As a professor of sociology at Queens College, Dr. Stephen Steinberg has before him an ideal laboratory to delve into his study of urban cultures and the role race plays in his diverse community.
Each student is a product of generations shaped by race relations and the civil rights movement. They are the basis for questioning the American “melting pot,” and whether black culture will truly ever assimilate — or has the opportunity to intermingle — when prevailing society works to oppress them.
Steinberg’s theories have earned him esteem among his colleagues. But after being named a Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies by CUNY more than a week ago, he downplayed the honor.
“I plead guilty to being an arm-chair scholar who lives in an ivory tower,” Steinberg joked. “It’s definitely been a privilege listening to a diverse range of students of many backgrounds.”
Steinberg looks at his own upbringing and understands how he has come to this point. He was born in the 1940s, “came of age” in the ’50s and became politically aware during the tumultuous ’60s.
He never settles on himself, however. The lens widens to include all Americans of European descent, whose ancestors had the benefit of a white skin tone to win industrial jobs in the North over black citizens who had been immobilized in the South for years.
In his most recent work, “Race Relations: A Critique,” Steinberg chronicles how the black population has lagged behind in terms of wealth and standing. He often shifts focus to southeast Queens, a neighborhood of mostly black residents, which distinguishes itself from other areas through its vibrant Episcopal church congregations and baby names that ring of an African lineage. As Steinberg sees it, they are seemingly made up to break from white society’s mainstream.
This is where he bases the foundation of his argument for the “dual melting pot,” which tracks rates of intermarriage along racial lines and finds that black people are pairing off with their own race at a much higher rate than Asians and Latinos, who are more likely to assimilate into America’s predominant white culture.
While idealistic thinking would hope for a world where peoples of every color mix to form one homogenous societal image, Steinberg is not sure that time is near, because racism still intrudes into the institutions of employment, housing, police enforcement and every other facet of a minority’s life.
He isn’t celebrating the divide forming between the country’s two cultures, or completely admonishing it. Black society’s fight for rights and a separate but equal identity provided a framework for rights movements for gays, women and the disabled.
But he resists the temptation of scholars to bury the residue of America’s racist past.
“America’s racial divide is kind of the caveat to developing this single, monistic nationalism,” Steinberg said.
And bridging the gap involves many layers, which prompted Steinberg to rail on President Barack Obama’s speech to the NAACP on July 13, following the group’s 100th anniversary, for its “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” approach.
The same kind of line from actor Bill Cosby, that black society is responsible for uplifting their ranks, has come from the newly elected president. He said any government attempt to help impoverished neighborhoods will not have an effect “if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.”
Steinberg believes this kind of language mirrors a white ideology of shifting blame to minority communities, which are already in an oppressed position and cannot be expected to emerge from the bottom castes alone. “Hip-hop culture” is not to blame, in his estimation.
Even if much of the white population might have felt “freed” of the burden of slavery once Obama was elected, Steinberg said the leader’s appointment is meaningless unless it leads to programs to improve his people’s standing in society. What Steinberg calls “the gutting” of affirmative action over the years was a step back.
“All the feel-good stuff about having a black president is just a substitute for asking all the hard questions,” Steinberg said. “We take the success of the successful, the triumph of the triumphant, the one guy who really made it, Barack Obama.”
Steinberg’s job is to question. He seeks to explain the ever-changing definition of what is white, as well as African-American society’s “gobbling up” of Caribbean-born black culture, which tends to smoothly assimilate into the dark-skinned melting pot. The caldron continues to churn in front of him, in Queens, where he has taught for more than 30 years.
A mixture of Jim Crowe, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X — it all, somehow, brought culture to this point.
“Neither blacks or whites really want to confront racism,” Steinberg said. “We shift the focus of blame on the losers. Instead, we should be asking, how did they get there?”