The Reality of Black Solidarity
Clifton Roscoe on the Loury-Woodson-Foster-Steele debate
My recent debate with Robert Woodson, Kmele Foster, and Shelby Steele on the ethics of black identity has provoked a lot of commentary. The one that elicited some of the most heated debate amongst the four of us was that of racial solidarity. Kmele and Shelby argued that race, as an outmoded and perhaps incoherent concept, no longer makes sense as the foundation of broad coalitions. Bob and I argued, however, that it makes tactical sense to use race as one basis to spur collective action. Additionally, many people (including me!) still do draw meaning and sustenance from their racial identity.
We were all speaking our minds, but it can be clarifying to ask what Americans more broadly think of this question. Enter Clifton Roscoe, who comes to us yet again with a data-driven consideration of the efficacy of appeals to racial solidarity. As he points out, even if we desire a world in which race isn’t important, we don’t live in that world yet. I appreciate Clifton’s clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of the problem. We’ve got the data. The question is, what do we do with it?
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So many thoughts crossed my mind while I listened to that conversation. They were distracting, so I listened to the conversation again a little while ago. My overall take didn't change much, but I hope I can answer your question—”Are we ready to abandon racial solidarity?”—in a way that's helpful.
Context matters. I couldn't help but wonder if the moderator and the panelists represent today's Black America. It would have been helpful, for example, if a middle- or low-income single black woman with kids was part of the discussion. It might have been helpful if somebody other than Reihan Salam had moderated the conversation. While he's smart and articulate, I don't think he knows Black America well enough to frame and guide the conversation as well as a more knowledgeable moderator could. He didn't seem comfortable interrupting four black men with strong opinions, but there were times when the conversation was disjointed and it would have been helpful for somebody to herd the cats.
What's the definition of blackness today? Most of us had a good idea of what it meant to be “colored,” a “Negro,” or “black” 50-60 years ago. We knew who our leaders were, we had a common understanding of the primary issues facing black folks, we generally agreed on what needed to be done to address those issues, and we had strong institutions within Black America that pulled in the same direction. These things, combined with culture, gave us a sense of shared identity and purpose. Many of us felt an obligation to further the work of those who came before us and to help open doors for those coming behind us. Black America is in a very different place today. Are we “black,” “African American,” or part of something called “BIPOC”? Who are our leaders? How relevant are our institutions? What passes for black culture these days?
A recent Pew analysis suggests that Black America is essentially leaderless. About 30% of respondents said Barack Obama is the most important black leader today. Kamala Harris came in second at 8%:
We don't have strong institutions either. Here's are more graphics from Pew:
What are our issues? These graphics from Pew tell us a lot:
They suggest that Shelby Steele is right when he says that “modernity” is Black America's biggest issue. We're not prepared to thrive in a world where overt racism has mostly disappeared. Part of the problem is that what passes for black leadership today is rooted in the past. Too many of us are focused on the wrong things (e.g., fighting racism, policing reforms, criminal justice reforms, voting rights). None of these things will close the K-12 academic achievement gap. There's no way that Black America will ever achieve equality or that any of the most talked about racial gaps (e.g., employment, income, wealth, home ownership, life expectancies, crime victimization rates, incarceration rates, etc.) will close until our children can read and do math as well as their peers. Not many people want to wrestle with this. It's easier to blame various forms of racism (e.g., structural, institutional, systemic, etc.) for black failures than to confront the internal issues (e.g., cultural, broken family structures, weak leadership, etc.) that stifle black progress. These graphics from Pew reflect this:
The disconnect is that too many of us believe racism holds us back and that we can't be successful until America's institutions are overhauled. Older black folks think government can force change, so they support political action. They sidestep the issue of how little progress has been made since the late 1980's even as black political power grew in strength. Young people who came of age during the Obama presidency have seen the limits of politics and don't embrace them as strongly as their elders.
To make a long story short, I saw the merits of all the arguments that were made. There may come a time when race isn't important, but we're not there yet. Another Pew analysis from April shows the importance of race to most black folks.
There's no way around this, so the arguments you and Bob Woodson made were stronger than those made by Steele and Foster. The problem is that today's black leadership and black institutions aren't up to snuff. This relates to Kmele Foster's question of whether we should refurbish black leadership and institutions or if we should abandon them (my words, not his). I'm sympathetic to the latter approach, but it wouldn't yield good outcomes. People, especially those at the lower rungs of society, need leaders and institutions. Black America isn't at a point where most of us have faith in "white" institutions and leaders, so we have to strengthen their black counterparts if the goal is to put Black America on a better path.
I could write about this stuff forever, but I'll stop.