What do blacks think about race? How do they experience race? How are they expected to think about and experience race? The contrast with whites in this respect could not be greater. For whites, race is not a permissible criterion either for personal decisions or public policy. Whites have no legitimate aspirations as a group, and do not usually think of themselves as a group unless they are called upon to apologize for past and present sins.
For most blacks, on the other hand, race is a central part of their identity. Their view of politics, history, government, or culture is intimately bound up in a racial consciousness that sets them apart from other groups. They take it for granted, for example, that the job of a black leader is to work for the benefit of blacks, without much regard for others.
They have, in other words, a deeply-rooted racial consciousness that can even express itself as alienation from the United States itself. For many whites, who have for the last 50 years generally tried very hard to banish race from their decision-making, the depth and power of black racial consciousness is difficult even to imagine, and when they encounter it in its full force they find it deeply disturbing.
As we will see, racial loyalty is so essential to blacks that they despise blacks who do not practice it sufficiently — who are not “black enough.” For whites, America’s primary moral mission is to overcome race, to go beyond group consciousness and embrace all citizens as individuals. Particularly for teachers, clergy, social workers, politicians, and even many corporate executives, to move beyond race is America’s great calling. Not for blacks. For a black to speak or act in ways that are obligatory for whites is to commit racial suicide. It is to court contempt and expulsion.
A Different World
Although they are not direct indicators of black racial consciousness, larger social indices suggest the extent to which blacks and whites live in separate worlds. To start with the seemingly innocuous, census records show that 100 years ago, the 20 most popular given names for blacks and whites were virtually the same. That began to change in the 1960s, when blacks started giving their children distinctly black names like Shaneequa, Latonya, or DeShawn. An investigation of every birth in California since 1961 found that in 1970, the typical black baby girl was given a name that was twice as common among blacks than whites. By 1980, her name was 20 times more common among blacks, and by 2004 more than 40 percent of black girls born in California got a name that was not given to a single one of the 100,000 white girls born that year. The racial gap was not limited to the West Coast. By 2003, there was no overlap among the top 20 black and white names given to girls in New York City. The gap in names for boys was not so great, because neither whites nor blacks are as adventurous with boys’ names, but there has been sharp divergence since the 1960s.
Another cleavage is in television viewing. Ever since 1987, none of the top ten programs blacks watch has been among the top ten that whites watch. Blacks watch programs with black actors about blacks; whites watch white programs.
Blacks do not have the same politics as whites. The Bay Area Center for Voting Research surveyed voting patterns for 237 American cities and found that race is a proxy for a city’s politics: Black voters are liberal and white voters are conservative. As the center’s director explained: “Detroit and Provo epitomize America’s political, economic and racial polarization. As the most conservative city in America, Provo is overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class. This is in stark contrast to Detroit, which is impoverished, black and the most liberal.” He went on to note that, “While most black voters have consistently supported Democrats since the 1960s, it is the white liberals that have slowly withered away over the decades, leaving African Americans as the sole standard bearers for the left.”
These differences lead to clear divisions on concrete political choices. No fewer than 74 percent of blacks believe that it is the government’s responsibility to “assure the availability of jobs,” whereas only 33 percent of whites think this. In 1996, 84 percent of blacks but only 43 percent of whites voted for Bill Clinton.
Many whites find some black opinions startling. Only 13 percent of blacks think O.J. Simpson was “probably guilty” of killing his wife, but 73 percent believe it is true that “the CIA has imported cocaine for distribution in the black community.” Sixty-two percent “believe that HIV and AIDS are being used as part of a plot to deliberately kill African Americans.” When solid majorities of blacks think the government is trying to hook them on cocaine and kill them with AIDS, we have moved well beyond different choices in children’s names and divergent television habits. Blacks and whites often do not see the world in the same way. These differences are clearly bound up somehow in race itself.
