“Black America, as we knew it, is history.”
So writes Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist Robinson (Last Dance in Havana, 2004, etc.) at the beginning of this provocative polemic. Black America has not disappeared, he adds, and America is by no means in some “post-racist” idyll, as the hopeful would have it. Instead, Black America has calved into separate realms that are sometimes at odds with one another. At one extreme is the world of the “Abandoned,” about one in four black Americans or 15 percent of black households, the latter of which subsist on less than $10,000 annually. By contrast, the Mainstream—the capital letters are Robinson’s—is flourishing, relative to the days when Martin Luther King was on the march. In 1967, he writes, one in ten black households earned the equivalent of $50,000 a year, whereas the number is three in ten today. As for the Transcendent—the rich and powerful—their numbers are growing too. Some of them, such as Oprah Winfrey and perhaps Barack Obama, may think of themselves hopefully as post-racial beings, but then there’s always the case of Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge cops to bring things back to racial reality. Robinson, capably working his categories, writes interestingly of that event: Gates “didn’t fully appreciate the noblesse oblige requirements of his Transcendent status” and instead adopted the aggrieved stance of the Abandoned. Add to this mix new, aspiring immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and there are clearly multiple Black Americas, all of which share with segments of the other Americas certain assumptions—such as the moral inferiority of the very poor—but are subject to tensions and stresses all their own.
Robinson’s parsing of the current situation is better journalism than sociology, but it makes for a highly readable, insightful take on race in America.