When Louis (Robert DeNiro's character in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown") tells Odell Robbie (Samuel Jackson) that he shouldn't trust Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Robbie replies, "You can't trust Melanie, but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie." Robbie's point is that you can expect consistency in human behavior, over time. Broadening Robbie's argument, a racial incident in Owatonna, Minn., in February reaffirms my belief that I can't trust America, but I can trust America to be America.
Not surprisingly, the racial altercation at Owatonna High School began on social media. The first act in this drama involved four racist posts, three in which white students used the N-word. It began with three white female students posting a selfie in which they repeatedly used the N-word. It was quickly followed by three more posts by white male students.
In one, the caption under a student wearing blackface read "Is this what being an "N-word" feels like." In another, the white male student proposed a new tradition for Black History Month, "N-word Friday." The behavior of the six white teenagers is a routine occurrence on social media. It's essentially white Americans being white Americans.
That is, the U.S. is a thoroughly racist society, and we can count on a majority of white Americans behaving in a racist manner. It may be conscious, crude and overt; or it may be dysconcious (uncritical acceptance of the current racial order), sophisticated and subtle. But when pressed, most white Americans will act in the interest of white supremacy.
The black students' response was also scripted. Their narrative of black resistance necessitated confronting the racists. As often occurs, this action precipitated a fight in which the police intercede. In these stories, the enforcers of "law and order" only use excessive force against and only arrest black youths.
Moreover, the black youths are only charged with alleged offenses against police. In the Owatonna case, two black juveniles were charged with "fourth-degree assault of a peace officer."
In the next act, organizers mobilized Owatonna's black community to voice their concerns the next day at the Owatonna Human Rights Commission meeting.
Predictably, black parents and students condemned the police actions and criticized the school's administrators for involving them. Additionally, they demanded the school administration clarify its policies for promoting racial tolerance. They also asked the commission's help to "relieve racial tension" at the high school. And students specifically called for the school to ban the use of the N-word and punish those who wield that slur.
This scenario is as old as the First Great Migration and the presence of large numbers of blacks in the urban North. However, while the racial script was typical, the incident at Owatonna was in significant ways atypical. What made it different was not the racist incidents or how black students and parents responded.
The Owatonna incident was different because of who was mobilized. You see, this particular group of black students and parents weren't African-Americans. They were largely the children of East African immigrants, Ethiopian, Somali and also Sudanese.
There is much to learn from the incident and the East African presence in Owatonna, Minn. Owatonna's black population — Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese compose 1,144 or about 4 percent of the small town's 25,794 population. However, they comprise about 7 percent of the high school's enrollment. What's interesting is not just the small population of black immigrants but that there are none or few African-Americans in Owatonna.
One of the many curiosities of racial politics in the U.S. is that black immigrants are vastly different from African-Americans in class and political orientation. Like many contemporary immigrants, African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants are highly educated middle-class professionals or entrepreneurs. Twenty-six percent of black immigrants and 35 percent of African immigrants have a bachelor's or an advance degree. Only 19 percent of African-Americans and 30 percent of U.S. residents have a similar educational profile.
In 2013, black immigrants had an average median family income of $43,800 or $10,000 more than African-Americans'. Additionally, on average, black immigrants live in separate and better-quality neighborhoods than African-Americans.
As a consequence of their immigrant status, higher class position, spatial separation, cultural differences and socialization in separate civic and religious institutions, black immigrants are less politically involved and less militant. In fact, they're more conservative than African-Americans. Black immigrants voted for Donald Trump more than double the percentage of African-Americans, 15 to 7 percent.
Owatonna seems to confirm a different trajectory for second-generation black immigrants. Unlike their parents, whites view and treat them as African-American. The actions of the students and parents in Owatonna represent a break from the traditional accommodationist approach of recent black immigrants. The response of black immigrants in Owatonna suggests new possibilities that point toward the building of Pan-African unity with African-Americans.
I believe that the class, cultural and other differences that separate black immigrants from African-Americans will be overcome. I am certain black immigrants will soon realign their social movement and electoral political behavior with that of African-Americans. I believe this because, though I can't trust America, I can trust America to be America.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.