Community Investment Must Supplement Racial Integration

While we await what impact the BLM-spawned protests will have on race relations, one immediate result is clear. Major corporations have gotten out front of the issue and tried to kickstart change from the top. Companies like Walmart have opened their coffers, giving millions to the cause. And mainstream media organizations have included more people of color, especially blacks, in public-service inserts as well as in product advertising. Grit TV, a rerun channel owned by E. W. Scripps and devoted to the white-male genre of classic westerns, serves up a persistent appeal to its viewers to join BLM, prefaced by visual snips of moments in anti-racist history from the Civil Rights era forward to the George Floyd killing. Netspend, an “alternative financial service” offering non-credit-check plastic cards, demos its wares with spokespeople whose shades of dark make up nearly the total number in the testing pool.

There was a darkening of advertising copy when Obama was elected so there’s no striking change here. But there is in the imagery that dramatizes the proximity of whites and blacks, an effort apparently to insinuate the value of integration.

Many public-service snips stress that dominant institutions must include more blacks, that “separate but equal” is no longer tenable in this time of striking inequality. While this separation, as felt and experienced now, doesn’t have the same status as the concept introduced in the Plessy Supreme Court case of 1896, and nominally reversed in the 1954 Brown case, there’s no question that segregation indices are starkly evident again a half century after MLK’s assassination, as the New York Times editorial board documented on this anniversary in 2018 (“The Unmet Promise of Equality,” by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis, 3/1/2018).

The mingling and mixing of color grades would not seem to easily coexist with these trends, but this is apparently the point. This process might begin to break up segregation patterns through modeling at the top.

Diversity has been the conceptual buzz since the Democrats began to stress the positives of racial and ethnic identity against the Civil Rights-era narrative of anti-racism in the mid-1970s. This was an adjustment within the focus to cure racism, which slighted the urgency of fighting inequality directly in favor of demographic inclusion, making society blacker and browner. It led to an increase in the numbers of diverse citizens (Walter Benn Michaels, 2004).

Other factors have contributed to this increase. Immigration patterns, for example, have changed since the early 1960s. The flow from mostly-white, European countries—which experienced a relative catch-up with the US—slowed, while the influx from the darker and off-white countries of Africa, South America and Asia increased. The birth rate among cultures of color versus whites has also contributed to this increase. And corporate recruitment in these same countries—often locations for the multinational offices—has brought a pool of educated here as well, not to mention through the hiring of their citizens who get educated in the US.

While this diverse darkening is the visible narrative, most viewers surmising from appearances that this country is fast becoming more equal and racially just, the increasing rift between whites and blacks in the aggregate numbers in fact begs the question as to how clusters of racially deprived can remain hidden from view. Greater diversity has not come to coexist with diminishing inequality because despite the improved color coding too many are excluded from mainstream, white institutions and living separately, and as a result the numbers are distorted. They don’t reflect the presence of class.

A diverse darkening, it seems, must accompany the forging of a relation between degrees of color. The greater chance to mix and mingle leads to a better opportunity to access the means for mobility and the achieving of greater equality. And, as Martin Luther King stressed, proximate interaction breaks down prejudice and leads to more equal treatment as individuals have a chance to know each other personally (hence the early stress on bussing). This also helps explain why whites who grow up in pockets—mostly rural—where there are only traces of minorities, develop prejudices. Though a twist is that they may never get a chance to act on their mental distortions if they remain in these closeted communities.

The greater presence of advertising dramas that depict racial integration are indeed a positive development. The simple fact of seeing harmony acted out presents the possibility that consumers will model it and perform accordingly, even if they aren’t the target group for the ad. In the world of mainstream advertising, the targeted audience is an upscale one with plenty of disposable income; and understandably since these ads are extremely expensive. This also means that the products will be expensive, not the type the working class buys because companies that sell them could rarely get a fair return to justify the marketing to a group that has little disposable income.

The targeting has changed as a result of the change in income distribution. The relative success of the working class in terms of wealth and income in the 1970s was responsible for the profusion of populist, everyday-people shows on television, and ads were accordingly pitched to this group. This kind of realism vanished in the 1980s, however, as the wealth transfers from the working class to the middle and upper classes ensued. To reference the racial slant, the realism of Fred Sanford’s career as a junk dealer was eclipsed by the utopianism of Cliff Huxtable’s career as a doctor—not to suggest there weren’t black doctors!