Not Black Enough
In 1998, Anthony Williams was elected mayor of Washington, DC. Mr. Williams had attended Harvard and Yale, was clearly interested in running an efficient city government, and had considerable white support. Although he is a black man who has never pretended to be anything else, Mr. Williams left many blacks wondering if he was “black enough.” Perhaps this was unavoidable for any black politician who followed the crack-smoking, skirt-chasing Marion Barry — there was never any doubt as to his bona fides — but a black writer for the Washington Post raised “the question of whether whites, assuming they care one way or the other, even understand the concept of ‘How black is a black person?’” He went on to say that Mayor Williams had quickly fired incompetents, but that “the firings hurt black workers most of all, creating the impression — fairly or unfairly — that he has little or no special concern for people who look like him.” A black politician who is more concerned about efficiency than about jobs for blacks may not be black enough. The writer concluded:
Blackness … is a state of common spiritual idealism that serves to unite the group for the purpose of survival. Putting it another way that’s less of a mouthful, there is not one person of color who can separate himself or herself from the rest of the people of color.
Because Mayor Williams was bound to all other blacks “for the purpose of survival,” loosening those bonds cast doubt on his blackness.
At about the same time, another black writer for the Post mourned his loss of that rolling, characteristically black gait known as “the pimp walk.” As a young man he felt authentically black — ”Whether the pimp walk was some celebration of male blackness I don’t know, but I do know that walking so rhythmically, I never felt so good, or so black” — but at some point he started walking normally. This was cause for soul-searching:
“Oh, I attend a mostly black church. I have a black wife. Black kids. And as a journalist, I write mostly about black people. My mama is black. My car is black. I buy black. I vote black. I think black. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I wasn’t once blacker.”
It is not enough to think, buy, and vote black. True blackness may require a certain walk.
Randall Robinson, whose early career was devoted to fighting South African apartheid and who later tried to promote reparations for blacks, reports matter-of-factly, “I am obsessively black … race is an overarching aspect of my identity.” Kweisi Mfume, former president of the NAACP, told the group’s 1998 national convention that “Race and skin color … still dominate every aspect of American life, at home and abroad.” Ron Daniels, a columnist for the black paper, The St. Louis American, wrote: “Whatever my political or economic pursuits in life, however, I am always guided by the dictum to be ‘of the race and for the race.’ While being open to building working political relationships with others, these relationships must always be with African people.”
Part of authentic blackness requires an explicit rejection of white norms. James Bernard is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has been a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation. Instead of practicing law, he decided to start a glossy, hip-hop magazine called The Source. His reasons? “Either you identify with white society, and that’s disgustingly empty — not to mention you’ll be rejected and go insane — or you look for something that’s rich and real.”
Like the question of what it means to be not black enough, authentic black culture is beyond the grasp of whites. August Wilson, who died in 2005, was the most successful black playwright in America, winning two Pulitzer prizes and many other awards. Although these awards were from nominally white organizations, he insisted that whites should not direct or act in his plays. Whites were from a different culture.
Needless to say, there are many blacks, both prominent and unknown, who do not take so separatist a cultural stance, but even for them, blackness can become a refuge in trying times. Singer Michael Jackson was once a symbol of racelessness and even sexlessness, but when he went on trial for child sex abuse in 2005, he surrounded himself with bodyguards and advisors from the Nation of Islam. One writer pointed out that “the racially ambivalent wonder” who once sang, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” had “now become the supreme black man.”
It is not just individuals who may not be black enough. The same standards apply in larger contexts. Most whites do not realize that many blacks have given up on integration. Blacks are incensed if they are kept out of white institutions or neighborhoods, but many view integration only as a tool for specific purposes and not as an end itself. If they can reach economic or political goals through exclusively black means, that is preferable.
