Friday, April 25, 2014

the league of extraordinary black gentlemen

theatlantic | This is my reality: As an upper-middle-class black male, I am seen as part of the solution class tasked with rescuing my nation from its problem and my race from itself. Yet, ever since my childhood, I’ve been held at arms-length by two cultures. Many of my black peers were bused in from the other side of town; after hearing my diction and learning I lived in a suburb replete with green lawns, two-car garages, and debris-free streets, they labeled me an Oreo, a well-worn slight indicating blackness on the outside and whiteness on the inside. Meanwhile, as the only black kid in my neighborhood or honors classes, I was called a “raisin in a bowl of milk.” Some of my white friends invited me to their homes for parties and sleepovers, but introduced me as their “black friend Teddy.” I was never black enough for the ’hood, but always too black to exist without a race modifier in my own neighborhood.

As adults, we Tenthers joke about having our “black cards revoked.” And in the next breath, we trade stories of professional connections that masquerade as interracial friendships—so dependent on code-switching that we envision them telling each other, “It’s almost like he’s not really black.”

Both sides make the same basic claim about us: we are exceptional. But they don’t mean this in the usual way, as an objective observation of personal excellence or meritocratic achievement. Instead, it’s an assertion that sets us apart from the rest of black America, implying that we’re oddly different and a little less Negro than the others. We’re anomalies wherever we go, considered less authentic than the brothers in the inner city and certainly less-than-totally acceptable to the larger society. The solution is at hand, and yet, the problem remains.

And what have we accomplished? Segregated schooling and housing practices still exist, though they are now economic and social conditions instead of legal enforcements. The Tenthers haven’t been able to change the rigorous policing and biased sentencing that have imprisoned vast swaths of our communities, eroding families in the process. Despite the economic success of our privileged circles, black wealth, income, and unemployment are perpetually at recession and depression rates. Key victories for voting rights are slowly being rolled back. The results of all this include children who fall behind in school before they are even enrolled, health disparities made worse by poverty and racism, and public policy that maintains systemic inequalities.

The reality is, of course, we Tenthers were never the answer to begin with. We bought into the idea that education, personal fortitude, and hard work would be enough to overcome history and raze barriers to equality. But in the process, we’ve set ourselves apart from the two communities we were created to bring together.

How does it feel to be a solution? It feels like social carpetbagging, always code-switching to blend in with whichever environ we happen to be in. This is more than just a social survival skill; it’s become a matter of identity. There is no turning it off, only tuning the rheostat. We will never completely fit in America, and will always be confronted by preconceived notions. DuBois charged us with relieving the burdens of “an historic race, in the name of this the land of their fathers' fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.” Yet, we are an exercise in insufficiency.