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Commentary: The many shades of blackness

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2009 - Jesse Jackson was recently reported saying, "You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man," by the Hill newspaper . Jackson was speaking at a Congressional Black Caucus reception where he was being honored for the 25th anniversary of his first bid for the presidency. I find his statement problematic.

At the core of Jackson's statement is the suggestion that there is a litmus test for blackness. It's the age-old "blacks are monolithic" argument. The problem is that this argument is flawed. It is also quite dated and has become increasingly problematic as laws and norms have changed. The face of black America has shifted, in part due to the increased access afforded by these changes.

In some ways, the "we are one" approach worked and was useful during the civil rights movement. It might have been, perhaps in generalities, true. Blacks were limited in opportunities -- from education to housing. I imagine close quarters could breed similarity or at least the semblance of such. So, with blacks of various professions and income levels living in the same neighborhood, there was more likely to be a connection between a doctor and garbage collector. Sharing the same space and sending your children to the same school can bring people together. Yet, even in close proximity, blacks were diverse.

"We are one" does not necessarily mean, "we think as one." That is where Jackson and others have gone wrong. We can be committed to the black community without coming down on the same side of every issue.

I understand that to rally the proverbial "troops," it is convenient to focus on what we have in common. And if we present a unified voice, it's even easier to gain momentum. However, now that black American has gained access to increased opportunities and broken down barrier after barrier, we have the luxury of allowing our differences to be in the forefront.

We are not a simplistic, flat people. We are dynamic, have varied experiences and complex beliefs.

Isn't that what the movement was about? We wanted people to be "judged by the content of their character." Therefore, I would be less frustrated with Jackson if he had said that you could not vote against health care and call yourself a human.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not dreaming of a post-racial world where race is obsolete. I see a need for groups like the Congressional Black Caucus. I continue to believe race is a powerful and meaningful construct. I am talking about a world that recognizes the systemic dynamics of race while also allowing those within a group to hold divergent views.

I find Jackson's comment problematic because much of the work he has done has been to increase opportunities for blacks. Rep. Artur Davis, the person Jackson was most likely calling out for voting against the version of health reform brought to the House, represents that opportunity. He is making a bid for governor of Alabama, a state with a violent racial past.

If Jackson were really about increasing opportunities for blacks, black people should be able to disagree without having the depth or reality of their blackness questioned. In the community, it's often called "losing your race card." The phrase frustrates me, because it assumes that there is an application, with right and wrong answers that is judged before deeming you a card-carrying member. Racial identity is much more complex than a laundry list of actions and beliefs.

It is unfortunate that Jackson fails to embrace those intricacies and engaged in such a narrow conceptualization of identity.

But perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps Jackson's comments were staged to enhance Davis' bid. Black man running for governor of Alabama makes clear that he is not bound by race. Those in his state who fear he will not represent everyone now have example of him breaking that stereotype of black leaders. Davis is still a member of the Black Caucus, so it is not as though he rejects his race. So voters of color recognize that he is not deluded by the colorblind, post-racial rhetoric. That scenario would be an example of working to increase opportunities without knocking people for divergent beliefs. A girl can dream.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.