A Review of Disintegration by Eugene Robinson
James Joyce begins the third section of his novel Ulysses with the phrase "Ineluctable modality of the visible." As in much of his famously difficult prose, Joyce compresses an enormous idea in the fewest possible words. Ineluctable modality of the visible means that human beings inevitably and continually create and then adhere to patterns based on what we see around us. When we look at a house we don't see a collection of geometric shapes but a purpose, an aesthetic, and many subtle clues about its inhabitants. We see each individual house based on the patterns we have built of over years around the concept of "house." We do the same with people, reaching all sorts of conclusions based on no more than a quick first glance. We do this, or more to the point, we are able to do this, for an extremely good evolutionary reason. For most of our 200,000 or so years as a species, humans lived in very small isolated groups. Strangers were rare and dangerous. The ability to recognize them instantly was a major advantage to survival.
Since evolution works far more slowly than culture, what were once evolutionary benefits often adapt poorly to changed circumstances. The notion of "race" is a good example. Biologically, there are no human races; there is just one human race. Skin color, shapes of facial features, and hair texture are trivial differences of no more importance to human commonality than the ability to curl one's tongue (something as a child I always envied in my more fortunate classmates.) But, these minor differences are ineluctably visible. By the 19th Century, Western science had systematized the observable differences between peoples into hard and fast racial models.
This now-discredited branch of scientific theory is referred to as Scientific Racism, but the term is not quite accurate. Racism is purely negative, comparing groups invidiously against one another. Scientific Racialism is a more precise term for a theory that sought to identify distinctions that could be either positive or negative. Racialism, in this sense, still exists today, and as Eugene Robinson tells us in his excellent new book, Disintegration: the Splintering of Black America, it leaves us with a badly distorted view of what it means to be African-American today.
Robinson argues that it is no longer useful to consider African-Americans as a single unified group. His idea has far-reaching ramifications. If true, and Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, makes a strong case, it means that generalizations about blacks in America have no more cohesive meaning than generalizations about left-handers in America. It means one can no longer speak of a "black community" in the singular, and that the position of "black leader" is an anachronism.
Robinson divides African-Americans into four socio-economic groups. It's important to grasp that these are groups, each with enough members to be a substantial and established part of American society. The first group is the Transcendents, the high government officials, business leaders, entertainers, and sports figures who have achieved power and wealth, not in Black America, but simply in America. Another group, which somewhat confusingly consists of two entirely separate demographics, is the Emergents. The first subgroup is of people who have recently migrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Like many immigrant groups before them, they are the self-selected, ambitious and adventurous. They are willing to work hard at jobs well below their real skill levels to get a foothold and assure their children of better lives. In large numbers, their children are responding with excellent performance in school. The other sub-group is the new biracials. Of course, the majority of African-Americans have mixed ancestry. But that happened not usually by choice, and besides, for most of American history, if you looked black you were black and that was the end of the story. Today's biracials have much more of choice in how they define themselves. Interestingly, President Obama is a Transcendent and both kinds of Emergent.
By far the largest group is the Mainstream of middle- and upper-middle class earners. Robinson stresses the very significant economic gains this group has made. Between 1967 and 2005, the percentage of black households earning more than $35,000 (in constant dollars) has risen from 25.8% to 45.3%, while the percentage earning more than $75,000 has grown from 3.4% to 15.7%. So, Robinson asks, "Why hasn't this Mainstream success penetrated the national consciousness?" The answer: "Mostly because we tend to see what we expect to see. Our eyes confirm what we 'know' and everybody 'knows' that black America is mired in intractable problems that defy solution." In other words, the ineluctable modality of the visible.
The growth of the black middle class is unequivocally good, but what about all the horrendous statistics on black unemployment, incarceration, drop-out rates, and teen pregnancy? Are they not accurate? Well, they are certainly inaccurate when applied to the Mainstream of African-Americans whose current situation and future prospects are much better. Unfortunately they are also inaccurate when applied to the roughly 25% of blacks whom Robinson calls the Abandoned. For them, the statistical percentages are much worse. Robinson describes this group as having "less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end (in 1877)."
The Abandoned live in neighborhoods that were once economically, though not racially, diverse. In recent times, such neighborhoods were hit by the double misfortune of middle-class out-migration and the loss of working-class jobs that permitted a single (male) breadwinner to support an intact family. Their loss undermined the family structure, turning single-parenthood from the exception to the norm. Lack of economic class diversity was exacerbated as the neighborhoods became magnets for other poor blacks, either dispersed from large public housing projects or unable to afford rents in their gentrifying neighborhoods. Capping it all is racial segregation. As Robinson writes, "All else being equal, we should expect to find poor black, white, and Hispanic people living together. But this simply does not happen." Much research has shown that once the black population of a neighborhood—regardless of its location or income level—reaches about 20-25%, that neighborhood quickly becomes all or nearly all black. There are exceptions, of course, but in once-poor areas the exceptions only occur through the massive input of both private and public resources that produce gentrification.
In the latter part of the 20th Century "the crisis of the cities" was a topic of political concern and even some action. Today, the Abandoned are truly that. They live in their own isolated worlds, commit violent crimes mostly against each other, and raise children whose early development is so meager that they enter kindergarten already far behind their middle-class peers.
Robinson offers no solutions to these problems, and it's hard to fault him since they are so challenging. But at least he faces them squarely. In this he differs from a study recently issued by the Children's Defense Fund called "The State of Black Children and Families." We can sense trouble in the title itself, which implies a homogenous Black America. The study makes some very interesting points, particularly the hopefulness of a high percentage of young African Americans, which probably reflects the fact that most of them are children of the Mainstream middle class. Coincidentally, the study ends with a section called "The Splintering of Black America." Unlike Robinson, the study deplores the breakdown of a united black community. Its authors issue a clarion call: "We must commit to working together across class lines to heal and repair our communities and our families that live and raise children in them…. Essential to making progress… is the emergences of a new coordinated Black movement that promotes justice for all Black Americans…"
But this is looking backward. Black Americans are splintering just like Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and every other ethnic group did before them. The problems afflicting the Abandoned are not the responsibility of one particular group of Americans just because they have skin color and ancestry in common. All Americans are responsible for addressing these problems, and only when we all begin to realize it will solutions become possible.