The Racial Draft

Originally posted 8/6/07, scroll to the bottom for update in light of current events.

Note: The title of this essay is borrowed from a Dave Chappelle sketch imagining the possibility of changing racial allegiances.

For several months now, I’ve been pondering several puzzling and seemingly contradictory trends in American racial consciousness. On the one hand it seems as though America’s younger generation (25 and under) is more willing to judge people individually, rather than by skin color, and more likely to have friends (or lovers) of a different race. On the other hand, it seems as though that same generation has a particularly vicious and stereotypical notion of black culture (AKA “gansta culture”) that they accept without much thought or reservation.

Similarly, within black America, it seems like many young black people are willing to uncritically accept the negative image of black culture as valid and genuine, while at the same time an increasing number of young black people are willing to reject those same stereotypes within their own lives.

At first I felt as though I was seeing a paradox. Is America’s youth (and by extension America’s future) less racist or more racist?

The solution to the puzzle came to me, however, as I pondered the shifting racial portrait of America, given the rising numbers of Hispanics/Latinos. I also recalled my experiences working at Charlestown High School near Boston. CHS was a school famous for having experienced riots when black students were first integrated into the working-class white population during the civil rights era. At the time when I worked there, however, the black and white students seemed to exist in perfect harmony. The racial tensions in the school manifested largely among the Latino and South-East Asian populations at the school, both of which struggled with English as a second language and both of which seemed to be fighting to avoid the lowest place in the school hierarchy. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I had never been anywhere (in America) where a racial hierarchy existed, but blacks were not on the bottom.

I now realize I was seeing a vision of a possible future. Malcolm X famously claimed, in his autobiography, that the essential step for an immigrant to be embraced by the majority white population, was to learn the word “nigger.” In other words, the classic racial hierarchy of America was structured so that blacks would be permanently at the bottom, and any other group could assimilate into the upper classes as long as they were willing to support the continuance of that hierarchy.

Now, however, with the huge influx of a poor and Spanish-speaking population, the racial dynamic is posed to shift. There is a new candidate for the bottom position, and accordingly, America’s blacks are being prepped to assimilate upwards. Thus, the paradox of a generation that rejects “black” culture while embracing black skin. The hidden message is that blacks will be welcomed into majority America if they are willing to reject identification with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden, and if they are willing to give up any and all traditional expressions of black identity.

Of course, the other price will consist of a willingness to ally with the (shrinking) white majority in order to force the new immigrant population down to the bottom of the heap. If this is the direction things go, we should experience a coming era of racial tension between blacks and Latinos, with a a new crop of black leaders gaining prominence through their attacks on immigrants.

Of course, this is only one possible scenario. A more typical outcome for an immigrant population is for it to follow the pathway Malcolm X outlined, and to be absorbed upwards on the racial ladder, becoming “white” –as has already happened with the Irish, the Italians, the Jewish and the Indians — but with blacks retaining the place at the bottom. A final scenario is what might be the ultimate nightmare for the old racial power bloc –an alliance between blacks and the Latinos, thus creating a new, non-white majority, and a drastic shift in racial dynamics across the nation.

Only time will tell.

Update 9/5/16, below video

This post is eight years old, but two factors give it renewed relevance.  One, struggling with a dismal 1% support among black Americans, and having burned bridges with the Latino community over issues of immigration, Donald Trump has chosen to recenter his outreach to the black community around a racial draft offer very much like the one outlined above.  The evidence is his continual attempts to drive a wedge between black and immigrant communities by highlighting incidents where black American citizens were victims of violence by illegal immigrants.

The other is the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which, in some readings, can be considered as a rejection of the racial draft.  It reaffirms the identification of the black community as a single unit across social-economic lines, and challenges the notion that wealth and middle-class values are an escape from the harsher realities of racial inequities.

So, two current events pushing in opposite directions.  Which will win out?

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