Escaping From Blackness: Racial Identity and Public Policy
The greatest struggle of any oppressed group in a racist society is the struggle to reclaim collective memory and identity. At the level of culture, racism seeks to deny people of African, American Indian, Asian and Latino descent their own voices, histories and traditions. From the vantagepoint of racism, black people have no "story" worth telling; that the master narrative woven into the national hierarchy of white prejudice, privilege and power represents the only legitimate experience worth knowing.
Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks makes the observation that the greatest triumph of racism is when black people lose touch with their own culture and identity, seeking to transcend their oppressed condition as the Other by becoming something they are not. Under colonialism and Jim Crow segregation, people of African descent were constantly pressured to conform to the racist stereotypes held of them by the dominant society. Some succumbed to this pressure, assuming the mask of "Sambo" in order to survive, or to ensure that their children's lives would go forward. Others sacrificed themselves to achieve a higher ideal, the struggle to claim their own humanity and cultural traditions, and to build communities grounded in the integrity of one's own truths. The knowledge of blackness is not found in genetics, and only indirectly in the color of one's skin. It is found in that connection to symbols, living traditions and histories of collective resistance, renewal and transformation.
We now live in a time when legal segregation, colonialism and even apartheid have been dismantled. The "white" and "colored" signs across the South that I remember so vividly in my childhood have been taken down for over a generation. Perhaps it is not surprising that a growing number of our people casually take for granted the democratic victories achieved-the right to vote and hold elective office, access to fair employment, the abolition of racially segregated public accommodations, opportunities in higher education through affirmative action-failing to recognize that what has been won over centuries of struggle can be taken away. Although they are the prime beneficiaries of the freedom struggle, they distance themselves from it. They have come to the false conclusion that what they have accomplished was by their own individual talents and effort. And they actively attack the thesis that blackness, in and of itself, has any cultural value, outside of the uplifting affects of whiteness.
Debra Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is one example of this unfortunate trend. She's the author of a new book, An American Story, that argues, "it's long past time blacks opted out of blackness." In an op-ed essay several months ago appearing in the Washington Post, Dickerson criticizes Howard University's African DNA database project for attempting to link black Americans to African ancestors. For Dickerson, the DNA research only has value because "we who were swindled out of every link to the past except skin color will be able to find out more about our (European) heritage."
Dickerson has no patience for African Americans who identify themselves as part of the African diaspora. "A Nigerian who immigrates to America in 2000 has virtually nothing in common with the descendants of American slaves, but we're both conceptually freeze-dried down to that one aspect of our selves." Besides, she notes, "there are few black families who don't brag about the whites and Indians (all chiefs) in their lineage and lie about how hard it was to make their hair stand up 'like that' during the reign of the Afro."
At the end of Dickerson's essay, in a passage that is both confused and outrageous, she claims that black Americans should not "despise" the white men who raped their foremothers. "Without slavery, there would be no Jesse Jackson," she insists, "no Leontyne Price," "Tiger Woods," "jazz or gospel," and "no me." Should the NAACP halt its campaign against the Confederate battle flag, because its part of "our" heritage, too? Should the descendants of those who were raped find identity and meaning for themselves by coming to a new appreciation of the rapists? Dickerson confuses genetics with culture. We may share a genetic tie to the slaveholders, but their only vital contribution to our historical identity was the struggle we waged against them. We share no morals, and no common history. We owe them nothing except contempt.
More academic in style, but no less self-hating, is the recent book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, by University of California linguistics professor John H. McWhorter. Losing the Race argues that affirmative action cripples African-American students contributing to a spirit of black "anti-intellectualism" and to a "deep-reaching inferiority complex" that discourages learning. "In my years of teaching," McWhorter declares, "I have never had a student disappear without explanation, or turn in a test that made me wonder how she could have attended class and done so badly, who was not African American . . ."
McWhorter's central point is that black people as a group are unprepared and unworthy of being admitted to elite white institutions. Black Berkeley students, however, aren't a total loss. None of them "would be uncomfortable in a nice restaurant" and most "probably do know what wine goes with chicken." Nevertheless, they clearly cannot compete with their white counterparts and are trapped by their "defeatist thought patterns."
McWhorter does admit that his race helped him to win academic fellowships, and to achieve his faculty positions at Cornell and now at Berkeley. But like the proverbial man who escapes from a pit and pulls up the ladder behind him, trapping others at the bottom, McWhorter desperately wants to distance himself from his oppressed sisters and brothers. The price for admission into the white establishment is to denounce blacks in stereotypical terms. And in fact, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, who viciously attacked affirmative action in America in Black and White, praise McWhorter's book as "brilliant."
Dickerson and McWhorter are cultural casualties in the centuries-old struggle against racism. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they are aberrations. The death of legal segregation, and the explosion in the size of the black professional-managerial class, creates the political space for the emergence of blacks who want to escape their blackness. They may be prepared to denounce their own people in order to advance their careers, but we should not permit them to go unnoticed or unchallenged. To uproot racism, we must constantly remember that the first step is in appreciating our history and culture.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.