The New American Assimilation Problem, Part I

[Inspired by conversation on A’Lelia Bundles’ status.]

In the conservative response to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, took the opportunity to change the subject. Rather than addressing rights, he decided to do what politicians love to do—address the purported wrongs of black folk. His message was clear and simple: African Americans would make more progress if they would assimilate. In his speech marking the occasion, President Obama also felt compelled to shift from rights to wrongs, scolding African Americans for their complicity in their social problems. Both drew the ire of many in the black community. Since then, CNN anchor Don Lemon and the comedian Bill Cosby have kept the issue alive by bonding over the need for black uplift.

Pointing out what allegedly ills black folks continues to have a way of placing America in a more flattering light. For many, this is necessary—indeed critical—because too many Americans of all backgrounds still associate our country with white people. This persistent tendency bears little relation to reality. For white people, it is a lingering taste of mastery lost; for black people, part of our white supremacy hangover. It matters precisely because it is a red herring driving our politics, blinding everyone to the fact that America is not white and that Americans are ill-adapted to thrive in the new economic order.

The way through this problem is not to ignore the question of race, but to bring into the conversation the race that needs to be discussed most—whites. Ultimately, to understand the nettlesome problem of culture and economic success, we will have to explore the issue of white Americans and assimilation. Put another way, we will have to explore the need for whites to assimilate. But first, we must pause and provide a long explanation to allow readers to reacquaint themselves with a few implicit assumptions in our national conversation.

To say that whites need to assimilate should be no more jarring to one’s thinking than the claim that blacks need to assimilate to succeed. After all, African Americans are an indigenous people welded into one ethnic group through the cauldrons of slavery and racism. No one expects the Irish to melt in Ireland, or the Germany to melt in Germany, but today, unlike in the past, conservatives expect this ethnoracial melting to take place. The only reasonable response is that under great stress Africans took the great cultural leap to become Americanized generations ago, but that very act produced a distinctly American ethnic group.

Ethnic groups are extraordinarily durable in the land of their origins. History rises up to speak to them on visits “home” to family reunions, on scenes of cotton and tobacco fields, old churches, shot-gun houses, run-down neighborhoods and familiar landmarks. African American kinship is a living thing with continuity that stretches backwards and forwards in time across oceans and rivers with a continuity of a river that needs not think to know. One can be at home in Chicago and New York and even more at home in Jackson or Jacksonville, and one needs only to enter the African American circle of we to feel the spirit—and sometimes the fire—of kinship. The African who visits America cannot feel what the African American feels when standing in the slave quarters of an old plantation, nor can they feel what African Americans experience at Gorée Island. It is not racial, it is ethnic and it is wholly American.

This is the ethnicity born in America that our national claim to being exceptional denies as it boasts of being a land of immigrants. African Americans and Southerners (and here I mean old-stock whites in the South) are the only American-produced ethnic groups in the land and our struggles are more profound than our discourse can capture with the concept of race. We are made of each other and our struggles are intensely ethnic like something out of the Old World. If Bobby Jindal has truly assimilated into anything, he must at least sense this.

For those none too familiar with American intellectual history, conservatives did not always think that the assimilation of blacks was either good or possible. In the old argument about blacks and assimilation, conservatives held that blacks could not assimilate because they were racially incapable of adopting white civilization. Despite having been in the United States before it existed, despite speaking English and eventually praying to a Christian God, despite slavery itself, despite having parallel religious and civic institutions, the Negro could never be assimilated as Americans. To be sure, in gross regards—language and religion—blacks could function at some level, but their lack of racial equipment meant they could never grasp the finer elements of American civilization. Thus, it was incumbent on blacks to accept segregation for the good of all concerned. Negroes should aspire to be the best Negroes they could be and conduct themselves in accord with the interests of the nation they can never belong.

Since the triumph of the civil rights movement, the conservatives, even Southerners with a wink and a nod, have tossed their old argument and embraced the traditional liberal call for blacks to be allowed to assimilate. (Struggle, especially defeat, has a way of cleansing the ideological palate.) In the new conservative argument, blacks can assimilate, they simply refuse to do so, and it is their refusal—not their race or our racism—that explains their dire conditions. History and racism explains little, in their estimation, and black pathologies are born within.

After being justly outraged, one should ask, what do conservatives mean? We need to probe more deeply how the concept of assimilation is being used, and what is being asked. Clearly conservatives know that blacks speak English and practice Christianity (for the most part). Though they do so grudgingly, the right acknowledges that blacks are domestic, at least like the flora and fauna, and loyal, at least like pets, so blacks in America are not placed on the terrorist list or lined up for deportation as illegal aliens. These traits notwithstanding, blacks, in the conservative mind, must be considered insufficiently assimilated. To be truly assimilated, it appears my conservative countrymen are saying, blacks must take on the cultural and behavior norms of whites to experience the bounty of America and be true Americans.

Yet conservatives are asking for more. They are asking for African Americans to melt. At its heart assimilation is an invitation or a command, a lure or a cudgel, to disaggregate as a people and become so many individuals. As our deracinated governor’s self-positioning suggests, blacks must cease to see themselves as part of a group as he has with great personal success. In this their patron saint is Frederick Douglass, for he not only called for blacks to assimilate, but also to ask nothing of the state. Selectively, conservatives seek to enlist the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his famous call for blacks to be judged as individuals rather than as a group. To be sure, his belief in the state’s role in social welfare makes him of much less utility and hence he must be reduced to a phrase. But the nub of the problem is African American solidarity—black tribalism, clannishness. Made in America, African Americans are now the obstacle to a colorblind or post racial society and the source of black ills. (Oh History, how cruel, how fickle—you never hold to the same beliefs long.)