Six months ago I posted an essay entitled “An Open Letter to Black Writers on Medium”. It presented the hypothesis that blacks might find more success in America if they decided to integrate into American society. Unsurprisingly, that essay prompted a great many angry replies from blacks who insist that America’s problems with race relations are exclusively the fault of whites, most or all of whom they deem to be racist. A number of them accused me of racism for suggesting otherwise.
I have spent a lot of time mulling over those comments, and gathering more information, and I think that my thinking has gelled enough for me to articulate it here.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, American racism was strong, so strong that the only prudent course for blacks was subservience. Blacks who were not subservient were killed.
The Depression and World War II created a stronger sense of unity among Americans. Racism was reduced and, for a period of twenty years, blacks made remarkable progress: the end of segregation in the armed forces, the end of de jure segregation in schools, all culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The reduction of oppressive measures on blacks reduced the need for a culturally subservient system of mores in the black community.
When oppression is relaxed, the oppressed community often responds with expanded assertiveness. Louis XVI of France tried to mollify the rising unrest among the French population by calling the Estates General 1789; this led directly to the French Revolution in which he lost his life. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to correct the many failures of the Soviet Union with Glasnost and the relaxation of its harsh oppression of the citizenry; this led to the coup and the collapse of the Soviet government. In like fashion, the relaxation of the oppression of blacks led to a rising assertiveness among some elements of the black community. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an explosion of black cultural assertiveness.
This represented a big change in black culture:
(I have no idea of the relative size of the Subservience and Assertiveness elements, so I simply represent them as equal.)
As black assertiveness rose, blacks developed a sense of pride in their cultural distinctiveness. They invented a midwinter solstice celebration, Kwanzaa. It never really amounted to much, but at least it was THEIR midwinter solstice celebration. They abandoned naming their children traditional Christian names and instead began using African nomenclature. They began developing their own distinctive dialect, Black English. This dialect was not merely a continuation of past practices; the lyrics of black songs from the first half of the twentieth century contain little of the vocabulary of modern Black English.
This cultural separatism did much to improve black morale. But it was also responsible for the inevitable xenophobic backlash. Xenophobia is burned right into human genes; for most of human evolution, strangers usually meant trouble. Clans established territories over which they ranged as hunter-gatherers, and they defended those territories as if their lives depended on it — which they did. Clans might invade each others’ territories, and this was an act of war. Strangers were always enemies.
To avoid being misidentified as a stranger, humans developed all manner of external markers establishing their clan identity: tattoos, hair styles, clothing, necklaces, hats, music, etc. The most salient marker of identity was language. If you spoke the language, you had to be a good guy. The Israelites used their language to reveal enemies in their midst after a battle.
Few people consciously realize how powerful xenophobia can be. When I was a freshman in high school, I resented the intense social pressures to conform to the cultural standards of my group. Fearing that this would compromise my intellectual independence, I took symbolic action: I tucked my pants legs into my socks. It was a silly, harmless act that loudly declared to everybody else, “I am not like you. I am different.” As a direct result, I got beaten up several times. I was willing to accept the occasional beating as a reminder of the discipline required to maintain independence of thought. I still get beaten up verbally for expressing unconventional ideas, but I am hardened to the experience.
So by the 1980s, white racism was continuing to diminish, but was now being supplanted by xenophobia:
We now have ourselves in a nasty feedback loop. White racism induced black assertiveness, which in turn induces white xenophobia. For the last 50 years we have been expecting white racism to naturally diminish as society grows more enlightened, but in fact, progress in this regard has been slower than we expected. I still recall an incident in the 1990s when a friend and I witnessed a fellow making a blatantly racist remark; we stepped away and I said to my friend, “What’s with this guy? It’s the 1990s!”
The problem is that white racism is being supplanted by xenophobia. Racism itself is nowhere near as prevalent as many blacks think. Black police officers are just as likely to shoot and kill blacks as white police officers are. (https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2019/07/24/white-cops-are-no-likelier-to-shoot-dead-african-americans-than-black-ones-are). They’re not shooting those blacks because they’re black; they’re shooting them because they’re not of their culture.
Every other ethnic group to come to America has successfully integrated into American culture. Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Polynesians — they’ve all managed the transition in three generations. The Vietnamese who came here in the 1970s now have adult children who are mostly American, and their children have almost entirely assimilated into American culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_Americans)
Yet black integration into American society still has a long way to go. Some of this is surely due to the unique history of blacks in America; assimilation was impossible before the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent expansions. Even so, black integration into American society falls far short of our expectations.
Perhaps the most powerful demonstration that the problem is cultural, not racial, is the success of blacks who have moved from black culture into American culture. We elected such a black to the presidency. Michele Obama has been the most admired woman in America in the last two years. Besides the Obamas, we have a long list of blacks who clearly present themselves as Americans, not blacks: Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones and many more. These people don’t deny or cover up their black heritage, but neither do they present blackness as the primary basis of their identity. My guess is that they do not think of themselves first and foremost as blacks, but rather as actors, scientists, or politicians. (Interestingly, I had difficulty generating this list. I couldn’t recall many of these names because I didn’t think of them as black, I thought of them as actors, scientists, or politicians.)
The conclusion should be obvious: the solution to the horrible problem of race relations in this country is for there to be more Michele Obamas and more Samuel L. Jacksons. Not in terms of talent — Ms. Obama and Mr. Jackson are immensely talented individuals — but in terms of cultural identification.
Of course, blacks might well ask “Why must I abandon my ethnicity to be treated as an equal?” In the first place, that ethnicity is an artifice, a creation of the last fifty years. Second, you already are legally equal; the problem is not de jure discrimination but de facto discrimination. The problem is not with society as a whole, but with people as individuals. Sure, you should be able to get a job while going to the interview in a wedding dress — but you’d be stupid to complain if you don’t get the job. You shouldn’t be stared at if you wear a boot on one foot and a sandal on the other — but you will be stared at. People are uncomfortable around strangers. It’s wrong, but it’s human nature. With so many desperately important battles to fight, why would you want to pick a fight with human nature?
I’ll also frame it in terms of personal power: you as a black person cannot do anything about those white racists. You can’t kill them, you can’t make them go away, and I doubt that you can change their minds. But you CAN do something about your sense of identity. If you self-segregate yourself, don’t be surprised when you find that you are segregated. If you want to go through life with your pants legs tucked into your socks, don’t complain when you get beaten up every now and then.