Why is it so difficult to end racial marginalization in the United States? Last week the Pew Research Center released a report on American views about racial inequality. Pew’s extensive survey of black and white Americans shows that four out of ten blacks are doubtful that the United States will ever achieve racial equality.
A significant minority of African Americans blame institutional racism and structural factors for the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Additionally, 48% of Blacks and 46% of whites said that greater community engagement among Black Americans is essential for ending these disparities.
Wherever African Americans gather these days, the ideal of “greater community engagement” is set forth as the solution to our problems. It goes hand-in-hand with “ending self-hatred,” “promoting positive images,” and addressing structural and institutional aspects of racism in American society.
There is something to be said for increasing the level of community engagement and the promotion of unity among African Americans, but specific steps toward achieving these goals are tremendously complex. There are tensions between affluent and low-income blacks, light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks, and between blacks who are descendants from slaves as opposed to recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
There is diversity within African American communities, and in this context the ideal of promoting consensus and “unity” within the group tends to be an elusive goal.
Part of the task of ending, or reducing, the economic and social marginalization of the diverse African American population is to identify which vehicles seem to be most promising in bringing this about. While mass media have been effective in creating the aura of an integrated society, through symbolic and high-profile images, the United States remains, to a large extent, a society that is segregated in our schools, faith-based institutions and housing patterns.
It is not surprising that the persistence of segregated living patterns, disparities in family wealth and personal income — regardless of a person’s work experience or educational attainment — and differences in the way people are profiled in stores and by authorities, are reflected in differences between white and Black Americans in their political affiliations and voting patterns.
Some people have argued that the key to promoting positive images within African American communities, and to facilitating authentic interpersonal relationships across racial lines, can be found within communities of faith and through faith-based institutions.
Others have argued that shared economic class interests would bridge racial divides, and foster social interaction based on mutual respect and interdependence.
Black elites and Black professionals have been pushing “respectability politics” for more than a century, arguing that racism would wither away as whites had the opportunity to interact with more Blacks who had formal education and whose culture fit within the social mainstream.
Within African American communities we have had to make choices about the best use of dwindling resources over the past 16 years, particularly since the beginning of austerity measures imposed in the wake of “The Great Recession” of 2007-2010.
These choices echo debates we have had, within our communities, at different times and under different circumstances, since 1863. These debates reflect different values, priorities and perspectives that we hold, even within our own communities.
Religion and Black American Identity
As a matter of disclosure, I am a devout and practicing Roman Catholic who grew up in an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) household and community.
Say what you will about the Nation Of Islam (NOI), an unorthodox group of American Muslims which produced such key figures as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, the NOI has been almost peerless in their analysis of the way dominant groups use words and images to promote the racial subordination, while enabling the dominant group to bask, often literally, in a deified self-image.
The NOI raised questions about distorted narratives of history, distorted depictions of Black family life, the need to seize opportunities for business and property ownership and to be aware of the use of religious images to enhance or diminish a racial population’s self-image. In significant ways the NOI triggered a process of social and psychological self-examination among African Americans.
The NOI struck a chord with many Blacks in the 1960s through the 1980s, and they have a lingering effect even today. The solution to the problems that they raised, however, could not be found in the part of their rhetoric that literally demonized whites, or that embraced racial segregation. Solutions are more likely to be along the lines of the images and narratives they used in their publications to show Black dignity, the importance of Black family and community life, and the need for self-help initiatives within Black communities grounded in a strong sense of spirituality.
These images and ideas counteracted the more pervasive derogatory images of African Americans that were often consumed by both Blacks and whites uncritically, as pointed out humorously in this video clip of Muhammad Ali in 1971:
This is why many Black Americans identified more with Malcolm X than with Martin Luther King. Malcolm spoke specifically to the issue of self-hatred earlier, more consistently and more directly than King did, even though King’s movement for “creative non-violence,” in practice, was exemplary of how human dignity could rise above the forces of oppression.
The NOI’s emphasis on countering derogatory images of Black families and of individual Black men and women is one of the reasons why Muhammad Ali resonated so powerfully among younger African Americans in the 1960s. For many, Ali became the embodiment of redemptive Black pride and manhood.
Black Americans continue to counter the phenomenon of internalized racism and self-hatred, which is a consequence of being near the bottom of the economic ladder in United States, lacking also the political power to protect our communities and lacking the resources necessary to maintain and develop them.
