Enough Blame to Go Around
June 21, 1998
by Alan Wolfe
Though optimistic about integration, Tamar Jacoby finds fault with both blacks and whites.
DESPITE calls from the White House for a national conversation on race, the truth is that Americans have been conversing intensely about race since at least the early 1960's. Aroused by the moral dignity of the civil rights movement, spurred by urban rioting, undecided whether integration was a problem or a cure, Americans pondered the implications of the 1968 Kerner Commission report, reacted to the anger of a James Baldwin or a Malcolm X, debated the wisdom of affirmative action, welcomed the celebrity status of Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey and worried about deeply entrenched poverty among-inner city African-Americans. Compared with tariffs or antitrust policy, race has been at the center of domestic politics for over 30 years.
The problem with this continuing conversation has never been that we lacked things to say. The problem has been that so many people said the same thing. Racism, according to a widely held liberal consensus, was not eliminated. When Jim Crow fell, it merely changed its form—and its geographic location. The view was that persistent resistance to school and workplace integration in the North required something more than moral exhortation, something like affirmative action. But once confronted with politics and practices that might actually work, this account concluded, white Americans showed their true colors by resisting them. The United States remains, in the words popularized by Andrew Hacker, “two nations,”divided by race in everything they say and do.
Dissenters from this consensus have always existed, but many of them were either conservatives unable to overcome the stigma of their opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or individuals whose incendiary language seemed to suggest a belief in white racial superiority. In the past few years, however, there has emerged a challenge to the liberal consensus among liberals (or former liberals), including Orlando Patterson, Fred Siegel, Jim Sleeper, and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. While their work differs in methodology and conclusions, they are united on two important points. One is that whites have not resisted demands for racial justice but have accepted tremendous progress in race relations. The other is that those who claim to speak in the name of African Americans do not always serve the interests of those for whom they supposedly speak. With the publication of ''Someone Else's House," this new racial realism receives its best written and most emotionally powerful treatment. But readers should be warned: Tamar Jacoby is so unsparing in her judgments that she ends up undermining the ideal of racial integration that she seeks to promote.
Jacoby, a freelance journalist writing in the tradition of J. Anthony Lukas and Nicholas Lemann, focuses on three cities: New York, marked by bitter conflicts between blacks and Jews; Detroit, which witnessed the most extensive white flight of any American City; and Atlanta, often heralded as a model of progresstve race relations in the New South. The tale of each town is a tale of woe.
As Jacoby tells the story, New York's experiences with race show the damage that can be done when powerful, white liberals, in the name of racial justice, refuse to condemn, and desperately continue to support, black activists whose message is filled with hate, whose actions are irresponsible and whose financial practices are often corrupt. McGeorge Bundy, who became president of the Ford Foundation in the mid-1960's, comes off in Jacoby's account as an upper class Leninist. Persuaded that he knew best what New York needed—"The idea," he said during his first few months on the job, "is to do things society is going to want after it has them"—Bundy was apparently unperturbed by the social chaos he unleashed by sponsoring community control of New York City's schools. "You can't expect effort-free social revolution," this architect of counterrevolution in Vietnam pointed out.
JACOBY holds nothing back in her criticism of black militants: Rhody McCoy, Milton Galamison and, especially, Sonny Carson. She portrays the last of these men as a power-hungry psycho-terrorist. Carson would call Barry Gottehrer, an aide to Mayor John Lindsay, in the middle of the night to summon him to meetings with no purpose. He smashed a reporter's camera in front of Gottehrer, perhaps to see if the Mayor's assistant would protest. (He did not.) Worst of all, according to Jacoby, the furor over community control unleashed "a generation of 'little Sonny Carsons' irrevocably alienated from the white mainstream" —including Al Sharpton, an impressionable teen-ager at the time, who learned from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstrations that, in his own words, "confrontation works."
If New York presents the spectacle of white political leadership manipulated by black demagogues, Detroit, in Jacoby's treatment, was governed by a black demagogue from the moment Coleman Young was elected Mayor. As in New York, however, the damage to integration was biracial in nature, for Young, in his campaign to destroy Detroit in the name of saving it for black people, had plenty of help from myopic whites. Automobile executives were, Jacoby writes, willing to fork over millions "in thinly disguised riot insurance."
