Saturday, May 08, 2010

Black and white in the age of Obama

30 years ago I had an essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer making the point that racial segregation in the South had become a project primarily to satisfy the dominant liberal temperament of northern people and while the South had effectively integrated in the 1960s, the north and Philadelphia, where I lived, had not.

The South, white and black, shared a core in religion, primarily Baptist, of a form which might be considered indigenous to America and to that region, while both religious Southern whites and blacks were inherently alien to the commence-based culture of the north. (“Horse-worshipin’ Yankees,” wrote one detractor.)

Not long after I worked in a very good college in the South which made sincere effort to integrate along those deep and resonant lines of culture, region and religion. It was John Hope Franklin who made the point that black and white in the South shared culture and created one another.

It was a great opportunity for the South. Economy was booming. Poor blacks and blacks from the country where heart was trusted over head could find a natural and organic cohesion with whites in the Baptist chapel. But what destroyed those honest attempts can be understood in two words: diversity and globalization.

Diversity became the buzzword in the Clinton era. It took the college administrator, whose job it was to raise funds, off the hook. The problem no longer need be seen as economic; Southern blacks left out of regional economy. It became aesthetic: Prejudice is so fifties. And not just against blacks, against everybody. You could substitute Chinese instead. Rich ones. Or East Indians. Rich ones. Or gay people, or Iranians, or Valley Girls or Zoroastrians. The possibilities were endless.

The few rural and religious blacks brought in after that were like Kafka’s hunger artist: Short term novelties lost and forgotten in the hay. They huddled by themselves – country bumpkins virtually outcast in the new upscale cultural environment – with the few religious Southern whites in the Pat Robertson corner.

Travelling recently with one of my sons to those same Southern colleges these past weeks, the morph seems complete. There were tons of Indians, Chinese and other Asians on campus. Money talks. I inquired a while back and was told that the rich Asians, who pretty much pay full boat and are generous alumni, pay the way for poor blacks and poor white kids like mine.

The school tour guide in one school in particular that had a long and laudable Baptist tradition going back to the 1840s, was obviously embarrassed by the religious heritage. She was from New Jersey. Yes, there were Baptists here long ago but now this is the center of the school, she said, proudly pointing to her sorority house. She guided the tour away from the historic chapel and avoided the topics of race, religion and culture like the plague.

No question, the school was fully globalized, although the diversity of the student body seemed to reflect every race, ethnicity, creed, code and sexual orientation they have in New Jersey. Maybe that is what they mean by globalization; all different, yet all the same, like Pete Seeger’s little boxes. But there seemed to be only enough black students - great looking ones too, all in J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch - in view to supply the school’s front office in years ahead and the college brochures and to give a little talk on MLK day.