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Big Changes in Black America?

Frazier would not have been the only one frustrated by what he saw as the complacence of the black middle class at a critical moment in US history. Because of widespread discrimination in hiring practices, the black middle class hardly increased after the war, though the black GI Bill generation had come of age. It was the America of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), his suburbs full of conformists, and Frazier was no less scornful of the materialism on the black side of town. He accused middle-class blacks of not wanting integration because they feared loss of their position. Drake and Cayton had made a similar charge against middle-class blacks in their study, an important work, but of its period, in that “race leader” is identified as a middle-class occupation. The NAACP’s rank and file was drawn from the black professional class, the self-employed who couldn’t be threatened by white bosses, a black middle-class tradition Frazier does not describe.

For Frazier, the black middle class was an escapist elite and never mind that Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Andrew Young grew up in the black middle class or that the elderly black women in the Cottagers, an exclusive Oaks Bluffs club on Martha’s Vineyard, were for the most part staunch supporters of civil rights. All through the 1960s and 1970s, middle-class life in America was mocked. That is an American tradition in itself. Imamu Baraka was stringent in his satire of middle-class blacks, but America went on measuring its social progress in upward mobility, in access to the middle class, and black people kept on wanting to move up.

Interestingly enough, not everyone considered black entry into the middle class the same thing as victory for integration. That was a miscalculation on the part of black neoconservatives, who would be exasperated with Obama because he looked like them on paper but refused to repudiate the lessons of the civil rights era. Black America did not get a conservatism comparable to white political conservatism until the Fairmont Conference in 1980, which brought Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell to prominence as critics of civil rights “orthodoxy.” Black neoconservatives received much attention for attacking the prestige of the civil rights movement, but it didn’t work, because ever since the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972, convened by Baraka, among others, the benefits of blacks thinking of themselves as a voting bloc, the unified black voice, were obvious in those cities and congressional districts where to do so meant political gain.

Gangster rap and mellower styles of hip-hop have been with us for so long that we can forget the part the rap aesthetic has played in reconciling the black revolutionary imperative with the materialism of American society. The hero of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) says over and over that he is just trying to “get paid,” and hip-hop made “bling” cool not just in the ghetto but in middle-class America as well. Hip-hop crossed racial and class boundaries, its transgressive postures speaking to almost any young man in its orbit. What it told young black men was that success could be a kind of militancy and that it did not mean you had to act white or give up any of your yo dog whassup. Black students took their rap soundtrack with them to Harvard Law School. Blackness was portable. You could take your roots with you, just as Gertrude Stein had hoped.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century one of four black men was or had been in prison, yet blacks were also seen in occupations they hadn’t held before—stockbrokers, corporate attorneys, investment fund managers, CEOs of white companies. Black America was represented at all levels of US society, however thin the numbers at the top. They could object to the assumption that success implied that they were traitors, as the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy described the anxiety in Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008).

One of the magical elements of President Obama’s rise was that no one had predicted it, in spite of Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who had demonstrated that a culturally assimilated black candidate could appeal to white middle-class voters. Obama’s victory was celebrated in the streets as a promise of American democracy fulfilled, and the triumphalism among the black professional class was astonishing. But this was history, a culmination, a turning point. Everyone could see the painful drama of succession as Reverend Jackson gazed on the president-elect. Since then, a new black elite has been trying to tell us—and themselves—where they stand in relation to black history. There are now so many of them that to be a middle-class black does not seem as elitist as it used to be. The black elite of one generation gets replaced by the black elite of another, the later one defined by different criteria, including a greater sense of freedom.

The black poor are not the ones who are trying to redefine black America. In Distintegration: The Splintering of Black America (2010), Eugene Robinson, a writer for The Washington Post, argues that the pre–civil rights one-nation black America doesn’t exist anymore and that blacks have little in common apart from symbols left over from their civil rights history. Robinson takes it as a given that the blacks of the “mainstream” are now middle class:

Because of desegregation and disintegration, the black middle class is not only bigger and wealthier but also liberated from the separate but unequal nation called black America that existed before the triumph of civil rights. The black Mainstream is now woven into the fabric of America, not just economically but culturally as well.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010 that the median income of blacks had fallen from $32,584 to $29,328, compared to the national median income of $49,777. While 43.7 percent of whites were categorized as middle-class, the percentage of the black population that was middle-class was 38.4 percent. Almost 29 percent of the black population was called working-class and 23.5 percent was described as living in poverty.

