A Label of One’s Own

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If he’s not careful, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is going to end up in the racial rogue’s gallery right next to me, misunderstood and villified by those too blinded by America’s moribund racial discourse to know that they’re in violent agreement with us. In fact, Robinson’s own words show that he, too, suffered from the same myopia from which he seems now to be in the early stages of recovery.

In a now infamous column written earlier this year, I pointed out the obvious: Barack Obama isn’t black. He’s an immigrant black, or a la Stephen Colbert either a nouveau black or a ‘late to the scene’ black…call him what you will, just don’t call him black and think you’ve conveyed any useful information. But neither should you think you’ve conveyed a put down. Just consider it a community service to have bothered to define your terms.

The point isn’t that immigrant blacks aren’t ‘authentic’ or that they haven’t suffered through the slavery experience and are therefore unworthy of blackness, concepts which I reject as puerile and unworthy. The point is that the term ‘black,’ in the American socio-political context, simply doesn’t make room for them. It leaches them of all context except an inapplicable one – descent from American slaves and the legacy of Jim Crow. Other than skin color, ‘black’ doesn’t tell you anything you need to know about immigrant blacks – the function of a label, if I’m not mistaken – and in fact misleads you with false information. Be honest: when someone is described to you as black or African American, doesn’t it make a difference to learn that their parents came here from Jamaica or that they recently arrived from Ethiopia and speak only Amharic? Trick question, because if it doesn’t it should; there’s no reason to assume a political or cultural consonance between immigrant blacks and the slave-descended. So why use the same term? Labels ought to illuminate more than they obscure, a test which the label ‘black’ fails pretty abysmally in 2007. We don’t need yet another word for blacks (colored, Negro, Black, African American – a person could get dizzy.) What we need is to interrogate the label wherever we encounter it until ‘black’ or ‘African American’ means what Asian, for example, does: not much until you have more information. Are they Viet Namese, Korean or Tibetan? Now those are labels that actually illuminate a few things whereas ‘Asian’ only gives you over-broad physiognomic hints. If ‘Asian’ matters in any particular situation – quick! what’s the Asian attitude toward affirmative action? – you can’t procede until you know which flavor, which region of America. Ironically, if only to me, many of the hundreds of insulting emails I received in the wake of that column began something like “I’m from Ghana. You are a m(*&^…” or “My parents came from Trinidad and your mama is a m(&^…” If black skin is all that counts, all it takes to helpfully occupy the same term, why mention their homelands? How odd, their insistence on minimizing what is surely more important to their identity than the cotton my ancestors picked. How odd, to help keep whites’ racist essentializations alive and well. Eugene Robinson, who criticized my take on Obama, is beginning to agree though he isn’t fully ‘there’ yet.

In his latest column, he wrote, “black America” is an increasingly meaningless concept — nearly as imprecise as just plain “America.” …Let’s start by opening our eyes and recognizing that if there ever was a monolithic “black America” — absolutely and uniformly deprived and aggrieved, with invariant values and attitudes — there certainly isn’t one now.”

It isn’t new for blacks to point out that their community isn’t an affirmative action-supporting, ‘hood-living, OJ-supporting one-note wonder. Unfortunately, though, that’s usually a Potemkin village erected only to highlight white disinterest in black complexity; any black who stray off the plantation (Clarence Thomas, Sec. Rice), intermarry or offer internal critiques of the party line are swiftly punished and ex-communicated. So much for diversity. What is new is an apparent willingness for a leading thinker to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion – a redefinition of the term ‘black’ and a possible wholesale realignment of the politics of blackness. The piece deserves a read.

Unfortunately, Robinson, like most blacks, ignores entirely the existence of immigrant blacks, a glaring omission in a discussion of black diversity and suggests that it might best be those immigrants who lead the charge for a label of their own. Their quiescence is a testament to both the strangle hold that traditional blacks enjoy on the race discourse and, one has to believe, an immigrant buy-in to that discourse such that it needs its consciousness raised as to its own marginalization. What must they think when they read reports like this one (emphasis added):

‘Any black student will do’

A disturbing report shows some African Americans are being squeezed out of the US university population. Joanna Walters reports.

When Shirley Wilcher went to a reunion at her prestigious alma mater, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, she got quite a shock. The number of black graduates whose parents were born outside the US seemed to have grown dramatically compared with those whose families had been in America for generations – back to the times of slavery – like herself. She suspected that, in the process of becoming more diversified, top universities had recruited more black students but, increasingly, they were not those from post-slavery African-American US backgrounds who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the civil rights movement and controversial policies such as affirmative action.

Wilcher demanded data from reluctant admissions officials and her suspicions were confirmed: student recruits from what is termed the native, or domestic, US African-American population had been dropping. Not only were blacks overall still under-represented, but within the black student population African-Americans were being squeezed out.

“It’s shocking. Awfully short-sighted, at best. I’m disappointed,” she says.

Wilcher is the executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, which promotes policies that discriminate in favour of black students in an effort to correct the long legacy of racism in the US. And there was wider confirmation of her informal research to come.

A report just released shows African-Americans losing out at selective colleges across the country, particularly at elite universities, and their places being taken by first- or second-generation American immigrants, at least one of whose parents was born in the Caribbean or Africa.

The joint University of Pennsylvania-Princeton report found that although immigrant-origin black students make up only 13% of the black population in the US, they now comprise 27% of black students at the 28 top US universities surveyed.

And in a sample of the elite ivy league universities the figures were even more dramatic. More than 40% of black students in the ivy league now come from immigrant families.

Immigrant and second-generation blacks are over-represented at these schools, while overall black students are still too few,” says Dr Camille Charles, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the report’s co-authors, “which means the problem of access for African-Americans – that group which has the longest history of oppression in the US – is of even greater concern than we thought.”

My, oh my. Where to begin with such madness?

Let’s just say that the above is what I mean by the way ‘black’ and ‘African American’ are used on the socio-political ground, whatever its politcally correct definition. When those terms are not meaningless they’re worse; they’re tools for silencing immigrant blacks even as blacks fight to keep their ‘brothers’ in their place.

Come on over to the dark side, Eugene. But don’t forget your flak jacket.


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