Just as the 21st century has witnessed the paradox of the rhetoric of white privilege and the reality of white death, we’ve also seen increasing black privilege, but with the benefits flowing mostly to the whitest of blacks. The ongoing flight from white helps those blacks who are almost but not quite white, such as former national security adviser Susan Rice and her affirmative-action-eligible children.
White elites are happy to promote black privilege because they don’t see many American blacks as being anything other than token competition for their children at getting the really good jobs. For example, in 2016, more than a half century after the political triumph of civil rights and in a year in which the legal profession donated 28 times more money to Hillary than to Trump, only 1.81 percent of law-firm partners were black.
Far more salient competitive threats for hereditary white elites are Asians and, most important, the white masses.
African-American culture is spectacularly successful at producing sports and entertainment celebrities, but depressingly dysfunctional at uplifting the black masses and making them competitive. Therefore, despite growing demand for African-Americans to fill set-aside jobs, ever fewer typical black Americans are up to the minimum demands of analytical jobs.
Thus, the roles as spokesmodels for African-Americans are increasingly being filled by an odd assortment of immigrants and Americans with at least one white parent.
After eight years and 333 rounds of golf by our recent Honolulu preppy president you might think we’d start to get the joke. But instead the more the evidence piles up, the less we are willing to notice it.
Back in 2004, The New York Times reported:
While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard’s undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them—perhaps as many as two-thirds—were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples. They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves.
But with the emergence of Barack Obama later that year as the great Democratic hope, Gates and Guinier more or less dummied up.
As Hillary’s failure to motivate blacks in key Electoral College states to turn out suggests, the future increasingly belongs to the small number of individuals who can, Obama-like, scrape together some biological claim to blackness without being weighed down by African-American cultural traits.
I was thinking of these conundrums while reading an op-ed in The New York Times, “Black and Proud. Even if Strangers Can’t Tell” by Rebecca Carroll, boasting about how her son will inherit her black privilege despite, due to her leftist white college-professor husband’s genes, looking white:
My 11-year-old…gets mad sometimes, though, that people don’t immediately register him as black. “You’re so lucky,” he said to me a few months ago. “People look at you and know that you are black.”
Ms. Carroll herself is a sort of professional black woman (her bio reads “Rebecca Carroll is the editor of special projects at WNYC and a critic at large for The Los Angeles Times”).
Indeed, she’s highly representative of how unrepresentative our black intellectual class is becoming:
I was adopted into a white family.… In the 1970s Warner, N.H., then a town with a population under 1,500, where census data indicates that I represented the black population in its entirety… In middle school, I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my white classmates that even though I look black, I am actually biracial—my birth mother is white and my birth father is black—and so I wasn’t really as black as they thought. What’s more, my adolescent logic went, my adopted parents are white, so that should count for something, right?
Carroll isn’t the most agile thinker (being black in a field with high demands and low standards for black punditry—witness the triumphant career of poor Ta-Nehisi Coates—she doesn’t have to be). But her artlessness can be informative:
My son is not the only light-skinned, mixed or biracial person I know who identifies primarily as black. Increasingly, I have observed my adult peers and colleagues who fall into this category not merely identifying as black, but routinely pulling out the receipts to prove their blackness.
She attributes this to blacks suddenly becoming cool:
Some of this may have to do with what the brilliant Jordan Peele, who is also biracial and black, tapped into for the plot of his genre-redefining box office hit, “Get Out”—that it’s cool to be black right now, that we are trending.
In reality, blacks have been cool in popular culture as far back as I can remember: perhaps to Bill Cosby in I Spy over fifty years ago. Still, it’s unlikely that Get Out’s message—when in doubt, kill the white people—will do many blacks besides Peele much good.
Strikingly, while 21st-century whites mouth a lot of shibboleths about how race is just a social construct that has no biological reality, blacks like Carroll think that is stupid.
Carroll starts off on a politically correct note:
Being black in America has historically been determined by whether or not you look black to nonblack people….
Actually, not really.
In Jim Crow America, being black was being known to have black relatives even if you didn’t, personally, look black. The most famous example of this was Walter White. Not Bryan Cranston’s character on Breaking Bad (although Vince Gilligan, a complex thinker, likely had the historical example in mind in some fashion), but the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1931 to 1955.
Blacker blacks often joked about the NAACP standing for the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. And White was extremely representative of the American mulatto elite who tried to hold themselves apart from the black masses in the fashion of a Caribbean middle class.
He was 27/32 white and claimed descent from President William Henry Harrison on his mother’s side. White wrote in his autobiography A Man Called White: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond.” He was recognized as a Negro because he associated with his blacker-looking relatives, thus self-identifying as black.
A lot of people today overlook the relationship between race and who your relatives are for several reasons:
First, Americans love to say stuff like “Race is only skin-deep.” It sounds profound, but is superficial.
Second, Americans traditionally don’t think systematically about family trees. The English language isn’t very precise about relationships beyond the nuclear family because Anglo-Saxons were less interested in extended family than anybody else on earth.
Third, Americans love to say, “Race doesn’t exist,” even though your biological family tree is just about the most real concept there is.
Fourth, genes and looks go together, especially for sub-Saharan African genes, which are pretty distinctive. Most people who are 5/32 black tend to be slightly blacker-looking than Walter White.
