In “Speaking in Tongues,” her stunning essay on Barack Obama and black identity, Zadie Smith remembers how convinced she was when a student at Cambridge by the concept of a unified black voice. Then the idea faded somehow into the injunction to “keep it real,” an instruction she found like being in a prison cell:
It made Blackness a quality each individual black person was constantly in danger of losing. And almost anything could trigger the loss of one’s Blackness: attending certain universities, an impressive variety of jobs, a fondness for opera, a white girlfriend, an interest in golf. And of course, any change in the voice.
It’s absurd, looking back, she says, because black reality has diversified. We’re “black ballet dancers and black truck drivers and black presidents…and we all sing from our own hymn sheet.”1
But recently, when I asked her—in connection with the Trayvon Martin case—if she still felt that way about the hymn sheet, Smith said maybe it wasn’t possible, because there was so much hostility toward black people in the US. In England, she had thought more about class than race. In the US, she discovered that someone else can rush in and define you when you least expect it, making your being black part of an idea of blackness far outside yourself.
An armed Latino’s suspicion that a tall, thin black youth in a hoodie in a gated community at night must be an intruder up to no good closes for me discussion about a post-racial society. Private citizens can now get on a warlike footing with crime, even if the images of the criminal in their heads are racist. Trayvon Martin’s moment of instruction—as Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls the recognition scene when the black youth realizes that he or she is different, and that the white world sees black people as different, no matter how blacks feel inside—has a history, one that yanks everybody back a step.
It would seem that although black people are in the mainstream, black history still isn’t, because certain basic things about the history of being black in America—American history—have to be explained again and again. At the end of the Civil War, vast numbers of black men were on the roads looking for work, for sold-off family, for peace. In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, black men who could not prove employment or residence in a town that they happened to be passing through were imprisoned and put to work. Vagrancy laws were a form of social control, much like the war on drugs that Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow (2010)—such an important book—forcefully argues is today’s extension of America’s overseer-style management of black men. Drug laws have always been aimed at minorities.
In another brilliant work that tells us how directly the past has formed us, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern America (2010), Khalil Gibran Muhammad looks at the interpretation white social scientists have made of crime statistics since the 1890s that, as he says, stigmatized crime as black and masked white crime as individual failure. Crime was linked to blacks as a racial group, but not to whites. “Blackness was refashioned through crime statistics. It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization.” Black criminality justified prejudice. Because it was thought that blacks could not be socialized, they were largely excluded from the social reform programs that in the 1920s were making immigrant groups American. Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants, meanwhile, shed their criminal identities as groups, but blacks didn’t.
Black America has fought back at certain times by embracing stereotypes and turning what have been regarded as cultural defects into cultural virtues. And white America has been riveted. The Jazz Age was, in part, a reaction to the slaughter of World War I. Many whites wanted to be primitive, to be an intuitive, emotional, musical, sexually uninhibited black, as opposed to a mechanistic and rational white. Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1926) ends with the black maids laughing at the cuckolded white boss. Similarly, the black urban thug of the 1950s became the existential Beat hero of the nihilistic atomic age celebrated by Norman Mailer in his essay “The White Negro.” The riots of the 1960s politicized the hipster: the street criminal became the political prisoner; the black who would not fight for his country became the black militant with ties to international revolution.
Ironically, the season of extreme black rhetoric in the 1970s coincided with the doubling of the size of the black middle class. New laws mandating equal employment opportunities brought rapid results for blacks. Yet blacks entering the middle class were still disadvantaged compared to middle-class whites. This was why many black critics found unconvincing William Julius Wilson’s thesis in The Declining Significance of Race (1978)—that in the modern industrial system a black person’s economic position shaped his or her life to a greater extent than did race—because it did not adequately address institutional racism, systemic inequality. In the 1970s, most black families needed two incomes to be middle-class. More black women had entered the middle class than black men, because secretarial and clerical work, though considered white-collar jobs, were also thought of as occupations for women. A black man had to have more education and be in a higher occupation in order to earn an income comparable to a white man.
