I finally got around to reading Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America this week. Despite my doubts, I hoped that the famed Washington Post columnist, MSNBC rock star and Pulitzer Prize winner would say something profound, or at the least, provocative. Not only did I not learn anything new in the three and half hours it took for me to read Disintegration. I learned that Robinson, like so many accomplished Blacks of his generation, doesn’t see Black Generation Xers when talking about the state of African America. The generational divide, perhaps the greatest example of disintegration that Robinson should’ve discussed, he rendered invisible throughout his book.
I know I’m late by Black literati standards in taking so long to sit down and read this book. After all, I bought the book this past Christmas as my personal birthday present. I had a feeling, though, that somehow, this book really wasn’t for me, a forty-one year-old Black Gen Xer who’s spent about half of my life thinking about this and other related issues. To slightly misquote Arnold Schwarzenegger from Total Recall, “Welcome to the party, Robinson!”
Over and over again in Disintegration, Robinson referred to the positions of Black Baby Boomers in a splintered Black America, as well as to the hopes, fears and aspirations of millennial generation African Americans (particularly on issues like the decline of interracial prejudice and educational attainment). I guess because Robinson mostly relied on his personal journey as a guide to understanding the history of African America’s disintegration — including using his sons as a time line template — it meant that folks born between ’65 and ’85 didn’t really count.
Unless, of course, they were part of the Abandoned class, the ones who found themselves increasingly poor and isolated after ’68 in communities like Shaw and U Street in DC. Or, in my case, on the South Side and other pockets of Mount Vernon, New York by the late 70s and ’80s. Then Robinson’s sympathetic voice kicked in, one which acknowledged all of the ills that one in four Blacks face every day. Still, Black Gen Xers are only in the Abandoned in Robinson’s mind and words by proxy.
There are far more obvious errors of omission in Robinson’s somewhat thought-provoking, 237-page column than leaving out an entire generation of post-Civil Rights era Black folk. Like Robinson stumbling his way into Thomas Sowell’s “model minority” argument like a punch-drunk boxer in the final round of a fight. Or, really, like a writer running out of steam at the end of a manuscript.
Robinson’s fifteen-page chapter “The Emergence (Part 1): Coming To America” is all about a new immigration wave of Blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean who are more highly educated than any other immigrant group arriving these days (and are better educated than most Americans, for that matter). Yes this is true in the aggregate. But besides a few examples that serve to exaggerate more than enlighten, Robinson’s analysis sounds like Sowell’s arguments from ’72. Only without the conservative policy implications and with a generous lack of sophistication in understanding the diversity within these immigrant groups.
There’s also the use of these troubling terms of Transcendent and Mainstream, both of which evoke a ’70s-style thinking about African Americans who’ve “made it.” How about “New Black Elite” and “Successful Yet Struggling Black Middle,” both of which are more accurate descriptors? I understand that Robinson’s purpose with Disintegration was to poke and prod readers, albeit in a light way. Still, the book seems written for what he would describe as aspiring Transcendents who are far too busy climbing social ladders to think about cultural and community disintegration post-1968, rather than those of us who do.
Which brings me back to Robinson’s Black Gen X blind spot. How is it possible that someone with the panache and diligence of Robinson could forget about the 26-46 year-old demographic in Disintegration? The reasons are as plain as the positions of prestige that Transcendent African American Baby Boomers occupy and cling to like a man with a fingernail death grip on a precipice. (And, despite Robinson’s protestations to the contrary, by his own definition, he and his family are Transcendent. Who else gets to hang out with Oprah and Vernon Jordan or do interviews with President Obama without being Transcendent?)
Me and my generation of Blacks had been written off by Robinson’s gangs of elites and wannabe elites by the time I was a college freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in ’87. Our ideas about the disintegration of Black America and what that has meant over the past forty years are undoubtedly fresher. Yet we as a group aren’t asked about our ideas. Apparently when Black America disintegrated, we fell into a black hole. At least in Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.