Take two middle class, black families: One lives in Riverdale, a predominantly black suburb of Washington located in Maryland's Prince Georges County; and the other lives in Lakeview, a predominantly white suburb just across the Potomac in Virginia's Fairfax County. How do the children of these families, living in significantly different social environments, come to develop a racial identity, and how do their parents feel about the ways in which they do it?
These were the questions Karyn Lacy addressed in her Feb. 11
MARIAL Center colloquium, "Growing Up Around Blacks: The Role of
Black Spaces in Identity." Two dozen people packed into the MARIAL
conference room on the Briarcliff Campus to hear Lacy describe
the attitudes of middle class blacks (MCBs) toward how their children
develop their own "blackness."
"These issues raise provocative questions about the assimilation
of MCBs into mainstream society," said Lacy, assistant professor
of sociology and a MARIAL fellow, adding that many African Americans
live in a state of "racial dualism" as they travel back and forth
between predominantly white work spaces and predominantly black
Building on the theory of "segmented assimilation" posited by
sociologists Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, Lacy offered her own
model—"strategic assimilation"—to explain the practices
of and attitudes toward socialization for MCB children, developed
through a qualitative study of 30 families living in Riverdale
Lacy conducted in-depth interviews with the families and found
that parents living in mostly white Lakeview were more likely to
enroll their children in black social organizations like Jack & Jill
than were families in Riverdale, where parents were more content
to let their children's predominantly black neighborhood serve
as their primary socialization environment.
She also uncovered significant disconnects in attitudes toward
racial identity between the two groups, something Lacy said is
virtually nonexistent in sociological literature that treats MCBs
as one homogenous population. The truth, at least as indicated
by Lacy's research, seems to indicate that blacks raised in white
neighborhoods are viewed differently by their MCB peers than those
raised in black neighborhoods.
Lacy quoted one research subject who said blacks raised in a
white world lack some elusive quality of "blackness"; "'They're
just missing something,'" the man said, according to Lacy.
"Both groups believe that black identity is sutured through interaction in the black social world," she said. "There was a concern [among MCBs in Lakeview] that their children won't be seen as 'black enough' by other blacks. Lakeview parents encourage their kids to embrace their black identities not just for socialization purposes but also to prepare them for when they encounter racism."
And this racism, Lacy continued, is strongly perceived to exist
in the "real world," as her subjects described it, meaning predominantly
white, mainstream society. To further prepare their children, parents
in both Lakeview and Riverdale encouraged and even insisted they
attend predominantly white colleges and universities--though neither
group supported their children's joining white fraternities or
sororities, or entering into interracial marriages.
Lacy, just returned from a yearlong Russell Sage Foundation
fellowship in New York, is finishing a book on strategic assimilation.
Her lecture was the first in the MARIAL Center's spring colloquium
series. On Wednesday, March 3, from 4-6 p.m., University of Florida
sociology Professor Connie Shehan will discuss "Doing Gender Before
God: Stress and Coping Among Clergy Wives and Clergywomen."