Back in February, I received a text from my twin brother at Notre Dame that read: “Did you see what Ben Carson said about Obama?” Carson, a former Republican candidate in the 2016 election, suggested that if elected president he might be the first African-American person to hold the position. He said the president was “raised white,” comparing Obama’s middle class upbringing to his rough one as a poor black in Detroit.
These statements struck a chord with my brother and me. As middle class African Americans who grew up in the suburbs, we too were often criticized for being “white”. Growing up, we were often the only two blacks in the grade and were therefore forced to represent the entire black community. Because of that, we had to be very conscious of the way we acted. Whenever someone had a question about blacks, they came to us. Whenever the teacher talked about slavery in history, everyone’s head turned to stare. Whenever anyone said the “n” word in a rap song, everyone awkwardly got quiet if they realized we were standing nearby.
So why, when we were obviously perceived as black among whites, were we white among blacks? There’s such a negative connotation about blacks in the middle class among the black community. Calling someone white is meant to be an insult, as if to shame a young African American for not being one of the 45.8 percent living in poverty. Somehow, because of having a different experience, we’re stripped of our black cards for something out of our control. Many African Americans are quick to condemn the media for representing all blacks as hoodrats, yet that’s what the meaning of “black” has become. The Cosby show was praised for representing a black middle class family in America, yet that same family would be criticized today.
Carson should not be able to praise Obama for breaking the race barrier in one sentence and criticize him for being white in the next. Obama has never pretended to be from the ghetto, nor has he tried hiding his upbringing. That being said, being middle class doesn’t hinder one’s ability to help those in poverty. Because I grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, I was able to see all the resources and opportunities I had over children in the Syracuse City School District, and that gives me a whole different perspective on why that district is failing. I would have a different idea of what’s missing there then someone who has lived in Syracuse their whole life. In the same way, Obama can and has sympathized with and helped those in poverty. Carson’s idea that Obama hasn’t seen “real racism” is ridiculous. As the first black president, Obama has been forced to deal with all kinds of racism, threats, and opposition.
Because President Obama and I had a similar upbringing, I know that Carson is far from being the only person with the opinion that middle class blacks are “white”. What people don’t realize is how damaging it is to a young black person’s identity to be called white by their own race. Being too black to be white and too white to be black deprives them of a sense of belonging. This type of separation shouldn’t be encouraged within our race.
It’s unfair that some people are born into better situations than others, and that some people have so much and others have so little. But why is this frustration taken out on our own race? African Americans have the highest poverty rate in America, 27.4 percent. Most cities are heavily populated by blacks, having high crime rates and low graduation rates. How as a country can we expect to change that if even the black community is putting out a message that we belong in the ghetto?
All blacks are fighting many of the same battles. No matter where I grew up, I’ll always be seen as black. I’ll always have to work harder for the same jobs. I’ll always have to deal with racism. I’ll be marked with stereotypes that will follow me for the rest of my life. Blacks have to deal with adversity in the middle class as well as in poverty.
As African Americans, we’ve come from slaves who died for our freedom, leaders who marched to desegregate schools, men and women who fought and paved the way for us so that we can have any job we dream of. The reason for upper and middle class blacks in America is because our ancestors struggled for us to have that opportunity. Coming from these ancestors of such strength and resilience is what being black truly means.