Remember when Attorney General Eric Holder called Americans a “nation of cowards” who put “certain subjects . . . off limits”? Holder, of course, was referring to “subjects” that in fact we do nothing else but talk about non-stop – the refusal of whites to admit the persistence of white racism and its responsibility for all the ills afflicting the black underclass. To quote Paul Krugman for this received wisdom, “Race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.”
Yet Holder was unwittingly accurate, for there is a subject the mainstream culture and political discourse never touches: what Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay called the “yellow complex.” This is the psychological condition of light-skinned blacks that was explored in novels of the 1920s like McKay’s Home to Harlem and Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. Back then, the mulatto or light-complexioned black, especially the well educated, lived in a social and psychological limbo, excluded by racism from the white world, and forced by segregation to live among darker blacks whom they often despised and looked down on. Yet darker blacks themselves experienced conflicting emotions, at once attracted to and resentful of the light-skinned who scorned them.
Thurman’s Emma Lou is a sympathetic portrait of this complex from the perspective of a woman whose mother is a mulatto, but who inherited her father’s black skin: “Emma Lou had been born in a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one, and those few dark elements that had forced their way in had either been shooed away or else greeted with derisive laughter.” When she matriculates at an exclusive Negro college, she despises Hazel, another dark-skinned girl who attempts to befriend her, as “just a vulgar little n***** from down South.” Emma Lou “was determined to become associated only with those people who really mattered, northerners like herself or superior southerners, if there were any, who were different from whites only in so far as skin color was concerned.” What she discovers, however, is that most of the light-skinned students to whom she is attracted despise her as much as she despises Hazel.
A creation of racism and segregation, the psychology explored in this persistent theme of classic black literature was supposedly transcended by the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s. In black identity politics the poles of value were reversed: the snobbish mulattoes or blacks who lived by so-called “white” values were attacked for “acting white,” and authentic black identity comprised everything that separated blacks from the white majority, whether complexion, accent, or especially political ideology, morality, and virtue. Blacks of any shade who adopted proper English, social decorum, or traditional virtues were scorned as “Uncle Toms” and “race traitors.” Though millions of American blacks rejected much of this ideology, it reshaped public discourse and popular culture, and created today’s racial orthodoxy.
Partly because of the understandable commitment to racial solidarity among the majority of blacks who just want to live their lives and get ahead like everybody else, publicly the melodrama of white racism has overshadowed all the other complexities of black American life. Yet those issues still exist, and no doubt are still alive among black people who are loath to break ranks in front of white people. The presidency of Barack Obama, however, has exposed how detrimental to our collective political life and race relations has been the refusal honestly to confront these issues, mostly by empowering a race industry that benefits the black elite and middle class, even as it worsens the plight of the black underclass.
Obama’s public career reflects some dimensions of the “yellow complex” that persist today. At the beginning of his political rise there was briefly some talk that he wasn’t “black” enough. After all, he was raised by whites in Hawaii, one of the whitest states, where he attended an exclusive prep school before moving on to exclusive, white-dominated universities. Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag when he said in 2007 that Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” A year later Harry Reid was amazed that Obama was “light-skinned" and had “no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.” In other words, not “black.” Jesse Jackson also revealed this tension in the black community when he responded to candidate Obama’s “moral lectures” to blacks by saying, “I wanna cut his nuts out” for “talking down to black people.” Perhaps Jackson heard the snobbery of Emma Lou in Obama’s scolding. But the media and race-industry quickly snuffed out these modern evocations of the “yellow complex,” with Biden, Reid, and Jackson all issuing groveling apologies. Ever since then, Obama’s public persona is of an authentic “black man,” that is, a victim of white racism (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) fighting to improve the lives of his struggling “brothers” and “sisters.”
Yet is it just a coincidence that Obama has been surrounded by so many lighter-skinned blacks who, like himself, come from middle or upper class backgrounds? There’s Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s trusted counselor until he had to be thrown under the bus when his racist sermons were exposed. His father was a Baptist minister, his mother a high school teacher and a vice-principal. Obama’s senior advisor and closest confidante is Valerie Jarrett. Her father is a pathologist and geneticist, and she spent her early life in Iran and London. She is a Stanford graduate with a J.D. from Michigan law school. Eric Holder’s father and maternal grandmother were immigrants from Barbados. His father was a real-estate broker. He graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. and J.D. Susan Rice’s father was a Cornell University economics professor and the second black governor of the Federal Reserve, and her mother is a fellow at the Brookings Institute. Her grandparents emigrated from Jamaica. Rice is a Stanford and Oxford graduate. In other words, all of them are untypical of the lives of ordinary black Americans whose ancestors were slaves or lived under legal segregation.
All of this should be irrelevant, and would be if Martin Luther King’s dream that blacks be judged by character rather than color had been realized. But the racial orthodoxy created by identity politics assumes a Jim Crow one-drop rule that bestows on every black in America – no matter how privileged, no matter if their parents and ancestors, like Obama’s, never suffered through American slavery and legal segregation – the mantle of victim of racism, which qualifies them to be spokesmen and less threatening proxies for millions of other black Americans who lack their advantages. By this ahistorical and incoherent racialist calculus, the child of a Kentucky coal miner or a Dust Bowl migrant has more social capital by virtue of a genetically endowed “white skin privilege” than a half-white Harvard-trained lawyer. The immense advantages bestowed by parents with college degrees and non-ghetto zip codes are invisible. Many middle and upper class blacks enjoy what David Horowitz and John Perazzo call “black skin privilege,” even as in the sixth year of Obama’s presidency millions of their underclass fellows remain mired in unemployment, dependence, crime, addiction, and broken homes.
The “yellow complex” is just one of the necessary topics of the adult conversation about race in America we should be having. Of course, after the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action programs, and the expansion of the black middle class, complexion has not been as important as socio-economic class, education, and especially politics. But it still is a factor, and one necessary to address if we want a dialogue on race that, rather than trading in crude simplifications of “black” and “white” identity, instead acknowledges those nuances and complexities that liberals claim to love so much. But don’t hold your breath waiting for those “embarrassing” subjects, as Holder called them, to go public. Too many people get too many economic and political benefits from keeping things just as they are, no matter how many generations of black Americans have to be sacrificed.
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