Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times, February 27, 2015
At dinner last summer with my brother-in-law, a grandson of Jews who fled Algeria for France, the conversation turned to the rash of anti-Semitic incidents plaguing the country. At such times, the question inevitably arises in the minds of many Jews: “Where could we go?” He mentioned Tel Aviv, London and New York, but the location mattered less than the reassurance that departure remained an option. He’s not alone in this thinking: 7,000 French Jews emigrated in 2014.
Over the past year, as I watched with outrage at the dizzying spate of unpunished extrajudicial police killings of black men and women across America, I’ve wondered why more black Americans don’t think similarly. Why shouldn’t more of us weigh expatriation, even if only temporary, as a viable means of securing those lofty yet elusive ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Blacks leaving America in search of equality is not new. The practice dates from at least antebellum Louisiana, when free mulattoes in New Orleans sent their children to France to live in accordance with their means and not their color. It continued after World War II, when a number of black G.I.s, artists and jazzmen shared Richard Wright’s sentiment that there is “more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America.”
Today, that might sound hyperbolic–enormous gains have been made in America at every social level, and many blacks live as well as one can reasonably hope to anywhere. Yet we are consistently reminded of how tenuous this progress can be; how possible it still is to be humiliated on the front porch or cut down in Walmart by an officer who will never be held to account.
Watching what happened in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island and knowing that blacks are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot by the police constitute a heavy psychological tax. Freedom–and more broadly speaking, basic well-being–are relative goods. I lament that Paris can be a threatening space for Jews, Roma, Africans and Arabs, but the truth is, as a black American, I’ve never felt safer or less harassed anywhere. It’s difficult to exaggerate the existential boon of shedding one’s victimhood.
Of course there is no black Zion with a head of state urging the diaspora to return. But there have been movements for mass migration before, most notably Marcus Garvey’s early 20th-century Universal Negro Improvement Association, and its quixotic mission–based on the position that America would never grant blacks a fair shake–to forge a global black economy and create settlements for Americans in Africa by transporting blacks back to Africa by ship. W.E.B. Du Bois, a global citizen who was educated at the University of Berlin and later went into exile in Ghana, argued that Garvey’s plan to “unite Negrodom by a line of steamships was a brilliant suggestion and Garvey’s only original contribution to the race problem.” Garvey’s Black Star Line collapsed in 1921. It was a business catastrophe that swallowed many families’ savings, but it remains a potent symbol of exodus.
Many blacks dismiss expatriation as a luxury reserved for those with economic and social capital. But if “black lives matter” genuinely, then we must recognize minority individuality: Black people should pursue their own opportunities for the good life wherever they can. Yes, we hold an intrinsic stake in America and shouldn’t abandon lightly a homeland that is ours by right of birth and by dint of blood, sweat and hard labor. But if this stake remains unrecognized or unredeemable, its value is dubious.
A powerful way to sidestep America’s reluctance to become postracial would be for more black Americans to become postnational.