According to a recent Pew Report, seventy-four percent of black adults said that being black is either extremely important (52%) or very important (22%) to their identity. By comparison, 60 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of Asian adults say that being Hispanic or Asian, respectively, is extremely important or very important to their identity. Only 15 percent of white adults see race as central to their identity. This confirmed earlier Pew polling from 2016 and 2017 that also showed that blacks were significantly more likely than other demographic groups to say that “race” was central to how they view themselves. It’s obvious, be it from these surveys or lived experience, most blacks see race as critical to their identity at levels not seen among their racial counterparts.
Racial identity has been a priority for blacks since the end of the civil rights movement. However, our racialized identity is too narrowly and intrinsically defined by– and dependent on– racial victimization or “oppression.” Collectively defining ourselves as racial victims has resulted in blacks suffering from a negative self-image and a crisis of being in the post-civil rights period of multiracial integration. Racial victimization, crucial to our identity, is partially seen as the result of not having reached socio-economic equity with whites. That a racial gap exists is enough “proof” (for some) to confirm the persistence of “systemic racism” at the expense of other, more influential factors that would better explain these quality-of-life disparities. Essentializing our race, along with the conviction and customary exploitation of racial grievance, gained traction with the black power movement. This followed the moral revolution for freedom and justice and was a more aggressive movement that emphasized black race pride and identity, pursued social and economic access that required “outcome-based equality,” and demanded financial reimbursement for past sufferings. This was the beginning of our identity crisis.
Consequently, a general awareness of racial self-doubt and unresolved feelings of inadequacy are the products of belonging to a cultural group whose legacy of inhumanity was rooted in slavery, then as “second-class” citizens under segregation. Considering this heritage, it’s understandable–to a degree–that this endowment would contribute to a sense of racial insecurity or lack of national belonging. In response to these feelings, blacks have repeatedly attempted to reinvent or redefine black identity to elevate in-group self-esteem. The intergenerational efforts to racially redefine who we are, in pursuit of pride, may be the reality that too many blacks have little-to-no conception of who we are apart from historical oppression. It could also be an indirect acknowledgement that we haven’t taken full advantage of validating ourselves through innumerable opportunities that are now open to us thanks to the racial victories of the 1960s. Taken together, this has significantly compromised individual and group self-determination and confidence, self-understanding, and earned achievement conditioned only upon our ability to excel.
The principal importance put on racial identity, its dependency on racial victimization, and the psychological consequences of our identity being contingent upon victimization has led to our identity crisis. This crisis is defined as being dependent on our politicized racial identity– cultural traits, ideological preferences and demands; political support and behavior, the relationship with historical oppression and subsequent grievances– the latter of which has precipitated a broad sense of entitlement. This identity crisis is further defined by the insistence that people, groups, and institutions–or, society in general– treat us with a certain racial privilege, granting us special dispensations as restitution for historical discrimination said to be tied to the contemporary causes of black suffering and underdevelopment. Because blacks suffered in the past, it’s suggested that it’s not only unfair but unreasonable to hold blacks to universal measures of character and the rigor of merit-based achievement. Contemptuously, this broadly accepted idea declares that blacks are still victimized by discrimination, such that anyone who judges blacks as equals is essentially blaming the victim. This is the opposite of Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream.
When candidly examined, these “special” privileges have been consistent with lower standards and expectations for blacks when compared to our peers. But, if we’re honest, we know this delicate treatment is increasingly distinguished by having no standards and no expectations with respect to black intelligence and capability, be it in moral, academic, social, and economic capacities. This is the hard bigotry of no expectations, self-destructively permitted by blacks–– and validated by far too many whites. This is what racial dependency has done to our sense of self.
This compassion-based bigotry is thought to be more favorable to blacks than being judged by the same principles and expectations as our counterparts. Blacks approving of lower standards not only undermines our aptitude, but places varying levels of black accomplishment under suspicion. Any individual or group that lacks sufficient confidence in their ability to succeed will embrace lower standards– or the removal of standards altogether– as a means for advancement.
