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Two Black Americas?

The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, a guest OpEd columnist in the N.Y. Times, has an interesting piece today (subscription required) about W.E.B. DuBois’s famous prediction that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. The prediction, Patterson writes, had two components to it: “One side was the near complete exclusion of African-Americans and other minorities from the upper echelons and leadership of American society, public life and national identity. The other was the segregation of blacks from the social, communal and intimate cultural life of white Americans.”

Patterson’s argument, in short, is that the first part of the color-line problem has been spectacularly resolved while the second part has barely budged. He points to Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, and Deval Patrick as current examples of blacks who have achieved leadership positions of the highest order. “But when we turn to the other side of DuBois’s color line,” he writes, “we find a stunning paradox: accompanying this public integration has been the near complete isolation of blacks from the private life of the white majority. Recent modest improvements notwithstanding, blacks, including the middle class, are nearly as segregated today as they were in DuBois’s day.”

This distinction seems obvious after it has been so cogently put forth by Patterson, but like many good insights, I don’t think many of us would have voiced it on our own.

The most controversial element of the column is Patterson’s final prescription to the segregation issue: “It would be naive to discount persisting white racism, but other minorities, like Jews, have faced a similar dilemma and opted, with good reasons, for integration … If America is ever to solve the second part of DuBois’s color problem, it will be on the shoulders of the black middle class.”

It will be interesting to see the public responses, if any, to Patterson’s call to action. A narrow reaction would likely include the parry that, “Well, Jews are white”; but that would seem to be missing the meat of Patterson’s point.