Roy Brooks, who teaches at the University of San Diego Law School, makes this case in Integration or Separation? which was published by Harvard University Press. “There is nothing intrinsically good about racial mixing,” he writes. “Its appeal comes from its social utility.” He continues: “African Americans need to spend less time trying to live next to whites and employ more energy striving to live together.” One reason for this is that “[c]learly the homogeneous community rather than the larger white society is the environment in which the personal self-esteem of African Americans develops positively.” In his view, integration is an endlessly wearying struggle for blacks because they must deal with whites who can never be made to understand black reality: “[M]any African American students believe it is futile to attempt to educate white people, and they do not see the races ever living together in harmony.”
He proposes what he calls “limited separation.” Blacks must always have the right to live in the white man’s world if they want, but they should have their own schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and amusements, so that they can live completely apart from whites if that is their choice. Working-class blacks, he explains, will almost certainly choose separation.
Even a few whites echo the black demand for separation. Political scientist Andrew Hacker explains that it stems essentially from white intransigence:
“Calls are increasingly heard for a system that makes the best of separation. Integration has not worked, largely because whites never believed in it, except on the most token levels. It also requires that blacks abandon much of their culture, whether in embracing white mental styles, including diction and demeanor.”
Derrick Bell, who teaches at New York University Law School, argues that the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a mistake. He wishes the court had maintained “separate but equal,” but had required that black institutions be made genuinely equal.
Schools with largely black student bodies are beginning to be run on this principle. In Kansas City, 70 percent of the school children are black and only 15 percent are white. Separatists find they have black schools without even having to exclude children of other races, and they have turned some into centers of black consciousness. J. S. Chick Elementary School, for example, has been “African-centered” since 1991, which means every part of the curriculum is based on the history and culture of blacks. Every Monday morning, the entire school participates in harambee, a Swahili word for “coming together.” Students beat drums while others dance and chant. The school considers itself an African village, and parents must sign statements of commitment to its principles. Chick is a magnet school and theoretically open to anyone, but 99 percent of its 300 students are black.
In 1995, a judge overseeing a Kansas City desegregation case approved a similar African-centered theme for the Sanford B. Ladd elementary school, and a middle school has since adopted a similar curriculum. Supporters claim that an explicitly black curriculum improves grades and reduces absenteeism and other problems.
Hales Franciscan School, an all-black Catholic high school, has not adopted an entirely African curriculum but expresses its identity in a different way. Before basketball games, the school sings “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson and considered the unofficial black national anthem. “That song was one of the first things I learned as a child,” explained senior Nate Minnoy. “We’re an all-black school, and that song is important to us, to our culture.” Before at least one home game, the school sang the black national anthem but forgot “The Star Spangled Banner.” Hanging in the gymnasium are both the American flag and the red, black and green flag of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement.
Oklahoma City’s Millwod public school district has two pledges of allegiance, the familiar one to the American flag, and one to Garvey’s flag. The latter pledge, written by the founder of Kwanzaa, Maulena Ron Karenga, goes like this:
We pledge allegiance to the red, black and green
Our flag, the symbol of our eternal struggle, and to the land we must obtain
One nation of Black people, with one God for us all
Totally united in the struggle for Black Love, Black Freedom, and Black Determination
Gloria Griffin, who is superintendent of the 99-percent black school district, does not think the pledge is separatist. I focus on the words “united in love, freedom, and determination.” she explained.
Schools of this kind are practicing Prof. Brooks’s plan for “limited separation.” In fact, “limited separation” approximates the racial accommodation the majority of blacks have made: they have access to the white world when they need it, but frequently retreat to the comfort of blackness.
It is a cliché to point out that there are hundreds of organizations for blacks but essentially none explicitly for whites. The Congressional Black Caucus is probably the best known black organization, but a recent Internet search on the words “association of black … “ turned up more than 3,800 pages of results. On just the first three pages were explicitly black associations for the following groups, in the following order:
Accountants, MBAs, Engineers, Nurses, Journalists, Social Workers, Telecommunications Professionals, New York Journalists, Women Historians, Women Lawyers of New Jersey, Professional Fire Fighters, California Lawyers, Dallas-Fort Worth Communicators, Sociologists, Storytellers, School Educators, Scuba Divers, Journalists, Anthropologists, Actuaries, Philadelphia Journalists, Interpreters (of sign language), Yoga Teachers, Foundation Executives, Law Enforcers, Southern Region Accountants, and Psychologists.
