Disintegration

The Splintering of Black America

By Eugene Robinson

Doubleday. 254 pp. $24.95.

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by MiChelle Jones


Race and how it plays out in various aspects of American life - politics, in particular - frequently turn up in Eugene Robinson's twice-weekly column in the Washington Post.

Race is also the central theme of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's third book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

Robinson grew up in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era; his memories of that time are part of his analysis of a new black America, one that has made significant advances since the late 1960s, but that has also become fragmented for various reasons.

Now rather than just one community with similar goals (namely, achieving equal access to securing the American dream), Robinson posits the existence of four black Americas increasingly separated by "demography, geography, and psychology."

Those groups include a "Mainstream" middle-class majority with the values, lifestyles, and goals of other middle-class Americans; an "Abandoned" minority; and a small "Transcendent" elite (think Oprah Winfrey).

The fourth, the two-part "Emergent" group, is composed of recent immigrants and biracial people who are redefining what it means to be black in America.

Disintegration is the continuation of a discussion that began as an informal address Robinson made to black publishing executives, which he later explored in a column. His writing style is easy and accessible - though he seems to have given up on semicolons and come to rely on short, punchy sentences instead.

He also steps in for occasional first-person anecdotes and reflections, which could be odd intrusions. But given Robinson's access, it makes sense to tap into his reporter's notebook from time to time.

One example is the chapter on the Abandoned, which he opens with observations from reporting trips to New Orleans during the post-Katrina chaos. Like those struggling to get out of the Crescent City, Robinson says, members of the Abandoned elsewhere in the country cannot escape their impoverished and dysfunctional existence without some sort of domestic Marshall Plan or localized nation-building.

Just as the conditions in New Orleans managed to rattle the veteran journalist, another moment that gave him pause was when, in Washington waiting to interview the president, he realized that "Everyone in the Oval Office at that moment, including the most powerful man in the world, was African American."

Given that a black man now holds the most powerful position in the world, Robinson understands how some people would question the necessity of continuing affirmative-action plans.

His response? Sons and daughters of the Transcendents don't need the help; children whose families are in the other three groups still do, to balance the lack of inherited wealth, legacy admissions, and inside connections.

But Robinson says he believes we are moving toward a time when race will become less and less relevant. He believes subsequent generations who grow up steeped in diversity from a very young age will continue to develop personal relationships with members of other races without it requiring a conscious effort.

Meanwhile, the way black people think of themselves is also changing, and that is one of the key points of the book. Robinson questions what this means for everything from political affiliations to the unofficial acknowledgment blacks traditionally give each other in passing, particularly when in predominantly white environments.

Eye contact and a quick nod, "an affirmation of something shared, something remembered, something understood," Robinson writes. He is beginning to wonder how much of the black experience is really shared now and also wonders if fewer people are nodding back.

MiChelle Jones, a writer based in Nashville, Tenn., always nods back.