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'Disintegration' Of America's Black Neighborhoods

Writer Eugene Robinson grew up in a segregated world. His hometown of Orangeburg, S.C., had a black side of town and a white side of town; a black high school and a white high school; and "two separate and unequal school systems," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

But things are different now. Just look at the nation's capital -- home to the first black U.S. president, a large black middle class and many African-Americans who still live in extreme poverty.

Robinson details the splintering of African-American communities and neighborhoods in his new book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

His story starts in America's historically black neighborhoods, where segregation brought people of different economic classes together. Robinson says that began to change during the civil rights era.

"People who had the means and had the education started moving out of what had been the historic black neighborhoods," Robinson explains.

He cites Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood as a prime example of this because of how Shaw was home to a vibrant black community and a thriving entertainment scene in the 1930s through the 1950s. By the '70s, Shaw had become a desolate, drug-ridden area.

"In city after city, African-American neighborhoods that …once had been vibrant and in a sense whole -- disintegrated," Robinson says.

He attributes that change to African-Americans taking advantage of new opportunities, resulting in a more economically segregated community.

"There have always been class distinctions in the black community," Robinson says, "but what I believe we've seen is an increasing distance between two large groups, which I identify as the Mainstream and the Abandoned."

Robinson says that while a "fairly slim majority" of African-Americans entered the middle class, a large portion of the community never climbed the ladder. It's getting harder and harder to catch up, he says, "because so many rungs of that ladder are now missing."

So as formerly segregated neighborhoods begin to gentrify; rents increase and longtime residents get pushed out.

"What happens to this group that I call the Abandoned is that they get shoved around -- increasingly out into the inner suburbs -- and end up almost out of sight, out of mind," Robinson says.

Of course, that's not to say that life was better before the civil rights movement. Robinson says Americans can't forget what life was like before integration.

"Forty-five years ago, only two out of every 100 African-American households made the present day equivalent of $100,000 a year. Now it's eight or nine," he says.  "No one would turn back the clock and go back to those days."

But Robinson says opportunities for African-Americans to climb into the middle class are quickly disappearing, putting black families that did manage to make it into the middle class in a difficult position that involves a certain amount of "survivor's guilt" and plenty of frustration that efforts to help -- haven't.

"I know very few middle-class black Americans who are not involved in ... attempts to reach across the gap -- through the church, through mentoring programs, by spending time reading in the schools," Robinson says. "Yet, you need something much more holistic ... and purposeful if we're frankly ever going to have the kind of impact that we need to have on the people left behind."

There's a good deal of friction between African-American communities, Robinson says, but it doesn't get talked about very much.  People living in poverty "have the resentment and sourness that comes with having been left behind," he says, "the feeling that, 'Well, these people think so much of themselves, and they've moved away to their fancy places.' "

According to Robinson, there's a word for that feeling. "Sadity" is used to describe someone who is "stuck up" or who thinks he or she is better than everyone else.

"It reflects this outsized importance that is given in poor black communities to this concept of respect," Robinson says.

And if the black poor remain mired where they are right now, he says, it will be bad for everyone -- that's what gives the cause a sense of urgency.

So while the changes the civil rights movement has inspired over the past 50 years have absolutely been for the good, there's still important work to do.

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