There is probably an exclusively black association for every profession, and members can join the white/integrated association for their profession if they want. This is an almost perfect example of Prof. Brooks’s “limited separation:” blacks have the benefits of all-black institutions, integrated institutions, or both, as they wish.
If there were any doubts about what is meant by the word “black” in the names of these organizations, Thomas Murphy, a white man on the Chicago city council removed all ambiguity. To the consternation of black politicians, for two terms during the 1990s Mr. Murphy represented the majority-black 18th ward. Blacks expected to get the seat back when redistricting gave it an 85 percent black “super-majority.” However, in 1999, Mr. Murphy won 57 percent of the vote in a nine-candidate race, and stayed on the city council.
He then asked to join the black caucus, but the black members refused. “I don’t think Alderman Murphy can look out of the same eyes we do as African-Americans,” said Alderman Carrie Austin. Mr. Murphy pointed out that he represents more blacks — 47,000 — than some of the blacks on the caucus who won’t let him in. “The purpose of the caucus is to represent the interests of black residents of the city,” he said. “Apparently they think it’s some other purpose — their own personal interests.”
One black alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, didn’t want Mr. Murphy on the city council at all, much less in the black caucus. “We want that seat to belong to an African-American,” she said. “We want to make sure to take that seat.” (No one questions whether Miss Tillman, a major booster of reparations, is “black enough.” For a 2000 fund-raising event at the up-scale Chicago hotel, the Palmer House, one of her staff asked the management to make sure all the waiters were black. The hotel asked a white, an Arab, and a Hispanic to serve at a different function that night.)
The National Association of Black Social Workers also recently reaffirmed its impregnable blackness. Brian Parnell is a child protective services social worker in Bakersfield, California. He wanted to know why so many black children are in the child welfare system, and thought he might find answers at the National Association of Black Social Workers annual convention, which took place in New Orleans in 2005. Mr. Parnell flew to New Orleans, but was barred at the door because he is white. He managed to get hold of a conference organizer, a black woman, who told him, “You’re white. You can’t attend this conference.” Five black colleagues who arrived with Mr. Parnell attended the conference but he had to fly home.
Excluding whites (and other non-blacks), and building and maintaining black majorities are typical expressions of black consciousness. Many blacks are brazen about it. In 2003, Eddie Jordan became the first black to hold the job of district attorney in New Orleans. After he had been on the job for a week, he fired 43 white non-legal staff — investigators, child-support officers, etc. — and replaced them with blacks. The whites sued, and in 2005, a jury found Mr. Jordan guilty of racial discrimination. Earlier this year a judge ordered the DA’s office to pay the white workers $3.58 million. Mr. Jordan denied any racial motive.
Wholesale firing of whites can be risky. The safer way to build a black environment is not to hire anyone else. In Los Angeles, only eight percent of workforce is black, but in a survey of black-owned companies, 41 percent reported that their employees were “mostly black,” something not likely to happen by chance.
A survey of black-owned businesses in Philadelphia produced even more straightforward results. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being most important, 60 percent classed as a 1 or a 2 the statement that hiring “qualified African-Americans” was a “high priority.” Their total employee base was 81.8 percent black, and not a single business reported having a workforce that was less than 50 percent black.
There are other ways to keep the workforce black. Not long before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, one city councilman proposed that the city scrap its requirement that police officers live in the city. He thought this would make it easier to find good officers for a notoriously corrupt and inefficient force, but the plan was shouted down by blacks who were afraid it would attract suburban whites. Blacks in New Orleans were so hostile to mixing with whites that when white activists tried to join an anti-racism demonstration, black activists drove them away. Anthony Mitchell, a black Baptist preacher explained the extent of the racial divide: “The people who control public discourse here don’t like to talk about it. It’s not good for business. But this is really two cities.”
