Is race dying?

More than a third of black Americans no longer believe that blacks are a single race. This finding has alarmed some -- but it could help America out of its racial mess.

Published November 27, 2007 11:34AM (EST)

Ever since 9/11 and President Bush's response to it, all other issues in the United States have faded into insignificance. When jets were smashing into skyscrapers and U.S. troops were invading an Arab country, it was hard to care about anything else. And one of the things that America stopped paying attention to was race.

It's hard to believe that just a few years ago, issues of black vs. white dominated the national discourse. The Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson case inspired endless discussions and reams of editorial soul-searching. Affirmative action and racial preferences, multiculturalism, and political correctness were fraught topics. Then the twin towers fell, and suddenly we had a completely new enemy to worry about.

During the Katrina debacle, images of thousands of impoverished blacks jammed into the New Orleans Superdome brought the scandalous reality of black poverty back into view. But the moment passed. Today's most charged racial issue, immigration, doesn't involve blacks at all, but Latinos. The painful legacy of slavery -- which, along with our de facto genocidal campaign against its native inhabitants, is America's primordial racial trauma -- is no longer at the center of the national consciousness.

In some ways, this timeout from race is a positive development. The old black-white dialogue was going around in circles, trapped by rigid assumptions and stultifying formality. The great breakthrough of the civil rights movement, sadly, failed to erase the subtlest and most powerful barriers: internal ones. Whites learned to acknowledge the history of racism, foregrounding their own racial guilt. That was necessary but insufficient. It resulted not in racial enlightenment but racial politeness. Politeness is far better than open bigotry, of course, but it is still a superficial response, an early stage on the road to Martin Luther King's dream of a society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. By taking a break from race, we gave simple human interaction a chance to work.

But the sidelining of race has also been calamitous. Regardless of the progress made in racial attitudes, the existence of the black underclass is an ongoing scandal. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education ended de jure racial segregation in this country, poor urban blacks continue to be a group apart, plagued by disproportionately high rates of crime, incarceration, drug use, and poor health. Inner-city black children go to bad schools, live in substandard housing, eat bad food, are disproportionately raised by single mothers, and are exposed to a pathological street culture in which aggressive demands for "respect," ugly misogyny and the crudest markers of male machismo are valorized, while education, self-discipline and personal responsibility are dismissed as "acting white."

It's a peculiar moment. The white reaction to Barack Obama shows that the old I'm guilty, you're innocent, everyone-bow-and-return-to-their-corner two-step is no longer useful. Obama's race is still a factor, of course, but it is far less of one than anyone could have imagined even 10 years ago. Many whites are not just ready but eager to embrace a black man who has opted out of that worn-out racial dance. Yet the crisis of the black underclass rages on, and America seems less interested than ever in tackling it. And until that crisis is addressed, it will continue to cast a shadow over all black-white relations.

But this split reality contains within it the possibility of a breakthrough. After spending billions of dollars to try to stabilize neighborhoods in Baghdad, perhaps now Americans will be prepared to invest in the war zones in their own country. This may sound like pie in the sky, but there's reason for hope. Something amorphous but potentially transformative is happening -- and, critically, it's happening within the black community itself. According to a recent NPR/Pew poll, 37 percent of blacks agreed with the statement that blacks today are so diverse they can no longer be considered a single race. Among the youngest respondents, aged 18 to 29, a staggering 44 percent agreed.

This is extraordinary. More than a third of the blacks who responded, and almost half of the young blacks, have rejected the cornerstone of American racial politics: black racial solidarity. If the poll is accurate, the most emotionally charged and immutable racial truth, the one-drop rule, is no longer sacrosanct for a large number of black people.

Almost as noteworthy is that middle-class black Americans have joined most other Americans in dissociating themselves from the values (and, by implication, the behavior) associated with the black underclass. The Pew poll found that there was a growing "values gap" between middle-class and poor blacks: 61 percent of the black respondents, and 70 percent of the college-educated blacks, said that over the past 10 years, the values of middle-class and poor blacks have become more different. Just 44 percent said that in 1986. Further confirmation of this values gap is the study's finding that 64 percent of blacks regard hip-hop and rap music as having a bad influence on society. Moreover, the study found that while most blacks believe that they are subject to widespread discrimination, most of them don't blame discrimination for the lack of black progress: 53 percent say blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

These findings are evidence of a coming sea change in America's racial landscape. Together with the explosion of the Latino population, whose racial/ethnic categorization is very much in flux, and the increasing number of people of mixed-race ancestry who refuse to place themselves in traditional racial categories, the crumbling of black racial solidarity shows that race itself is beginning to fade away. And if America can seize the moment and address class inequities, which disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos and which help maintain rigid concepts of racial identity, this country's universalist, cosmopolitan dream could become a reality.

