African-Americans disagreed among themselves about removing the word "Plantations" from Rhode Island's official name this fall. Though our founder, Roger Williams, steadfastly opposed slavery, the word that "planted" his colony now evokes strong feelings, because it often conjures up genteel white privilege built upon the brutal treatment of blacks.
Debate over the word demonstrated the point of Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson in Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. If ever there was a single "black America," it no longer exists.
Instead, at least four distinct perspectives have emerged to challenge stereotypes and public policies, he writes. Most African-Americans stand in the "Mainstream" and enjoy "a full ownership stake in American society." However, a significant minority, whom he calls the "Abandoned," is losing ground to entrenched poverty and dysfunction. Smaller groups include the "Transcendent," whose wealth and power dazzle in the Age of Obama. Two "Emergent" groups--those of mixed race and recent immigrants--"make us wonder what 'black' is even supposed to mean."
These groups often distrust each other as much as they do naïve whites, like conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly, who ventured uptown to a classy Harlem restaurant in 2007 and marveled that "there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."
Robinson critiques civil rights organizations: The National Urban League's annual "State of Black America" does not "point the way toward specific policies for different segments of a diverse population." The NAACP continues to look for a unifying "black agenda," when "there is a need for multiple agendas."
He writes of the Mainstream living a "double life" due to segregated housing. But he celebrates their heroic rise as "truly a great American success story--arguably the greatest of all."
In contrast, he witnessed the government's horrifying failure to evacuate the Abandoned when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. He proposes "a domestic Marshall Plan aimed at Abandoned black America" with a means test, so affirmative action scholarships are not monopolized by children of Transcendents who could pay their own way. But what legislator would risk losing Transcendent campaign contributions with such a sensible proposal?
Robinson sidesteps the sexual divide: He seems to disdain movies like "Precious" and "The Color Purple," which expose domestic violence--as if they betray family secrets.
Strangers passing on the street used to offer a nod of recognition for their shared status as blacks, writes Robinson. But lately he notices fewer nods, a sign of widening divisions among black Americans.
Anne Grant writes online and elsewhere about the legal abuse of children in domestic violence custody cases.