Given the difficulties blacks face, one might expect the need for competent police officers — or teachers — to come before racial solidarity, but this is not always so. In 2002, a white woman named Sandy Trammel taught fourth grade at overwhelmingly black West Riviera Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Florida. The school rated an “F” on state tests, and Mrs. Trammel’s class was no different: Only three of her 20 students read at grade level and four could not read at all. During the year, Mrs. Trammel’s students improved so dramatically she won $10,000 for helping West Riviera move from “F” to “C.” The school district made her a “peer assistance teacher” assigned to help other teachers, and the Palm Beach Post featured Mrs. Trammel in a big story in June.
In September 2003, when Mrs. Trammel showed up for her first peer teaching assignment at another black school, Principal Beverlyann Barton, who is black, turned her away. Too many blacks thought the three-month-old Palm Beach Post story about her gave the impression that Mrs. Trammel was “the great white hope,” who had rescued black children. Principal Barton explained that the article had poisoned the school environment, and that black teachers would not be able to work with her.
There was a similar conflict at Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio, over who would teach black history. When the usual teacher, who was black, had a scheduling conflict, the school contacted a white replacement. When black parents found out, they filed a complaint. As Michael Williams of Cleveland State University’s black studies program explained, a black teacher “has the advantage of the culture” and “can understand the nuances of the culture.” Phyllis Yarber Hogan of the Oberlin Black Alliance for Progress argued that whites cannot teach blacks about slavery, for example: “How do you work through that [the injustice of slavery] when the person teaching it is the same type of person who did the enslaving?”
The United States has a number of “traditionally black” universities that have begun to integrate, just as white universities have, often with even less enthusiasm. Delaware State University was established in 1891 as State College for Colored Students. During the 2001/2002 school year, it settled two discrimination suits for undisclosed sums. Kathleen Carter, a white who chaired the education department, said blacks told her she was usurping their right to govern themselves, and that one colleague called her a “white bitch.”
Another teacher, Jane Buck, reported that a search committee once got 100 applications for a position but did not fill it because none of the candidates was black. When the search was reopened, the lone black applicant got the job.
Most discrimination suits end in a negotiated settlement but when they go to trial, there can be large awards. In 1998, a federal jury awarded $2.2 million to two tenured whites who were forced out of Cheyney University in Pennsylvania for opposing appointments of blacks they thought unqualified.
Whites who violate what blacks consider their exclusive preserves can face cruel pressures. From 1996 to 1998, Marcus Jacoby was the only white on the football team at a black college. Throughout that period he told reporters he was well accepted and was enjoying his experience as a minority. Two years later he decided to tell what it was really like.
Mr. Jacoby had been the star quarterback at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and badly wanted to play in college. Nearby Southern University, a football powerhouse in the African American Southwestern Academic Conference, badly needed a quarterback, so Mr. Jacoby accepted a full scholarship. There had never been a white starting quarterback in the history of the league.
Except for his coaches, Mr. Jacoby was completely isolated. In the locker room and at lunch, his teammates shunned him. The season started badly with two losses. “I heard the entire stadium booing me. Fans were yelling ‘Get the white boy out,’” Mr. Jacoby recalled. Defensive players for the other teams hit him harder because he was white, and after his first game he went to the hospital with a concussion. One black teammate remembered that opponents said, “That’s what you all get for bringing white boys on the field.” An editorial writer in the student paper wondered whether some of Mr. Jacoby’s own teammates had deliberately let opponents through to tackle him. After Southern’s second loss, a fan threatened Mr. Jacoby, and after that he always had a police escort when he played.