Commentator Juan Williams argued that the values gulf lies behind blacks' questioning of the idea that there is a single black race. "It is getting harder to use political and racial solidarity to hide the division inside black America," Williams wrote in the Washington Post. "The values issue is at the heart of the argument over the future of the race. This comes down to black Americans who believe in family, education and personal responsibility vs. those who point at 'the man' or the 'system' for the added weight on black Americans."

Pew president Andrew Kohut concurred. "[The finding] fits with the rising percentage of blacks compared to previous polls who say that there is more values diversity between middle-class and poor blacks," Kohut said in a phone interview. "It's a combination of values and also economic differences within the black community."

But another reason for the erosion of black racial solidarity could be the increasing numbers of mixed-race people like Obama and Tiger Woods. Such people, as David Hollinger noted in his superb book "Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism," undermine the very idea of rigid racial categories and the identity politics based on them. Kohut acknowledged that the mixed-race factor could play a role. "It might. It's a general question, and you can read different things into it. It certainly requires follow-up, which is what we're going to do."

Regardless of the reasons for the finding, some black commentators have seen it as a dire development -- and blamed rich blacks who have lost touch with their racial roots. Molefi Kete Asante, professor at Temple University's African American Studies Department, told the Philadelphia Daily News, "There are some people who don't live or operate in the African-American community because they are in a community of rich people, whether they are white, black, Japanese or Latino. They are just in a whole different world from the rest of us." Mister Mann Frisby, a former Daily News reporter, told the paper he found the widespread black rejection of racial solidarity "scary." "When I see studies like this, it makes me cringe because I never want to separate people," Frisby said.

In an interview on NPR, Melissa Harris Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton, said she found middle- class blacks' assertion of a values gap "shocking." Lacewell blamed figures like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, who are famous for championing an ethos of personal responsibility, for convincing middle-class blacks that the culprit is poor blacks themselves, not "structural racism."

But these alarmed reactions miss the point. Asante's claim that the values gap is a reaction to wealthy black people "who live in a whole different world from the rest of us" seems implausible. There are comparatively few blacks who are that wealthy: Even assuming that they are famous, would their mere existence really lead large percentages of blacks to reject the idea that blacks are a single race? As for Lacewell, she assumes that calling for personal responsibility and acknowledging structural problems in society are mutually exclusive. It's true that a majority of blacks said individuals were mostly responsible for their failure to get ahead, not discrimination. But discrimination is not the same as structural "racism" (itself a highly questionable term). And if the poll had asked whether blacks favored making the structural changes, from improved schools to jobs programs, that would give poor blacks a better chance to advance, it's hard to imagine they would not have said yes.

The real point of the values answer is not that middle-class blacks are turning against "blackness," whatever that is: It's that they are insisting that they have the right to create their own signifiers of blackness. And it's that middle-class blacks -- who suffer from white discrimination that is in part a response to black underclass behavior, and who are far more likely to be the victims of black criminals than whites are -- are no longer willing to simply give every knucklehead in the 'hood a free pass because of "structural racism."

And that's potentially a very good thing. It's good, first, because middle-class black rejection of underclass values has the potential to positively affect poor blacks. Of course, some people of any race are going to "pull up the ladder" after they make it to the middle class -- which is absolutely their right. But not all will. Some will remain engaged with the least fortunate. And as inner-city mentoring programs like San Francisco's Omega Boys Club have shown, a committed tough-love approach has the power to change lives.

It's also good because anything that short-circuits traditional racial clichés is helpful. Moving beyond the old formal, guilt-innocence standoff will improve relations between middle-class whites and blacks. Even more important, it will increase white willingness to tackle the huge commitment necessary to solve the problem of the black underclass. Traditional black commentators who decry the poll's findings are clinging, doubtless in good faith, to an old paradigm that doesn't work anymore. The way out of the black-white mess is a shared ethos, not a separate one. If whites feel more connected to middle-class blacks, they will ultimately feel more connected to poor ones.

There are major hurdles to be overcome. The Pew poll found that while large majorities of blacks believe that they are routinely victims of discrimination; most whites believe that blacks are not. This is a fundamental gap that must be overcome.

But the way to overcome it is to start talking beyond race and start seeing beyond race. To be your brother's keeper, you must first know that you are his brother. And that connection isn't made through skin color. It's made through a shared humanity. If Americans can come out of our racial time recharged and ready to work together, we just might rediscover that.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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