Saturday, August 05, 2006

Commentary on the Black Elite and Lawrence Otis Graham's Our Kind of People

When I posted a review of Lawrence Otis Graham’s book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class a little while ago, a friend of mine, fellow blogger K (the K-Bomb on my links list) commented. It turns out that I do know someone involved with the groups Graham discussed in his book. K grew up in Jack and Jill, a group Graham devotes a whole chapter to.

Graham describes Jack and Jill as “one of the defining organizations for families of the black professional class” that “focuses on bringing together children aged two to nineteen and introducing them to various educational, social, and cultural experiences.” It has about 30,000 members in America and Germany.

I asked K some questions about his upbringing, Graham’s book, and race, via e-mail.

You told me most of your family has read Lawrence Otis Graham's book. What did you think of it?

K: I thought that Graham was pretentious and a big booster of elitism. Graham's first book, Member Of The Club, shows how white elites exclude blacks from their organizations, so Our Kind of People was a natural follow up. Graham is Ivy League and none of those populist schools count for him; only the places that still value legacy and favor count in his world.

It was nice to see the history of some of the organizations presented, I enjoyed the recognition he gave to The Urban League, which is an organization that my mother has worked for and I spent much time volunteering with. It was really instrumental in coordinating equality movements in the early 20th century. Since it was eclipsed in status and funding, people don't know how much it has done, but it is still going.

I volunteered at the Minneapolis branch for a year and taught a computer literacy class. It was a good experience, but most of the big supporters were elderly. Keith Ellison who is running for US House of representatives, in Martin Sabo's old seat, had his legal office there. I have not been back there in two years though.

What did your family members think of it?

K: I think my family found it amusing. We are not really elite, like some of the North Shore Chicago bunch, but we did better monetarily than most of America, and in the black subset, it puts you at toward the top.

Which organizations were (are) you and your family involved in? Are you still involved with any of those groups?

K: I was involved in Jack and Jill of America as a kid and it was a presented in a really positive light in the book. It primarily helps children, but it is managed by mothers, often times competitive mothers. Many of its children don't live around people like themselves and maybe interact with other black people at church only or not at all. Jack and Jill provides space for kids to be themselves and is very supportive of their accomplishments. It's a hard life; on one hand, society tells you that your parents are doing well for themselves and are upstanding people in the community and that same community seems distant, someone else's; it seems white. You realize that your parent's circles are not the same as your white peers. Maybe they are professionally, but I don't know many black kids whose parents had lots of white friends.

Through Jack and Jill, I met kids from all over the country, mostly at our regional teen summer conferences. We rented out all of Camp Snoopy on my first visit to Minnesota. I, a kid from Indiana, met kids from Westchester County, New York and Prince George County, Maryland, as well as Oakland County, Michigan at national conferences. They were often from groups that were a lot more exclusive than my own, but I could relate. There are many things that are implicit when you are amongst those with similar backgrounds. I could communicate without talking, and just relax. I didn't have to explain that Brown and Penn were Ivy League. Going skiing didn't make you an anomaly; it made you normal. Tennis and golf were the same.

Most kids were pretty typically suburban American youth. "You like Pearl Jam?" could be met with "I like Pearl Jam too," instead of that's white people's music (which it was). The social norms were different in Jack and Jill, it followed its own.

There were kids who were computer geeks and skateboarders as well as aspiring to be rappers and NBA stars (who would probably be more likely to become lawyers). I remember having a conversation about lacrosse, which was a new club sport where I lived. A Chicago kid had his stick and I cradled it as another kid kicked his skateboard. It was awesome and a bit sad that I couldn't find the same comfort in daily life.

Jack and Jill also sponsored my sisters' debutante balls. I was an escort. It meant a lots of white dresses, dance lessons, etiquette lessons and the rest. It took a lot of time, but it the event was always nice.

My sister and mother are in The Links. It is elitist, but they do philanthropic work. Each chapter caps at 50, so the people in them can get to know each other. It is also a nice social network for professional women, who are often one of a handful of young professional women in their environments. However, because of the cap, there are often many old people. It's nice to be around people like yourself, it takes a lot of life's stress away. You, again, can leave some things unsaid without feeling in jeopardy. If I were to get married, I would recommend the organization to my wife.

As far as churches go, I went to an AME church growing up. We had doctors, a cardiologist even, and lawyers, teachers, pharmacists and other professionals. It was Indiana, so no pressure to attend "the best church". I don't think we had an Episcopal black church in town. We didn't go to church to be seen or for networking.

As far as fraternities and sororities, neither I nor my sisters and parents were in them. My mother's mother and her sisters all were, and my grandmother's aunt too. I have uncles in several of the black fraternities. They do a lot of good philanthropic work, but still have a lot of dangerous rituals and practices. All are good networks for the sake of networking.

The alumni chapters do a lot of philanthropic activities, more so than white Greek organizations. Most of the work is done after college, not during.

How hard is it to join these organizations? What barriers did you notice?

K: Like fraternities and sororities, it's invite only. If you are in certain professions, and maintain some ties to the general black community, you will be asked. They have to have members to survive.

The exclusivity depends on the market. New York and Washington D.C. have a lot of people available to compete for the positions. You could fill them with "important people" and multi-millionaires. This is no different in the black community than in any other, white, Asian and the rest. I'm from Indiana and we were just glad to field a team for Jack and Jill. I don't know much about how The Links works as far as new members. You have to have children for Jack and Jill because it is for children. The Links is for women. Age doesn't matter much. My sister joined at 27.

Organizations like 100 Black Men are primarily philanthropic and because they are men, less quarrelsome. If you step up in the community, and you have a respected profession, you will be asked to join. Black America can only be so exclusive, there are only so many who are doing well enough and educated enough to participate.

On vacations: My parents didn't do them so much. This was largely my father's influence. We usually visited family, although all over the country. We didn't have a lake spot. We lived in Indiana and there was no pressure for that.

Never use summer or winter as a verb.

Graham's book talks about the 'brown paper bag and ruler tests.' What have your experiences been with regard to skin tone and how it relates to black identity?

K: Discriminating on skin tone is called 'being color struck'. I am a medium hue, more on the lighter side than the darker, but unmistakably African-American. I know that from peer interaction in college and middle school. We didn't talk about it in my family. Color gave no status. You were just part of the family.

The fraternities and sororities still hold to color norms implicitly. Alpha Kappa Alpha, my step-grandmother's organization, still has many women with European features, green or hazel eyes, thin lips, narrow noses, and European hair. Some of the others have sisters with dark skin. This is not as present in younger generations and has changed as well because many young people have a white parent.

You seem comfortable with the term Black. With America seeing a surge in immigration from Africa, what are we to make of the term African-American?

K: African-Americans [whose families] have been here since slavery are having a tough time dealing with African immigrants. I've also known white Africans who can also claim the term African American to great extent. Black describes anyone from the African Diaspora regardless of national origin in America. NPR has recently done some features on African/African-American tension in Washington DC. I assume it will work like other American immigration for other racial groups.

You've never struck me as an elitist. Do you think your modesty is in spite of your experience with elite black organizations or because of it?

K: I'm a product of my parents and grandparents, none of whom looked well at elitism. On both sides of my family, my grandparents were fairly humble people, with the "if you lost it all tomorrow, what would you have left" mentality. They weren't social climbers, they did things for the sake of themselves and their families, not in opposition to the system, but in support of themselves.

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