The overwhelming majority of African Americans are Christians. As Christians, nearly 60% are members of historically Black Protestant churches, mostly concentrated either in The Church of God in Christ or the National Baptist Convention. Historically Black churches in the United States were founded in response to racially discriminatory practices in the dominant Christian institutions. The legacy of racial segregation within Christianity in the United States makes these unlikely arenas for ending marginalization at the present time because of the lack of diversity within their membership.
There is reason, nonetheless, to believe that Christian religious communities and institutions may eventually provide greater opportunities for authentic interaction and relationships across racial lines because some have been doing so for years. Among Christians, Protestant Evangelical churches stand out as settings where interracial interactions have long taken place, due in part to the history of some groups that rejected racial segregation in public assemblies and worship services, even in the deep south where segregation was enforced in most other public spaces.
Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses also have high rates of interracial interaction. Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant Churches in the United States, on the other hand, have had the lowest rates of interracial composition when it comes to Black Americans. Most of the racial diversity among Catholics is the result of a sharp increase in Latino immigrants in recent years. Roman Catholics in the United States today are 59% white, 03% black, 03% Asian, 02% “mix/other” and 34% Latino.
It might be that the most significant impact that American Catholics have had in reducing racial marginalization in the past has been through Catholic schooling. Historically, Catholic schools have provided opportunities for African American students to gain access to private education in numbers that were much larger than the proportion of blacks who were Catholic. In 2010 35% of Black students who attended private schools were enrolled in schools that were Catholic. African Americans made up 8% of the total student population in Catholic schools in 2014. In recent years, however, urban Catholic schools have been closing due to a lack of funds.
Racial diversity within Christianity in the United States, however, does not begin to compare with the level of diversity and interaction found within mainstream Islam. The composition of Islam in the United States is 38% white, 28% black, and 28% Asian — a racial mix that is visible in their community life and places of worship. This diversity is lived day-to-day in Islamic centers. When it comes to crossing racial boundaries in the United States Christianity has a great deal that it could learn from Islam. The fact that Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been effective in crossing these boundaries in the United States demonstrates that it is possible for faith communities to do so.
Those who do not see religion as being the arena in which racial divisions can be spanned often turn their attention to the search for shared economic interests. Their assumption is that similarities in economic class are more significant than shared racial identities.
The “Old Left” political movements in the 1930s through the 1950s were invested in this strategy, as they recognized that African Americans were overwhelmingly a working class population, with essentially the same material interests as those of the white labor force. The Old Left sought to cross racial boundaries by appealing to the economic interests of both the Black and white working class.
In a similar way this has been true of the corporate and globalist neoliberal agenda and political movements of the 1990s and early 2000s variously known as “New Labour,” “New Democrats,” “New Middle,” and the “Third Way.” The difference between the neoliberal strategy and that of the Old Left is that the neoliberals seek to cross racial boundaries by appealing to the economic interests of a multi-racial, but mostly white, business, technology and professional class.
While the idea that economic interests can trump racial identity is an attractive one on an individual basis, collective group experiences tell another story. In practice non-racially specific economic policies have tended to neglect the needs of African American communities that were created by economic policies, such as FHA mortgages, that explicitly excluded them as recently as the 1950s, and the criminal justice system that disproportionately targets Blacks for searches and incarceration, making many of us ineligible for employment and educational assistance, even today.
The dream that shared economic interests would become the great cross-racial unifier has repeatedly been undermined by the American reality that even one’s economic class is racialized.
Economic class divisions within African American communities are at the core of what has come to be known as “the politics of respectability.” This is the attempt of oppressed or marginalized populations to police the behavior of people within their group with the expectation that the group itself will gain wider acceptance within the social mainstream.
It is not surprising that the politics of respectability promoted positive images of Black Americans in mass media. Many of us didn’t see ourselves in the derogatory images of Blacks that were created, for centuries, by those who wanted to justify our continued social, political and economic subordination.
President Barack Obama has been, in many ways, the triumph and embodiment of the politics of respectability. While many African Americans have been dismayed by his “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” rhetoric coupled with the lack of substantive policies to address racial disparities during the first six years of his administration, we have also been reluctant to criticize the president because his opponents’ attacks have employed not-so-subtle appeals to racism.
Moreover, the visceral hatred directed against him, coupled with unprecedented breaches of protocol and “dog whistle” political statements by his opponents, have made African Americans wary about piling on. References to the president as a “tar baby” and the unfurling of the white supremacist confederate flag during anti-Obama protests, as well as questions raised about his birth and whether or not he is, indeed, the “anti-Christ” have led many Black Americans to wonder whether there is nothing that many white Americans resent or fear so much as an educated Black man. It appears to Blacks that the election of the first American president who is visibly of African decent has caused many white Americans to become unhinged.
