Thursday, September 13, 2012

Integration: A Gift and a Curse

WEB Du Bois said the problem of the 20th century is the color line. The problem in the 21st century is when we cross the color line, what happens next? What happens after you crash the glass ceiling to be the first?

Ta-Nehisi Coates of "The Atlantic" did a brilliant job answering this question in terms of the greatest glass ceiling breaking – Barack Obama becoming the first person of color to be President. The dilemma of integration is that while it created so many opportunities for my generations and generations before and after, it also created problems people can’t handle. 

"The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld." - T. Coates

The article confirmed what I figured in 2008 and later wrote in 2010. Barack Obama being the first Black president was a heavy burden. Just like Jackie Robinson or anybody in the 70’s or 80’s who had to face being one of a few Blacks at a company. My parents faced that at their jobs. My cousin faced that starting the church I now attend back in the 50's and 60's. 

They shone through stronger but I know that burden of coming home and saying how you had tolerate jokes or wonder if you had a heavier burden because of your race (Gabby Douglas is the latest to feel this). Whenever you break down barriers for others to follow, what happens next can be even harder to handle.

At my school, I didn’t have to worry about being twice as good because I already felt I was. I didn’t need to prove myself in the classroom. Yet my freshman year, I was worried about appearing too Black. I didn’t buy certain shoes or want to be looked at as an athlete. Certain clothes were left at home cause I wanted people to see me as a student.

Why was that? I had been integrated in multi-ethnic private schools since I was 10. I knew how to deal with White environments? Maybe it was more just adjusting a new environment but now 10 years later, I wonder if it was subconsciously a race thing more than creating a new identity. I'm glad I escaped that fear sophomore year and stomped all over it my last two years.

Coates’ article highlights the problem with people focusing on that small phrase of the “I Have a Dream” speech.  I have a dream that one day my four little children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin

The problem with that is people want you to leave your race completely at the door and be colorblind all the time. Ultimately you have to pick and choose when to remind people you are a certain race.

Barack Obama was able to speak life to the Trayvon Martin case because he knows firsthand if he had a son, what he’d have to deal with. He did the same for students with debts – universal issues that transcend race – without worrying about much backlash. But speak on race and he’ll be labeled as X-Y-Z. 

I’m glad Coates reminded me of the Beer Summit because it symbolized 1) Obama realizing he had to choose his battles/words carefully responding to racial matters. 2) The new way to handle race – a nice little meeting where issues are hashed out and everyone’s happy after without necessarily getting into the nuances or institutional problems.

Yet the article wasn’t an indictment of Obama. It’s an indictment of integration and the history of attempting to defang African-Americans in the name of progress. It’s making White Americans look at why integration benefits them almost more than Black Americans because they determine the rules (i.e. I don’t see Blackness and you shouldn’t bring it up either). 

The one thing I love about The Colbert Report is how silly Stephen Colbert makes being colorblind seem when it comes to race.
"Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents...and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture "- T. Coates

I wrote 2 years ago that I felt Obama was being held back. He wasn’t being as tough on his critics or speaking on certain matters for whatever reason. But even then I knew that because he was the 1st, he had to tread lightly and it was a road that ultimately hurt our pioneers in the future.

Integration also means avoiding anger due to Fear of The Angry Black Man. You almost have to be careful showing anger because you don't want to make people think you're angry just like everyone else. It's people expected you to be composed despite when righteous anger compels you to speak up for justice. It's people expecting you not to bring up slavery/racism or seeing race in everything.

I’m not saying you have to throw up your Blackness all the time but you shouldn’t have to deny it when it lends perspective. I don't mind when we look at ourselves because we need to but at the same time, we shouldn't be the only ones being introspective.  

Bringing up Shirley Sherrod was even more saddening. It made me not only angry again at the late Andrew Brietbart but how jumpy the Administration is on race. Not only are they cautious on speaking on it, they had to act quickly on Sherrod without even considering the context. Business as usual where somebody is clipped.

Sherrod deserved much better and instead of just being a success story of integration and America’s racist past, she’s a victim of it (something I touched on 2 years ago). A victim of race-baiting and a smear job first but also a victim of being taken out because it appeared she was hurting the president instead of doing due diligence. You would assume that a Black president would say let’s wait and see – the same way we notice White folks in power do. Instead, she was clipped like business as usual.

It’s a powerful, thought provoking article. It makes me sad, angry, resigned and reflective on how integration, for all its benefits, has created a slew of new problems.  It’s become a great stepping-stone for success but it’s also a burden when you realize the cost of your acceptance. You can’t always bring yourself fully into a job and you may not always have enough support to survive once you get there. 

 "Whatever the political intelligence of this calculus, it has broad and deep consequences. The most obvious result is that it prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war.

 "If the fact of a black president is enough to racialize the wonkish world of health-care reform, what havoc would the Obama touch wreak upon the already racialized world of drug policy?" - T. Coates

Integration is a problem because those being integrated don’t make the rules. By definition, you are being fused into what’s already established. But since you are coming in to another system, you often have to sacrifice part of yourself. Goes back to the old joke about the 70’s. How did they calm the revolutionaries down? They gave them jobs.

I think about how my generation and younger are the children of integration. So infused with cultures that the future won’t remember when there were Black-owned radio stations and independent Black films besides Tyler Perry. Some were raised to not see color and as a result, they lack the awareness or willingness to deal when it comes up.

Integration can be lonely. It can lead to false sense of importance that you made it and others didn’t. It can make you independent and more jaded/hardened. But while it can teach you so much, what it teaches can be a harsh truth that success can come at a cost for those pioneers paving the way and their descendants who have to tread lightly.

The goal used to be grooming people to be able to thrive in mainstream environments. Now the goal should be teaching them how not to lose themselves or forgetting their history in the name of advancement. If Barack Obama's presidency is teaching us anything, it's that integration and silly terms like "post-racial" mean nothing if all hearts aren't interested in changing

Integration is indeed a gift and a curse. A gift in barriers slowly breaking down and opportunities opened up. A curse in how your identity could be challenged, changed or compromised. A test of your character. Coates’ article highlights that reality not just for President Obama, but for America as well. I salute him for it and it'll leave a mark on me for some time.


  1. Some more gumbo for your bland palette. Keep bringing it Ev.

  2. Preciate that one fam. Just feeding some perspective into folks' train of thought in this election season.