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The Myth Of Racial Betterment

We’re still playing a game that’s been stacked against us the whole time

There are 46 million black Americans in the United States, and all of them, apparently, are performing blackness incorrectly, dancing to the wrong beat or using the wrong fork at the great communal dinner party we call “society.” We are told this by people who should know better, at a time when racial identity and racism are on the minds of more Americans. Blackness, after all, is performance, more an outfit than a racial designator — albeit one that you can't remove, one that comes with unique and mystifying burdens.

Whatever we do, or don't do, is placed upon our skin color, both from within our community and from those who stand outside of it. You can't perform at the inauguration of a president your community largely didn't vote for, and you can't publicly protest against police brutality. When you are a black person, you are responsible for answering questions about the lives of people you will never see and never know because you are not, in fact, a person. You are a group, all happening to dress in that same skin. And your wins, your hard-earned successes, are dismissed with “what about black-on-black crime in Chicago?” Demands for full equality from black Americans are given as explanations for why some white people fall for the so-called “ alt-right.” “We weren't racist,” these white supremacists seem to say, “until you made us be.” Even our president seems to believe that black people are all the same, and all tainted.

So black people try harder. Since slavery, black people have been presented with the goal of “betterment,” a kernel of a concept that if all black people collectively pulled their pants up and stopped talking back and started using the King's English, then, and only then, would we see true and lasting justice for all. For black Americans under the literal lash of slavery and the figurative lash of Jim Crow laws that restricted their movements and their lives, “betterment” arose as a means of self-preservation. White people couldn't possibly exclude a group they believed to be equal, some thought, and you can only perceive equality in someone you see to be like you.

In 1895, black educator and author Booker T. Washington gave a speech to a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition. His speech came to be known as the “ Atlanta Compromise,” and in it he posited a world where black Americans would hold off on demands for full social, political, and economic equality until we were adequately “improved.” “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” he said. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities." He begged his audience to trust black Americans as they had trusted them during slavery, and said that in social matters segregation would ensure that the races were “as separate as the fingers.” “There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all,” he said. Just let us try, he was saying. You'll see.

Booker T. Washington was wrong, because the game was rigged all along. Equality would not be granted once black people “improved”; rather, the goalposts would just keep moving. Black Americans went to segregated medical schools and segregated teaching schools; they became lawyers and literature professors, and yet they still could not use the same drinking fountains or go to the same bathrooms as white people. There was no "defense or security" for the lives of black people. Even the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was brutally beaten, shot, and tossed into a Mississippi river, was met with a Mississippi newspaper saying that black crime in Chicago was the real problem. And segregation, which held black lives and experiences at arm's length from those of white people, was to be in place until full equality between the races was achieved. Politicians said that segregation was forever.

And still, in 2017, we believe in Washington's compromise — that if we achieve, we'll be equal. So we do. We become senators, or lawyers, or doctors. We decry mediocrity because we must. As Omarosa told a reality show star she didn't happen to support for the presidency, “It's different for you and I. I am an African-American woman. You get to walk around and be mediocre and still get rewarded with things.” “Mediocre” doesn't mean “bad,” by the way. It means ordinary or average. A mediocre person is not a failure. He is the median, the middle, the run of the mill. But we can't be that.

We can't be average, and we can't fail. We can't be anything less than great. And even when we are great, scaling the heights of success, we are still black, and thus still playing a game that's been stacked against us the whole time. And we play it against each other, too. We demand purity and require adherence to a collective understanding of what it means to be ourselves and of our own interests. How can a black person be a conservative, we ask? How can a black person vote, or not vote? Perhaps a better question might be: Why not? Why can't they vote or work or do as they want, as anyone else might? Could it be that we, too, have self-interests beyond or besides race, and that we contain multitudes — including the capacity to be deeply, perniciously wrong?

And yet even the most successful of us can be violently arrested for stealing our own cars or breaking into our own apartments. “Niggers are stupid and violent,” Dylann Roof wrote before murdering nine people in a Charleston church. He didn't care about black success or black victory. He just saw black skin, and he thought he knew what that meant.

Our skin color, our hair, our race is our unifier, but it is not our identity. It is not who we are, how we think, or whom we love. It is not our individuality, nor is it our destiny. It is not us. We are better, and achieve more, and win, not because of our race but because of ourselves, our personhood. To deny us any of this is to render us a group — and to make us meaningless.