It was an honor to attend Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson’s dinner presentation on race diversity in today’s America. His speech explored the research and insights that contributed to the creation of his recently published book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.
Robinson reflected on how he felt on the 2008 election night: “I knew it was happening, but like many other African-Americans, I didn’t really believe it was going to happen.” Once President Obama was elected, he said he called his parents to let them know that they’d lived to see the election of the first African-American president. So much had happened, he said, since he grew up, on the “tail end of the Jim Crowe era in South Carolina.”
After President Obama was elected, Robinson had the opportunity to interview him—in the Oval Office. “Usually I’m not nervous for interviews, but I was shaking like a leaf!” he said. But it struck him that everyone in the room at the moment was African-American, and he thought to himself, only in this year could this happen.
“It was a moment of great comfort and affirmation,” he said. “But I soon gathered that other American didn’t feel the same way.”
President Obama took office when a lot of change was happening demographically, which produced anxiety for some people. Robinson said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the Tea Party demonstrations happened at this time, and that one of the signs held up was “Take our country back.”
One 2007 Pew study came out with a poll, which found that 37 percent of African-Americans stated that black Americans can no longer be thought of as a single race—a fact that struck him as something interesting and upsetting enough to pursue further research. His investigation showed him that there are, in his opinion, four distinct groups comprising black America, rather than one. These groups span from the “very tiny elite,” which he calls “the transcendent” and includes figures like President Obama and Oprah and ranges to a lower class group who he dubs “the abandoned.” The climb to the middle class is much more difficult today, he explained, especially because many blue-collar jobs don’t exist anymore.
“The distance between these four entities is growing, not shrinking, which is upsetting,” he said, “Without political will, imagination, determination, and resources, a whole lot of people are going to be lost, and that’s a tragedy for this country, and for a lot of individuals,” Robinson said.
But he remains optimistic and marvels at how much has changed in a relatively short amount of time. When he grew up, he said, they had to go into stores the back way, and couldn’t sit in the waiting room at the orthodontist with white patients.
"Somehow, through this, we manage to edge forward,” Robinson said, “So we do make progress. . . it just hurts along the way.”