ike many of us, journalists often make superficial assumptions about the Black experience in America. On occasion, when one of them does find the wherewithal to spotlight the many slices of life among black Americans, the coverage adds more complexity than usual. Yet it’s episodic and seems to even sensationalize statistical trends that are rarely contextualized, sufficiently interpreted, or meaningfully integrated. Until now, that is.
Perhaps a “calling to the carpet” for all of us who rely upon outdated assumptions about the lives of Black people in this country, columnist Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America sets the record straight on the 21st century reality(s) of Black life in America. Released last October as a hard cover, the book is now available as a paperback (Random House 2011, $15.95).
Disintegration is indeed a rare treatise on what Robinson sees as Four Black Americas, which includes a Transcendent class of powerful and wealthy Blacks, the likes of which include not just Oprah and Obama, but powerful media executives, entertainers, and sports figures.
Another black America reflects the experiences of a vast and struggling Mainstream of middle and working-class black folk, living in majority black neighborhoods like Lithonia, Georgia in Southeast Atlanta and Prince George’s County in Maryland, both of which have high concentrations of college degree holders and average incomes of $50,000 and more.
The third Black America reflects a hauntingly Abandoned class of poor and uneducated black Americans, often invisible to most until the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina reminded us of all those ‘left behind.’
Lastly, Robinson notes the fourth Black America as an Emergent class of blacks dually composed of highly educated African immigrants whose families are distinctly intact compared to growing numbers of single-headed African-American families, and a growing number of mixed-race individuals who challenge the very construct of race and taken-for-granted notions of ‘blackness’ all the more.
Together, the Transcendents, the Mainstreamers, the Abandoned, and the Emergents, unlike generations of African-Americans prior, span such vastly different social worlds—spatially, economically, and socially—so much so that it is nearly impossible to universalize a single narrative of the black experience.
To be sure, Robinson notes that the social and cultural lives of blacks has always been diverse, highlighting both he and his father’s childhoods during the first half of the 20th century. There were southern and northern blacks, living in neighborhoods that held a diversity of peoples with varied careers, social positions, and experiences. The diversity of black life in Robinson’s past was nonetheless glued together by the common, and overarching, reality of racial segregation and visible white hostility. Black life in the past, therefore, and due in large part to such rigid social boundaries, was surprisingly integrated, economically and socially, even as it was racially segregated. Thus, and even if by force, the past was a time metaphorically “when we were one.”
To the contrary, social life for many blacks in today’s post Civil Rights America, particularly for the Transcendents, has meant the opening of paths to upward mobility and racial integration, creating unprecedented economic and social distance with their counterparts. Between the Mainstreamers and the Abandoned groups alone, social life and cultural norms are increasingly distant, leaving the latter more isolated by race and class than ever before. For this, Robinson proclaims that the coming of racial integration also brought with it the social and economic splintering of black life—indeed a racially integrated but socially disintegrated black experience.
To some degree, Robinson’s four black Americas are too neatly classified, glossing over the ‘messiness’ of black family life, in which a single black family tends to have members from each of the four black Americas.