Thursday, November 15, 2007
Cosby’s Triumph Can’t Mask the Dilemma of Two Black Americas
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Comedian Bill Cosby turned black morals pied piper has got to be beaming. His relentless pitch to blacks to get their act together, and stop blaming the white man for their failings almost certainly has done much to spur the radical reversal in black attitudes on race. A new Pew Research Center survey found that more blacks are willing to finger point themselves for bad grades, bad behavior, high unemployment, and poverty than they were a decade ago.
But there’s a kicker in the Pew survey. The ones that did the greatest finger pointing were middle class blacks and the ones that got the finger pointed at them were poor blacks. It’s no real surprise that blacks are rivers apart from each other in their view of who’s to blame for the dreary plight of poor blacks. To even think that they wouldn’t and couldn’t have different views, express divergent opinions, and ideas about race, politics and life issues, just as any other group, is to lock blacks into the tightest of tight racial boxes. There is, and never has been, anything that even faintly resembles a monolith of racial thinking among blacks.
For decades, two black Americas have co-existed uneasily side by side, yet hardly equal. In fact, a significant number of blacks told Pew researchers that blacks should not be viewed as a “single community.”
Despite a drastic economic backslide during the last decade in the incomes of black males, detailed in a Brookings Institution report released shortly before the Pew survey, the class fissure between the black haves and have nots has continued to widen in recent years.
Black executives still hold the top spots at three of America's leading corporations. There’s Oprah and the legions of multi-millionaire black superstar athletes, celebrities, and professionals. There’s a bona fide black presidential candidate, Barack Obama that most whites applaud for being in the race. There’s been a big bump up in the number of black households that earn more than $50,000 annually. Black wealth, like white wealth, is now concentrated in fewer hands than ever. The top one fifth of black families earned nearly half of all black income.
But this is not new. In the 1950's, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier warned that many blacks were becoming what he scornfully branded a black bourgeoisie that controlled the wealth and power within the black community and that had turned their backs on their own people. Many members of Frazier's black bourgeoisie had begun to ape the values, standards and ideals of the white middle class, and to distance themselves from the black poor. In the Pew survey, black college graduates said that they had more in common with the white middle class than poor blacks.
In the 1960's, federal entitlement programs, civil rights legislation, equal opportunity statutes and affirmative action programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson's administration broke the last barriers of legal segregation. The path to universities and corporations for some blacks was now wide open. More blacks than ever did what their parents only dreamed of: They fled big city blighted inner-city areas in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta in droves.
By the end of the 1980's, a significant number of blacks were affluent enough to move to the suburbs. The expansion of tract homes, condos and apartments made their move easier. In the 1990s, the stampede of black business and professionals from these areas accelerated.
The greening of the black middle class hasn’t erased the lingering, and some fear deepening, cloud of discrimination. Black professionals, politicians, and celebrities may be light years apart from poor blacks in their wealth and status, and attitudes about race; but color is hardly a thing of the past. It can sting a black millionaire just as easily as it can a black homeless person at any moment. Many affluent blacks still fume in anger as taxicabs speed past and blithely ignore them. They can be stopped, and shaken down and spread eagled by police. They are subjected to poor or no service in restaurants. They file countless EEOC complaints and lawsuits against corporations for stacking them at the low end in management positions.
The Pew survey found that even as blacks blame other blacks for their shortcomings they had no illusion that discrimination is dead and buried. In a seeming paradox, the black middle-class respondents said they were more pessimistic about their future than a decade ago. That pessimism is tied directly to jitters that their economic gains can be snatched away at any time. A sharp economic downturn can dump more than a few of them back in the same crumbling neighborhoods they worked long and hard to get out of.
That’s the dilemma for the two black Americas that no amount of internal fault finding can wipe away. Even Cosby might agree with that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)