What If Black America Were a Country?
The statistics reveal a fragile state within a superpower.THEODORE R. JOHNSON
OCT 14, 2014
Update: An earlier version of this post included a chart that compared black America’s incarceration rate with those of other countries. The chart incorrectly listed black Americans’ incarceration rate in 2010 as 4,347 per 100,000 Americans. In fact, that is the rate for black American men. The rate for black American women is 260 per 100,000 Americans, and the rate for black Americans as a whole is2,207 per 100,000 Americans. The graphic has been updated.
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In a recent debate with a CNN contributor, the conservative radio talk-show host Larry Elder declared that “if black America were a country, it would be the 15th-wealthiest country in the world.” His math proved incorrect, and his invocation of “black America” was followed by a refutation of the concept by a fellow black conservative. Shortly after Elder’s remarks, the Republican strategist Ron Christie argued that there is no such thing as “black America” and, further, that the very notion of it is antithetical “to our national motto of E Pluribus Unum.”
Whether these men know it or not, they are continuing a debate that W.E.B. Du Bois gave voice to 80 years ago in his resignation speech from the NAACP. In a farewell address titled, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation,” Du Bois asserted:
The peculiar position of Negroes in America offers an opportunity. … With the use of their political power, their power as consumers, and their brainpower … Negroes can develop in the United States an economic nation within a nation …
Though Du Bois eventually took an extreme turn toward communism and emigrated to Ghana, the goal of “fellowship and equality in the United States” remained his burning desire. As for the belief that black America is an immense, multifaceted asset to the United States, his instincts were right: Black Americans boast enormous capital that has been exploited over the course of the nation’s history and has yet to be fairly and fully employed to increase prosperity for all Americans.
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This decades-old conversation invites a thought experiment: If black America were a nation-state, how would it stack up against other countries? How would it fare on standard measures of national power and weakness?
Naturally, this exercise presumes a monolithic black America, but this is a standard hazard when comparing large entities using statistical medians and per-capita rates. Another obvious concern is that a sub-national, racial demographic is not equivalent to a sovereign nation. Nearly all the sources of black America’s attributes are grounded in America’s history, economy, geography, and government structures. Still, it is this truism that gives weight to the insight revealed by the following charts: Black America is a fragile state embedded in the greatest superpower the world has ever known.
In the infographics below, two pictures emerge. The first is of a strong nation with considerable manpower and purchasing power. The second is of a troubled, fragile state suffering from socioeconomic disparities and structural subjugation in ways that degrade life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (on some measures, black America resembles countries like Brazil, China, and Russia—emerging powers that are struggling with stark economic inequality). Essentially, what we’re witnessing is a nation that is comparable in certain ways to a regional power existing in the state of Disparistan (or, perhaps, Despairistan). This is more than an inconvenient truth; it fundamentally undermines the United States’ greatest contribution to humanity: the American idea.
The statistics tell the story.
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