In 1980, the top one hundred black businesses employed no more than nine thousand people. Since Reconstruction blacks had been ruthlessly excluded from mainstream business life. Ida B. Wells, whose Memphis newspaper, Free Speech, had been burned down in 1892, showed that lynching victims were often black men whose businesses whites wanted to take over. Of the 130 black banks founded since Emancipation, one remained by the Depression. During World War II, the largest white insurance company had more black customers than the forty-four black insurance companies combined. White intimidation, the discriminatory practices of white financial institutions as well as the inability to penetrate white markets, would cause most black businesses to fail. Those that survived were what sociologists called “defensive enterprises,” which catered to personal needs—barbers, cleaners, tailors, restaurateurs, grocers—and set up in places where whites didn’t want to operate. The only significant black manufacturers in America were those of skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and coffins.2
Since state and federal government programs were the primary source of middle-class growth for blacks in the 1960s and 1970s, Reagan-era cuts in government spending hit this segment of the black middle class hardest. Blacks made progress in the 1960s because it was the time of “the affluent society.” Blacks were not in direct competition with whites for jobs. However, the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s brought furious opposition among whites to race-biased government policies.
The conservative backlash said that blacks ought to stop blaming white society for the predominance of single-parent households in black America headed by women, the sort of argument that made the social analyses in Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992) something of a relief. Hacker noted that if a neighborhood became more than 10 percent black, then white flight ensued. Residential segregation determined the quality of the resources black people could get from grammar school to retirement. Many black people greeted former university presidents William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River (1998) with elation. Their exhaustive survey of the long-term consequences of affirmative action supported race-sensitive recruitment in higher education, because American society needed black professionals. Moreover, they found that far from being ill equipped to compete in the open market, the beneficiaries of affirmative action were highly successful.
A subgenre of black autobiography emerged that documented the transition from one class to another: these books described the alienation of the black professional in the high-pressure workplace or the loneliness of the black scholarship student at the elite white school, as in Lorene Carey’s Black Ice (1992), a beautiful memoir of her quest for self-acceptance at St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire. In these works, the class voyagers see themselves as the equivalent of being culturally bilingual. Then, too, the debate between separatism and assimilation was going away. To join the system was enough of a challenge to that system. The old war cries that American society had to be remade in order to become equitable faded. Not only was the revolution not going to be televised, it was no longer coming.
Black nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s had been fierce in their judgments of those deemed Uncle Toms, so much so that black neoconservatives still saw themselves as the victims of a totalitarian black identity imposed by black radicals; they, the neoconservatives, were the brave new dissenters, the individualists. The old debate about separatism and integration was transformed into a discussion between pessimists, those who believed blacks would remain outsiders, and optimists/opportunists, those who believed in moving up by working from within. Insiders like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice supposedly vindicated faith in color-blind success in America. In 2003, Forbes magazine proclaimed Oprah Winfrey the country’s first black woman billionaire. The cultural moment seemed fixated on narratives of ascent. But most of the black middle class was still a lower middle class, living paycheck to paycheck, without substantial assets.
Black colleges had created the old black professional class, a middle class flattered to be seen as an upper class, because truly upper-class blacks, such as Lena Horne’s family, were so few. Traditionally, blacks already someplace tended to resent other blacks trying to crowd in. As St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton reported in Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), blacks in Chicago who considered themselves “Old Settlers” blamed the devastating white riot against blacks in 1919 on new black arrivals from the South, saying that they destroyed the social balance between the races. Before the mass migration of blacks from the South, the thinking went, there had been plenty of jobs and little prejudice, because blacks had known how to behave. They didn’t “make apes out of themselves,” as one Old Settler civil engineer put it, still annoyed by the no-accounts almost a quarter of a century later.
Drake and Cayton pointed out that membership in the upper- or middle-class Negro world wasn’t determined entirely by income or occupation. Family ties and especially education counted, as did the symbols or markers of middle-class identity: clothes and manners. “Middle-class organizations put the accent on ‘front,’ respectability, civic responsibility of a sort, and conventionalized recreation.” It was the pretensions of the black upper strata that E. Franklin Frazier savaged in his famously ill-tempered essay, Black Bourgeoisie (1957). The black upper class, he reminded everyone, was really only an upper middle class and considerably poorer in relation to the white upper middle class.
1 Zadie Smith, “ Speaking in Tongues,” The New York Review, February 26, 2009, based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008, and collected in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009). ↩
2 See Bart Landry’s The New Black Middle Class (University of California Press, 1987). ↩
Zadie Smith, “ Speaking in Tongues,” The New York Review, February 26, 2009, based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008, and collected in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009). ↩
See Bart Landry’s The New Black Middle Class (University of California Press, 1987). ↩