Southern went on to win six of the next seven games, and there was less booing. Mr. Jacoby actually began to be friends with one of the players, whom other blacks called “white lover.” After Mr. Jacoby bobbled the final and crucial pass in a championship game, defensive coordinator Mark Orlando, who is white, got a call saying, “If Jacoby ever plays for Southern again, we’ll kill him — and you.” The coach says he got about a threat a week that season. Some time later, Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Orlando noticed nooses hanging from the surrounding trees when they left the locker room.
Amazingly, Mr. Jacoby came back the next year, and led the team to a 11-1 season that made Southern the league champion. He was still a complete outsider, though, and a few weeks into his third season, he could stand it no longer and quit. When reporters asked why, he told them he was “burned out,” though he was burned out with race, not football, as he led reporters to believe. Mr. Jacoby still tries to think of his time at Southern as a valuable sampling of a different culture but concedes that it was “two-and-a-half years of a personal hell.”
Separation and exclusion are evident in politics, as well; blacks support black candidates, if anything, even more monolithically than whites support white candidates. In January 2006, when former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume ran in the Democratic primary to be Senator from Maryland, 27 of his 29 endorsements from Democratic officials were from blacks. His white opponent, Benjamin Cardin got 100 endorsements, 93 of them from whites.
In 2003 in Baltimore, there were five Democratic candidates for mayor, three black and two white. An organization of back ministers sponsored what it billed as a debate for the Democratic candidates, but did not bother to invite the whites. At first the ministers claimed they had invited all the candidates but the whites had not appeared, but Rev. Russell Johnson of the Baptist Ministers’ Conference finally conceded that the forum was “only for black candidates.”
Often, the racial appeal to voters is undisguised. After Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans explained: It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans … This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way.” Later, when he ran for reelection against a largely-white field, he warned a black audience that his opponents “don’t look like us.”
New Orleans had had black mayors since 1978, and blacks were determined to keep it that way. As Bishop Paul Morton of the St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church explained, the prospect of a white mayor was one that could “take us back so many years.” “There’s a lot of people that are really, really concerned,” he said.
Majority-black Washington, DC, likes to think of itself as a “chocolate city,” too. Natalie Hopkinson, a black staff writer for the Washington Post, wrote that as whites begin to move back into the district, many blacks have begun to wonder: “Is the chocolate city turning vanilla?” She explains how she would answer that question: “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Her sentiments are widespread. John Street, the black mayor of Philadelphia addressed a large NAACP audience in 2002. The audience roared with approval as he declaimed: “Let me tell you: The brothers and sisters are running the city. Oh yes. The brothers and sisters are running this city. Running it! Don’t let nobody fool you; we are in charge of the City of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!” Whites were not pleased with this boasting, but Mayor Street was undaunted. Four days later, he appointed a black police chief.
In 2004, before the same NAACP audience, Mayor Street brushed off the complaints about his “we are in charge” speech. “We should never be ashamed of supporting African-Americans,” he said. “I will never apologize for [appointing] a black chief of staff, a black police commissioner, a black fire commissioner …”
Ever since 1968, the heavily-black Congressional district of central Brooklyn has had a black representative. In 2006, when an impeccably liberal white, David Yassky, decided to run in the district, he was met with angry accusations of “racial carpetbagging.” Blacks called for him to get out of the race and even asked Mr. Yassky’s political mentors like Senator Charles Schumer to pressure him to withdraw. Blacks were even reaching across racial lines and plotting with Hispanics to come up with ways to stop him.
Blacks are sometimes startlingly frank about jimmying the system to help blacks get elected. Trenton, North Carolina, went through a messy annexation of neighboring black areas in the hope of making it easier for blacks to win local elections. Activist Daniel Willis, husband of Trenton’s mayor, came up with an annexation map that neatly lopped off a corner of one town so as to leave out five white households. Otherwise, as he explained, blacks would “have that many more votes to overcome. The less whites [we] have in town, the better [our] chances are to be put on the town board.”
