Of all those that have responded to the recent attention paid to shootings of black Americans by police officers, some of the most vocally distressed have been upwardly mobile black people in the middle and the upper middle classes. Many of them have been direct and blunt about the source of their anguish —they thought money, education and social standing would immunize them from the dangers and indignities faced by less-advantaged black people, and were shocked and disillusioned to discover it would not.
Plato once described a city with any wide gap between the poor and the rich as really being two separate cities, each perpetually on the brink of war with each other. As the disparities in prosperity and lifestyle become more and more pronounced, the two cities come closer and closer to open conflict. For the rich city to maintain its position above, and in exploitation of the the poor city, many tools of control must be utilized, ranging from shows of force to deceit.
In America, one of the pressure valves that metaphorically releases steam, and prevents class warfare and riots in the streets, is the possibility of social mobility (at least in theory). The deal has always been the same. You can leave the lower class and enter the middle or upper middle class, but at the price of forswearing all allegiances to the poor. You can save yourself, but you must abandon them.
The same is not true for those of a darker hue. This accident of easy visual identifiability in fact led to the original condition of black enslavement in America, as what was originally similar conditions of indentured servitude for blacks and whites gradually evolved into different destinies largely because it was so much easier for a mistreated indentured servant to successfully run away.
Even after slavery was legally ended, there remained a core commitment among many whites, and unfortunately internalized by many blacks, to the effect that no matter how educated, wealthy or accomplished you might become as a black person, you would always remain a N —a semi-human creature of bestial traits and no intrinsic worth.
There was a flip side, however, to this widespread, indisputably psychologically damaging racist attitude. In response, the black community remained far more unified across economic boundaries than any other group. Far more than was true among the white community, there was an actual sense of brother- and sisterhood between poor and wealthy blacks, an acknowledgment that in the eyes of America they were the same, and shared the same destiny.
Certain things began to change this over the last fifty years —legal and actual shifts in racial attitudes, the emergence of a tiny, but highly visible group of super wealthy black entertainers and athletes, the demonstration by the OJ Simpson trial that obscene wealth could actually tip the scales of justice for a black person in the same way as it routinely did for whites. Access to the middle and upper middle classes became easier and more genuine for a small fraction of the black population, and in response, the inter-economic bonds of the black community weakened.
Malcolm X memorably claimed in his autobiography that wave after wave of poor European immigrants became accepted as white only after learning the word N —in other words, that the dirty hidden secret of the melting pot of the united white majority was a shared commitment to maintaining the permanently disadvantaged position of the black underclass. America was a place where you could blithely forget that you had once been despised and scorned for being Italian, for being Irish, for being Greek, for being Romanian, for being poor, as long as you were only willing to give an extra kick to the black race as you entered the big shining door marked “Whites Only.”
That brings us up to the present day. There is a black president in the white house, but members of the post-racial middle class, both black and white, have been forced by recent events to confront the continued unending existence of a disadvantaged black underclass —that sizable majority of the black people in the country who still live under conditions of crushing poverty and casual violence —and the continued survival of color-coded responses under which a black person will be treated like a poor person, regardless of how much money is in his or her pocket.
So what’s the correct route forward? I think the first step is to recognize that race, as we understand it in this country, is a fiction, a tool of nothing but oppression. Color-coding people is ubiquitous, because it is easy, permanent and (typically) unambiguous, but it is merely the laziest possible expression of a universal human urge towards prejudice. Even in all white nations, in all black nations, in nations where every person is of mixed race, the exact same dynamics exist —the only difference is how hard people need to work in order to discriminate. The problems that we think of as racial problems are in fact socioeconomic problems. The wider the gap between the poor and the wealthy, the more in which success is made into a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, the more inevitable that every available tool, especially including race, will be used as a cudgel to beat down the people on the bottom, and maintain the place of the people on the top.
The key moment for me in my life as a black person was when I stopped running from being black and embraced being black, because it freed me from the tension every black person in this nation feels between “Am I too black?” and “Am I black enough?” If I am a black person, then to whatever extent that identity has validity, anything I do is “black” because I do it. I don’t have to listen to “black” music or watch “black” movies to be black. If blackness is a birthright based on skin color then I own it, no matter what: It cannot be increased or lessened.
Similarly, I believe that the key moment for us as black people in this nation —that we arguably played the largest part in building —is to accept that our mission is not to “uplift the race” but to uplift the nation. By virtue of that skin color that identifies us, we play a unique role in America. We cannot be free until everyone is free, because as long as there is inequity for anyone, we can count on being on the losing end of it. I think it’s time to realize there is blessing as well as curse in this. Alone among Americans, we can neither forget nor disavow our poorer relations, which means that alone among Americans, we have an inescapable commitment to the betterment of all.
The biggest lie told about Martin Luther King day is that we celebrate it in this country because of what he did for black Americans. “America” doesn’t give out holidays for what people do for minorities. Martin Luther King is celebrated in America because of what he did for all Americans. He saved the nation as a whole from a disastrous race war, and charted a peaceful way forward from an intolerable situation descending into violence.
The destiny for black Americans is not fair (in any sense of the word) but it stands as a high calling. We are the moral conscience of the nation, whether we wish to be or not. It is time to embrace that fact. Rather than allowing either our foes or loving friends to cast us as victims, we must take charge of our own path forward, as leaders, not of black America, but of America as a whole; and not of America as it is, but of America as it ought to be.
It’s no step forward to simply take our “rightful” place in a unrighteous system, and we must therefore let these recent events serve us as our wakeup call. If we are not to be allowed to forget that we are black, then neither should we forget that we are human first, brothers and sisters to all humanity, wealthy and poor.
Fifty years ago, it wasn’t simply a matter of finally getting our piece of the pie. We were a voice for the voiceless, a hope for the hopeless, all around the world. It’s time to live that dream again.