What is HDC Reading?

In anticipation of the upcoming HDC 7th Annual Celebration Luncheon on April 30th, and guest speaker, Eugene Robinson, Executive Director, Marty Kooistra, recently had a conversation with Racial Equity Initiative Coordinators, Monica Joe and Reuben Waddy, to ask them about their impressions and key takeaway’s from Robinson’s book: Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.  

DisintegrationCover04.01.15Marty: Monica and Reuben, I hear that you have had a chance to read the Eugene Robinson book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, in anticipation of his appearance here.  Did it spark enthusiasm for you to hear him speak? 

Monica: It definitely helps shape the HDC work specifically for Seattle-King County and the Racial Equity Initiative, because he talks about how we can’t just address one “Black Community” because that doesn’t mean anything in this day and age.  So that definitely complicates our work while guiding how we move forward.

Reuben: The whole point of the book was to establish a sort of progression for how we view African American dynamics. How he framed that progression is applicable to how King County itself can become more inclusive. We have to be aware of cultural differences even within different cultural brackets.  And once you get to the nitty gritty, nuanced details, equity work becomes, not necessarily easier, but a lot more apparent with more definable goals.

Marty: What would you say is the main premise of the book?

Reuben: The book outlines the four different groups of African Americans in the United States specifically.  They’re divided by economic structure and culture.  You have the “abandoned class” of African Americans, located in impoverished communities.  You have the “mainstream class,” which is the middle class African Americans who are often seen as the anchors of the African American community in terms of social justice as well as economically speaking.  You have the “transcendent” class of African Americans, like the Obamas and the Oprah Winfreys who are seen as a class above the rest of the African Americans and who can truly usher in a new set of African Americans who view themselves with a lot more pride and see that it’s not impossible to make it all the way to the top.   And then you have the “emergent class,” which is broken down into two categories: the “immigrant class” and the “biracial class”.  Within the emergent class he discussed the dynamics of how you frame African American racial equity when African American isn’t applicable to every dark skinned person that you see.  How do you define African American, is that term obsolete?  In turn, how do you frame equity issues, is [this] forever a splintered group?  Or, to use his general premise, how do you use the mainstream to anchor the abandoned to the transcendent and then [fuse] the emergent class together so that they’re not all competing for the same resources.

Monica: I think this comes at a good time in the conversation.  People tend to point to Obama and Oprah and say, “Look, the black community has made it this far that means we’re in a post-racial society.” But with everything that we’ve seen, with the police brutality cases, and the Black Lives Matter movement [the book] is truly saying that we’re definitely not in that post-racial idea that people have, and saying that what it means to be black, or what it doesn’t mean anymore, complicates the conversation.

Reuben: This book also can be translated into a call to action to equity work to get everybody on the same page in terms of what the outcomes are, [and] what the definable measurables are that we need to achieve.

Marty: One of his terms was “Left Behind”.  Talk to me a little bit about how what he suggests in here relates to trying to address our Seattle-specific issues?

Monica: I think when he talks about the middle-class blacks and how they were the core of the spatial black community, and – especially for the central [district] where the churches and the fraternities were the anchor for the black community in that area – I think that that’s important to note.  When we’re trying to make affordable housing accessible for these groups that have been displaced, we also have to think about the community aspects of displacement as well as the individual families.  We have to think about the social networks that are possibly now severed.  And I think that distinguishing the different groups that he does is important when you have these conversations about gentrification, and displacement, in areas of opportunities.  All of these conversations are important because there are people who want to integrate into certain communities and who want to move to these so-called areas of opportunity, but there are also people who want to stay within their cultural community as well.  So it’s important to note that there are two forces going on in our work and to see how we can provide those opportunities for people to be able to choose.

“When we’re trying to make affordable housing accessible for these groups that have been displaced, we also have to think about the community aspects of displacement as well as the individual families.  We have to think about the social networks that are possibly now severed.”

Marty: What elements of the book gave you hope and were there any that gave you pause?

Monica: It would be interesting for him to address what is going on currently with the Black Lives Matter [movement].  And if he had written this book today, I’m sure that the messaging might be slightly different in reaction to the notions of race that are coming up now.   That is where we can move forward, having him speak today about what has happened in between when he wrote the book and now.

Marty: Can you draw any correlations from the book to the work of HDC here in King County?

Monica: In this unique area we have such a high immigrant population that’s growing as well as continuing to get pushed further south. I think it’s important to note that [particularly] when we look at the census data.  When we put these people into categories [like] African American/Black, who are we actually talking about?  Because we might see metrics of improvement or metrics of failure, but what does that mean for these specific segments of the “African American/Black” category?

Reuben: We have over 100 member organizations and they reach broadly across King County.  We are touching, I believe, every single subset of African American culture out there.  If we understand what each culture’s needs are, then we can achieve better outcomes for those people.  So, he’s really setting a blueprint for us.   We have a large immigrant population and we have a large biracial population, and that’s because there’s been a more progressive history in Seattle.  So there’s a lot more biracial people, there’s a lot more mainstream African Americans, because a lot of people, and a lot of people of color in Seattle, come in with college degrees.  Because of the tech boom there’s also plenty of transcendents.  Undoubtedly, we’re reaching out to every single one of those people through our actions.   I think HDC is well-primed and positioned to address all the inequities associated with each individual group.

Marty: Your message to the busy HDC member: read Disintegration before April 30th?  Try to read a certain chapter? 

Monica: The very first chapter does give a really good overview of why he’s breaking these populations down as well.  For me, that was probably the most insightful part of it because I didn’t think about this splintering of the black community in the way that he did.  So that, for me, was the most powerful part.

Reuben: I’d say read the chapter on the abandoned if you’re trying to gain perspective into why racial issues matter so much.   That’s the chapter that I would suggest people go to if you really want to learn why this work is important; you need to have an emotional stake in this if you’re going to do racial equity work and this chapter provides that. Hopefully the whole book [though].