Some of the jimmying has attracted the attention of the Justice Department. In 2006, it charged the black chairman of the Democratic Party of Noxubee County, Mississippi, of “blatant and outrageous violations of the Voting Rights Act” of 1965. The department said he was guilty of just about every trick in the book: recruiting black candidates to run even when he knew they did not meet residency requirements, switching political meeting sites so whites would not know where to go, challenging white voters’ registrations, and rejecting absentee ballots from whites on technicalities while accepting ballots from blacks.
When Bill Clinton was President, he tried to appoint a friend from Yale Law School days, law professor Lani Guinier, to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The appointment failed, in part, because of Miss Guinier’s advocacy of racial solidarity over democratic principles. She favored what was, in effect, electoral apartheid. If blacks were 13 percent of the US population, 13 percent of the seats would be set aside for them.
Other blacks have recommended cumulative voting, in which each voter gets as many votes as there are candidates. If there were only one black candidate in the field, blacks could give all their votes to him while whites split their votes among white candidates. Black racial solidarity would thus ensure the proportional representation Miss Guinier wanted.
Black voters are vigilant for opportunities to elect blacks, much to the disappointment of some white liberals. Chris Bell, a white Democratic congressman from Texas, was redistricted into a largely black area and promptly crushed in the 2004 primary by the former head of the Houston chapter of the NAACP. He felt betrayed: “I’m not going to stand here and pretend that it’s not somewhat heartbreaking when you’ve spent your entire career in public service fighting for diversity, championing diversity, to suddenly be placed in a situation where many people do not want to look past the color of your skin.”
A “champion of diversity” might have been expected to stand aside for a person of color more gracefully. At the same time, someone who understood blacks better might not have been so surprised. As Bishop Paul Morton observed about the 2006 mayoral race in New Orleans: “African-Americans are usually very loyal to African-American candidates. I’ve talked to some people who say, ‘I don’t care how bad the black is, he’s better than any white.’”
Once they get a black in office, however, blacks seem to lose interest in political races. As a black congressman once explained, “You can almost get away with raping babies and be forgiven. You don’t have any vigilance about your performance.”
The preference for any black candidate, without regard to ability or qualifications, is similar to the virtually monolithic support among blacks for affirmative action, or racial preferences in hiring and college admissions. Preferences for one group are possible only by discriminating against other groups, but for many blacks this doesn’t matter. When a white man explained to Willie Brown, then mayor of San Francisco, that racial preferences for blacks could hurt whites, he replied, “I don’t care about your idiot kids.”
The depth of black feeling was evident in maneuvers to keep the state of Michigan from putting a voter initiative on the ballot that would ban racial preferences. Once a court recognized that the requisite number of signatures had been secured for the initiative, it should have been a routine matter for the four members of the state Board of Canvassers to vote it onto the ballot. However, a rowdy crowd of 250 black high school students invaded board premises the day of the vote. As the members tried to deliberate, students stood on chairs, stomped their feet, and shouted, “They say Jim Crow; we say hell no.” Others surged toward the board members, knocking over a table.
The crowd was particularly vocal toward the one black man on the board — ”Be a black man about this, please,” as one of the rowdies put it — and he voted against the initiative. Another Democrat refused to vote, so the initiative did not get on the ballot that day. It was, as Chris Thomas, director of elections for the Michigan Secretary of State put it, “a victory of mob rule.” The Board of Canvassers later managed to get the initiative on the ballot, but it was noteworthy that demonstrators resorted to intimidation to keep preferences intact, and equated their removal with Jim Crow. As we will see, for almost all blacks, preferences are untouchable. Whites who oppose them are “racists,” and blacks who oppose them are “traitors.”
The NAACP’s program of grading companies on the number of blacks they hire, their level of charity to black organizations, and the number of black-owned companies they hire as suppliers is only a milder version of the same sentiment. The NAACP does not care whether a company hires or promotes fairly or how well it treats any other minority group. It’s only question is “what’s in it for blacks?” Companies that do not disclose the information the NAACP demands get an “F” or failing grade. At the 2006 national convention, NAACP president Bruce Gordon blasted the Target chain of retailers: “They didn’t even care to respond to our survey,” he said. “Stay out of their stores.”