This is a form of self-contempt. It’s the in-group reinstitution– and admission– that blacks are still separate and unequal. It reinforces the stigma of inferiority based on the metaphysics of race that justifies societal intercession on our behalf– doing for us what our intermediaries don’t think we can do for ourselves. This paternalism encourages and reinforces black disempowerment and black disability. As a parenthetical, manufactured merit and equity are always and everywhere the enemy of black development because it incentivizes trading on our assumed racial weakness rather than on our ability, which is naturally developed through trial and error. It’s no wonder why this identity crisis exists.
The provision and expectation of special treatment is in part the result of too many blacks not having achieved a sense of national identity, belonging, and accomplishment, in America, on our own terms. The cultural elites in the race grievance industry have persuaded too many blacks to reject a comprehensive commitment to full participation in America. The grievance elite has convinced blacks that America remains stuck in the pre-civil rights era– a country where we are still persecuted by white supremacists hell-bent on terrorizing black lives. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rejecting this narrative and welcoming national inclusivity would require surrendering what many blacks hold most dear: our hyper-racialized identity of historical persecution repeatedly used as leverage for socio-economic provisions. We enjoy the advantages that come with living in America but remain reluctant in fulfilling the requirements of full integration that the civil rights movement began. Straddling the fence preserves the feelings of resentment, self-consciousness, and hostility. This part-American, continually angry, and perpetually oppressed community-wide attitude severely constrains black development, autonomy, and frustrates the comprehensive realization of existential wellbeing. This crisis compromises our national welfare by preventing civic conciliation in society at large. It sacrifices our ability to determine our own fate, as Americans, by requiring racial solidarity and ideological conformity, in combination with external mediation, that sabotages our progress. It compels a collectivization at the expense of the individual liberty.
Celebrating one’s racial identity isn’t, of itself, a bad thing. What’s unproductive is the way we have chosen to define and accentuate our identity. We’ve tried to increase racial dignity at the expense of more important factors, like our individuality, personal development, competition and achievement, critical thinking, among other factors– all of which leads to a higher sense of contentment and are more reflective of a real sense of pride. These failed attempts at recreating ourselves through racial imagery have come at the expense of our national identity.
Until the civil rights victories of the 1960s, blacks identified as Negroes. Though a more polite designation compared to other descriptions, such as being called “colored,” or the “n-word,” “Negro” became too closely identified with the “passivity” of the nonviolent, integrationist ethics of the civil rights movement. Negro was discarded, particularly by those who were converted to the black power movement in favor of the label “black”– a racial self-redefinition and reclamation of a word whites had disparaged. For the black power advocates, being black was now beautiful, full of pride and confidence; assertive rather than passive as it belligerently challenged what was said to be the remnants of institutional racism. Most importantly, being black now meant the rejection of integration in favor of a pluralistic separatism, resulting from the influence of black nationalism.
Nurturing black cultural pride led blacks to identify as Afro-American, a development that included celebrating Afrocentric cultural traits as an appreciation and sentimentalization of Africa. Eventually, this too was dropped in favor of African-American, the hyphenated designation of one’s membership of two different historical periods, two different geographies, and two different cultures. This evolved into African American (no hyphen)– a seemingly dignified proper identity rather than a modified one. This term is increasingly being splintered into the acronym, ADOS: African descendent of slaves, a strange nobility associated with oppression. This splintering also includes a more destructive sociological construct, the catch-all term, “people of color,” which is a clear throwback to “colored people,” an unpleasant appellation given to blacks during segregation.
We’ve come full circle.
Shelby Steele says in his book A Dream Deferred:
[T]he price paid . . . is to suppress individuals with the mark of race just as certainly as segregation did, by relentlessly telling them that their racial identity is the most important thing about them, that it opens to them an opportunism in society that is not available to them as individuals. Black politics [and identity] since the sixties, has been based on this hidden incentive to repress individuality so as to highlight the profitable collective identity.
Steele says in another book, Content of Our Character:
Doesn’t race enhance individuality? I think it does but only when individuality is nurtured and developed apart from race. The race-holder . . . feels inadequate or insecure and then seeks reassurance through race. When, instead, a sense of self arises from individual achievement and self-realization. When self-esteem is established apart from race, then racial identity can only enhance because it is no longer needed for any other purpose.
