The Black Bourgeoisie and Uncle Tom

The Book That Brought the Shock of Self-Revelation to Middle-Class Blacks in America

I posted this a while back but thought after recent developments it would be of interest to jump start this conversation. A very good friend of mine contends that I am a bit confusing in that I am a conservative dresser, teach in a conservative school (my 2nd one), and address life outside of academic and social matters in a conservative way; yet, my intellectual appeal is that of a liberal frustrated by de facto constructs of the privileged who mask social and economic matters from a simplistic point of view. But, as I note below — race is not the factor so much as class. The contention that blacks are liberal is no longer true. However, black academic types regardless of income tend to stay towards the left on social and economic issues. Below I address this matter and that of race and privilege as it relates to my lower class up bringing, as well as my white middle class educational experience ala attending a private school on nothing but aid.

E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie was more prophetic than many realized. Frazier, who addressed the burgeoning black middle class, expressed concern about the intra-class conflict vis-a-vis socioeconomic status of black folks. Frazier notes that the black middle class was in a rush by the 1960s to assimilate. During the Harlem Renaissance, even W.E.B. Du Bois “strategically included white judges on panels for their black literary competitions, in hopes that white approval would add luster to black achievements.” This shift that occurred was not a mass or universal one. The black middle class was still small and would not be catapulted until after the advent of Affirmative Action.

The debate over true liberalism among blacks still exist. I have found the upper black middle class to be far more conservative and less active towards civil rights and social policy of late. I am concerned that the black bourgeoisie is willing to shift its focus away from the liberalism that put them in their position for racial acceptance. I believe integration is vital to a liberal society as noted by my neighborhood, friends, and place of employment; however, I do not think the black middle class should play the conservative card that carries with it values, attitudes, and behaviors that do not represent progress for all minority groups. Sure 90% of blacks vote in a solid block for the Democratic Party, but that block is not as tight as it used to be.

Here are a few observations about the thinking of the black middle class:

  1. Homophobia and anti-gay attitudes are pervasive as seen by the fact that many black Americans are anti-gay marriage
  2. Affirmative action policies, though it helped many ascend to middle class status, are no longer needed
  3. Black politicians are needed to protect the economic status of the black middle class, not to speak about social justice
  4. Black liberals have no focus and can no longer speak for the burgeoning black middle class
  5. Intra racism has long been the standard among blacks of different shades of blackness
  6. Academic underachievement is the result of the black home, not institutional problems such as racism dating back to Jim Crow
  7. Poverty is a problem that should be addressed by local communities and not the federal government ala taxes and welfar

As for Uncle Tom, I found myself reading a few chapters in Dinesh D’ Souza’s book The End of Racism. According to the book’s cover,

D’Souza challenges deeply held orthodoxies about race and racism in America. Was slavery a racist institution? Is America a racist society? Is Eurocentrism a racist concept? Can African Americans be racist? D’Souza argues that the liberal crusade against racism is detrimental to both blacks and whites, and that our next step must be to eliminate race as the basis for identity and public policy.

D’Souza, from what little I have read of this book, argues against not only affirmative action, but social and economic reforms that have been used to help poor minorities. In chapter 12 of the book, he discusses what is often termed the Uncle Tom dilemma. If you were to ask any black person about the term Uncle Tom, he or she depending on education is likely to say that an Uncle Tom is a black person who acts white. Furthermore, this person might claim to evidence that a black person who speaks well is only doing so because he/she has a desire to be just like white folks. It has been a long time since I have been called an Uncle Tom. I grew up in a rough black neighborhood for a while, but was given an opportunity to attend a private school with practically an all white demographic. Often I played the language card so that I would not lose any of my friends; it was easy to use poor grammar when speaking due to my audience outside of my all white private school confines. However, I did not fool people. It was clear that I did not fit in at home or at times on campus. I think this is why smart black students pretend to be dumb. They do it out of fear of being rejected by their black peers.

It is very odd if not unheard of to hear a white person call a black person an Uncle Tom. The last time I was called this term, I politely asked that person if he had ever read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After he said no, I went on to give him a brief lecture on the work I read back in middle school: Essentially, a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe took it upon herself to research the treatment and condition of southern blacks. While doing so, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed; it required northerners to return all runaway slaves to their masters. Keep in mind that blacks were nothing more than property, though the Constitution did not define blacks in this category until the 1857 Dread Scott case.

In her work, she wrote about a slave named Tom who was so trusted by his master, that he was often sent on long independent trips to conduct business. Modern day black folks became very critical of Stowe’s character Tom. Why would a black man who was nothing more than a slave be so loyal to his white master? Some speculate that Tom desired to transform himself into a better place; a white place where he was like those who abused other blacks. By 1960 the term Uncle Tom had a place among the vanguard of black intellectuals. By this point, with the civil rights movement underway, and a number of blacks graduating from historically black colleges, there was no longer a need to be like white people. Blacks proved that they were far superior. Thus, it is here that we see the heightened sense of black on black racism. As is the case today, black folks are expected to serve their own communities. People such as myself are often questioned for working in a place that does not serve the needs of the black community. Black people who prefer white lawyers, white bankers, white dentists are seen as Uncle Toms. Dating back to the days of Booker T. Washington, he argued that if black people do not visit and help black professionals, who will.

