African Americans and Place in White America

Robert Hawkins in conversation with The Straddler

Robert Hawkins, New York City, 2016                                               Photo: Ben Grad

Robert Hawkins is Assistant Dean and Director of the Undergraduate Program at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, where he also serves as McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies.

The Straddler connected with Hawkins at a forum organized by the NYU Silver Undergraduate Student Government Association and the Educational Support Network that sought to use Michelle Alexander’s seminal work, The New Jim Crow, as a foundation upon which to build a conversation around racial justice. Alexander’s book, subtitled Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, provocatively argues that though “[t]he arguments and rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed and evolved…the outcome has remained largely the same.”

In his remarks as host of the event, Hawkins touched upon both the Black Lives Matter movement and the end of slavery. As he notes in the beginning of our conversation, the end of slavery saw some white southerners hoping that African Americans would suddenly disappear—either by “going back” to Africa or by failing to be self-sufficient enough to survive.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, Hawkins observed that the development of the rhetorical response “All Lives Matter” was an obfuscation that, by subsuming the specific grievances of black Americans within a general truism, denied their urgency and legitimacy.

Both of these examples highlight a persistent tendency in American history to afford African Americans and their claims on justice more circumscribed spaces than those granted the white majority.

In our conversation with him, we sought to explore how the notion of “permissiable” places for African Americans within a majority white American society has and has not changed since the end of slavery.

Hawkins, 2016
After slavery ended, there was a theory and a hope among a certain set of southerners that African Americans would disappear—that they would essentially starve to death because they weren’t savvy and self-sufficient enough to take care of themselves or that they would go back to Africa. Among those white people who thought about black people going to Africa, there were two categories. On the one hand, you had something like hope—meaning, people who thought, “let’s hope” that black people go back to Africa. This is a crazy concept, because the hope was that they would go “back” to something they never knew. And then there was another contingent that thought that it made sense for black people to go to Africa. That there was a logic to it. You’re not wanted here. You’ve been through slavery. Leave. Go build an existence in Africa.

Of course the majority of people understood that black Americans were going to stay in the United States—even if they were not necessarily going to stay in the South. And so right after slavery, you start to see the development of Black Codes in states throughout the South. These were specific laws and policies that were not universal in their nature—meaning they were not identical from place to place—but virtually every state had them and a few that existed outside of the South. These laws restricted the ability of black people to own property, start businesses, lease land, work at certain jobs, or generally live a life that was similar to that of whites.  While not all the codes were the same, there was some consistency in that the idea was to limit former slaves’ mobility and access. The Black Codes actually predate what came to be known as Jim Crow and “separate but equal.” In either case the idea was to limit access and mobility of black people and to separate blacks from whites at economic and social levels.

What is not often considered about the social level is what that actually meant. It meant many different things, but one thing it meant was sexual.  And segregation is often not viewed through a sexual lens.  Yes, miscegenation laws were in place where blacks and whites couldn’t marry, but many of the segregation laws didn’t want it to get to the point where whites and blacks would even consider marrying each other. These laws and policies were all about keeping the white race pure of any other kind of blood. People know it’s there, but they don’t always talk about it, because there’s no gentle way to describe it. But many segregationists made a point of saying that they did not want little black boys in the classroom with little white girls. And in many ways they were right, because if you put people in the same space long enough, it becomes normalized. It becomes normal for everyone to be in the same room together. And if you put little white girls and little black boys, and little black girls and little white boys, and little Asian boys and girls, Latinos, and so on, all in the same space—the fear is that someone is going to take things beyond the classroom.

And we know that is what happens to human beings when they inhabit the same spaces. They build relationships, they experiment, they get married, they have children. And that is exactly what the segregationists were afraid of. They were afraid that this would lead to the “contamination” of the white race. If you look at any segregationist documents, the old speeches, the printed material, this is what’s underneath all of it—a fear of race mixing that is grounded in sex. Sometimes it’s not even underneath—sometimes it’s very blatantly stated. The guise they used was that whites were more intelligent and blacks were beasts and savages and all of the other stereotypes. This was all used to promote the idea of segregation. So when they said they don’t want the races mixing, they literally mean mixing. Time and again that’s there. Look at old George Wallace speeches or KKK speeches. That’s all there. We talk about these things in terms of oppression and power—and all of that is very true—but along with that, maybe even side by side with that, is this idea of sexual relationships. 

Another layer of race is about whiteness and the power of whiteness. Life in the United States is set up so that some people will have more advantages than other people. And the people who have the advantages also happen to be the people who created the system. Whiteness became the identifier. Whiteness became a sign of strength, a sign of power, a sign of intelligence, a sign of godliness. And black was everything bad. And the closer you were to black, the worse you were.

Some of the appeal of the idea of the superiority of the white race has to do with human nature. If you are oppressed and you know that there are people in better, higher social positions than you, it’s not beyond the human psyche to try to find someone who is beneath you. It doesn’t take a lot to get there. It doesn’t take a lot to say, “You know, I’m not number one, but at least I’m not number ten. I’m in the middle somewhere.”

Whiteness has long held a protected status in the United States. There have been at least two Supreme Court cases where people who are not visibly white seek to be recognized as white. In 1922, two Asian men went to the Supreme Court and said “We are educated, we’re businessmen, we’ve committed no crimes, we have converted to Christianity. We are white.” And the Supreme Court said, “No you are not.”[1] Whiteness has been this protected identity, protected by law and other groups whom we would consider white now had to become white. Those who did not look closely enough to whiteness could not become so in the eyes of the law or society.

