Tavis: Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and associate editor at “The Washington Post” who is celebrating his 30th anniversary at the paper. His latest book is called “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.” He joins us tonight from New York. Eugene, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Eugene Robinson: Great to be here, Tavis. Thanks so much for having me.
Tavis: Before I get to the text, congrats on the 30 years at the “Post.” How do you historically situate that – 30 years at “The Washington Post?”
Robinson: It’s very difficult. Who knew that I would have survived (laughter) 30 years at such an institution, and who knew that the institution, given the way things are now, would have survived that long as well? But we’re both still alive and kicking.
Tavis: What do you make, quickly, to your point now, of the way the business is changing? That is to say this notion that people think that paper is, at some point in the not-too-distant future, actual papers may be a thing of the past?
Robinson: It’s a very exciting time, it’s a bewildering time. Newspapers are under tremendous stress. We’ve had a lot of buy-outs, we’re down in headcount, and frankly, we are all down collectively as a newspaper industry in capacity, in our ability to do what newspapers really have to do for this democracy to survive and to succeed.
But I have to believe that something new is coming, that somehow, we’re going to make electronic distribution, whether it’s through the Web or onto your iPad or whatever, your Kindle, whatever. Somehow, we’re going to make it work and we’re going to make an economic model that supports the kind of journalism that we all need.
Tavis: You’re comfortable in believing that there is an economic model out there that can, in fact, support the kind of journalism that we need and treasure? Because I’m not sure that the jury is in on that yet.
Robinson: No, the jury’s not in. So am I comfortable in believing that? Let’s not say comfortable. (Laughter) Let’s just say I’m optimistic. I have to believe that and I have to believe we have to keep working toward that. But no, the jury is not in on that. If there’s not a model that supports investigative reporting and accountability reporting, then we’re in trouble. So we’ve got to find one.
Tavis: We agree on that last point, to be sure. To the book, “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America,” unpack the title for me first.
Robinson: Yeah, what I wanted to do with this book, Tavis, was – my sense was that when we talk about Black America, often we were talking about a monolith that was never monolithic and that is much less monolithic now in that in order to discuss things intelligently first you have to see them clearly.
I felt that when you look at Black America you really have not a single entity but a collection of entities. I identify four of them. You could slide it or dice it other ways, I’m sure, that have affinities, that have a shared history, but that are not in the same condition, and arguably, that between which there’s some increasing distance.
So I wanted to resurvey Black America in that way and maybe provide a new starting point for the way we ought to talk about it and figure out how to proceed.
Tavis: I want to talk about these four groups in just a second here. I have always, or certainly for years now, have tried to – it’s a subtle distinction, but whenever I talk about Black voters I always try to use the phrase “Black voters” as opposed to “the Black vote,” which goes to your whole point here about dis-integration. There is no Black vote anymore. There are Black voters, because there are these distinct groups inside of Black America.
We’ll get to that in just a second, but I raise all that to ask whether or not dis-integration means dis-unity.
Robinson: It doesn’t have to mean dis-unity and I certainly hope it doesn’t, because I don’t – what I’m trying to do here is not to draw lines. I’m just trying to see things clearly so we can work on the right problems and work on the right problems in the right way.
So no, it doesn’t have to mean dis-unity, but I think it does have to mean a certain shift in the way we think about ourselves, in the way we think about our neighbors and in the way we think about African Americans or Black people in this country in general.
Tavis: So I think one of the reasons the most recent, the most contemporary reason why folk think there is a Black vote as opposed to Black voters is based upon how we turned out in record numbers pretty monolithically for Barack Obama during the campaign.
We’ll get to Obama in a second, but that’s the most recent bit of evidence why people think that we are a monolith inside of Black America. This book tries to break that down and push back on that argument with these four distinct groups inside of the Black community.
We start with the first of these four mainstream – break it down for me.