But since the high cost of ads precluded selling products that the working classes could afford, and anyone could surf the fare free of charge even if they couldn’t afford cable, they could convert to voyeurs for lifestyles that were mostly out of reach. This planting of desire in the audience for the values packed into both programs and products encouraged many, however, to strive for a better life, to move up the ladder of success. And whites were attracted to these programs because they were proof to them that inclusiveness was not just a liberal theory.

My point is that this upscale targeting is even more firmly entrenched now with income inequality having increased well beyond what it was in the early 1980s. The emergence since then of a sizable upper-middle and upper-class black culture, from which Trump drew significant support in his 2016 victory, has skewed racialized media representations even further away from the lower classes. Ads with a plurality of darkish testifiers, actors who’ve niched privilege slots in the system and muddled through at least some degree of systemic racism as well, model the comfort and confidence of customers with the potential to consume the products that are out of reach for the lower classes, the nominal target for change in the wake of the recent protest actions.

The excluded of color can surf and sponge what inspirations they can from these dramas, getting pumped up to integrate, but what can the impact be if the gap is too wide? Do the vast numbers of victims of the Covid-induced economic downturn really believe they can vault themselves into higher spending brackets at will, buy that insurance from Blue Cross, Anthem, SCAN and other corporate health insurance carriers—so many of these integrationist ads are for health care—at a time when millions are losing it because their disappeared jobs offered the only lifeline. If image-surfers are inundated with examples of blacks and whites living harmoniously and consuming lavishly when their means to do is shrinking rapidly, will there be an increase in cynicism in the absence of policies to fund a relative catch-up? The official institutional call for dominant institutions to bring blacks in, break down the “separate but equal” conceptual barrier, will possibly become transparent hypocrisy when more and more are being jettisoned from the mainstream, inhibiting progress in curing racism.

Seeing the unified family of professional sports players calling for boycotts and withholding their labor appears to be a powerful stimulus for change. But does this mostly demo the extent to which members of a culture can be so wealthy that they’re beyond competition of the kind that breeds racism? Black NFL players comprise 70% of the active workforce, and they live relatively integrated lives. Dominating the sport numerically, they function with a certain immunity to racial friction—in their workaday environments at least—from the white minority whose position of power and affluence also immunizes them against threats. Despite some off-the-field gesturing, all the brothers interact in bliss, suggesting that racism is a mental condition to be overcome through exacting spiritual isometrics that make them “stronger together!” The message: Anyone can play, no need for a bank account.

But once the surfing hangover abates, a bank account is precisely what will be needed to kickstart the survival process down below. The lack of material means for the larger family of deprived who occupy this subterranean space threatens to scuttle the potential for unity as the consumers of these ideal images circulating through their everyday lives finally realize that however sweet it is to embrace them in the hope of transcendence, the day will arrive when the pretty pictures will not provide enough nourishment for their necessities. They’ll begin to ask why those amazingly successful athletes, role models for their future, can’t pass a little of that green along to them, not as a handout, guilt-alleviating philanthropy that keeps them dependent, but as community investments that give them the opportunity to rise in status.

We’ll not likely witness class-inspired, black activism any time soon, but we’re probably seeing the effects of this hierarchy and exclusion in the hopelessness and alienation of everyday life. And without material ballast, this deprived family will experience degrees of slavery when they circulate through the mainstream and try to integrate. Complete integration tends to be the dominant culture’s goal because it keeps the minority strivers striving a little longer, but when individuals disperse through the networks available without the benefit of group power they slip hopelessly behind.

This is not unlike what fueled the myth of the melting pot that pulled immigrants here in the early years of this country, beckoning breeds of difference to come and mix. Assimilation was the nominal goal of this process, an advanced form of integration that pushed for the absorption of all differences into one homogenous culture. This formula had currency when the breeds were mostly white and the barriers to assimilation potentially permeable, but the onset of immigration from the darker countries in the early 1960s, as previously mentioned, imposed firm color barriers, freezing the movement toward equalization.

This process therefore has not been popular among the diverse minorities of recent times. According to Malcolm X, writing in the early 1960s when these new patterns surfaced, integration works for racial groups which have achieved a degree of relative equality, possessing sufficient capital assets to power themselves through the economic and racial barriers. Otherwise a form of colonialism results. Hence his analogy between the forced poverty among developing countries and that in the black inner cities.

Susceptible to repression when dispersing to areas away from their indigenous communities, lacking the means to negotiate acceptance and tending to be disproportionately blacker than those who successfully integrate, members of the deprived family remain, congregating with insufficient means to develop their neighborhoods and thrive. But these inner-city areas lack the capital investment to sustain a thriving jobs economy, the industry that once had at least a paltry presence there taking flight to the suburbs in the 1970s, as William Julius Wilson shows through his extensive studies. Calls for more material investment in these areas are increasing, even among critics like David Brooks.