But the most responsible white leader in Detroit—and perhaps in the whole country—was a relatively obscure district court judge named Stephen Roth. Roth was responsible for the decision to order busing between inner city Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. His ambitious plan would touch on the lives of 780,000 children living in 53 suburbs. Many would be bused for as much as an hour and a half each day. “The most intimate personal routines seemed to be hanging on one man's whimsy,” Jacoby writes. With Coleman Young doing everything in his power to encourage whites to leave Detroit, and with Roth's decision forcing them to move to the outermost suburbs, it was not long before Detroit became one of the blackest cities in the United States —and its suburbs among the whitest.
Everyone had high hopes for Atlanta, the city too rich and too busy to hate. Yet according to Jacoby, hatred there was—aplenty. Black Atlantans blamed whites for the disappearance and deaths of 29 black children in the late 1970's and early 80's, only to lose interest in the case—and, she argues, in the children as well—when the murderer was discovered to be black. Indeed, the head of the parents’ committee, convinced that the murderer was framed by a white conspiracy, said that "with this conviction, Wayne Williams, at 23, became the 30th victim of the Atlanta slayings."
Jacoby spends the bulk of her Atlanta chapters on construction and real estate deals, the stuff of local politics in the city's booming economy. Here, in her view, was affirmative action taken to its ultimate absurdity. Mayor Maynard Jackson's insistence that a high percentage of all contracts go to blacks worked to benefit a few already well off black businessmen, not the bulk of Atlanta's minority community. White contractors would cynically go out and find a black name to put on their letterhead and continue to do business as usual. Atlanta tried to "shortcut the normal building up of a business class," Jacoby writes, adding that "it would have been hard to invent a scheme that did more to mock the dignity of the blacks involved."
Race coding also poisoned Atlanta's politics. Even as honorable a politician as Andrew Young found himself squeezed between blacks insistent on a slice of the action and whites resistant to black leadership. "Race relations?" Jacoby quotes an unidentified supporter of racial integration as saying. "We don't have race relations in Atlanta anymore."
FROM her moral tales, Jacoby suggests that the most important decisions Americans of all races have to make is whether integration is really what they want. Should they decide it is, they will then have to face up to its heavy responsibilities. Integration cannot take place without acculturation, which "is a long, slow process—one that will require a kind of patience till now largely lacking on race matters." It will also require local black and white cooperation, more effective and responsible leadership and a retreat from color coding, none of them easy to bring about. Jacoby's contribution to our national conversation on race is a sharp admonition for everyone to just grow up.
But will people listen? Jacoby's research is prodigious and her narrative compelling. Unlike the way guilty white liberals in her book dealt with blacks, she accords African-American leaders the ultimate respect: criticism when criticism is due. Yet she does not make it easy for those who need to hear what she says. For one thing, Jacoby's unrelenting portrayal of racial demagogy fails to distinguish sufficiently between the genuine scoundrels and the merely opportunistic. Atlanta's politics-as-usual are hardly the same stuff as New York City's flirtation with social revolution; neither Maynard Jackson nor even Jesse Jackson—who managed to link the killing of black children in Atlanta with Ronald Reagan and opponents of affirmative action—is the moral equivalent of Sonny Carson.
A REALIST about race and politics, Jacoby nonetheless fails to ask what alternatives existed in Atlanta. The option of a long-term strategy for black economic development was not on the agenda there. What did exist was a choice between a building boom that would be all white and one that would, in the usual style of urban politics, broaden the claimants upon the public purse. Which is to say that for a black mayor, this was no choice at all. Jacoby's relentless negativity does not serve her well. To be sure, tensions between the races are strong in Atlanta. Yet Atlanta has also seen the most rapid growth of a black suburban middle class of any city in the country. Here is where the racial realists can cite proof for the thesis that race relations have dramatically improved in a relatively short period of time. By rarely acknowledging the good, Jacoby takes the sting out of the bad.
One of the great contributions made by America's racial realists is their insistence that real progress between the races has taken place in America. This, of course, is anathema to those pessimists convinced that whites will never accept blacks as full members of American society. Jacoby, who does not share the views of the pessimists, oddly shares their mood, only she attributes the failure of integration as much to black leaders as to white racists. To be sure, Jacoby professes her faith in integration, but the stories she tells, and the way she tells them, make her book seem at times to be the mirror image of works of black rage.
Her account would be a more persuasive treatment of blacks and whites if it were less black and white. Lost among the horror stories of the three cities whose history she tells is the fact that in each of those cities Americans of all races are intermingling with a frequency—and with a willingness—impossible as recently as the 1960's.
Jacoby is right to recall us to our faith in integration. Yet she is right to do so not because we have departed from integration's promise but because we have already achieved so many of its benefits.
Alan Wolfe's most recent book is "One Nation, After All."
©1998 The New York Times
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