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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

America's struggle for integration is never ending
Sunday May 24,1998

Michael Skube

Integration is the dream abandoned. Thirty years ago, Americans black and white embraced it and embraced one another. The civil rights movement was generational as well as racial and constitutional. Younger Americans disavowed the past and looked to a future in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but, in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, the content of their character.

Few of us still place faith in those once-resonant words. They go begging even for lip service. More than three decades after legislation that broke the back of de- jure segregation, Americans have never been more color conscious. And neither white nor black seems much interested in genuine integration. We coexist in the way Alexis de Tocqueville saw in 1835: two peoples occupying the same territory who can neither wholly separate nor completely commingle.

In her new book "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration" (Free Press, $30), Tamar Jacoby says what politicians, educators and media commentators shrink from acknowledging honestly: We are moving toward a new separatism, this one voluntary, fueled by resentment and exasperation, abetted by employers and governments alike, preferred by blacks as much as whites. Instead of integration, we speak today of 'diversity" and "difference," words that imply permanent divisions.

Many would think this obvious on its face. But that, as Jacoby shows with unflinching candor, is only a reflection of how far off the path we've wandered.

A journalist's credentials
Jacoby is a former deputy editor of The New York Times op-ed page who has written for The New York Review of Books, The New Republic Dissent and The Wall Street Journal. Her credentials, in other words, are those of a journalist, not an activist, and one who has written for publications on the left as well as the right.

Her argument would be abstract and academic without the reporting that gives this admirable book its muscle and sinew. She examines the forces of change in three quite different cities—New York, Detroit and Atlanta—and shows how thoroughly optimism about race relations has been replaced by pessimism and resignation

A professor in Atlanta, comparing the '60s to the outlook of students today, told her: "We used to talk about a cosmopolitan world, where we would enjoy our differences but look beyond them in getting along with everyone. That is entirely lacking in my students. No one is dreaming of integration anymore."

The failure of integration has a particular poignance in the city where King grew up. Atlanta once seemed a city on a hill, one whose civility and progressive way of life would be a model for the nation. Indeed, one of the reasons it got the 1996 Olympics was its reputation for racial harmony. "Race relations in Atlanta," an out-of-town journalist observed, "are as good as they get."

They are better, Jacoby says, than in Detroit, New York or, for that matter, most American cities. But in Atlanta as elsewhere, we count by race in our schools and in our offices, and issues that divide other Americans—notably affirmative action—also divide Atlantans. And the workaday cordiality between white and black Atlantans masks the reality: Deep down, we don't really know each another.

Living in a different world
White suburbanites avoid downtown. They are not eager to have MARTA brought into their subdivisions and have only contempt for Atlanta city schools. None of this is news, and neither are the reasons. And Southside blacks, even white-collar professionals in middle-class neighborhoods, know they are living in a different world. The difference can be psychological and cultural more than economic.

Jacoby quotes Michael Lomax, the former chairman of the Fulton County Commission and a black man with a Ph.D. in English: "I tried integration. I tried it for a long, long time." He and his wife lived "as if we were white and acted as if there were no color line, and I did everything I could think of to ensure that my daughter had experiences that were racially and culturally integrated." She attended a mostly white private school, but made no white friends. And when she later embarked on a career, Lomax told Jacoby, "her life was totally in the black community. She said, 'Hey, I'm not interested,' . . . and I learned from her."

There is hardly space here to do Jacoby justice. She has delineated, unsparingly, our systematic rejection of the ideals that once moved us. In their place we make a public ritual of our differences, conjuring them up when necessary, and denigrate any suggestion of mutuality and common purpose. Whatever those differences, they don't carry us far. The larger truth is that we're stuck with one another for better or worse. No one thought, 30 years ago, we'd find it so grim.

Michael Skube's column also appears Tuesdays in Living. E-mall:

©1998 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Visit the Someone Else’s House webpage



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