Many Black Americas

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I wanted to pull out this response from Cynic, a few days ago, relating to our conversations about race and class:


What Painter suggests which is novel is that we're suddenly witnessing the expansion and integration of the black elite. About that, I think she's undeniably correct. What that implies, of course, is that whereas Black America once functioned as a self-contained world, it is now splitting apart. Or, to put it differently, that when race is the most salient means of division, we'll tend to group together those of the same race of widely differing social classes. 

But as race declines in salience, other identifiers will rise in significance. Ivy League bankers who belong to the same country club may find they have more in common with each other than with others of their race. This is not a new narrative. In America, it's how groups have typically integrated. I struggle to think of any ethnic group in which the working class and the unemployed poor integrated before the elites. And in every case I can call to mind, the integration of the upper- and middle-classes provoked tremendous anxiety and resentment among those left behind. 

 Painter seems to believe, however, that this will reinforce racial prejudice. I think she's quite entirely wrong. What's it's likely to reinforce are socioeconomic and cultural prejudices. Many will look at their black suburban neighbors, and then the inner city, and conclude that race is not the key determinant of success. The effects of this transition are likely to be varied, complex, and even contradictory. It will, I suspect, further erode support for programs that seek affirmative solutions to racial inequalities. 

Many minorities trying to pull themselves up out of poverty may find the ladder yanked away when only a few have ascended, before they have the chance to make it up themselves. At the same time, it will lower many structural barriers. The more minorities all of us see in positions of power and influence, the more likely others are to hire them for such jobs, or to strive for them themselves. And it might even help build support for programs that target poverty more broadly. 

At the cultural level, we'll see more than two black Americas. We'll see many. In most ethnic communities, traditional lifestyles are far better preserved, and affiliations more deeply felt and experienced, in working-class areas. Why should black American prove different? But just as there are Irish parishes and Reform synagogues in suburbia, new hybridized cultures will take root and flourish among the middle and upper classes. There will be more funding for black artists, for charities targeting black issues, and for businesses catering to black clients. The community is too close-knit to fade away overnight. For those who have the option of leaving their parents' culture behind, the decision to embrace it is taken more self-consciously, and can lead to new and innovative expressions. And I'm not sure that's a nightmare, just a trade-off.

This notion of "leaving" is actually terrifying to me. My time up in the Woods pretty much convinced me that, in many ways, I'm rootless, that "black" is important to me because I've decided to make it so, not because it's objectively true. The obvious counter is that racism forces you to accept an identity. But that's just never been true for me--I can count on one hand, and maybe three fingers, all the instances of direct racism I've experienced.

For me, "black" was always most descriptive as an ethnic identity. "Black" meant that every time I saw another black male who I knew, we always shook hands--even if we'd just seen each other yesterday. (A quick caveat--Please do not respond "Well I'm white and I do that too." Respectfully, good for you. I eat sushi. That doesn't mean that sushi isn't Japanese. "Black" does not translate into "What white people do not do.") It meant a shared way of speaking, a verbal and nonverbal language which gave me a kind of comfort. 

One thing about being in the Woods, is I would go whole weeks without seeing another black male. I think I saw two or three others the whole time I was there. And about halfway through, I realized that I found other kinds of comfort, that there were other shared ways of speaking. I came back to New York on the bus, and riding through the city the first thing I thought was, "Man, there are a lot of Negroes here." And then I went out a few times, and was shocked by the amount of integration in many of the bars, the relatively large numbers of interracial couples. I was always aware of this, but had basically allowed the cities racial politics to become background noise. Coming back again, to all of these black people finding new ways of comfort while so many other do not, was bracing.

But culture's change and, in a free society, members slip in, and then slip out. Or they have a toe in and a toe out. This is as it should be. I am not black in the way that my father was black. There is no reason why my son should be black in the way that I am black.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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