Black Americans note the unwillingness of the right wing in American politics to even engage in discussions with African Americans about how to move forward. The fact that African Americans have legitimate fears and concerns is defined by most white Americans, and by the right wing of the political spectrum, as an attempt to divide America. They never acknowledge that the polices that have historically marginalized blacks are really what has been divisive in this country.
Even political issues concerning policies that are ostensibly “color-blind” seem to be embraced by their advocates with racially selective empathy. Groups who lobby for “second amendment rights” — the right, under the U.S. constitution, to own guns — are strangely and historically silent when the second amendment rights of African Americans are violated.
Likewise, many who claim to be “pro-life” are viewed with skepticism as they are silent when the lives of African Americans are violated.
When the president attempts to build bridges and acknowledges the legitimacy of the concerns of white Americans who are apprehensive about policies to address racial inequities the president is lauded as being “reasonable”. When he tries get those same apprehensive whites to see that Black Americans also have legitimate concerns he is quickly vilified as being “divisive”.
The over-the-top hatred that has been directed against this president, from an unusually obstructionist congress and media outlets, such as Fox News, which have personalized their attacks, has led many Blacks to believe that this is yet another instance in which we are hated for failing, and hated even more for succeeding beyond the realms of sports and entertainment
Agree or disagree with his policies, the Obama administration has been relatively scandal-free compared to other administrations. His book-smarts, coolness under pressure and strong family values embody the politics of respectability. His informed, controlled, and irony-laden responses to provocative and unreasonable attacks model the skills Blacks need in order to navigate through 21st century work and social environments.
The notion of “respectability,” however, may have more to do with the preferences of a particular social and cultural class than it has to do with community-wide consensus. Since the politics of respectability has largely been the domain of Black professionals and elites many poor and working class Blacks looked at the images that were being promoted and said, “While it is true that I didn’t see myself in the derogatory images coming from white supremacists, I also don’t see myself in the ‘Black respectability’ images coming from you. These are Black bourgeois images.”
Many African Americans see the exclusion of low-income and non-professional Blacks from the images of respectability as being a negligent oversight at best, and more likely the result of the fact that the Black bourgeoisie is embarrassed by African American folk culture and vernacular language patterns. The problem is difficult no matter how you slice it.
Confronted with Difficult Choices
The question of when a strategy to end racial marginalization becomes self-hating is reflected in the choices Black Americans make in every aspect of our lives. Given limited resources, this question is reflected in ongoing debates within our communities about whether or not it is better to provide insulation from bullying for our highest-performing students so that they may thrive by devoting resources to separate learning environments for them, apart from the mainstream of black students, or to encourage them to attend predominately white learning institutions.
It is also reflected in the question of whether it is necessary to triage in programs that prepare people for employment, focusing resources on those we believe have the greatest likelihood to succeed in the fastest growing and most lucrative sectors of the economy, such as digital technology.
Moreover, we face questions such as these: Is “creaming” an act of neglect toward the most socially marginalized and vulnerable populations within our communities? Conversely, is the attempt to bring everyone to the “Promised Land” together, in the same boat, a disservice and an unnecessary impediment to those who might otherwise have the capability and resources to sprint ahead? In lumping all of our students together are we suppressing the excellence of the few and creating conditions of mediocrity for the many?
Divergent perspectives on the best strategy in the struggle for racial equality in the United States also raise questions for professionals: “Are you a Black professional, or are you a professional who happens to be Black? Are you more defined by your professional discipline than you are by your racial identity? When, where and how do the two identities — Black and professional — intersect and intermingle?”
Similar questions apply to politicians and people in business. Does it make sense for an African American businessperson to focus primarily on attracting Black clients and customers?
Is the measure of that businessperson’s success their ability to provide goods and services desired by the social “mainstream”? Must this crossover appeal always come at the expense of the social and economic uplift of those who are “left behind” in our communities?
Finally, there are debates around which cases of aggressive policing and vigilante violence should be the focus of groups fighting for social justice. We know that the people these groups defend become symbols of Black communities in mass media.
Should such groups only defend the rights of those with pristine backgrounds, such as Rosa Parks, or do people with more questionable backgrounds, such as Freddie Gray or Alton B. Sterling, also have basic human rights that the community should be identified with and should be seen defending?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions; only difficult choices and tradeoffs. It is important to be aware of the nature of these tradeoffs and their implications in our efforts to end racial marginalization in the United States.