Robinson renames the black classes: the Emergent, meaning African immigrants who now outperform Asian students at the university level; the Abandoned, or the underclass, as they have been called, blacks trapped by low income in neighborhoods and schools where it is impossible to project a decent future; the Mainstream, who may work in integrated settings but still lead socially all-black lives; and the Transcendent, “a small but growing cohort with the kind of power, wealth, and influence that previous generations of African Americans could never have imagined.”

Robinson hopes that the Transcendent class will provide leaders, much as Du Bois had called on his Talented Tenth over a century ago, but Robinson’s expectations contradict his own evidence that blacks don’t feel race solidarity the way they used to. He cites a 2007 Pew poll that said 61 percent of blacks don’t believe that the black poor and the black middle class share common values.

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Jamie McCarthy/WireImage/Getty Images
Touré at the celebration of Rolling Stone’s thousandth issue, New York City, May 2006

To judge from Touré’s confident Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to be Black Now, the Transcendent are keen to inform America that what it means to be black has changed for them. Touré, a Rolling Stone and MSNBC contributor, CNN popular culture correspondent, and apostle of the hip-hop aesthetic, contends that there are now as many ways to be black as there are black individuals. Touré was born in 1971. His generation may have missed the heroic civil rights era, but he claims they are at ease in the decentralized world of new media and competitive branding. They are liberated by Obama’s example; “authentic” and “inauthentic” no longer apply:

The definitions and boundaries of Blackness are expanding in forty million directions—or really, into infinity. It does not mean that we are leaving Blackness behind, it means we’re leaving behind the vision of Blackness as something narrowly definable and we’re embracing every conception of Blackness as legitimate. Let me be clear: Post-Black does not mean “post-racial.” Post-racial posits that race does not exist or that we’re somehow beyond race and suggests colorblindness: It’s a bankrupt concept that reflects a naive understanding of race in America. Post-Black means we are like Obama: rooted in but not restricted by Blackness.

Touré interviews 105 black people, mostly men, some older than he, and most from Robinson’s Transcendent sphere: politicians such as former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee; rap stars like Chuck D of Public Enemy; writers, including Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Malcolm Gladwell; academics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, and Patricia Williams; and artists like Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Kehinde Wiley, among others. The majority of his interviewees are “identity liberals,” legatees of Zora Neale Hurston’s refusal to see her work as being always in the service of mournful racial uplift.

They recall the “nigger wake-up call,” Touré’s sensationalistic term for Gates’s moment of instruction. Several of these stories involve the police. Most have to do with coming up against the matter-of-fact power of whiteness. For example, Derek Conrad Murray, an art history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, remembers when his father, a hospital administrator, moved the family to an exclusive suburb of Seattle in the early 1980s. His intensely Catholic family was the only black family that attended mass at a large church in the area. One Sunday, a mentally unstable parishioner stood and yelled, “You niggers should get out of here!” Murray said his father chased the man into the street and nearly choked him to death. The shock to the family was such that nobody ever went to church or prayed again. Murray became an atheist.

Touré comments that these stories are not just about whites attempting to break black spirit, they are also about black resiliency. Touré’s subjects sometimes remember a harrowing racial experience and then declare that the lesson they took away was their determination to be as free personally as possible. They claim for themselves the unencumbered psychological freedom that several young black politicians appropriate for themselves in Gwen Ifill’s The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (2009). Everyone knows that having a black president means something. People are knocking themselves out to explain just what. But it’s too soon.

The black people who seem most free in Touré’s book are the visual artists. Indeed, “post-blackness” was a term coined in the late 1990s by Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the conceptual artist Glenn Ligon to describe “the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak to or for or about the entire race.” Black culture is a subject matter, but the new black artists don’t treat it as “specific to them.” It is not autobiographical. It is an interest, not a weapon.

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