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‘Amazing’ Civil Rights gains divided black America into ‘separate races.’

November 19, 2010

Eugene Robinson: More than another talking head.

Eugene Robinson basked in praise at the Miami Book Fair yesterday, some for  his Washington Post column, more from MSNBC junkies. Yet in telling the story of his new book, Disintegration, the veteran newsman left out the nut graph: What it means that black America is fragmenting, and what to do about.

“I get a whole day away from my dysfunctional MSNBC family,” quipped Robinson of his star turn at the book fair. “And I get out of Washington, which is also dysfunctional these days.”

I can’t comment on MSNBC, as I’m not a news junkie but a news snob: If it ain’t in print, then I don’t now about it. But it doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize winner (Robinson won for commentary in 2009) to see that Washington isn’t working right.

Still, Robinson came to Miami to talk about a serious topic, summed up in the subtitle of his new book, “The Splintering of Black America.”

Robinson argues that African-American society has split into four distinct (though sometimes overlapping) groups:

The “Mainstream,” his term for the black middle class, 55-60 percent of the black population; the “Abandoned,” those mired in intractible poverty, 25-30 percent; the “Transcendent,” a tiny elite of athletes, entertainers, politicians and corporate titans; the “Emergent,” which Robinson divides up into two subgroups, immigrants and the “bi-racial.”

Interstingly, black America already seemed well aware of such divisions before Robinson identified them. He quoted a Pew Research Center study that 37 percent of African-Americans believed black society “can no longer be thought of as a single race.  That’s almost four out of 10.”

Robinson, whose book surveys 140 years of American history, mixing research and reporting with personal anecdotes from his childhood in South Carolina, says the new divisions are largely the results of the success of the Civil Rights movement.

Those success removed at least some of the barriers to black professional and economic advancement, Robinson argues, and diluted the “socially integrated” neighborhoods of the Jim Crow era, when black college professors, seamstresses, construction workers and teachers might live on the same block.

What was left after black professionals began moving out — often with the double impact of white gentrification — was “pockets of concentrated black poverty,” Robinson says.

“Of course, no one would turn back the clock,” Robinson says. “These are the results of amazing victories in civil rights. But I hope people get an appreciation for what was lost.”

Robinson pointed out some fascinating points. When Obama wanted a tough executive to straighten out Citigroup, he called on retired Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. A black president tapping a black executive for a high-profile job? Not so long, “that could never have happened,” says Robinson.

Likewise, Robinson quoted the astounding fact that African immigrants are the best-educated group coming to America –better than Asians or Latin Americans. Half the blacks in a recent Harvard freshman class had African surnames, even though they make up only 10 percent of the African-American population.

Robinson had little to say about how these new divisions in black America interact with other aspects of society, such as lingering white fear, submerged racism and the prospect of new segregation. He did not consider how the rising Latino population — which recently surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority group –will effect black society.

While it would have been more informative if Robinson had pursued some of these issues, I suppose we must turn to his book (“a clear-eyed and compassionate study,” says Publishers Weekly). He barely touched on his proposal for solving the looming problem of persistent black poverty.

It’s an issue he examines in depth in the book. His solution: “a domestic Marshall Plan aimed at black poverty” — although he acknowledges any such program is highly unlikely in the current economic and political climate, no matter how much sense it makes for the betterment of society at large, nor how much justice demands it.

“Intractable black poverty is, charitably, unfinished business,” Robinson said, “and uncharitably it is a national disgrace.”

The “Evening with…” series concludes with a double header tonight, scientist and novelist E.O. Wilson at 6, and newly minted National Book Award-winning memoirist Patti Smith at 8. Both sessions are $10, and both are sold out, although there will be a stand-by line.

The Street Fair, which also started today, will see more than 300 authors speaking and reading at the book fair in downtown Miami this weekend, plus exhibitors’ booths, a celebration of Mexico, children’s activities and more. See for details.

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