The growing racial balkanization of this country is something to be concerned about. I’m not just speaking of the white supremacist movements to which Donald Trump has lent so much prestige and political legitimacy; I am also speaking of the self-segregation that seems to be coming from more and more black Americans, many of who seem to have reached a tipping point of sorts over the past year or two.
Two events, both of them at the recent Black Entertainment Television awards, serve as useful examples. The first was a speech by Jesse Williams, an actor and activist who took home the humanitarian of the year award. Williams announced:
We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment… ghetto-lyzing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
This is a rather pregnant speech, laden as it is with modish, academia-driven catchphrases: “whiteness” (which, quite obviously, is really just a synonym for white people); the term “body,” a weirdly trendy buzzword lots of folks use these days to describe black people; the idea that white people “steal” black “creations.” All of this could be lifted directly from an upper-level postmodern African-American lit course. But, more importantly, notice also the implicit, rather dismaying subtext: black people apparently exist entirely in their own socio-political sphere, separate, walled off from the rest of the body politic and the larger culture except in instances where white people “use and abuse” them; “black” “genius,” too, is apparently something that is distinct if not antithetical to “white” “genius.” There are a set of assumptions in Williams’s speech, and none of them are particularly pleasant, at least for those of us who view skin color as indeterminate and, ultimately, irrelevant.
The second thing that took place at the BET Awards was Beyoncé’s and Kendrick Lamar’s performance of the former’s “Black Lives Matter anthem,” the song “Freedom.” I’d encourage you to watch it: it is very good. It is also very heavily laden with the kind of militant, almost militaristic black aesthetic which Beyoncé has been cultivating recently. The whole Black Panthers thing at the Super Bowl was another example, as was a great deal of her video album Lemonade. The goofy belly-dancer levity of “Bootylicious” this is not. It is something much angrier, more deliberate, more purposeful. It often makes for great art and for great music. It also makes for a few other things as well: a kind of clarion call to black identity, one that seeks to set blacks apart from everyone else in a way that preempts other and arguably more important forms of identification and community.
I suppose it’s possible Beyoncé is just taking advantage of our current political moment for her own selfish purposes: maybe she just wants to use the Black Lives Matter movement to sell stuff. But I don’t think so.
What these examples point towards, I think, is not simply another manifestation of “black culture.” The intent here seems to be not merely to create but also to divide: to draw a sharp line between two things and then keep them separate. Earlier this year Saturday Night Live ran a spoof film trailer entitled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” which mocked the purported shock that white people felt after Beyoncé, well, “turned black.” It is of course a humor skit (and it is actually fairly funny). But it is also a commentary on how bankrupt popular American racial discourse ultimately is: it features the standard cartoonish, clueless white idiots; the black people either baffled by white idiocy or else smugly, serenely amused by it; and of course the overarching idea that whites are terrified by even the existence of blacks. Does this sound familiar? If not, you have not been following very closely the perpetual “national conversation” we’re constantly having about race.
Amidst this rather useless and counterproductive discourse, it is somewhat unsurprising that we may be seeing a rising and deliberate effort at racial divide, one that is not merely intentional and calculated but publicly celebrated. A lot of white liberal people, for one, seem to like it. White liberals can be astoundingly nasty towards black conservatives while at the same time shielding black liberals from any meaningful criticism whatsoever. It is not hard to see why many white liberals would be very excited at the rising cultural force of resurgent black militancy: it would confine a lot of black people to the narrowly-proscribed behavior many progressive whites think is acceptable.
Then, too, this steady shifting of cultural forces has surely been abetted by intellectually shallow public personas like Ta-Nehisi Coates, a fellow whose obsession with skin color borders on the neurotic and who tacitly encourages his readers to engage in racially-motivated violence.
Maybe this new militancy is just a passing cultural fad, and it will fade in a few years. But maybe not; indeed, if Donald Trump wins the White House in November, it’s entirely possible that his small, anonymous, cowardly but very vocal white supremacist contingent could further inflame certain passions and push more black people towards the kind of intellectual and cultural self-segregation espoused by people like Jesse Williams and Beyoncé. It is a very troubling thing to contemplate: American history is littered with the poisonous effects 0f racialism, and it is certainly not hard to see things getting worse than they already are.