Robinson: Mm-hmm. Yes, mainstream Black America is the majority of African Americans who have entered the middle class. Now, we’ve entered the middle class you could argue precariously. Studies show we have a greater tendency toward downward mobility. There’s a big wealth gap between White Americans and Black Americas when you talk about the middle class.
But basically, if you take the demographics of middle class Black America and start comparing it, you’re looking at a group that’s like Canada. We’re like Canadians in a sense, in terms of how wealthy, wealth and income and how well we’re doing. So that would be that first mainstream group.
Tavis: The second group of Black folks discussed in this book, “Disintegration,” you call “the abandoned.”
Robinson: Right, and this is really the central – and I think we can call it a cleavage now. There is a too-large, way too large minority of Black Americans, it could be 25 percent, it could be, arguably, maybe 30 percent, but around there, who did not make that leap into the middle class for a variety of reasons.
The main reason is that they didn’t climb the ladder. The rungs were taken away, sometimes systematically and sometimes just snatched away, before they got a chance to get on even the bottom rung. So those are the people who get gentrified out of inner city neighborhoods and kind of pushed to this corner and to that corner and finally to the periphery of the urban area and to the periphery of our national consciousness.
What’s happened, if you think back 50 years, you talk about Black communities, they were economically and socially within the context of segregation. So you might live next door to a preacher who lived next door to a laborer who lived next door to a lawyer who lived next door to a seamstress.
But there has been a kind of economic stratification where you have wealthy Black enclaves like the (unintelligible) county outside of Atlanta, like Prince Georges County outside of Washington, where middle class and above Black folks have gathered to live, and you have neighborhoods that are left behind, neighborhoods of the abandoned where you have dysfunctional schools, you have crime, you have no city services to speak of, and an increasing distance between those two groups.
Tavis: This third group you call the “transcendent group,” this is that group of elite, powerful, well-to-do African Americans. You call them transcendent. Before I let you explain who they are, and I think we know who a lot of them are because they’re so in our face every day, this transcendent group that you speak of, have the abandoned been, in fact, abandoned by the system – that is to say the government, the man, White folk – or have, in fact, the abandoned been abandoned by the transcendent Negroes?
Robinson: Oh, I think they’ve been abandoned by everybody. (Laughs) They’ve been abandoned by the government, they’ve been abandoned by the transcendent Black folks, they’ve been abandoned by, increasingly, I think, by mainstream Black folks.
When we had a sustained, intense discussion about the plight of poor Black America in those terms – we’re now supposed to have this color-free discussion about poverty, but I want to talk, at least for the purposes of this book, about poor Black America.
This is a job that we were supposed to be working on back in the Great Society days, and there is so much left undone and we’re creating this group of left-behind African Americans specifically. That’s not a good thing for our society and it’s certainly not a good thing for those people who have no purchase on the American dream.
Tavis: I got just 45 seconds here left. I should say right quick there are two emergent groups that we’re not going to talk about now because I want to tease you to go get the book. (Laughter) But there are two emergent groups that Eugene talks about in the text that you have to read about. I find the conversation about these two emergent groups to be among the most fascinating part of the text itself.
Robinson: It is interesting.
Tavis: But very quickly, in just a few seconds, Eugene, why is it that Black folk are so hesitant to acknowledge that we are turning on each other, that we are abandoning these lower, working, weak Black folk? Why are we afraid to even acknowledge that?
Robinson: Because we don’t want to talk about this. We want to pretend that we’re all unified and that we’re all one and that we’re all still holding hands. I think we just need to look critically and we need to look honestly at what’s really going on, and there are some people who are doing fine.
Here’s a whole lot of people over here who are not doing well at all and the distance is growing. The distance, as it ought to be shrinking, it’s growing, and until we recognize that I think we’re not going to get done what we needed to get done, which is concentrated effort to help the abandoned before it is too late.
Tavis: It is a powerful polemic about the deconstruction of Black America as you think you know it. It’s called “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America,” by the Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Washington Post,” Eugene Robinson. Eugene, congrats on the text. Good to have you on the program.
Robinson: Thanks so much, Tavis.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.