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The color of change;Two books take different approaches to examining America's oldest dilemma
By Michael Meyers
America In Black And White; One Nation, Indivisible;
Long Way To Go; Black and White in America;
Oftentimes, the closer one is to the scene, the less likely one is to step back and analyze the relationship between direct action and social change. But just as often, academicians and journalists rush in to explain the currents behind the events that have shaped American society. The problem with such interpretive work is that the analysts are not always the most experienced, most knowledgeable or keenest observers; and, they, too, bring their biases to the subject.
"America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" by Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom and scholar-author Abigail Thernstrom, and "Long Way to Go: Black and White in America" by journalist Jonathan Coleman, are two examples of such impassioned studies of the black-white divide in this country. The Thernstroms' book is a weighty survey of racial progress since the days of enforced segregation, and a polemic against affirmative action and other uses of racial categories to remedy exclusionary or past discriminatory practices. Coleman's book is a journal of meetings and conversations with a variety of black and white politicians, professionals, and activists in Milwaukee, who express their ambivalence toward each other and about the terms by which to measure racial progress.
The Thernstroms denounce the voices of black rage and racial grievance, while at the same time applauding the benign acceptance on the part of many blacks of their "chosen" place in society separate from whites. They argue vigorously for "choice" in neighborhoods and schools. They criticize governmental efforts, such as busing and affirmative action, as more divisive than harmonizing, and recommend color-blindness in public policy.
The Thernstroms see blacks and whites alikeas disavowing school busing as a "social experiment" that was destructive to neighborhood schools. They depict both black and white children involved with "forced busing" as pawns in a game of "liberal social engineering" by federal judges and public officials whose own children attended suburban or private schools. Black and white parents in Boston in the 1970s, they say, "wanted their kids . . . in schools close by."
To follow their argument, one has to believe that all blacks wanted then was control over the schools in "their" dour ghettos. Indeed, the Thernstroms write, when in 1971, "an attempt was made to redraw attendance zones to promote school integration, impoverished black families were furious; the new lines barred their children from an excellent neighborhood school." The reader might forget, reading the Thernstroms' history lesson, that black plaintiffs had to go to court to prove—successfully, as it turned out—that Boston school officials had deliberately practiced unlawful racial segregation.
The authors present white flight as an effort on the part of whites to get back their freedom: Over time, they write, "almost all who could escape Boston's public school system by moving to a suburb, faking an address, boarding children with relatives, or switching to a parochial school—did so." Considering blacks' comparatively more miserable environs, they might have been expected to exit in greater numbers than their white counterparts. That they did not and could not do so indicates how much more vulnerable they were to the separate and unequal schools.
The authors' sympathies downplay the rabid racism that characterized much of the resistance to busing. Their simplistic point is that increasing numbers of blacks also reject busing—hence, they are convinced, opposition to busing is not per se racist. They seem blind to the individual and the community damage that racial privilege and isolation does to whites as well as blacks.
In their broader attack on affirmative-action policies, the authors reject quotas, never fathoming the difference between an inclusionary, remedial program and a racially exclusionary pattern or practice. They hail modern opinion polls as proof that white Americans are today far more tolerant and accepting of blacks than whites were 30 or 20 years ago, as if that proves anything about the real economic and social situation of black America. They fail to see how outright racial steering, discrimination, disinvestment, redlining, blockbusting, and exclusionary zoning policies effectively deny blacks the same choices of quality communities and schools as whites.
In "Long Way To Go," Jonathan Coleman introduces us to a series of mostly black figures in Milwaukee—former and current "revolutionaries"—who are unsympathetic with the early civil right movement's agenda of integration, and who are engaged with community-based solutions to black poverty and to the problem of racism.
Looking for the Malcolm X or Minister Louis Farrakhan clone in black communities—the articulate voice of black fed-upness—is a favorite pastime of white liberals. Coleman shows a fascination with the racial rhetoric of black militants, which stimulates whites to view them as credits to their black-empowerment movements. When he meets black activist Michael McGee, he finds a bearded man wearing (of course) a dark shirt, a black hat, and reading from Zora Neale Hurston. McGee's flamboyant militancy and physical appearance conjure up to Coleman the imagery of white oppression and black rage. Coleman seems to see McGee as a representative of authentic black leadership, but he does not see that such figures as McGee are as removed from the larger reality of black America and its aspirations as the Thernstroms. In defying everything white, they exude self-determination, thereby creating their own reality. Many paternalistic whites are infatuated with the Michael McGees, just as they are by such charades of power and self-esteem as the Million Man March and Afrocentric schooling.
In contrast to the comparatively rosier picture of race relations painted by the Thernstroms, Coleman's view of Milwaukee and of society's attitude toward blacks is harsher, grittier, bleaker. By most measures, blacks are still second-class citizens in terms of housing, income, jobs, education, and their treatment when shopping or even traveling in white sectors. Coleman indicates that separate black and white proms in Illinois and separate valedictorians in Georgia are symptomatic of racial division.
Both books describe the realities of "drugs, crime, joblessness, gangs, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy," as well as the burgeoning black middle class and the increased number of black elected officials—but use these developments to make distinctively different points. The Thernstroms are hopeful; Coleman is less so. Nevertheless, their respective outlooks are oddly parallel in one respect: Both books seem to reflect ambivalence about the value of government-induced integration. The Thernstroms argue that government's integrative affirmative action constitutes reverse discrimination, patronizes minorities, and feeds white backlash. And Jerrel Jones, Michael McGee's black capitalist sponsor, says, "You can achieve all you want to achieve in life, but you can't never get past being a nigger. Not in this society. And it does something to you."
In significant ways, both books, while attempting to portray the realities of black and white in America, show a degree of self-delusion caused by the authors' peering through the prism of their earnest but preconceived views about racial progress. One doubts, however, that even after all their investigation and amassing of evidence, they changed the fundamental outlooks they started with. After reading both books, it seems apparent that neither infatuation with flamboyant and militant rhetoric, nor an overly rosy depiction of the true situation of black Americans as a whole, will do much in the long or short run to cool racial tempers or heal the black-white divide in America.
© 1997 The Boston Globe
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