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Divide Over Values Splitting Black Identity -- Ethnicity, Anyone?

From the Washington Post:

Conventional wisdom about black America is being turned on its head. Nearly two out of five black people (37 percent) surveyed in a new Pew poll, done in association with NPR, said that blacks "can no longer be thought of as a single race."

Only half of all black people in the country (53 percent) say it is possible to think of blacks as one race. And young black Americans -- ages 18 to 29 -- are more likely than older blacks to say that blacks are no longer a single race.

The growing perception of two races is really a divide over values.

More than half of all Americans -- people of all colors -- believe that the values of poor and middle class blacks are becoming more different. When the question is limited to black people, the answer is even more definitive: 61 percent say values are now more different between middle-class and poor blacks. The perception of a class divide in black America has increased nearly 20 points since a similar question was asked of black people in 1986.

This poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center in consultation with NPR political analyst Juan Williams, as reported in the mainstream media, doesn't address one significant variable: ethnicity.

Black america does not share one ethnicity. And with differences in ethnicity come differences in values.

The idea that all American blacks are descendants of slaves imported to the American south no longer holds. In large cities and in the east, American blacks are very likely to have roots in Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas, Cape Verde, Panama, Guyana, Nigeria, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, you name it. Since I am not a demographer, I can only speak anecdotally. Perhaps what the poll captured as middle-class values are in fact recent immigrant values?

In order to maintain the privacy and anonymity of my friends, for purposes of this blog, I will refer to all my male friends as "Trevor" and all my female friends as "Sheila." (Thank you, Jill Connor Browne, for this literary device).

I have a friend, Trevor, whose parents are from Jamaica. He doesn't consider himself Jamaican because he wasn't born there, but he does consider himself West Indian. My friend Sheila considers herself Bahamian because her father was born there and her mother's family is from there.

When Trevor and I were young, just-out-of-law-school attorneys in the Bay Area, one thing I noticed was that Trevor took great pride in being West Indian, and he would always point out to me which African Americans, dead or alive, had Jamaican roots. Colin Powell -- Jamaican. Patrick Ewing -- Jamaican. Biggie -- Jamaican. Marcus Garvey -- Jamaican. I think he once tried to claim Michael Jordan as Jamaican, but I had to put my foot down. And when he would introduce me to one of his friends, if the friend was Jamaican, he would say, "He's good people. He's a Yardie."

A Yardie?

Basically, a Jamaican homeboy.

Trevor was sent to the U.S. to be educated, and he succeeded wildly. But to this day I can't say he considers himself African American as we think of the term. He often said that one of the worst things you could say about a Jamaican was to call him or her "lazy." Hard work and self-sufficiency were their ethic, and Trevor despises laziness.

A value difference based on ethnicity instead of class? Perhaps.

Then there's Sheila. Her father was born in the Bahamas, and he worked four jobs -- yes, four -- to put his three children through private k-12 schools and private universities. Despite his successes, Sheila said that, in the Bahamas, her father would not have been considered successful because he didn't own his own business. Entrepreneurship was the hallmark of success among Bahamians, not how many jobs you worked to educate your children.

A value difference based on ethnicity instead of class? Perhaps.

It took me a while after I arrived at college to realize that not all of my black friends were rooted in the South as I am (on one side of my family; my mother's people go back four generations in California, but that's an entry for another day). Many were only one to two generations removed from -- you guessed it -- Jamaica or the Bahamas. But you wouldn't have know it from looking at them. They wore the same jeans (Jordache -- it was 1981, y'all), the same hair styles, etc. Unless you got to know them, you wouldn't have known. And I would have never met black people like them but for leaving the California Central Valley for college. I can attest to never having attended elementary, junior or high school with blacks whose family had recent roots in the West Indies, Cape Verde, Africa, or South America. But my experience isn't the experience of most blacks my age who grew up in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, D.C. or Philly. IMHO, at my college, blacks with recent roots in other countries were probably overrepresented relative to their numbers among all blacks and, if I may be so bold as to hypothesize, they may be overrepresented now in the black American middle class. Again, I'm not a demographer, but that's my hunch.

It would have been nice if the Pew/NPR folks had addressed whether ethnicity played any role in the values difference. And I would have expected a little more analysis of ethnicity from a black man whose first name is Juan.


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