The moral foundation of the civil rights movement was that it minimized race as a legitimate rationale for racial dehumanization. The morality of this position– minimizing race as a rationale for racial hierarchy– is now held in contempt. Thanks to identity politics, the opposite is now true: race must be used as a social totem to determine who’s essential and who isn’t. The obsession with race has significantly contributed to increased racial discord, which has further distressed our national ties.
Attempting to create and re-create ourselves in our racial image to improve our self-consciousness and recover our self-respect (internally and externally) has been unsuccessful. Because black identity maintains the proposition of being never-ending victims of “white supremacy,” and “oppression,” it’s hard to argue that improved self-esteem is attainable by self-defining oneself or one’s group as permanently victimized. Trying to personify racialized distinctions that serve as a foundation for respectability, or an emotional balm used as consolation for the terrible things that happened in the past, discourages us from using the available resources and prospects to build our future– in America, as Americans, how we see fit.
A solution to our identity crisis is for blacks to reject racial self-definition and define ourselves by our national identity. Rather than being black Americans, African Americans, ‘people of color’, or some other exaggerated construction of our racial identity, blacks should define ourselves as American. The transcendence of our national identity surpasses the reductionism and assumed determinism of our race-based identity.
My parents were born and raised under segregation, so I know that America hasn’t always been kind to us. I’ve also experienced discrimination, which I see as a diminishing reflection of an America that no longer exists. Persistent emphasis on the negative prevents us from acknowledging the many good things the country has done– and has attempted to do– to atone for its injustices. It also prevents blacks from celebrating the resiliency that has led to the religious, cultural, economic, and political success of blacks, as Americans, in full view of the struggles we’ve faced. In a phrase, we have overcome.
Blacks should reject the separatist attitude that nourishes estrangement; we must embrace our national identity. We have a responsibility to adopt a sense of –and rootedness in– America because, we are American. We should immediately accept an Americanism that will allow us to have confidence in our ability to achieve the fullness of human potential– not as exiles but as citizens. Rev. King prophetically said in his last speech before he was killed that he’d “been to the mountaintop,” that he’d “seen the Promised Land, and that “we, as a people, [would] get to the promised land.” King had faith in America and her potential. For some blacks, establishing our national identity before our racial identity will be an act of faith. But, as one pastor put it, “faith isn’t just about learning how to get to the promised land. Faith is learning how to live in the promised land.”
It definitely took some time, but we have crossed the Jordan River. America is our home. America isn’t perfect but she is good. Despite our country’s internal contradictions, blacks that live in America enjoy the highest quality of life than all other blacks in every other place in the world, and it’s not even close. Therefore, we must dispense with recounting the sins of the past; people are tired of hearing it. No amount of anger, shame, or the emotional manipulation of our fellow Americans can change history. Most white people will never feel the sense of shame or remorse that blacks think is commensurate with the evils of the past. What happened, happened. Accepting our national identity shows that the tribulations of the past doesn’t define who we are, nor does it determine our future.
Our American identity is a response to our identity crisis and is a practical approach to overcoming the countless limitations and frustrations inherent in prioritizing racial uplift. Embracing the superiority of our national identity works against the constricted, coercive racialism and divisiveness of Black Lives Matter and the deception of the 1619 Project. It frustrates the fractionalized limitations of identity politics. It diminishes the internal feelings of victimization, anger, and manipulation that underlie the impetus for reparations.
Deliberately accepting of our national identity will enhance our quality of life. National pride in who we are can produce a life less consumed with racial paranoia and feelings of discrimination, anger, bitterness, and self-doubt. By accepting our national identity above our racial identity, blacks will send a clear message that we see and believe ourselves to be equally American. As equals, blacks will demand to be treated and judged by identical standards expected of others. While in direct competition with our peers, we will demonstrate that we are able to meet and exceed these standards. We will irrevocably establish our equality based on our self-determination–and realization–rather than the fabricated parity and false sense of accomplishment established by the benevolent chauvinism of those who patronizingly intervene on our behalf.
The courage to flourish, should affirm for some– and reaffirm for others–an appreciation for how far blacks have come in such a short period of time; it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Courage, determination, and national pride should be the foundation upon which we take advantage of today’s prospects to establish exactly who we are–