In his book "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America," Washington Post columnist and MSNBC commentator Eugene Robinson has finally come up with a resonant term for the black urban poor: Abandoned.
It's simultaneously blunt-force and poetic, accusatory and entirely objective, journalistic but also sympathetic to a crisis among this particular group of black folks that Robinson declares we no longer have the luxury to ignore (recession-racked America no longer has the luxury to do many things, so this feels timely). Abandoned is just one of the four distinct black demographics Robinson says has formed in the last 40 years, since the unofficial end of the civil rights movement: The other three are Transcendent, Mainstream and Emergent. Divided mostly by class and worldview, Robinson posits each group as operating in different economic, cultural and philosophical spheres: Transcendents are the relative handful of super-achievers like Oprah and Obama whose wealth and/or status equal or exceed that of whites; Emergents are the striving black immigrants and mixed-race blacks who challenge traditional black American history and identity; the Mainstream are the vaunted middle class that Robinson describes as having a "full ownership stake in American society." And then there is the ghetto-ascribed Abandoned, the larger-than-life "minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end."
What "Disintegrated" argues is that, despite all these groups separating over the decades by income -- blacks as a group went from being overwhelmingly poor in the '60s to just disproportionately poor today -- they are more bound together than modern appearances suggest. Connecting them all, or haunting them all, is the Abandoned. This is the grimly real yet near mythical group against which the others measure their aspirations and success, the collapsed star with a gravitational force from which all of us -- not just blacks but all Americans -- are continually trying to escape. The results have been disastrous, not for the escapees, but for those left behind. In 2010, 145 years after the end of slavery, the black poor remain the least fortunate and most intensely isolated of all Americans. It is an isolation that Robinson says must be broken -- now.
It's a bold call to action. But Robinson, fully aware of how much political resistance has developed to even addressing racial inequality, let alone doing something about it, builds his indignation slowly. He starts out the book with a scene to warm the heart of conservatives, a gold-plated party full of Washington movers and shakers who all happen to be black. Here is a clear sign that African Americans have arrived. But it's also a sign of something gone wrong; in a thesis/antithesis move that he makes again and again in this book, Robinson warns the black affluent against believing too much in its own, well, transcendence. "The Mainstream, Emergent and Transcendent all lock their car doors when they drive through an Abandoned neighborhood," Robinson notes wryly. "They think the Abandoned don't hear the disrespectful thunk of the [car door] locks; they're wrong."
Robinson's fleet-footedness and frequent sense of humor while detailing a nearly hopeless situation rescues "Disintegrated" from being well meaning but didactic; he knows how to be circumspect and play devil's advocate without blunting his own message or sacrificing the integrity of his own vision of change. He also does a tricky balancing act -- is he Mainstream, Transcendent? Abandoned at heart? -- by weaving in his own story about navigating his way to success in the Jim Crow South.
It's a story that sanctions personal initiative but, more important, describes the great social forces of racism and segregation that have not entirely gone away. It also makes clear that Robinson's success, and the success of his fellow black fortunates, simply do not negate the problems of the other 30% of blacks who continue to struggle at the bottom. That percentage is unacceptable, given black people's history and that we've been at this justice thing so long. This is the racial paradox of the Obama era that Robinson puts in our faces and insists that we make a decision about.
In terms of a solution, Robinson advocates only enacting something large-scale and radical, a Marshall Plan for the inner city. One idea is to bring back affirmative action full strength -- but focusing it on where he says it's needed most: the black poor. While this challenges everyone, it particularly challenges the black middle class: Are you ready, Robinson asks it, to sacrifice what's necessary to save your Abandoned brethren?
I don't know if he has much faith in the prospect; while he praises the middle class for giving back, he admits it can be as unreflective and shortsighted as all consumers with a certain amount of suburban comfort and discretionary income. "Socially, economically and culturally, the black mainstream is part of the American mainstream," he observes. "Middle-class African Americans buy too much on credit and save too little for the future, they burden their children with high and often unrealistic expectations, they drive automobiles that are excessively large and wasteful ... in short, they behave just like other Americans." He's in good company -- in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. worried about the same thing. More than 40 years after King's death, Robinson offers an answer.