One of the things I think about often in my own life is that as an Africa American man, I am not supposed to be in this space. I know that. I’m not supposed to have a Ph.D. and two master’s degrees. I’m not supposed to be a dean. And it’s actually not all about race—it’s about race and poverty and how I grew up. I grew up in the rural South with no running water. We had outhouses in the backyard. I carried water from a spring. I was taught in my first high school math class how to balance a checkbook because that might be a useful skill. Or my guidance counselor at the time said that if I really wanted to make it, I should join the Air Force because she thought I was smart and could pass that test.

So they thought that was how I was going to make it. That was the best chance for me. I know I’m not supposed to be here, and I know that there are a lot of people out there who are not supposed to be where they are, for a lot of different reasons. In my case, I know that one stop by the police could have changed my entire trajectory. One poor decision as a sixteen-year-old—maybe I could have shoplifted ChapStick or gum on a dare or impulse because I was a teen. Kids’ stuff. Just one incident like that could have changed my entire trajectory, as it has for so many other young men and women of color. So I always say that I’m lucky. And a lot of that luck was being in the right place at the right time. Or, as I like to say, not being in the wrong place at the right time. But when you come from the kind of background that I came from, it’s hard to feel that spaces like academia or business belong to you. Because a lot of the messages are that they do not. The messages are that you belong in other spaces: jails, prisons, welfare offices.

Athletics is a good example too, of where people of color belong or do not. Sports has been a permissible place for African Americans for a while now. But not always. Of course, we know about the Negro Leagues in baseball and white basketball teams would refuse to play teams that had black players. But we’ve seen so many sports integrate and expand to include African Americans: Basketball, baseball, football, tennis. And it’s okay for African Americans to succeed in sports, but that’s not very many of us. Athletics do create opportunities for a very, very, very small percentage of African Americans in the United States. But the majority of minority youth will never have those opportunities, even those who are excelling on their high school teams.  Most will not and cannot become professional football or basketball players.

Entertainment is another example of a space where people of color can succeed. But even there, take something like rap music. I remember when people would refuse to call rap music “music.” There were these kids who developed these sounds and styles, and, of course, they needed a white producer to come along and say, “This is okay.” Even then it was tough. But now, when you turn on, say, Apple Radio, it is hard to distinguish the black rapper from the white rapper. So even as spaces and places are identified as permissible for African Americans, once it is apparent to the mainstream that whites can also be successful in those spaces, they appropriate and African Americans are overshadowed. As whiteness came along and appropriated rap music, rap music changed. It used to be a little more, you know, Public Enemy, NWA, KRS ONE. That sort of thing. There was a statement being made. Whether you agreed with it or not, it was being made. It is not even just music, the same was done with yoga and mindfulness, which are from Asian cultures and even Cinco de Mayo, which is a commemoration of a Mexican victory over France at the Battle of Puebla, but white Americans turned it into a day for getting throw-up drunk and two-for-one tacos.

The music example is a good example of this question of where is the right space. And can my space, can my body, can my sound actually belong to me? That’s a bit of a metaphor, too, for what happens in the larger society. People of color are no allowed to pick their own spaces and when they do, they are taken away. We rarely have the control and when the control is there, it can so easily be taken away. This has been the case since slavery. Even black people’s bodies do not belong to them.

Just look at something like the NFL Combine, where prospective draft picks are measured physically. You look at these guys—yes, some of them are college graduates. But African Americans have had every part of them measured for so-called “scientific” reasons for centuries now. That image is such a part of American history, it’s hard to put it away. And if it hasn’t been scientific, it’s been economics, or now something having to do with athletics, which is also simply economics. And so you have people who haven’t been given an opportunity to do anything else who are put on display. In order to be successful, we have to put you on display and measure you and talk about your “natural” abilities and how well you are performing. There were slave auctions that were similar.

It is not all negative, however. Over time, we have seen those places where African Americans can succeed expand. I think there’s a bit of ebb and flow. We've had a black president. We have black CEOs. We have opportunities that do exist for African Americans. No doubt about it. And I would never argue that we do not. We sometimes as a society take one or two steps backwards, but people of color have slowly moved forward.

But there are two layers. One’s a little bit more obvious than the other. There are a disproportionate number of African Americans who are not making it, and who are suffering. There has never been a majority middle class African American population in the United States—meaning a situation where a simple majority of African Americans have been solidly in the middle class or higher. Although we can get close, we still see the educational outcomes that are not good for blacks on average, we still see the incarceration rates, we see that even when African Americans move into the middle class, they are the population most likely to fall back into poverty during a recession, and they are more likely to stay poor longer than their white counterparts. So I always say when you look at these facts, either the segregationists were right about African Americans being lazy, lacking intelligence, having behavioral issues, and all the rest of it, or there is structural racism. But that doesn’t mean opportunities haven’t expanded. We are in a much better position than we were in the fifties, the sixties, even the eighties.

But at the same time, on this question of spaces for success, think about so-called “positive” stereotypes, which are never really positive. What they do is separate white from everybody else. Even if you think about Asians as the model minority, what does that mean? It means that other non-white people should also fall into that stereotype, which is just an example of what white supremacy wants you to look like. These stereotypes pit groups against each other and separates them. What that stereotype is saying is “Those smart Asians, they’re almost as good as white people.” But they get pigeonholed into certain areas as well: math or engineering or whatever. Meanwhile, we’ve pigeonholed, in the worst way, Mexicans into migrant farmers and day laborers. And blacks have been pigeonholed into being entertainers and sports figures. See, we don’t pick the spaces and the spaces don’t belong to us. The spaces were not made for us—the spaces were made to place us in. And I think we’re still there. Those spaces where we place marginalized people still exist, and they still exist from history. And right now? At this point in our history? I don’t see a lot of new spaces opening up.

[1] Ozawa v. United States and Takuji Yamashita v. Hinkle.