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Bill Maxwell

How the other half lives

Once again, Barack Obama, our postracial president, has unwittingly stepped into the briar patch of race. This time, however, the controversy does not involve white people. It involves a group of the president's fellow African-Americans.

The earlier and internationally reported entanglement occurred in Cambridge, Mass., when a white police officer arrested the president's good friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. A so-called "teachable moment," complete with beer, resulted at the White House.

This time, the scene was Oak Bluffs, where the first family vacationed. Oak Bluffs, known as the Black Hamptons, is one of six towns on Martha's Vineyard. Beer at the White House is not in the offing. (Interestingly, Obama's notable race problems are occurring in New England, not in race-conscious Dixieland.)

Black people's connection to Oak Bluffs was the protagonist and the antagonist in this intraracial melodrama, which introduced many Americans, including many blacks, to a unique group they rarely, if ever, hear about. The group has been given various names, including the "black elite," the "Talented Tenth," the "Only Ones," "privileged blacks," the "black bourgeoisie," "black snobs," the "black upper crust" and others employing the "N-word."

A brief deconstruction of the events involving the Obamas: When word got out a few months ago that the first family would vacation on Martha's Vineyard, more than a handful of black Oak Bluffs residents rolled their eyes and groaned.

Even with their historic rise to the White House, the Obamas did not belong in this insular, black subculture.

A June 21 article in New York magazine, titled "Black and White on Martha's Vineyard," uncovered for many readers the fault line between upper-class blacks and their common sisters and brothers. Elite blacks live in a self-absorbed world of wealth and personal achievement. They support their own in every way.

The author of the magazine article, Touré, spent a lot of time in Oak Bluffs conducting interviews. One wealthy resident said of the president and the first lady: "Obama is more of a man of the people. He doesn't seem to identify with affluent black people. His wife definitely doesn't. She is basically a ghetto girl. That's what she says — I'm just being sociological. She grew up in the same place Jennifer Hudson did. She hasn't reached out to the social community of Washington, and people are waiting to see what they'll do about that."

Indeed, the "ghetto girl" description of Michelle Obama and the suggestion that the president does not identify with affluent black people put them at odds with many Oak Bluffs black millionaires and billionaires — surgeons, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, inventors, CEOs, artists, authors — who trace their ancestry back to free blacks who did not experience the stain and direct horrors of slavery. They are a proud people who attended the nation's best universities and who use their intelligence and exemplary work ethic to become the crème de la crème.

The black upper class comes to Oak Bluffs to be comfortable and free of judgment in celebrating who they are. They stick together, socially segregating themselves from everyone else, including whites. They often feel besieged because of their elevated status.

"And this is why I have concluded that although every racial, ethnic, and religious group in the United States claims to want a piece of the American dream, there is no group that apologizes more for its success than black people," writes Lawrence Otis Graham in Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. "The cultural identity or integrity of a black millionaire rap star, basketball player, or TV performer will never be questioned. But an equally wealthy black professional with an upper-class background and a good education will earn the label of a 'sellout' or a 'Negro trying to be white.' "

I have spent several summers, along with one cruel winter, in Oak Bluffs in the homes of friends, and although I was not part of that society, I was impressed to see so many good-looking prominent blacks strolling on Circuit Avenue with their families, romping on the shore of the Inkwell (the black beach), playing tennis, golfing, sailing and fishing.

I understood why they loved Martha's Vineyard and why they gathered there, attracting the likes of Skip Gates, Vernon Jordan, Lani Guinier, Carole Simpson and Valerie B. Jarrett, senior adviser and assistant to President Obama.

A friend, a Vineyard native who was one of my University of Chicago classmates, told me that the "black upper class is a separate species, not like other blacks and better than whites." He said that no matter how much money a person like me earned or how fame I achieved, I never could be "one of them," a member of the "tribe." I had the "wrong pedigree," my skin was "too dark," my hair was "too nappy" and my features were "too Negroid." And, of course, I was born a migrant farm worker.

When I asked him about the Michelle Obama "ghetto girl" slur, he was unequivocal: "Michelle was born and raised on Chicago's South Side. Her dad was city pump operator, and her mother was a secretary. That spells 'ghetto' to a lot of people here."

The Obamas' visit to Martha's Vineyard has given many Americans a glimpse of a group of blacks who — without apologies — have made wealth and success their way of life, who have little in common with other blacks, who also do not care to mix socially with whites.

They love to be with their own kind of people. And they have that right.

How the other half lives 08/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 8:06pm]

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