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The Economist.

Civil Rights in America No alternative
September 12th-18th  1998

Whatever happened to integration, asks Tamar Jacoby, in this remarkable book, arguably the most important study of race relations in America since Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma" was published in 1944. It is hard to think of another narrative so comprehensive —even though it focuses on just three cities, New York, Detroit and Atlanta —so intelligent and so fair.

Ms. Jacoby, a journalist who has written for a wide range of publications, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and from the New York Review of Books to Commentary, believes there is ultimately no alternative to integration. "Only a tiny minority, black or white", she notes, "have repudiated integration outright." But "on both sides there is a new contrary mood." Some whites are tired of the issue. Others, black and white, think of integration as sentimental and irrelevant. As a result, Americans are "turning [their] backs on ... the hopeful consensus that formed in the 1960s around [Martin Luther] King's vision of a single, shared community."

In New York, the new militancy of the late 1960s and the ideal of black power produced the disastrous conflict over “community control”, especially in schools. Ms Jacoby traces the sorry story of how well-intentioned upper-class whites, led by Mayor John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy's national security adviser turned president of the Ford Foundation, allied themselves with the wild men of the black power movement. With the best of motives, they threw a bucket of sand into the delicate machinery of New York's ethnic and class politics.

Although she admires Lindsay's courage, she is severe about the consequences. The result was "polarisation, and between liberals and blacks an awkward, artificial relationship: double standards, patronising dishonesty and, inevitably, resentment on both sides."

Detroit, after the 1967 riots, was simply a disaster. Businessmen, led by Henry Ford, tried to create a "Detroit Renaissance" in the city. It ended up as no more than a high-rise convention centre, armed and isolated in the ruins of a city whose white inhabitants had simply fled to the suburbs. Detroit's powerful black mayor, Coleman Young, in Ms Jacoby's account, was little better than an old-fashioned race man. In his long reign, the city lost a third of its population and 40% of its jobs to white flight. "Coleman Young", she sums up, "had achieved his dream —Black Power in one city-but... it had turned to dross around him."

The experience of Atlanta, the "city that was too busy to hate", was less disastrous, but still discouraging. Atlanta's white power elite, the "Peachtree set", pinned its faith on affirmative action, cutting black contractors and entrepreneurs in on an embarrassingly small share of the goodies generated by the successive tidelines of the city's expansion: the airport, Underground Atlanta and the Olympic games.

Ms Jacoby traces with tragicomic detail the failures of affirmative-action programmes in Atlanta, which produced a corporal's guard of black millionaires without making any lasting or noticeable dent on a deeply segregated city.

What is to be done? "Nationally", she admits, "when it comes to race, it's often hard not to feel that we're trapped in the past." White racism, she believes, helped to kill integration. But black alienation and black bigotry also played a part. Nevertheless, Ms Jacoby refuses to give in to pessimism.

The key, she suspects and hopes, is to start closer to the ground in neighbourhoods and schools and other places where blacks and whites rub shoulders. Even if the best way into the system is the old immigrants' route —schools, jobs and entrepreneurship —she insists that 'mainstream America cannot wash its hands" of blacks' problems and leave them to self-help, as both black activists and white conservatives advocate. Readers of all races, schools and ideologies will learn from this deeply serious and understanding book.

©1998 The Economist

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