s, it was a desolate neighborhood known for being the place where heroin addicts went to get their daily fix. In city after city, African-American neighborhoods that, again, once had been vibrant and, in a sense, whole, disintegrated.

INSKEEP: And so you had African-Americans moving out and grabbing chances across the country, and what happened was that African-Americans became segregated by class in the way that so many other people are.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes. There have always been class distinctions in the black community. But what I believe we've seen, is an increasing distance between two large groups, which I identify as the mainstream and the abandoned. A fairly slim majority, but a majority of African-Americans have taken advantage of the opportunities and have entered the middle class. But there is a quite large, too large, minority that did not climb that ladder and now is in a worse and worse position to be able to do so, because so many rungs of that ladder are now missing.

INSKEEP: And maybe in some of those - in some cases anyway - some of those same historically black neighborhoods that were vibrant neighborhoods a couple of generations ago.

Mr. ROBINSON: Some are still in those neighborhoods. Of course, some of those neighborhoods are gentrifying. And so what happens to this group that I call the abandoned, is that they get shoved around and increasingly out into the inner suburbs and end up almost out of sight, out of mind.

INSKEEP: So, the people who'd been on the bottom, perhaps been on the bottom for generations, is their circumstance actually worse than it was before integration?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes and no. No, because we really do have to remember what life was like before integration, and those of us who were able to remember any of that time, know that we are not, as a people, worse off by any stretch of the imagination and no one would turn back the clock and go back to those days.

But, I think the chances of this abandoned group, the opportunities they have to climb the ladder into the middle class - and perhaps beyond - are diminishing.

INSKEEP: Is this confusing for African-Americans?

Mr. ROBINSON: It is. It's confusing. It's vexing. There's a certain amount of I guess what I would call survivor's guilt that a lot of middle-class black people carry around. But there's also frustration, I think, at the fact that nothing has really seemed to be that effective. I know very few middle-class African-Americans who aren't involved in some way, in some kinds of attempts, to reach across the gap - through the church, through mentoring programs, by spending time reading in the schools.

Yet, you need something much more holistic, I think, and purposeful if we're, frankly, ever going to have the kind of impact that we need to have on the people left behind.

INSKEEP: What kind of frustration or friction is there between some of these different groups of African-Americans you described - those who are becoming more successful and those who are being left behind?

Mr. ROBINSON: There's a good deal and it's not talked about a lot. But for those who have been left behind, they have - often have the resentment and sourness that comes with having been left behind with that and the feeling that, well, these people think so much of themselves and they've moved away to their fancy - there's a word we used to use: sadity - you know, they're sadity.

INSKEEP: What's the etymology of that one?

Mr. ROBINSON: I don't know the etymology of sadity but that means kind of stuck up and impressed with yourself and think you're better than anybody else. And it reflects in this outsize importance that is given in poor black communities to this concept of respect. That is - I'm not a psychologist - but, you know, it's something that people can claim, that people can insist upon, even as they cannot insist upon, you know, good schools and good housing and the other things that folks enjoy.

INSKEEP: you know, I'm thinking of a few years ago I overhead an exchange between the great African-American writer John Hope Franklin and a young immigrant from Cameroon, from Africa. And the young man says: I'm very frustrated looking around this country. It looks like nothing has changed. And John Hope Franklin says I'm a very old man; I've been around a long time. A lot of things have changed.

And I'm wondering if what you're pointing to suggests how those two realities could co-exist.

Mr. ROBINSON: They do co-exist, they do co-exist, because there are things that haven't changed. But, of course, a lot has changed. You know, 45 years ago, only two out of every 100 African-American households made present-day equivalent of $100,000 a year. Now it's eight or nine.

INSKEEP: Big change.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's pretty good. That's a huge change. If so, are the changes over the last 50 years, in the aggregate, for the good? Absolutely. But is there important work yet to be done? There certainly is. And I think there's urgency because I think this group of the black poor, it's bad for all of us the longer they remain mired where they are right now.

INSKEEP: Eugene Robinson's book is called "Disintegration." Thanks very much.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thanks so much, Steve.

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