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Talking the Talk on Race
New Yorker’s Diary
Those of us who haven't been following President Bill Clinton's national conversation on race may turn with profit to the private sector and to two earnest liberals who have been trying to talk on their own: Jim Sleeper (Liberal Racism) and Tamar Jacoby (Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration).
The first is an urgent polemic about what liberals in general have done wrong;the second tells what went wrong in three cities liberals ran—Detroit, Atlanta and New York. Readers with strong stomachs can relive the first term of Mayor John Lindsay, gorgeous, gifted and dumb as a post, and the demons he unleashed in the Ocean Hill Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. Both Mr. Sleeper and Ms. Jacoby lament the death of integration as an ideal, and its replacement by “diversity" and racial nationalism—the symbolic shift from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X.
The issue was the subject of a discussion at the New School for Social Research recently, where Mr. Sleeper defended himself against "diversity" leftists Prof. Eric Foner of Columbia University accused Mr. Sleeper of prematurely declaring victory in the war against racism, and pre-emptively abandoning such weapons as quotas and racial pride. Mr. Sleeper answered that the diversity crowd has declared defeat, and uses color-coding as a salve for its frustration and resentment.
It is strange how broken and lonely the integrationist ideal now is. Thirty-five years ago, it faced George Wallace and Barry Goldwater with all the prestige and power of the liberal state. Now, Mr. Wallace is in a wheelchair and Goldwater is in heaven, but integration has been all but abandoned by its former proponents.
Conservatives have taken up colorblindness as a slogan, which, from Mr. Sleeper's and Ms. Jacoby's point of view, ranks as an unsolicited testimonial. But we don’t put much heart in integration, the positive part of the ideal. Jack Kemp, who, as a professional athlete, showered with more black men than most white liberals, came closest to talking the talk. But the fragility of even his commitment was demonstrated during the 1996 Presidential campaign, when he came within an ace of embracing black nationalist Louis Farrakhan at the prompting of his idiot-savant guru, Jude Wanniski.
The ideal fell afoul of many things: politics, accident and the racism of both races. But it was also plagued by its own vagueness and contradictions.
Everyone knows one contradiction: the dilemma of opportunity and result. If you remove formal barriers to advancement, many poor blacks, whether because of centuries of white evil (the Kenneth Clark view) or their own pathology (the Daniel Patrick Moynihan view), will not advance. Therefore, they need help to achieve equality in fact. This generally takes the form of goals and timetables (for jobs), or budgets and busing (for schools), and so we wind up the great debates on these subjects and set them going like merry-go-rounds.
There is another contradiction, that has to do with the motions of the heart. Early in her book, Ms. Jacoby quotes a phrase of Martin Luther King: "the beloved community. " Americans, he said, were obliged not just to not oppress each other, but to love each other. Was this goal realistic, or even desirable?
There are some obvious routes to achieving it. One is sex. Michael Lind has attacked it head-on in several of his books, and Bulworth gave us a fictional version. Whites and blacks have been sleeping together for 300 years, as the skin color and the bone structure of every "black" person in this country attests. But most of those couplings occurred under the regime of bondage. Will we sleep our way to equality? Perhaps, although this is probably a long-term solution.
The other great solvent of races is war. When men die together and kill together, they can be drawn together. There was a moment before the last election when the country looked to Colin Powell as a savior. I talked to dozens of his supporters lined up to buy his book; the most enthusiastic, white and black, were veterans. George Washington freed all his slaves in his will, but the one he mentioned by name was his personal servant, William Lee, whom he praised "for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War." But despite war's potency, we don't want to pick fights for the sake of racial harmony.
That leaves what we now have to bring us together: P.R. and bad faith, the icky phoniness of school trips, church groups, sing-alongs, "United Colors of Benneton" ads and Presidential conversations on race: the herding of sullen or sappy yokels into auditoriums to tell them how good they feel.
The fact is, we don't need to like each other, except in the most formal ways, or in the direct circumstances. America is not and never will be, one community. It is thousands of communities, many of them quite weird to each other. We should worry less about loving strangers and work more on loving our neighbors.
There may then be an unintended side effect: that in the jostling of monads that is the flux of national life, stuff does pass back and forth. Cultural miscegenation happens all the time. We need to stand out of each other's way and let people have what they want.
The most hopeful sign of the month was the $100 million challenge grant by Theodore Forstmann and John Walton for private school vouchers. Now, poor kids, including black kids, may learn something, and some of it may even be about other Americans. At the end of the story reporting the gift, The New York Times of June 10 quoted Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers, sniffing that the money hadn’t gone to public schools.
If you want to read more about Sandra Feldman, look at Tamar Jacoby’s chapter on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville debacle of 1967-68, when her union went head to head with racist black thugs. The integrationist ideal took a big hit in that fight, and some liberals learned how bad “diversity” merchants can be. But they still have a lot to learn about how a free society works.
©1998 New York Observer
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