Sometimes black self-absorption is almost comical. Under the headline, “Global Warming Could Spell Disaster for Blacks,” the Internet arm of Black Entertainment Television warned that “unless the United States gets real about the threat of global warming, African Americans and other people of color can expect a repeat of disasters like Katrina.” The article went on: “Citing Katrina as a case-in-point, some environmentalists say global warming impacts minorities and the disadvantaged harder than other groups. If global warming gets worse, many African-American communities will be more vulnerable to breathing ailments, insect-carried diseases and heat-related illness and death.”
(Katrina was not “a case in point.” Despite repeated claims that blacks were dying in disproportionate numbers, several months after the Hurricane, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported that it was whites who had died at the highest rates. They had been 28 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 36.6 percent of the deaths. The figures for blacks were 67 and 59.1 percent.)
Katrina did give rise to another curious sort of black consciousness. Red Cross shelters in nearby states opened their doors to refugees, many of them black. Shelters in Nashville and Franklin had mostly white volunteer staff, and some blacks found this objectionable. As Joyce Searcy of the Bethlehem Centers in Nashville explained, “When you’re different and you’re the lone person, you do feel different. When you’re in crisis you like to have some familiarity there.” She called for the Red Cross to establish black-run shelters in black neighborhoods. The Red Cross acknowledged that most of its volunteers are white, but pointed out that volunteer training was open to anyone.
Yet another version of racial solidarity appeared when Community Bank of Lawndale, which serves a mostly-black West Side Chicago neighborhood, changed hands. After the bank’s black owners sold it to Asian-American-owned International Bank, customers and former shareholders demanded that regulators return it to black ownership. As Rev. Marvin Hunter, leader of the protest explained somewhat incoherently, “this is not a race issue. This is an economic issue. We don’t believe other people can look out for the interests of black people.”
American blacks are hardly alone in wanting black institutions. In October 2002, the government of Barbados hosted the “African and African Descendants’ World Conference Against Racism.” On the opening day, the 200 delegates voted to expel all non-blacks. As Garadina Gamba of the British delegation explained, “This is an African family occasion and therefore they [whites] should not be allowed to sit down and talk with us.” The dozen or so whites and Asians, mostly interpreters and members of non-governmental organizations, meekly left the “conference against racism.”
The constitution of Liberia, founded by former black slaves from the United States, contains a bald declaration of racial exclusiveness. Drafted in 1983, Chapter IV, Article 27b states “In order to preserve, foster and maintain the positive Liberian culture, values and character, only persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or naturalization to be citizens of Liberia.” The constitution also restricts land ownership to citizens.
In post-apartheid South Africa, blacks have largely erased whites from the history of the struggle for majority rule. As British journalist Peter Hitchens reports:
When I visited Helen Suzman, once the lone anti-apartheid MP in the former white-dominated Parliament, she complained about the way she and her fellow liberals have been airbrushed from official history, barely featuring in the grandiose but disappointing Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which is mainly about the courage of the ANC. I was astonished when she told me she had been treated better by the repressive crocodiles of the old white National Party than today’s liberal opposition are treated by the ANC.
Blacks who support all-black institutions that exclude whites are, needless to say, the first to insist on “inclusion” if blacks are not adequately represented in majority-white settings. Even if blacks are not actually kept out of something, their mere absence may merit contempt. Black columnist for the New York Daily News E.R. Shipp wrote about the 2006 Winter Olympics:
“These Winter Olympics, oh, how white they are! And I’m not talking about the snow… [T]hese Olympics are so white that the presumption is that certain white athletes are entitled to gold medals. Now, maybe that’s also American arrogance. To me, it’s a bad case of whiteness.”
Black television anchorman Bryant Gumbel took the same view: “Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them … [T]ry not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention.” Presumably only blacks can be great athletes, and any competition not dominated by them is trivial.