Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America - By Eugene Robinson


Disintegration could not have been written without the incisive, timely, good-natured, and sometimes positively uncanny contributions of Kris Puopolo, my editor at Doubleday, who often knew precisely what I was trying to say before I did. I also owe a tremendous debt to my literary agent, Rafe Sagalyn, who believed in this project from the beginning and was utterly committed to making it a reality.

A book-in-progress is like a new member of the author’s household—a fussy, demanding weekend guest who never left—and my wonderful wife, Avis Collins Robinson, welcomed this interloper with unfailing patience and grace; she even came up with the title, among many other substantive contributions.

My editors at The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt and Autumn Brewington, and at the Washington Post Writers Group, Alan Shearer and Jim Hill, gave me the time and space I needed to write the book; I am in their debt. And I owe special thanks to the many distinguished scholars whose research I cite in these pages. Any errors of analysis or interpretation are mine, not theirs.




It was one of those only-in-Washington affairs, a glittering A-list dinner in a stately mansion near Embassy Row. The hosts were one of the capital’s leading power couples—the husband a wealthy attorney who famously served as consigliere and golfing partner to presidents, the wife a social doyenne who sat on all the right committees and boards. The guest list included enough bold-faced names to fill the Washington Post’s Reliable Source gossip column for a solid week. Most of the furniture had been cleared away to let people circulate, but the elegant rooms were so thick with status, ego, and ambition that it was hard to move.

Officially the dinner was to honor an aging lion of American business: the retired chief executive of the world’s biggest media and entertainment company. Owing to recent events, however, the distinguished mogul was eclipsed at his own party. An elegant businesswoman from Chicago—a stranger to most of the other guests—suddenly had become one of the capital’s most important power brokers, and this exclusive soiree was serving as her unofficial debut in Washington society. The bold-faced names feigned nonchalance but were desperate to meet her. Eyes followed the woman’s every move; ears strained to catch her every word. She pretended not to mind being stalked from room to room by eager supplicants and would-be best friends. As the evening went on, it became apparent that while the other guests were taking her measure, she was systematically taking theirs. To every beaming, glad-handing, air-kissing approach she responded with the Mona Lisa smile of a woman not to be taken lightly.

Others there that night included a well-connected lawyer who would soon be nominated to fill a key cabinet post; the chief executive of one of the nation’s leading cable-television networks; the former chief executive of the mortgage industry’s biggest firm; a gaggle of high-powered lawyers; a pride of investment bankers; a flight of social butterflies; and a chattering of well-known cable-television pundits, slightly hoarse and completely exhausted after spending a full year in more or less continuous yakety-yak about the presidential race. By any measure, it was a top-shelf crowd.

On any given night, of course, some gathering of the great and the good in Washington ranks above all others by virtue of exclusivity, glamour, or the number of Secret Service SUVs parked outside. What makes this one worth noting is that all the luminaries I have described are black.

The affair was held at the home of Vernon Jordan, the smooth, handsome, charismatic confidant of Democratic presidents, and his wife, Ann, an emeritus trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a reliable presence at every significant social event in town. Known for his impeccable political instincts, Jordan had made the rare mistake of backing the wrong candidate in the 2008 primaries—his friend Hillary Clinton. There are no grudges in Vernon’s world, however; barely a week after the election, he was already skillfully renewing his ties with the Obama crowd.

The nominal guest of honor was Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner Inc. Months earlier, he had relinquished his corner office on Columbus Circle to tend the Tuscan vineyard that friends said was the favorite of his residences.

The woman who stole the show was Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s best friends and most trusted advisers. A powerful figure in the Chicago business community, Jarrett was unknown in Washington until Obama made his out-of-nowhere run to capture the Democratic