For example, when novelist Philip Roth, author of one of the better books about passing, The Human Stain, met the dashing literary critic Anatole Broyard (1920–90), a Louisiana “Creole of color” who went out of his way not to identify as black and is now infamous as the last prominent figure to be outed as passing for career reasons, he admits he may have looked up the word “octoroon” in the dictionary.
Fifth, there just haven’t been until very recently many people who are about 5/32 black in the United States (other than Latinos). Although trendy intellects like Coates love to burble about “people who think they are white,” the average amount of black ancestry among non-Hispanic Americans who self-identify as white is vanishingly small: 0.19 percent in a recent study by genome firm 23andMe.
The old one-drop system meant that most people who self-identify as black are more black than Walter White, and almost every single person who self-identifies as white is less black than that. Due to the racially split workings of the marriage market with a binary color line, there aren’t very many Americans who fall in the Walter White range.
In contrast, in Latin America, where there is a color continuum (whiter is better) rather than a color line, there are huge numbers of George Zimmerman-like people who are a little bit black. When Zimmerman shaved his head for the Trayvon Martin trial he looked oddly like the son Barack Obama never had.
In South America, transracialism is fashionable. The top Brazilian soccer star, Neymar Jr., used to look black, but by the 2014 World Cup he’d succeeded in looking like, say, a Hawaiian surfer of white, Filipino, and Puerto Rican descent who has gotten back into Blink-182.
Now, you might think that as America becomes vastly more Hispanic in numbers, American intellectual culture might start absorbing Latin concepts like the color continuum and transracialism.
But there is zero evidence of that happening, because virtually nobody who writes for The New York Times takes seriously what Hispanics think. Ms. Carroll, for example, rightly points out that in the U.S.:
You inherit race, though…. We’re reminded of this once again by Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who made national headlines in 2015 for claiming a black identity because she felt like it…. She is the biological child of white parents….
As you’ll recall, Dolezal was nationally shamed for claiming to be black at the same time the president was celebrating Bruce Jenner’s claim to be female. Dolezal’s parents had adopted blacks, so she was raised with black siblings, which might help explain her feelings. But she won almost no sympathy. Transgenderism is a recognized thing in 21st-century America, while transracialism is not (unlike in Brazil).
As Dolezal learned, in America, race isn’t, ultimately, about how you look, it’s about who your ancestors are. Carroll exults that even though her son doesn’t look black:
For my son, though, being black in America is about more than his skin color. It’s about power, confidence, culture and belonging…. That my son sees more power in centering his blackness over exploiting whatever white privilege he may ultimately be afforded is a thing of glory.
In contrast, despite all the talk about white privilege, being a generic white American is a pitiful thing:
When my son first started to black identify at about 5 or 6 years old, an acquaintance of ours asked my husband, in my presence, if he felt like we were “depriving” our son of his “white side.” My husband, a sociology professor and the author of two books on the failure of housing and school desegregation in the United States, said: “If my parents had instilled any Italian culture in me, I might want to share that with my son. But if you’re talking about general whiteness, there’s nothing there to pass down.”
At last count, 17 members of the Forbes 400 list of American billionaires had Italian surnames. Some of them no doubt identify strongly as Italian-Americans, while others see themselves as Catholic-Americans and others as just American-Americans. In any case, powerful Americans with Italian surnames aren’t insignificant, but they aren’t numerous enough to be hugely powerful, either. They aren’t seen as much of a threat to anybody.
On the other hand, if the 17 Italian-Americans joined up with the 215 to 220 other members of the Forbes 400 list of billionaires who could all lump themselves together conceptually as, say, non-Hispanic gentile white Americans, that could be a hugely powerful number, if they thought of themselves as a group.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much intellectual effort is therefore devoted to disparaging “general whiteness” as having “nothing there to pass down.”
This divide-and-denigrate strategy appears to have been highly successful. There are no respectable organizations looking out for the welfare of the 200 million or so Americans afflicted with “general whiteness.”
Of course, a cost must be paid for this accomplishment. Thus, virtually nobody recognized the onset of the white death around 2000 until November of 2015.
In reality, however, Europeans have recognized white Americans as the possessors of a distinctive national character at least since 1776 when Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the single most broadly successful man in history, arrived in Paris as the ambassador of the new republic.
The urbane Franklin, the most effective diplomat in American history, put on a facade for the French as a noble savage, a backwoods sage, Rousseau’s new, improved version of Voltaire. He disposed of his fashionable clothes and let his hair grow. The French went wild over Franklin’s act. He managed to talk the French monarchy into bankrupting itself to help the America republic achieve independence.
But it wasn’t wholly an act. Franklin had thought harder than anyone else about what it meant to be an American. He identified certain advantages that Americans possessed over Europeans: an absence of class strictures, a lack of peasant fatalism, and, most of all, economic freedom from the Malthusian ceiling of the Old World.
Because their population was limited while their continent was not, Franklin observed in 1754, Americans could afford to live large.
Today, Franklin’s perception of America is seen as out-of-date. The New World has been retconned by billionaires as deserving to be crowded, poorly paid, and class-ridden. Perhaps not surprisingly, each year tens of thousands of Americans brought up on Franklin’s more expansive American dream are giving up and dropping dead.
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