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Explaining Why America Is Still a House Divided
Tamar Jacoby Looks Back at Integration inThree Cities—and Wonders What Went Wrong
July 24, 1998


Someone Else's House
By Tamar Jacoby, Free Press, 614 pages, $30

More than a quarter of a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 codified the ideal of integration, the word itself has come to sound anachronistic. The organization that was once at the vanguard of the desegregation movement, the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People, is now grappling with internal dissension on the issue. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, hardly the picture of a radical black separatist, has questioned school desegregation, writing with uncharacteristic passion in one recent opinion, "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

How has the elusive beacon of integration, the exalted movement that Martin Luther King Jr. was certain would repair "the broken community," been obscured? That is the question that Tamar Jacoby sets out to answer in "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration," the latest entry in a growing canon of neoliberal books about race. Her conclusions are by now familiar: raceconscious policies, colorcoding, forced interaction—all these wellintentioned remedies for racial discrimination that were meant to level the playing field have instead produced mutual resentment and, in turn, only widened the racial divide.

But if these themes have been sounded before by the likes of Jim Sleeper and Orlando Patterson, they may well gain a new resonance, with "Someone Else's House." For while Ms. Jacoby's deep pessimism does occasionally serve to blunt the impact of the book's powerful message, "Someone Else’s House" nevertheless represents the most ambitious and historically rigorous attempt to illuminate many of the misguided decisions that have helped shape the racial landscape over the past several decades.

Ms. Jacoby uses three cities—New York, Detroit and Atlanta—as her windows into race relations in the decades since the Rev. King articulated his historic dream. In New York, the story focuses mainly on John Lindsay, the dashing, Yaleeducated liberal Republican whose accession to the mayoralty in 1965 held great promise for racial harmony in a city buffeted by white flight and a shrinking manufacturing base. Within months of the election, Lindsay, with his broad smile and open shirt, had begun his trademark walking tours of New York's ghettos. And in the tradition of John F. Kennedy, he recruited a team of Harvard Law graduates and other liberal policy wonks such as McGeorge Bundy to help put his city back on track.

But before long, the Lindsay administration's highly touted solution for the problems of the ghetto—empowerment zones—had ironically served to exacerbate racial tensions in New York. Instead of lifting the voices of community members, these zones empowered racial opportunists like Sonny Carson, who used his newfound leverage with City Hall to manipulate the mayor and his staff. Lindsay and his aides were, in the words of Ms. Jacoby, "prisoners of the game they had created." Nowhere was this paradox more apparent, of course, than in Ocean HillBrownsville, a school district straddling two ghettos that was the site of America's most infamous experiment in decentralization. In Ocean Hill, a program intended to give the district's predominantly black population a greater say in how their schools were run resulted in the indiscriminate firing of white (and largely Jewish) teachers, who were, in most cases, replaced by less qualified instructors. The aftershocks of the failed experiment are still rattling through New York's public School system.

Moreover, the ensuing clash, which Ms. Jacoby recounts in novelistic detail, marked an unfortunate turning point for relations between blacks and Jews. Albert Shanker, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, discovered a disturbing leaflet circulating in Ocean Hill that blamed "Middle East murderers" for "educational genocide." Only "AfricanAmerican brothers and sisters" can educate black students, the flier charged, "not the socalled liberal Jewish friend." Shanker, in the heat of battle, distributed the pamphlet widely in hopes of revealing the bankruptcy of Ocean Hill's foray into community control. In the process, Ms. Jacoby allows, he may have exaggerated the extent of black support for this view; nevertheless, Shanker was not wrong to identify a strain of anti-Semitism in the Ocean Hill debacle. Here, as elsewhere, Ms. Jacoby's fidelity to historical detail is unlikely to please those looking for a more facile approach to the complicated question of racism.

In the report of Lindsay's Kerner Commission, which was convened President Johnson in 1967 to diagnose the racially driven riots that were proliferating across America, Ms. Jacoby finds the perfect foil for her take on the abandonment of integration. To most Americans, she observes, the 500page report boiled down to a two-sentence mea culpa: "What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." It was these two lines that would set the tone for so much of the discussion about race in New York and elsewhere for years, even decades, to come. Writes Ms. Jacoby, "From now on, with the consent of even the most moderate black spokesmen, black anger and black threats—as much as guilt and moral leverage—would be the engine that would drive relations between blacks and whites."

For all of the racial polarization that occurred on Lindsay's watch, New York was a very model of integration compared with Detroit, which was, for all intents and purposes, divided into two cities—or, more to the point, a black city with white suburbs. The most ambitious bid to address this problem came not from a legislator but from a district court judge, Stephen Roth, who called for largescale busing between the city and suburbs in his decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the most famous school desegregation case since Brown v. Board of Education. But once again, good intentions proved misguided. Roth's heavyhanded ruling (which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court) forced middleclass white liberals to choose between doing their part to help end segregation and providing their children with the best education possible. As Ms. Jacoby writes, the quarrel that greeted Detroit's sweeping busing plan quickly devolved into finger pointing and mutual recrimination. The city's mayor, Coleman Young, offered no solutions. Despite some encouraging signs early on in his tenure, Young was never able to transcend the politics of protest.

Even Atlanta, once known as "the city too busy to hate," couldn't beat back the forces of racial divisiveness.  In the book's third and final section, Ms. Jacoby details how the rapidly expanding city's setaside program encouraged white contracting companies to team up with smaller black firms in order to secure bids. As mutually beneficial as this sounds, such arrangements inevitably bred resentment among the white firms, while driving black contractors into jobs in which they inevitably assumed ancillary roles.

But reading this section, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if Atlanta had banned such programs altogether. Would any black companies have been hired? While Ms. Jacoby offers a stirring paean to integration in her book's introduction, what is missing is a case study in how it works. In the 34 years since the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, many blacks have entered the mainstream, some of whom were direct beneficiaries of affirmative action—which has not, in fact, been a failure across the board. Nor is affirmative action, as many conservatives have argued, a betrayal of the Constitution's promise of "equal protection." Indeed, as one legal scholar recently pointed out, the same Congress that ratified the 14th Amendment also approved a series of social service benefits designed exclusively for blacks.

Still, Ms. Jacoby has provided an invaluable service in identifying what can—at the very least—be called a waning commitment to integration, and in examining the roots of this unfortunate phenomenon. If hope is to be found in "Someone Else's House," it is in the book's epilogue, where Ms. Jacoby ticks off some of the more promising developments on the race front in recent years, such as the rise of the Rev. Floyd Flake, the excongressman at the center of the emergence of a burgeoning black middleclass in Queens. Rev. Flake, like other successful black leaders going forward, isn't interested in guilt or moralizing; he's concerned with improving the lives of the people in his community. No doubt had the Rev. Flake been around in the days of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, he would have sided with Shanker and the voices of reason.

©1998 Forward

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