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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Smith: Examining self-segregation

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A great irony of American history is that the abolition of slavery gave rise to de jure racial segregation in the South. (De facto segregation was already well established in the North. For example, a decade before the Civil War, Indiana’s legislature barred Blacks — enslaved or free — from entering the state.)

During slavery, there was no need to separate the races because white domination of Blacks was complete and unquestioned. Legal segregation was necessary only when the racial power dynamic downgraded from being absolute to merely being unconscionably imbalanced.

Jim Crow was an exhaustive and suffocating system that proscribed the lives and livelihoods of African Americans, irrespective of class, gender or age. It confiscated their dignity and attempted to pilfer their humanity. Segregation was mandated by the government, enforced by the police and legitimized by the courts. When that wasn’t enough, whites simply resorted to domestic terrorism — both extemporaneous and impromptu.

Given this history, the contemporary claim that Blacks and other people of color engage in “self-segregation” is as insulting as it is ignorant. It is a morally bankrupt and logically unsustainable proposition that holds currency only among those who seek a way to assuage their racial anxieties or to excuse their racist ideations.

The notion that historically marginalized people who voluntarily congregate are somehow mimicking a system that dehumanized them makes about as much sense as accusing gazelles of “self-segregating” from lions. Even if the lions have become vegans, the psychic scars of their prior interactions would cause the former prey to be extremely wary of their former predators.

Those who proffer such nonsense inadvertently admit that they don’t know — or voluntarily ignore — what segregation actually is. And, to be clear, associating with others with whom you have a common bond is as much about enjoying their company as it is about avoiding conflict. (I’m not someone who needs “safe spaces.”)

Crucially, those who raise the specter of self-segregation do not reject racial homogeneity (and hegemony) when it comes to political and economic associations that primarily or even solely benefit whites.

For example, I cannot count the number of times that I’ve scrolled through companies’ websites only to find pictures of 10 or 20 or 40 employees, all of whom are white. Where is the faux outrage in such instances?

Incidentally, I’m not saying that such companies are avowedly racist. I’m simply suggesting that racial equity is not a value for said companies — and neither they nor their apologists pretend that it is. Where all-white groups are concerned, those who normally complain about self-segregation argue that it’s “freedom of association.” This unmasks their hypocrisy. And there are plenty of other examples. I’ll list a few.

First, if those whites who allegedly abhor “self-segregation” were genuinely concerned about racially shared spaces, they would work diligently to meaningfully integrate their churches. (Having three Black members doesn’t cut it.) Better yet, they would join Black churches en masse. As it stands, Dr. King’s observation that churches are the most segregated institutions in America still holds true.

Further, to borrow from Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, the goal should not be integration; the goal should be liberation. Proximity to whiteness is insufficient. Sharing power is what we’re fighting for.

Second, a similar phenomenon exists vis-à-vis historically Black colleges and universities. HBCUs have never discriminated against people of any race, yet a lot of whites argue that they are inherently “racist” — and that the alleged eradication of racism obviates the reason for these schools to remain. Why not make the counter argument? Why not dismantle white majority universities (and other institutions) that formerly excluded African Americans?

Third, anti-self-segregationist crusaders do not bemoan all-white corporate board rooms or virtually all-white police forces that have jurisdiction over Black neighborhoods. Further, these champions of “color blindness” criticized those who justifiably pointed out the lack of Black representation in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists (think Oscars) and the Hollywood Press Association (think Golden Globes). Cognitive dissonance is their stock in trade.

Finally, there is the argument that all-Black gatherings “make racism worse.” I agree. But this is true only for those who are already racist. The real issue is not “self-segregation”; the real issue is the compulsion to control Blacks’ lives. Also at play is the latent concern that such gatherings are strategic planning sessions designed to challenge racial discrimination.

I have never met a genuine white ally who has a problem with Black folks living their lives with other Black folks. Indeed, those who have a problem with that are the ones whose words and actions ensure that such gatherings will continue.

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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