Pulitzer Prize-winning writer charts diversity within the black community

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer charts diversity within the black community

June 27, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

"Now that we have a black president, are we done with this diversity thing?"

This question, posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson at the Saturday morning keynote address for General Synod 27, forms the central thesis of his current book-in-progress. The Washington Post writer and MSNBC commentator provided his own answer.

"Diversity is not a destination, it's a journey… If you stop pushing, if you stop trying, you backslide," he said. "The problem is, the target keeps moving... The black community is very different from what most people think it is. My book is about the diversity within the black community."

Robinson is better poised than most to discuss this issue. "I was born in 1954, and my early years were spent during the last throes of Jim Crow in the South...

"I was in high school in 1968 when an incident known as the Orangeburg Massacre occurred…

"My house was right across the street from the campus. I have this vivid memory of waking up and looking out the window. I saw patrol cars and officers with rifles. That afternoon three black students were killed, all shot in the back or in the soles of their feet.

"Fast forward to election night 2008, and I'm with my dysfunctional MSNBC family…We'd seen the exit polls, and we got word that at 11 p.m. the network was going to call the election for Obama. I was able to call my parents who still live in that house in Orangeburg and tell them they had lived to see the election of the first black president.

"It's all the more poignant in that my father died on Jan. 2 — but he didn't get cheated."

Dan Hazard photo

Robinson stressed that there is no monolithic African-American community. It is as diverse within as the country is as a whole.

"There was a time, 1968, when there were certain generalizations, Black America was poorer or less well educated than white America... Today there is a majority of African-Americans who are virtually indistinguishable from most Americans. This group is basically Canada!"

He also found a group that didn't exist in 1968. "People like Oprah Winfrey. They're not just prominent but at the very, very top in terms of the powers they are able to wield. The idea that the most powerful woman in television is a black woman. That's new!"

The furor that arose over the comments of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor drew Robinson's attention. "Her critics made an assumption without knowing it. They assumed that someone like (Chief Justice) John Roberts is not affected by his past, that there's some kind of neutral base line (white male) which is just how things are.

"But that white male screen is not transparent.

"While we're looking at Affirmative Action, let's look at the policies that allowed George W. Bush to get into Yale with a C average as a legacy admission. Why don't we call legacy admissions Affirmative Action... Let's just recognize that the white male filter is not neutral; it's just a screen through which they see the world," just like Sotomayor's. 

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