Are We 'Black No More'? Not Quite

Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson, whose church refused to marry them because they are black (WPTV)
Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson, whose church refused to marry them because they are black (WPTV)

(The Root) — Although 2012 did not produce the Mayan apocalypse, it did produce an unending drumbeat of claims for "postracial America." So much so, I suspect, that if Harlem Renaissance novelist and essay writer George Schuyler had lived through it, he would be inspired to write a whole new version of his classic novel Black No More.


In the main, the book is a biting satire of the dilemmas created by race and race prejudice in the United States, with the plot driven by the deeds of Harlemites Max Disher and his friend Bunny Brown. They concoct a way to make black people white. Yet as the book unfolds, the problems associated with race seem to infinitely multiply rather than vanish. There is a lesson for us there.

Think about all the grist for Schulyer's mill we received over the past year. In January of 2012, researchers declared it to be "The End of the Segregated Century." No sooner, however, had this conservative Manhattan Institute report come out than it became the subject of a wave of criticism. Of course, everyday experience and common sense makes it evident that distinctly black communities and "the ghetto" have not disappeared.

If we artificially set a criterion of 80 percent black neighborhoods as meaning "segregation," then yes, we've experienced big declines in racial isolation. The end of segregation? Not hardly. As research by sociologist John Logan showed, a majority of urban blacks still live in neighborhoods that demographers classify as "highly segregated." But if you'd read only the headlines, you'd have inferred that we were rapidly becoming "black no more."

Take the case of marriage and the family. Back in February the headlines told us that "Interracial Marriage Seen Gaining Wide Acceptance" (New York Times) and "Intermarriage Rates Soar as Stereotypes Fall" (Washington Post). And indeed, a Pew Center study showed that 8 percent of all marriages and fully 15 percent of new marriages in 2010 involved people of different races or ethnicities. Certainly this is real change from the Jim Crow past.

But don't let headlines create too distorted a picture for you. Every now and then it helps to look at all the numbers. In this instance, a full 85 percent — the overwhelming majority — of all marriages in 2010 occurred within traditional racial and ethnic boundaries.

Lastly, consider the bitterly contested presidential election contest of 2012. The optimistic interpretation, which I often like to emphasize, suggests that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by maintaining the multiracial coalition that elected him in 2008. True. However, his share of the white vote went down, while the vote he received from Latinos and Asians went up substantially. And increased black turnout was even more crucial to his victory margin in key battleground states. Does a black president mean the end of race mattering in our politics? Not hardly.


Yet I think it safe to forecast, with Nate Silver-like authority, that 2013 will be another year of headlines trumpeting the march of postracialism. It is a pattern from 2012 that I would rather not repeat. There is no avoiding it, I suspect, as every minuscule trend or change is routinely blown wildly out of proportion relative to the main underlying realities of day-to-day life.

Schulyer understood this pattern well. Max Disher, Bunny Brown and their scientific collaborator Dr. Junius Cookman devise a formula that is very successful and quickly becomes all the rage, turning black to white, seeming to wash away the "Negro problem." A key issue emerges. While adults may whiten their own appearance, any children they bear continue to be born black. Moreover, the importance of race to self-identity and to the larger national politics keeps reasserting itself.


The whole process creates unending complex machinations for Disher, Brown and America writ large in Schulyer's tale. The key implication of the book, for me, is that you cannot invest nearly 300 years of law, social arrangements, practice and culture in creating a racial divide and then, with the wave of a wand, pretend that it has all vanished.   

The current habit of America's vastly exaggerated self-congratulation for each minor to modest step toward racial progress is a case in point. Following Schuyler's insight from Black No More, all the bellowing about moving toward postracialism reveals less about how far we've come and much more about about just how far we have yet to go.


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.