News & Politics

Black America After Jim Crow: Still Feels Like Segregation

Instead of recognizing Black achievements throughout the year, why do we still cram everything "Black" into one month? And what does that say about how race influences the types of politicians that American voters select?
February is almost over which also means the end of Black History month. Call me a grouch, but as far I am concerned, Black History month is an annual reminder that Black folks are still not considered part of the American mainstream. It seems that rather than integrate the accomplishments of Black Americans into events, school curricula and advertisements throughout the year, the preference is still to cram everything "Black" into February.

When March comes around, schools, television networks and corporations can let out a sigh of relief that they don't have to deal with Black folks until next year. One has to wonder, since Black people -- like Latinos and Asians -- only warrant one month of recognition, how does race continue to influence the types of politicians that American voters select?

The country is currently abuzz about the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. Obama is not the first Black American to run for president, but he is the first one born after the Supreme Court's historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that struck down the legal doctrine of "separate but equal." The 45-year-old Obama, like 36-year-old Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and 37-year-old Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker represent the first generation of Black Americans leaders born after the end of segregation.

This is relevant because, unlike their elders, their world view has not been entirely shaped by racial barriers. It makes headlines to categorize the ascension of these young politicians as a seismic shift in Black leadership, when, in fact, the new turks are merely emblematic of a natural evolution -- the realization of the hopes of the civil rights movement.

Civil rights activists knew that the ability of young Black Americans to excel in our society was not based solely on their intellect or personal drive but also on a range of opportunities being opened up to them. In practical terms this meant that young Black Americans needed to have the chance to live in safe, culturally rich communities and have access to the type of education and employment that had been reserved for White Americans.

The emergence of a coterie of young Black leaders such as Obama, Fenty, and Booker does not connote the obsolescence of the civil rights initiatives. However, they are forcing all Americans to contemplate the next chapter in our collective history.

Black Americans have to ask themselves what does it mean to be "Black" in a multi-racial society outside the context of slavery or Jim Crow? Do middle- and upper-income Black Americans really have the same political and economic interests as low-income Blacks? And all Americans have to ask, how does the public discourse on Blackness in the United States need to change to include African and Caribbean immigrants?

In recent days, various Black commentators have been stepping all over each other to proclaim that Obama is not "Black." Obama is the son of a White mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya, so the canard is that he does not share their cultural background.

Historically, because of the "one-drop" rule, significant numbers of bi-racial children have identified themselves as Black. Ironically, the fact that Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty's mother is White has not made a ripple -- maybe because his father is a native Black American.

Despite the narrow perspectives, "Black America" has always been ethnically diverse. Caribbeans have been part of the Black American dialogue for many decades. American Blacks and Caribbean immigrants usually live near each other and frequently intermarry. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first Black woman to run for President, was an immigrant from Jamaica, West Indies. The presence of Ethiopian restaurants on the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C. and the increasing number of African-owned businesses opening in traditionally Black American communities across the nation attest to the growing influence of African immigrants.

What has not occurred are frank and candid conversations between native Black Americans and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean that aim to update the public face of "Black America." These dialogues would first need to acknowledge the unique cultures and histories of the various groups, while forging relationships based on our shared interests and challenges in this country as people of African descent.

Despite the controversies that surround it, Hip Hop culture exemplifies the actual melding of Black ethnicities. Many Hip Hop luminaries, including two of its founding fathers, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash are of Caribbean descent. Moreover, popular rap artist, Akon, who has worked with artists as such as Grammy winner Chamillionaire and Snoop Dogg, was born in Dakar, Senegal.

But Obama's heritage only partially explains the lukewarm reception he has gotten from some Black Americans. Generally, there are Black Americans who see this new cohort of Black politicians, which includes Obama, as middle-class success stories who have little real connection to poor and working class Blacks. Previous Black leaders worked in local communities to establish organizations or build multi-racial coalitions to address critical social and economic issues. In the main, the new Black leaders have had only brief stints working at the grassroots level before running for office.

As a result, the younger Black leaders have been accused of being political careerists with no firm ideological grounding. One Black commentator said Obama was "sacrificing principles for shared values." While many young professional Black Americans may believe that it is no longer necessary for Black leaders to begin as grassroots activists, older and poorer Blacks tend to disagree. These people contend that middle-class Blacks, especially those raised in affluent suburbs, know very little about the lives of disadvantaged Blacks. It is this group that factors into the 24.9 percent poverty rate for Black Americans and the nearly 50 percent high school drop-out rate for young Black Americans.

According to the skeptics, unless young, middle class Black leaders are willing to immerse themselves in low-income communities, they are no better equipped than their White counterparts to represent these citizens. In the case of Obama, many Black Americans just do not believe that he is willing to alienate his moneyed, White supporters to champion their cause. The bottom line is that these folks are not sure that Obama's "audacity of hope" would net them anymore in the way of jobs, quality public education or affordable housing and health insurance than they got with "compassionate conservativism."

Obama's candidacy also pushes White Americans' to re-evaluate their concepts about Black Americans. In short, what does this new generation of Black leadership mean for them? Specifically, under what set of conditions would they view a Black political aspirant as being capable of governing them? And is that the same criteria that they would apply to White office-seekers?

As with Obama, there is a preponderance of Ivy League degrees and unusual backgrounds among this group of young Black politicians. Does this mean that Black candidates have to be extraordinary to overcome the historical taint of inferiority? How will public policy and private assumptions about race shift as "Blackness" morphs from the fictional monolith comprised of Southern Blacks to an actual multifaceted grouping that represents various Black ethnicities, several socio-economic levels and regional distinctions?

Frankly, I am undecided about Barack Obama. I could care less about his parentage and I do not think that having a law degree from Harvard and being down for the people are mutually exclusive. However, given the complex issues facing our country at home and abroad, I doubt that someone who has served barely two years in the United States Senate and who has no foreign policy experience is our best bet for President.

What I do know is that Obama and his peers are striving to be American leaders and not just Black American leaders. This is similar to not wanting Black Americans to be ghettoized within Black History month. Some Black leaders will continue to exclusively address the interest and concerns of Black citizens, which is their right and maybe even their calling. The dream of the civil rights movement was that Black Americans could choose their own paths, rather than have them dictated by their race. It is inevitable that, like all politicians, some of these younger Black leaders will be stellar, some will be abysmal, but most will just be average.

However, when the majority of American voters can honestly judge Black American leaders by their records and not by their race, Black History month will probably already be a thing of the past.
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