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Escaping From Blackness: Racial Identity and Public Policy


Manning Marable

The

greatest struggle of any oppressed group in a racist society is the struggle to

reclaim collective memory and identity. At the level of culture, racism seeks to

deny people of African, American Indian, Asian and Latino descent their own

voices, histories and traditions. From the vantagepoint of racism, black people

have no "story" worth telling; that the master narrative woven into

the national hierarchy of white prejudice, privilege and power represents the

only legitimate experience worth knowing.

Frantz

Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks makes the observation that the greatest triumph

of racism is when black people lose touch with their own culture and identity,

seeking to transcend their oppressed condition as the Other by becoming

something they are not. Under colonialism and Jim Crow segregation, people of

African descent were constantly pressured to conform to the racist stereotypes

held of them by the dominant society. Some succumbed to this pressure, assuming

the mask of "Sambo" in order to survive, or to ensure that their

children’s lives would go forward. Others sacrificed themselves to achieve a

higher ideal, the struggle to claim their own humanity and cultural traditions,

and to build communities grounded in the integrity of one’s own truths. The

knowledge of blackness is not found in genetics, and only indirectly in the

color of one’s skin. It is found in that connection to symbols, living

traditions and histories of collective resistance, renewal and transformation.

We

now live in a time when legal segregation, colonialism and even apartheid have

been dismantled. The "white" and "colored" signs across the

South that I remember so vividly in my childhood have been taken down for over a

generation. Perhaps it is not surprising that a growing number of our people

casually take for granted the democratic victories achieved-the right to vote

and hold elective office, access to fair employment, the abolition of racially

segregated public accommodations, opportunities in higher education through

affirmative action-failing to recognize that what has been won over centuries of

struggle can be taken away. Although they are the prime beneficiaries of the

freedom struggle, they distance themselves from it. They have come to the false

conclusion that what they have accomplished was by their own individual talents

and effort. And they actively attack the thesis that blackness, in and of

itself, has any cultural value, outside of the uplifting affects of whiteness.

Debra

Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is one example of this

unfortunate trend. She’s the author of a new book, An American Story, that

argues, "it’s long past time blacks opted out of blackness." In an

op-ed essay several months ago appearing in the Washington Post, Dickerson

criticizes Howard University’s African DNA database project for attempting to

link black Americans to African ancestors. For Dickerson, the DNA research only

has value because "we who were swindled out of every link to the past

except skin color will be able to find out more about our (European)

heritage."

Dickerson

has no patience for African Americans who identify themselves as part of the

African diaspora. "A Nigerian who immigrates to America in 2000 has

virtually nothing in common with the descendants of American slaves, but we’re

both conceptually freeze-dried down to that one aspect of our selves."

Besides, she notes, "there are few black families who don’t brag about the

whites and Indians (all chiefs) in their lineage and lie about how hard it was

to make their hair stand up ‘like that’ during the reign of the Afro."

At

the end of Dickerson’s essay, in a passage that is both confused and outrageous,

she claims that black Americans should not "despise" the white men who

raped their foremothers. "Without slavery, there would be no Jesse

Jackson," she insists, "no Leontyne Price," "Tiger

Woods," "jazz or gospel," and "no me." Should the NAACP

halt its campaign against the Confederate battle flag, because its part of

"our" heritage, too? Should the descendants of those who were raped

find identity and meaning for themselves by coming to a new appreciation of the

rapists? Dickerson confuses genetics with culture. We may share a genetic tie to

the slaveholders, but their only vital contribution to our historical identity

was the struggle we waged against them. We share no morals, and no common

history. We owe them nothing except contempt.

More

academic in style, but no less self-hating, is the recent book, Losing the Race:

Self-Sabotage in Black America, by University of California linguistics

professor John H. McWhorter. Losing the Race argues that affirmative action

cripples African-American students contributing to a spirit of black

"anti-intellectualism" and to a "deep-reaching inferiority

complex" that discourages learning. "In my years of teaching,"

McWhorter declares, "I have never had a student disappear without

explanation, or turn in a test that made me wonder how she could have attended

class and done so badly, who was not African American . . ."

 

McWhorter’s

central point is that black people as a group are unprepared and unworthy of

being admitted to elite white institutions. Black Berkeley students, however,

aren’t a total loss. None of them "would be uncomfortable in a nice

restaurant" and most "probably do know what wine goes with

chicken." Nevertheless, they clearly cannot compete with their white

counterparts and are trapped by their "defeatist thought patterns."

McWhorter

does admit that his race helped him to win academic fellowships, and to achieve

his faculty positions at Cornell and now at Berkeley. But like the proverbial

man who escapes from a pit and pulls up the ladder behind him, trapping others

at the bottom, McWhorter desperately wants to distance himself from his

oppressed sisters and brothers. The price for admission into the white

establishment is to denounce blacks in stereotypical terms. And in fact, Abigail

and Stephan Thernstrom, who viciously attacked affirmative action in America in

Black and White, praise McWhorter’s book as "brilliant."

Dickerson

and McWhorter are cultural casualties in the centuries-old struggle against

racism. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they are aberrations. The

death of legal segregation, and the explosion in the size of the black

professional-managerial class, creates the political space for the emergence of

blacks who want to escape their blackness. They may be prepared to denounce

their own people in order to advance their careers, but we should not permit

them to go unnoticed or unchallenged. To uproot racism, we must constantly

remember that the first step is in appreciating our history and culture.

Dr.

Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the

Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia

University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to

over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s

column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.

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