With the black bourgeoisie emerging from the status of proletarian, you find more and more black people crossing the racial divide. This does not mean the end of racism is here. D’Souza is actually promulgating racism by claiming that we can move toward a color blind society. I find such a statement to be racist.

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27 thoughts on “The Black Bourgeoisie and Uncle Tom

  1. Carson,

    I am amazed that you were able to make it through that entire post without quoting Cornel West.

    I must say, I am a bit surprised that someone would call you an “Uncle Tom.” How does being intelligent make you wish to be white? And since when are all white people intelligent?

    Your statement about D’Souza’s claim that we can move toward a color blind society is very interesting. I completely agree with you, I think that such a claim is racist. While we may one day overcome the racial divide that still exists in our country, whites and blacks will still be different culturally. I can not imagine that a great number of African-Americans have a desire to move towards a color blind society, what do you think?

  2. Dillon:

    I think it is a class and language matter. Often poor whites and blacks or those of lesser education assume that proper speech is an elite thing associated by race.

  3. I have yet to see it but I have heard all about it. I am shocked though I do not want to jump the gun.

    Dillon: West is my favorite public intellectual; he writes alot on this. Love for you to write a post for me on your take of his book “Rqace Matters.”

  4. Hearing Nader come out with comments like that is like when Ted Turner says something stupid. You shrug your shoulders and say “big deal” because…it’s nothing new.

    Very interesting post Edward. I also agree with Dillion that many blacks do not want to move to a color blind society.

  5. Why look at society in a color blind way? We are different; why not embrace the beauty of differences that God has created? I like (no I love) being black and offering my experiences to those who have had a different take on life. The concept of color blind is silly.

  6. Color IS hard to ignore. Especially when you are looking at people. But, with modern technology there are lots of ways to interact with people and not know their color, or even looking at an application (job, college, etc) and not take color/race into consideration.

    On another note, my first experience with the use of the term Uncle Tom can in school where our teacher told us about it being a derogitory term towards black people. I also remember that it was not too much later that the use of that term lead to Geraldo Rivera getting his nose broken (he didn’t say it). You can see it on YouTube if you search Geraldo Rivera Fight. I didn’t want to link it here without your permission.

  7. I agree Edward. Unfortunately, too many people out there don’t think so. If a group of blacks want to sit together at lunch and a group of whites want to, what is the big deal? However, you have these bed wetters out there who wring their hands at the sight of that and then make sure stupid rule that forces them to sit together. It’s a sub-category of the wussificiation of America.

  8. Yeah, I can not say that I am surprised about Nader’s comment. It was inappropriate and offensive, but that is nothing new coming from him.

    Carson – I agree with you in terms of looking at society in a color blind way. I would love to write some thoughts about Race Matters for you, I will work on it this afternoon/evening and e-mail it to you.

  9. This discussion reminds me of something my mother said to me when I was young: “Of course black people are different than white people. But that doesn’t make them different.”

    I think what she was trying to tell me has been touched on a few times here. Trying to make this world color-blind is silly. I understand the principle behind the argument. But why can’t we teach our children to embrace difference rather than ignore it? We’re different, and I like it that way.

    With the good, of course, comes the bad. As you’ve pointed out, affirmative action has long since leaked its last drop of usefullness. I feel that the wide-spread racism of last century, as well as the racism that continues today has created a sense of entitlement among many blacks today. Men and women like Jesse Jackson are continuously reminding us of our differences in a very negative way, and I believe they are taking steps backwards.

  10. theNimrod,

    Right on! I agree with everything you just said. I don’t judge people by their skin but I still acknowledge the fact that they have a different ethnicity, and I think that that is the thing people should always realize.

  11. theNimrod:

    The only problem is that we as a society are still getting over the sins of Jim Crow thus there is a place for affirmative action and other social programs for blacks. Not all have reached the point of an Obama.

    Josh: Your thinking is good here; I am the same.

  12. I believe that our society needs balance between looking at differences and looking through a color blind lens. On one hand, if you only look at someone’s differences, then you will only grow a rift between you and them. You will never be able to accept them for who they are. On the other, if you don’t look at differences between ethnicity and cultures, then one can never appreciate the differences amongst us. I come from a family with a rich heritage and culture, that being Armenian. I hate it when people assume that I am a “different” Christian because I am a member of a denomination that they have never heard of (the Armenian Orthodox Church). On the other hand, I dislike it when people show no care or desire to learn about other cultures or to embrace and enjoy our differences. If you just ignore differences, then you are missing out on the great diversity and melting pot of cultures we have in America. Personally, I look at people’s differences but not in a negative way. I do it because I embrace our differences between us and appreciate the fact that God made us diverse. I don’t ignore our differences because then life would be boring. Our differences are what make us great, and by looking past them, one misses out so much.

