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Why We Haven’t Overcome
Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration
If you were among those who experienced the idealism of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, what would you have expected the state of race relations to be now, almost two generations later? Better than what we've got, no doubt. Jim Crow's gone, but integration never really arrived to take its place.
Tamar Jacoby, a former reporter for the New York Times and Newsweek, looks at New York, Detroit and Atlanta in an attempt to find out why the integratonist dream died. Here's a clue. Every time you see the phrase “weIl-meaning liberal” in her book—and you’ll see it a lot—disaster is about to follow.
In New York, Jacoby writes, Mayor John Lindsay spent too much energy cultivating phony street militants adorned with dashikis and thuggish bodyguards, and neglected the legitimate concerns of white ethnics who might otherwise have accepted gradual integration.
In Detroit, in his early years as mayor, Coleman Young trashed the white police force as racists, destroying respect for law and order, sending crime rates soaring and scaring whites out of the city forever.
In Atlanta, Mayor Maynard Jackson insisted on a set-aside policy for city contracts, thus enriching a few already successful or politically well connected blacks, but mostly perpetuating white stereotypes of blacks as incompetent and unambitious and, of course, undermining the cause of true integration. White business leaders embraced the arrangement, because that was the path of least resistance and because they were—what else?—well-meaning.
That's an oversimplification of Jacoby's argument, but not by a whole lot. To be fair, the rest of the complicated story of race, riots and urban decay is in her book, too. In the pages devoted to Detroit, she covers the city's nasty racial history and the Ku Klux Klan mentality of the Police Department that prevailed well into the postwar decades. She mentions real estate blockbusting, ghetto unemployment rates of 40 percent or better, the 1970s wring-out of the auto industry, the collapse of urban commerce and the eight of white capital to the suburbs.
But she plainly believes that the bigger reason integration failed here lay in Young's attacks on the police and his reflexive cry of racism anytime he was challenged. The late mayor could perhaps have been more tactful or prudent in public. But the Jacoby argument will sound disingenuous to anyone who remembers that the crime rate, and white paranoia about it began climbing several years before Young took office. Nor did black Detroiters need Young to tell them there was something wrong with the Police Department. Police-community tensions had been a problem for at least three administrations before Young's, and the infamous STRESS unit a decoy unit, responsible for the deaths of several alleged muggers, was widely seen by black Detroiters as an urban death squad.
As bad as Young's rhetoric, in Jacoby's view, was the 1970s decision by the late federal Judge Stephen Roth ordering cross-district busing. The order was overturned by the Supreme Court, but not before it hardened attitudes here and set off a bitter, nationwide anti-busing movement.
Jacoby describes the Roth decision as a harbinger of worse to come. It was the first time a federal court accepted the argument "that differential outcomes were inherently suspect. The NAACP had convinced Roth that the de facto segregation that existed between city and suburbs was in itself proof that someone had rigged the outcome.
Wherever such racial imbalance existed, it followed, the state had an obligation to fix it. Thus, here in Detroit, writes Jacoby, was the door first opened to affirmative action, to all the other “color-coded" policies that she deplores—and to nearly 30 years of contentious, racially divisive argument over them.
Jacoby's analysis of why true integration—what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the beloved community"—remains so elusive will infuriate some readers and comfort others. Surely, the liberals who set the course for race relations back in the 1960s made plenty of mistakes. But even Jacoby concedes that the outcome might have been the same, no matter what policies they tried to pursue. By the 1960s, the burden of our racial history was so great that perhaps nothing could have prevented the blowup of the cities or the abandonment of the integrationist ideal.
Jacoby's own prescriptions for bringing the races together seem pretty thin. She thinks integration will be best advanced by getting rid of "color coding" in all of its forms—affirmative action, set-asides, all appeals to race consciousness. She believes blacks will succeed best by following the immigrant model of hard work, education and gradual "acculturation.” To some people this will sound like the old "they're not ready for integration" argument. Perhaps it just proves that wellmeaning conservatives don't have many brilliant ideas on how to achieve integration either.
The powerful part of this book remains its underlying premise: For all the mistakes and failures, for all the suspicion and anger and guilt and resentment and bigotry on both sides that has marked the racial debate of the last 30 years, most whites still believe in integration, and most blacks do, too. "Ambivalent, inconsistent, hypocritical as we sometimes sound," Jacoby writes, "the enduring moral power of integration still holds most of us in its sway."
We can't agree how to get there. We barely speak the word any more. But the dream of becoming one people, one society, still lives. Maybe some day we'll find a way to achieve it.
Free Press editorial writer Barbara Stanton is a lifelong Detroiter. She can be reached at 1-313-222-6585.
©1998 Detroit Free Press
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