I grew up in a fairly segregated town, not much different from the way a lot of white kids grow up, and recently I asked my mother if she had grown up knowing any black doctors, or lawyers, or teachers. Did my father ever have an African-American boss or even a peer?
She couldn’t think of any. Me neither. I had one black teacher, for algebra, in high school, and one Hispanic teacher. Those were my only experiences of authority of color until I got to college (and even then, those were thin on the ground).
We knew black people, of course, neighbors and other parents at school, but no one who would challenge the idea of a powerful voice always being a white voice. It’s very different from how Kick will grow up; two of my bosses are black and many of her teachers likely will be as well, and there are more examples of leaders in all fields who are of different backgrounds in a larger city (even a segregated one). There is much, much more of a black middle and upper class here and now.
The idea of a diversity of wealth and class as well as race didn’t occur to my sheltered self until much later in my life, after I’d been a lot more places and seen a lot more things. And media treatment of “the black perspective” as one monolithic viewpoint didn’t help.
By contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement is “coming from black folks at the margins,” one of its co-founders, Patrisse Cullors, told a crowd of several hundred gathered at the elegant Harbor View Hotel, which looks out on Edgartown’s quaint lighthouse.
“We’re a generation that wore baggy pants and sagged them,” said Cullors, 31, visiting the Vineyard for the first time.
For some, the inadequacy of the respectability approach has become clear in recent years.
“We as black people were kind of lulled,” said Bithiah Carter, president of New England Blacks in Philanthropy, which seeks to increase the leverage of black donors. “We were lulled into thinking, I moved to the suburbs, I put my kids in good schools, I climbed my corporate ladder, I’m now making $200,000 a year. I’m a good Negro.”
But after Trayvon Martin was killed, it became clear that even well-to-do black children could face discrimination – or worse — because of the color of their skin. “You just found out you really didn’t matter,” said Carter, in her late 40s, speaking at a forum organized by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree in Oak Bluffs.
Others dismissed the idea that this was some sort of new discovery, even for the affluent.
“I don’t think any of us feel we are at a place where we think, ‘Oh, that wouldn’t happen,’” said Michael Weekes, 62, CEO of the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.
“That’s a great equalizer. No matter how rich you are as an African American, you’re still vulnerable,” said Alan Jenkins, 52, executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, which co-hosted the forum with Cullors.