BLACK LIKE WHO? Beyond Assimilation
September 17, 1991
These days, if you read The New York Times, you may have already formed the correct impression that Afrocentricity is largely a question of history and pedagogy. What contributions, if any, have African cultures and civilizations made to the West? (See Manin Bernal’s Black Athena and Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilization or Barbarism.) What contributions, if any, have Afro-Americans made to U.S. culture? (See any book by Henry Louis Gates Jr.) How will such contributions be recognized and acknowledged by curricular reform? How will such matters be predigested and served up as a list of tasty facts for public school instruction and SAT exams? Nathan Glazer, a member of the Sobol Committee to review the social studies syllabi in New York’s elementary and high schools, tells us in The New Republic that driving such reforms are the performance problems black children are experiencing in school. Afrocentric and multicultural educational reforms are designed to redress the high dropout rate and the low SAT scores and reading levels of black children.
On the other hand, Glazer says, Afrocentrism and multiculturalism, by emphasizing “difference” and minority perspectives on national history, don’t acknowledge that the immigrant experience has largely been one of assimilation. Most Americans couldn’t care less where their ancestors came from. Moreover, he says, there is little evidence that recent Asian and Mexican immigrants want to do things any differently. That Afro-Americans and some Latinos want to emphasize “difference” reflects the fact that their attempts to assimilate have been frustrated.
I am not so sure about this word assimilation. I suspect that the tendency for ethnic and postethnic populations around the U.S. to formulate endlessly minute hybrids and variations on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit should be called something else that better reflects the fluidity and anarchy of the process. (Just think of the difference between folks in Buffalo, New York, and Amarillo, Texas, or Chimayo and Miami.) But I am sure of this: the resistance blacks and nonwhite Latinos have experienced to their upward mobility is called racism and thus far Afrocentrism and multiculturalism seem an inadequate response to it.
I am opposed to viewing “facts” as the major building blocks of education. Seventy-five per cent of the time what goes on in school, when it is going well, is socialization. The integrated Lutheran elementary school I attended had more marks for manners and courtesy than it had for math or science. And with good reason. I was learning how to fit in. School was reinforcing the message I got from my family: bathe, wear clean clothes, speak when you’re spoken to. and everything will be okay. This all-important process continues right through college. Consider, for example, those loathsome fraternities and sororities on every campus.
But the rest of the time, what makes pedagogy worthwhile is now the experience of education is structured, how the student learns to interrogate “fact,” to challenge facticity. What we saw recently in the streets of Moscow and two years ago in Tiananmen Square — a population standing together to resist official “lies” and to fight for “democracy” and “freedom” — this, too, is taught in school. So the very notion of an Afrocentric educational formula in which a list of appropriate “facts” would be disseminated strikes me as almost completely beside the point.
The problem that Afrocentrists and multiculturalists are facing is a breakdown in the socialization process, what Glazer calls “assimilation.” My older Jewish colleagues at City College are fond of describing how they were successfully “assimilated” or socialized by arrogant, perhaps even anti-Semitic WASP teachers at Columbia University and elsewhere who knew nothing of their heritage or their struggles in Russia or Poland. But what they forget, again and again, is that they were white, or at least — as James Baldwin might say — about to become “white.” Being white meant they didn’t have to combat racism as they swallowed the Eurocentric brew at the tea party of American education.
By “racism” I mean the idea that other races, especially black descendants of Africa, are inferior to the “white” race. The idea of black inferiority has a particular history in U.S. and European development, and often an interesting relationship to other kinds of bias, such as misogyny and anti-Semitism. This history, unfortunately, is rarely taught by either Afrocentrists or Eurocentrists and this has always been and continues to be my problem with both programs.
Since the category of “race,” itself, is both racist and mythological, and a symptom of what Frederic Jameson calls “the political unconscious” in that “we,” as a culture and a civilization, find it almost impossible to describe it ethically or empirically, the mistake that both Eurocentrists and Afrocentrists make is to almost completely discount it. In fact, I think “race” is an embarrassment to everybody. But by ignoring it, we all, unconsciously, conspire to make it tick.
My “white” colleagues had the option to be good little boys and girls, politely imbibe Eurocentrism and unite with their WASP teachers under the banner of whiteness. People who are not only not white but are black are rarely faced with that option. This doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of exceptions, like Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. What it means is that there are only exceptions, or “tokens.” (In agony, I include myself in this group.) And the bulk of people of color, by which I mean those who are too black to become “white,” will remain the unsocialized, unassimilated horde who don’t do well in school because before you can do well in school you have to be accepted, and who don’t do well in American society because before you can do well in American society, you have to be accepted. (See the Crown Heights riots.)
Of course, money helps. But there isn’t much of that around, is there? As for the conspiracy theories and “fact” formulas of the Leonard Jeffrieses, need I tell you what grade he gets in courtesy?