Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Like Me?

Brothers on God's Holy Mountain, Haifa, Israel

Many of you have probably heard something in the last couple of weeks about a Pew Research Center report that shows some current trends regarding race in America:

Asked whether blacks can still be thought of as a single race, given the increasing diversity within the black community, 53% of blacks say they can, but 37% of blacks say they cannot. Blacks and whites concur that there has been a convergence in the values held by blacks and whites. On the popular culture front, large majorities of both blacks and whites say that rap and hip hop have a bad influence on society. Over the past two decades, blacks have lost some confidence in the effectiveness of leaders within their community, including national black political figures, the clergy, and the NAACP. A sizable majority of blacks still see all of these groups as either very or somewhat effective, but the number saying "very" effective has declined since 1986. A 53% majority of African Americans say that blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while just three-in-ten say discrimination is mainly to blame. As recently as the mid-1990s, black opinion on this question tilted in the opposite direction, with a majority of African Americans saying then that discrimination is the main reason for a lack of black progress. (Read more from the report here)
Journalist Juan Williams added some other points from the research and commented about what he thinks the Pew survey means for black America:

A poll released by the Pew Research Center, in association with NPR, finds that 67 percent of black men and 74 percent of black women think rap music is a bad influence on black America. In fact, 59 percent of black men and 63 percent of black women think the whole hip-hop industry — from the jailhouse fashion of pants hanging low, to indifference to work and school — is equally detrimental to black America. (Read more from Juan Williams and listen to his remarks here)

Another black intellectual, my man Henry Louis Gates made remarks about the current state of black America:

LAST week, the Pew Research Center published the astonishing finding that 37 percent of African-Americans polled felt that “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race” because of a widening class divide. From Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most fundamental assumption in the history of the black community has been that Americans of African descent, the descendants of the slaves, either because of shared culture or shared oppression, constitute “a mighty race,” as Marcus Garvey often put it.

“By a ratio of 2 to 1,” the report says, “blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade. In contrast, most blacks say that the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike.”

The message here is that it is time to examine the differences between black families on either side of the divide for clues about how to address an increasingly entrenched inequality. We can’t afford to wait any longer to address the causes of persistent poverty among most black families. (Read the whole editorial here).

The Pew Survey offers days and days of blogging but I’m going to just touch on a couple of thoughts that I have right now. The first is the issue of whether or not black Americans can think of themselves as a single race or not. The second is the so-called difference between the values held by middle class blacks and poor blacks. Both of these could be placed under the simple but supposedly provocative headline: “Pew Survey Discovers Blacks are Not All the Same.” What?! Let the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth begin. What an existential crisis we have on our hands. Here is what I think, the whole notion that a group of people who were brought in chains from one of the continents with the greatest human diversity on the planet could be the same is a racist fantasy. There has always been diversity among black Americans and there always will be. Every ethnic group on earth recognizes there is diversity within their group. Why should black Americans be any different? Related to this there has always been class diversity among black Americans, even during slavery. I’m not talking about the tired and oversimplified “field negro” versus “house negro”discussion either. I’m talking about skilled craftsmen and women, leaders of businesses, educators, spiritual leaders, artists, community organizers, farmers, soldiers. Many of our most famous black heroes emerged from what would be considered the middle class even before emancipation and long before the civil rights movement. Few of these heroes would fit into the popular notions of “blackness” that are rightly criticized by folks like Williams and Gates. The irony of much of what is presented as black today is that the characteristics are based on stereotypes that originated among whites. The very idea that there is a “black” way to be and a “white” way to be is an artifact of racist ideology. Blacks who continue to operate under this flawed way of seeing the world are acting out their internalized racism and are in need of healing.

Another thing, what is it that makes a value, a “middle class” value anyway? Does this mean that a person who is not currently middle class doesn’t have that particular value? I would agree that there is sometimes a disconnect between middle class and working class/poor blacks. I’ve experienced this within my own extended family at times. If this survey encourages some dialogue about this it could be a good thing. I would question though whether this is any different than whites, Asians, Hispanics or Native Americans. I would also say that when people suggest that middle class blacks are somehow less “black” than poor blacks that they are engaging in the same racist ideology that I mentioned before. The notion that black=poor, less educated, inner city, incarcerated, etc. is a racist fantasy, not reality. As a middle class black man, I refuse to apologize for the fact that I grew up with a father who actually married my mother, that they both worked hard their whole lives so that my sister and I could have a better life than they had, that I took advantage of whatever opportunities that were presented to me in spite of racism.

There are definitely changes that need to take place both outwardly and inwardly so that blacks in America can thrive. However, these are the changes that all humanity must embrace in order to meet the demands of the recognition of the oneness of humankind:

“Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind -- the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve-- is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. It does not constitute merely the enunciation of an ideal, but stands inseparably associated with an institution adequate to embody its truth, demonstrate its validity, and perpetuate its influence. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced. It constitutes a challenge, at once bold and universal, to outworn shibboleths of national creeds -- creeds that have had their day and which must, in the ordinary course of events as shaped and controlled by Providence, give way to a new gospel, fundamentally different from, and infinitely superior to, what the world has already conceived. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world -- a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units. It represents the consummation of human evolution -- an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 42)

Readers, weigh in on this one. What do you think about the Pew Survey?