Saturday, May 25, 2024

Black like whom? American-born or not?

August 8, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( When Jesse Jackson was running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination 20 years ago, the civil-rights movement veteran said to his integrated gatherings on the campaign trail that, if elected, he could not legislate against poor performance in school or irresponsible sexual behavior. At the time, that was seen as a sober look at some problems that still bedevil black America.

That might shock the pants off those who recall how much controversy Jackson recently engendered when caught on mike angrily saying that Barack Obama was talking down to black people in a Father’s Day speech that was largely directed at those black men willing to have the singularly intense human fun of making babies but unwilling to care for them once they arrive in this world. How now, brown cow?

Jackson expressed the opinion of far, far more black Americans when he had implied the thing that Obama said directly, calling for those errant black fathers to stop being boys and start behaving like men by assuming the demanding but rewarding job of fatherhood. St. Paul might have most famously made the point in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Now it seems that a form of ethnic confusion for which Jackson is largely responsible could have an ironically positive influence on another ongoing problem: the self-destructive, lower-class idea that black kids who do well in school, speak English correctly and do not exhibit the anarchic behavior and stupidity so common in the most popular hip hop videos are, somehow, “trying to be white.”

That is a childish idea that the black lower class needs to put away as soon as possible because, as yet another new study of black Americans shows, the overwhelming majority of that so-called minority group believes that education is one of the best ways to ensure one’s chances of success. I would add that that is especially true in an increasingly technological world in which backward achievements such as illiteracy are not valued – and never should have been.

Jackson’s insistence that black Americans should be called African-Americans to give them specific connection to a continent and to some sort of pride was often defended by those pointing to the term “Italian-American,” which, unlike what Jackson proposed, referred to a specific place and culture on which variations were made in Italy. That is why, in private, Africans have often laughed at black Americans for believing that the endlessly complicated African continent – with all its contradictions, enmities and extreme cultural diversity – is no more than a one-dimensional, uniform “United States of Africa.”

Complexity, of course, has never held much sway in ethnic or identity politics, which can most easily be explained in terms of three words: “us and them.” That is always a distortion of true American history because any group with an irrefutable gripe has always progressed most through coalitions, which is how things work in the United States. In other words, coalitions based on shared principles are the fundamental rules of change.

Now, the NAACP’s demand for immigration reform against policies that were favorable to European immigration has resulted in 2 million immigrants and their children from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and so on. Linked up to affirmative-action policies that have been expanded from the descendants of American slaves to women and any “people of color,” we now find ourselves in a new situation, with new advertisers and unexpected intricacies.

An ongoing study at Princeton, conducted by Dr. Douglas Massey since 1999, reveals that 40 percent of black students at Ivy League universities are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Uh-oh, but maybe not uh-oh. That these students do not see high-quality performance in school and sophisticated behavior as proof of a lack of ethnic pride or self-hatred or being overwhelmed by “white standards” could be very beneficial, in a way that nothing else has. It might change a debilitating perspective drastically.

While black Americans know little about African religions, history, politics or anything else, they are learning something very important right now. Employers are said to prefer actual African-Americans – black immigrants – because, right or wrong, they assume two things about black people from outside the United States: that they deeply believe in education and the competence that comes with it.

If this country is absolutely lucky, the black lower class will begin to learn with ever greater quickness what black immigrants and everybody else in the world already knows: Quality skills, quality performance and quality products have three obvious things in common. They trump color and national origin in this global economy and will only continue to do so.


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