    I hope that people can learn to not judge people on the color of their skin while still embracing the differences and cultural diversity between them.

  13. Tutunjian:

    I like the way you put that; I wonder if people can seperate their emotions and their own wants to what you are saying. As it relates to eace and religion, people (some) like to conclude there is always a right or a best or a monolithic view in shaping of the world. This is the challenge more than most things.

  14. Since issues of adoption came up on another thread, how do the issues related to celebrating and respecting racial differences play out in cross-racial adoption? As someone who has seriously considered adoption, I would like to hear what others have to say on this.

    ~Mrs. Brown

  15. Mr. Carson-There can in no way be a best view to shape the world. I believe that the people who think that are the ignorant. It relates back to what I was saying. We cannot only look at our differences; we must realize them and embrace them. When I was younger, I used to always think that I was always right, and my opinion was the best. Now as I have matured, I’ve learned to appreciate, value, and enjoy studying about various cultures and world views. Of course, I have my own opinions and views, but that does not mean that I don’t accept someone’s views when I meet them, whether they be cultural, political, or religious. But, like I was saying, I don’t just ignore and accept their different ideals without question; I study them and learn about them. It all goes back to what I said in my previous post.

  16. “Not all have reached the point of Obama”. And not all will. Sometimes it actually does come down to talent. To intelligence. To work ethic. To many things. How you can justify putting one person ahead of another simply based on the color of their skin yet still cling to the notion that all men shall be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is simply amazing.

  17. Mrs. Brown:

    That’s a great question. Unless the adopting parents make an effort to keep the child in touch with their native culture, I would imagine they’d very naturally adhere to the one they’re brought into – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ve had two asian friends who were adopted at young ages by white parents (both named Emily, interestingly enough). Both of them were raised to a large degree to accept the culture they had been brought into. Neither of them had any trouble with it, and from time to time will even joke about not being a ‘real’ asian. Of course they keep a place for their native culture, but to a certain extent it’s academic. If asked, they’d probably tell you their parents’ culture is their native culture.

    And that’s the point. Race and culture isn’t about skin color. It’s about roots and the way you were raised. It’s about perspective and context. Accepting other cultures is as important as pride in your own. Racism isn’t just ignorance. It’s also stubbornness. It’s people who are so xenophobic that they have to rationalize cultural differences as deficiencies. And then they extrapolate from there.

    For example: a white man picks up the newspaper, reads about a black man who robbed a convenience store at gun point. “Typical ” he says. Now let’s say that same man reads the same story a week later, except the subject is now a white man. Even if his reproach of the crime is equal, I’d be willing to bet his reaction is: “What an idiot,” rather than “Typical redneck.” And this example can apply the other way as well.

    My point is that we cannot succeed by blinding ourselves to skin color. We’re not going to be able to promote equality and understanding by ignoring our differences. It’s simply backwards. The only way is to embrace our differences and hopefully in doing so realize that we’re not that different in the first place.

  18. I am with you. Race and culture is not about skin color. In America it is often about wealth and status. Still, take a black kid adopted by white parents, he will be forced to address that assumed condition of hi black culture by society though he is not a part of it.

  19. Right, but 25% of African Americans DO live below the poverty line. 1 in 2 black children live in poverty. Bill Gates, the richest white man in America, has a net work on $60 billion. Oprah Winfrey, the richest black person in the world, has a net worth of $2.5 billion.

    So, one could venture to say that wealth/status has a lot to do with race/culture.

  20. Well I think there is something to be said for the richest white person in the world being worth $57.5 billion more than the richest black person in the world…

  21. Really? The fact that Oprah is worth $2.5 million is proof of racial inequality?

    Stick with the 25% below the poverty line stat.

    The most important part of the conversation for me is how we deal with this. We need to remember that what everone deserves is equal OPPORTUNITY at success, not equal success. That is something that affirmative action sometimes forgets. Getting that opportunity is still a problem for some blacks in America, but keep in mind that Gates is richer than Oprah because he’s in a more profitable industry. Not because he’s white.

  22. You guys are over analyzing this. I am not saying that the $57.5 billion gap is worth of racial inequality. And I realize that they are in completely different industries. I just think it is an interesting stat…and I think it says something. That is all.

    theNimrod – I get your point about equal opportunity vs. equal success. However, if a white person and a black person meet the same level of success, the white person almost always makes more money. If you define success as the amount of money one makes, then everyone does deserve equal success if they are in the same position. Does that make sense?

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