If you’re a political junkie, you’ve seen Eugene Robinson countless times on the tube. The Washington Post columnist, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his take on Barack Obama‘s presidential campaign, can be found regularly providing his incisive political commentary on MSNBC programs such as Morning Joe and Hardball with Chris Matthews. Now, he has sparked debate with his recent book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America (Doubleday; $24.95), in which he posits that decades of desegregation, affirmative action, immigration and interracial marriage has shattered the concept of a black monolith into four distinct groups: the Mainstream middle class; the Abandoned underclass; the Transcendent elite; and two newly Emergent groups—black immigrants and individuals of mixed-race heritage. Robinson wrote: “There was a time when there were agreed upon ‘black leaders,’ when there was a clear ‘black agenda,’ when we can talk confidently about ‘the state of black America’–but not anymore.”
BLACK ENTERPRISE Editor-In-Chief Derek T. Dingle spoke with Robinson about his premise and its future implications.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What inspired you to write this book?
Eugene Robinson: A feeling that built up over time. When we talk about black America we were not talking about black America as it is. We were talking about black America as it was. In public policy discussions, it was all about this entity that I felt was not a single entity. It was not one-size-fits-all. Then, I noticed back in 2007 when the Pew Research Center did a poll [that revealed] 37% of African-Americans believe that black Americans can no longer be considered a single race which I thought was a really weird but intriguing answer. I didn’t know what it meant and I’m still not quite sure what that means specifically. But, it was kind of unsettling, I thought. So, that’s why I dove in.
I want to ask you some questions about each group. First, the Mainstream middle class. How has the Great Recession and jobless recovery disrupted this group?
Oh, it’s incredibly damaging. Every study I’ve found has found African Americans have been more vulnerable and more victimized by the Great Recession. So, we’ve had some people fall down in that group. We’ve had some people fall out of that group.
So some of the Mainstream are now a subgroup of the Abandoned?
I think so much depends on what happens with the economy. If the problems that we’re having now are truly structural and long term then the middle class, especially that black middle class, will not be as big as it was. If the economy were to come back strong I think that they might be the last hired back but they would eventually be hired back.
In the book, you discussed the need to create a Marshall Plan to revive communities of the Abandoned. Given the push for congressional deficit reduction and the president’s proposed five- year domestic spending freeze, will such an agenda be embraced politically?
I said ‘ideally if we weren’t so constrained, what would we do?’ What we would do, and even then it would be hard, it would be intensive, holistic, working on multiple fronts because you can’t just say fix the schools. You’ve got to fix the families and fix the infrastructure. You’ve got to work on a lot of different areas. Is it possible to do that sort of Marshall Plan right now? It’s not going to happen right now. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen but it’s not going to.
Is there a public/private solution?
I think it has to be. I think you would find some sectors of corporate American eager to participate in that. Corporate America likes to have consumers. They like to have demand for what goods and services they’re producing. I think corporate America, at least when it wants to sell its products, it’s perfectly capable of understanding diversity and the demographics of the country and realizing that it’s not good to write-off a big segment of the population.
The Transcendent elite includes the Oprah Winfreys, Bob Johnsons and Ken Chenaults. Are we going to see an expansion of this group in the future?
I think it will be about the same. The members are not huge so I’m not sure that there’s a big enough data set that you can talk about it scientifically. One hopes the numbers, over time, increase. The walks of life where you see them coming from, I think you could argue, has expanded. So it’s not all about rich and successful athletes and entertainers, people in corporate America, in the media. I would hope that list would expand.
What about the Emergent class of black immigrants. Will the second generation move into that Transcendent group?
That’s a good connection to make. The first generation is kind of underemployed but their kids have no hesitation to go into high-tech fields. I wonder if at some point we see the Microsofts and Googles of the world looking at creative and inventive places like Nigeria and South Africa. It is certainly conceivable that if you looked at this again 10 years or 15 years from now, you might say that the second generation did move into the Transcendent group in disproportionately large numbers.
Are those of mixed heritage rejecting the traditional racial definitions based on the old “one-drop” premise?
I think examining or questioning would be a better word for what I think some people are doing in terms of exploring their own identity. But does it change how they’re viewed? So far, not much.
So Obama is the first black president, not the first biracial president.
Exactly, if we were to check in again 30 or 40 years from now, we might have a different take on it.
What impact does this splintering effect have on collective political power and leadership?
I think in terms of collective political power, it’s hard to argue that there has been less of an electoral impact. That would be a different story if the Republican Party really made a play for black folks but it really hasn’t. In terms of leadership, it does have an impact there because what’s the agenda? It’s not that the goals are mutually exclusive. It’s just that they’re sometimes different. It does make things a bit more confused and a bit less unitary. I guess that’s one of the issues that confront traditional groups like the Urban League [and] the NAACP that have been, frankly, for a number of years really seemed kind of lost. I think those groups are in their new leadership now that’s starting to sort of find its way. But, the agenda used to be really clear back in the old days. It’s much less clear now.
What are the responsibilities of each group in driving workforce or supplier diversity?
I don’t think they’re with any group but I think they’re societal responsibilities. One is to make sure that diversity isn’t forgotten even as we go through the Great Recession, even as times are hard. The other thing is to not always take the easy way. I’m going to look at the top graduate from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I think if I end up looking at a group of black kids who all grew up in suburban homes with high-income parents and the same kinds of experiences in this or that, that’s fine. I’m not saying don’t hire those kids. But, I’m saying that we can’t keep forgetting the Abandoned and working to identify and prepare kids who didn’t have those advantages. To the extent that affirmative action still exists, we aim it at people who most need it and that [should] be our principal focus.
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