Malcolm X proposed a stronger form. He pushed for the sufficient capitalization of the black community to construct a nation within the nation, one that could generate the resources to achieve relative equality with dominant white America. Admittedly, blacks are potentially victims of barriers that other minority, ethnic groups may not be, but some of the latter have made this nation-building formula work. LA’s Korean community is one of the most successful examples. Its wealth has compounded through the investments of successful community members, helping residents to construct an economy relatively independent from the dominant mainstream. Capital that stays in the community works to keep more people in it but also helps members who’ve benefited to disperse through the mainstream with the means to compete with respect on an equal basis. This power also gives them the ability to resist the racism they experience when negotiating with those outside the community.

Other racial-ethnic groups, especially the Hispanics and the non-Korean Asian-Americans, invest in their communities in a similar fashion. The results over the past few decades have been striking, evident in the narrowing of the inequality gap with dominant white America. Access to higher education is especially notable for both of these groups, with Asians sending such a surplus of highly qualified applicants to elite colleges and universities that many have had to be excluded, prompting legal challenges, as in the recent Harvard University case. And notably, the violent crime rate in these communities is significantly lower than in the predominantly white communities. This is especially true for black communities where this rate is four times as high as it is in white communities after adjusting for the population difference (bjs.gov).

The success of this creative integration formula begs the question of where the top-down advertising-integration in the corporate mainstream will lead. Will it finally be supplemented with capital contributions from the black elite, or from other public and private sources? Or will the reparations formula govern, replacing the community investment option? California just passed legislation committed to paying reparations to blacks, but this approach will apparently target individuals primarily.

What change in mindset will be necessary to make the integration/separation, nation-building coexistence formula work in black communities? Is the governing force behind change, BLM, even capable of mounting such a move given its proximity to major corporations and its limited agenda?

And will pursuing this nation-building model force a reset of racial relations in post-Trump America? The Asian-American and Hispanic successes in gaining independence from dominant white power will likely make participating in a multi-racial coalition less necessary. In fact, these groups are already veering away from the BLM-inspired anti-racist coalition that privileges the binary of white versus black, and the Democratic Party that is perceived to be bonded with it. The support for Trump among Hispanics has grown from 30% in the 2016 election, to 41% in a recent poll. Asian-Americans, though no monolith, have trended toward the Democrats since 1992. But since the 2016 election they have moved toward the Republicans—though still expressing support for the Democrats (fivethirtyeight.com).

As we approach the November election it’s perplexing to witness these racial-ethnic groups identifying with the status quo and not the challenges to it that invest the lives of the other groups, particularly blacks. What can they see in the Trump coalition that benefits them? Is it that they believe they can best resolve issues pertaining to their nation on their own, bolstered by the confidence of their relative prosperity, and this coalition will help preserve their positions versus other groups? What is it about the BLM-inspired Biden coalition that’s less than appealing? Do they see the Democratic Party as mostly a caretaker for black concerns, like the white working class that voted for Trump in 2016 in response to years of neglect?

Are we witnessing the collapse of the liberal narrative nurtured in the founding Civil Rights era of the mid-1960s that focused integration when racial divisions were starkly defined through the distinction between centuries of white privilege, on the one hand, and the slavery legacy of minority segregation on the other? As Ross Douthat claims, that was a time when the assimilation of European immigrants had been exhausted, and the exclusion of those from Africa and other dark countries imposed. We were a country where 88% of the population was categorized as white, blacks making up most of the differential (“Which Party Represents the Racial Future?” New York Times, 9/15/20).

As of 2019 whites make up 60.1% of the population, the differential made up of 13.4% black but many more non-white groups who’ve come here since the immigration policy change in the 1960s (census.gov). Though these new arrivals span the spectrum from brown to black, they have variable histories. Not all have been exploited in their countries and therefore aren’t likely sympathizers of blacks victimized here through the legacy of slavery, ready to collapse all non-white experience into a shared story of racist oppression. In fact, as mentioned earlier, corporations have been actively recruiting a diverse, educated workforce from oversea for some time, the culture of these immigrants radically clashing with indigenous blacks, especially the working class.

But as these diverse groups increasingly embrace the nation-building, relative integration option, perhaps this will influence the progress of indigenous black experimentation, change the debate about what whiteness and blackness means in our evolving moment, and spark new formulas for repairing racism.

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class