What is Blackness? A Primer from Algernon Austin

If Barack Obama fails to become president of the United States, his race-his blackness-will be seen as a reason for that.

But ironically, in the 1990s Obama lost an election for a seat in Congress to ex-Black Panther Bobby Rush because Obama-a biracial person from Hawaii-was not seen as being “black enough.”

All of this raises the question: what is blackness? That topic has been the subject of heated debate among scholars, poets, and street people alike.

An interesting view of this subject comes from the book Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century, by Algernon Austin. Mr. Austin, who has Ph.D. in Sociology, is director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute. He is also the founder and director of the Thora Institute.

Austin starts with the view that race and blackness are not about biology, but about society’s view of what blackness is and how blacks should behave. He then looks at the different-and sometimes competing-views of blackness held by groups like the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and black America at large during the Black Power and Afrocentrism eras that stretched from the 1950s/60s through the 1990s.

He has a section in his book which is like a “Race and Blackness 101” primer. I liked the concise and provocative way he presented “the basics” of the subject of racial identity. I hope you will find the following passages from his book as engaging as I did.

Plessy v Ferguson: 99 and a half percent won’t do

Although Homer Plessy was seven-eighths “white” and looked 100 percent “white,” he was not allowed to ride in a whites-only train car in Louisiana. Civil rights activists arranged to have Plessy arrested for violating a Jim Crow law in order to pose a legal challenge to Jim Crow. They thought that having a “white” person excluded from a whites-only train car would strengthen their case.

In the 1986 Plessy v Ferguson decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the fact that Plessy “looked” white did not at all exempt him from blackness. Plessy was black and therefore required to ride Jim Crow in Louisiana. In this decision, the Court made explicit the fact that blackness is a social, not a biological, fact. One could appear to be 100 percent “white” physically and yet socially be 100 percent black.

Racial “Structures”: How society controls “blackness”

The racial structures of a society are an important dimension to the meaning of race. Racial structures refer to the practices of racial discrimination, racial organizations, and racial institutions. Racial structures can refer to social structures… such as Jim Crow…

Racial structures present opportunities and constraints in the daily life of members of racial groups. These opportunities and constraints are constructed in part from the political and economic desires of powerful groups and in part from the beliefs and stereotypes about races. They also change over time and place.

These changes in racial structure are one of the reasons that race is a sociohistorical phenomenon. The racial structures during the period of slavery differ from those of Jim Crow. Those of Jim Crow differ from those of today. The blackness of this era is not the blackness of previous ones.

“Achieving” Race

Social scientists have long distinguished social statuses that can be achieved through individual effort from those that are ascribed or assigned by society. Unlike being a doctor, which one achieves through study, passing examinations, and completing other requirements, one’s race is ascribed by social rules… That race is an ascribed social category is conventional sociological thinking.

Race, however, is also achieved by one’s proper performance of the expectations for the racial category. Failure to perform one’s proper roles results in an individual being seen as deviant and not as occupying his or her social status. It is possible to be categorized as black but be seen as behaving in stereotypically white ways. In this way, one can be a “white” black person or a black person who “acts white.”

In the United States, black people have always “acted white” by defying the norms of blackness. In Jim Crow America, there were innumerable ways to “act white.”

By examining the lynchings of blacks during the Jim Crow era we can see some of the ways blacks “acted white.”

Despite the rhetoric of black men raping white women, most lynchings did not even involve allegations of rape. Among other things, blacks were lynched for acquiring wealth and property, working in “white” occupations, resisting white exploitation, and speaking to whites as equals. Additionally, black men were lynched for having platonic friendships with white women or for having consensual sexual relationships with them. In engaging in all these activities, blacks were “acting white” by suggesting they were equal to white people. Lynching was a means by which whites communicated and policed the norms of blackness.

How black people keep other black people “black”

Blacks also have norms for black people. These black norms for blackness have been informally enforced, whereas whites have had formal norms (i.e., laws) as well as informal ones. Blacks have developed many negative terms for “white” black people to shame them into behaving like “black” black people. Interestingly, blacks have developed many more disparaging terms for “white” black people than they have for whites.

(While in “street talk” blacks have called whites “ofay,” “honky,” “cracker,” and “white boy” (said disparagingly), there are many more terms, both street and scholarly, which indicate an incorrect, deviant, or pathological blackness, as for example: “Negro” (said disparagingly), “nigger” (said disparagingly), “Uncle Tom,” “Aunt Jemima,” “self-hating,” “oreo,” “incognegro,” “assimilated” (said disparagingly) “deracinated,” “color struck,” and the related “has a color complex” which is related to “inferiority complex,” “miseducated,” “sellout”, “bougy” (from “black bourgeoisie”), “sididdy,” and “Crossover.” This list is probably incomplete.)

These terms cannot be dismissed as merely name-calling. Human beings are symbolic creatures. Shared beliefs, values, and other ideas-which can be called culture-shape much of our behavior. For these reasons, ideas about “correct” and “incorrect” blackness have been powerful forces in black life.

Because of the history of racism in American society, blacks have depended upon other blacks for friendship, love, and a variety of social needs. This support means that blacks are subject to social control by other blacks to a considerable degree.

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