[Obama's victory highlights] the stark paradox that is the other
half of our racial problem: while black Americans have been fully incorporated into the
nation's public life, they continue to be cut off from the private life of other
Americans, a separation that accounts in good measure for blacks' besetting1 socioeconomic
How did we arrive at this strange racial pass? Blacks have always figured in a complex
way into the progress of American democracy. Slavery, under which they suffered for nearly
two thirds of their history in America, was a brutal form of exclusion. The slave was the
quintessential outsider: he was not, and could not be, a citizen participating in the
public sphere, nor could he belong to the community, family or formal culture of the
Ironically, this double exclusion facilitated the growth of democracy in America as well
as the assimilation of its white immigrants. Democracy emerged first — not accidentally — in
the Colonial slave South precisely because slavery encouraged a deep bond of racial
solidarity among all classes of whites: we-the-people, white and free, were contrasted
to the outsiders, domestic enemies, black and unfree. The black presence gave value to
whiteness, a positional good eagerly embraced by immigrants who poured into the new nation
during the 19th century. However little these newcomers had in common when they were in
Europe, on these shores they discovered that they shared one precious thing — their
whiteness, which is to say, their non-blackness, and the absence of the stain2 of slavery.
That helped to forge3 a new identity and a vital bond in the great and growing republic.
The Civil War and emancipation was the nation's first great attempt to overcome this tragic
racial contradiction. But abolition merely freed individual slaves from their masters.
It did not abolish the culture of slavery, with its emphasis on the public and private
exclusion of blacks. To the contrary, the Jim Crow system that replaced slavery legally
reinforced and institutionalized the double exclusion of ex-slaves and their descendants.
The 20th-century political struggles of blacks that culminated in the civil-rights revolution
marked the second great chapter in the liberation and incorporation of black Americans.
Its achievements were extraordinary: in less than a generation the entire institutional
fabric of Jim Crow was dismantled; blacks achieved legal equality and access to the
nation's educational and political system. White racial attitudes underwent a profound
change, not only in the rejection of notions of racial inferiority by the great majority,
but in the acknowledgment of blacks as an integral part of the nation's body politic4.
The rise of a black middle class, the integration of the military and the remarkable
role of blacks in the nation's cultural life—areas of which they came to dominate — were
all part of this process. Nowhere was it more pronounced, however, than in the rapid
ascent of blacks at all levels of American political life. Obama's election would be
the denouement of this astonishing process.
[The] Obama victory [marks] the completion of the process of mass democratic
inclusion that began with the presidency of Andrew Jackson, another second-generation
orphan, who came out of nowhere to lay the foundations of male, white suffrage on a
historically unprecedented scale. What Jackson the slaveholder left undone, this historic
election cycle has finished: it's now clear that blacks
and women are ready, able and poised to lead the nation.
But if the work of political inclusion is largely done, that of social incorporation is
half finished and may be regressing. While blacks have made absolute gains in income and
education since the 1960s, their relative position has not changed and, after the Bush
years, threatens to worsen. The black middle class has a fragile hold on its status.
Its median household income declined to $30,945 between 2003 and 2005, a mere 62 percent
of the white median. In 2002 the median net worth of white Americans ($88,000) was 14.5
times that of blacks, whose net worth (the total value of all their assets, less all
their debts and liabilities) was a paltry5 $6,000. The fragility of their status is
reflected in extraordinarily high rates of downward mobility: half of all blacks born
to middle-class parents are downwardly mobile; more than half of them fall to the very
bottom of the income ladder. The black poverty rate rose from 21.2 percent in 2000 to
24.5 percent last year, and the bottom fifth of the black population is worse off
relative to poor whites than at any time over the past three decades.
In the private sphere, blacks remain almost completely apart from whites. Indeed,
they are more separate now, in most areas of the country, than at the end of the '60s.
And segregation is worse in those parts of the country that have the highest levels of
black participation in public life. New York, the liberal heartland of America, in a
state where a black man is governor, has among the worst levels of segregation in the
nation. So does Chicago, the city that gave Massachusetts its current black governor
and has given the nation its first black president.
In these great cities, blacks mingle with whites in the public sphere, often in positions
of authority, then after work return to gilded ghettos or segregated slums blighted by
unemployment, violence, addiction and horrendous rates of youth incarceration6. The
pattern can be seen in marriages — blacks being the most endogamous7 group in the nation — as
well as in friendships, the typical black person having almost no white friends or
acquaintances outside the public sphere or work. This is in sharp contrast to all
other nonwhite groups, including second-generation Hispanic and Asian immigrants,
who are assimilating at rates similar to previous generations of white immigrants.
Why? The conventional answer is that white Americans, while willing to accept blacks in
the public sphere, remain racially prejudiced in personal relations. While it would be
naive to deny the persistence of racism, that simply isn't enough to explain the vast
gulf between blacks and other Americans. Neither can income differences, since middle-class
blacks are nearly as segregated as the poor. Furthermore, surveys and other studies
indicate that a substantial proportion of whites, especially younger ones, have no
objection to closer relations with blacks. Even if we make the most conservative
assumption, that only a minority of whites hold such racially inclusive views, the
fact that whites outnumber blacks about six to one means that such whites still greatly
Racial preferences and ethnocultural differences are obviously part of the explanation.
During the early phase of the civil-rights movement, black leaders such as Martin
Luther King Jr. strongly advocated integration in both the public and private
spheres, believing, correctly, that separation always entails inequality. But a
later generation of black leaders, partly in reaction to the white backlash at
black progress, partly out of black pride and a growing black-identity movement,
actively promoted apartness in personal life. Most black leaders now accept school
segregation, as long as blacks get an equal share of educational resources.
Separate but truly equal in private life is increasingly the preferred position,
though glossed over8 with multicultural rhetoric.
Whatever the reasons, the persisting separation of blacks in private life is a
tragedy for the group, since it cuts them off from vital social networks and the
essential cultural capital that comes only from intimate social relations with successful
members of the dominant group. An Obama presidency has the potential to change this. His
policies should improve the economic condition of all disadvantaged Americans. Beyond
this, there are strong hints from his speeches and writings that he will use the bully
pulpit9 of the presidency to encourage blacks to embrace those mainstream cultural values
and practices that have served him so well. His own life and spectacular achievements are,
after all, a living demonstration of what integration promises: not so much the
transcendence of race as the mainstreaming power of cultural fusion and the fulfillment
of King's vision of America as a "beloved community" whose "ultimate goal … is genuine
intergroup and interpersonal living."
c. 980 words
By Orlando Patterson
NEWSWEEK magazine issue dated Nov 10, 2008
1. besetting - hartnäckig
2. stain - Makel
3. to forge - formen, schmieden
4. body politic - Gemeinwesen, Staatskörper
5. paltry - dürftig
6. incarceration - Inhaftierung
7. endogamous - innerhalb des selben 'Stammes'
8. glossed over - überpoliert, beschönigt
9. bully pulpit - a terrific platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda
1. What were the consequences of the Jim Crow system after the Civil War and the emancipation
2. What were the major achievements for black Americans after the civil rights revolution
of the 1950s and 60s?
3. Although blacks made great achievements in the 1960s, e.g. the emergence of a black middle
class, they economically lag far behind whites. What do you think accounts for this dilemma?
4. Why is it that blacks mingle with whites in the public, but not in the social and private spheres?
Name at least three reasons and deliberate on them.
5. Asians and American-Mexicans have obviously better integrated into mainstream America
than African-Americans. Why do you think is this so?