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The New Leader
Reviewed by David Kusnet
This is the latest, and I think the best, of the recent blockbuster books about race in the United States. Others of comparable length—say, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White or David K. Shipler’s A Country of Strangers—are unwieldy amalgams of anecdotes, statistics and polemics. Someone Else’s House is sharply focused. It seeks to answer the question, Whatever happened to the dream of integration? And even though its author, veteran journalist Tamar Jacoby, is currently perched at the conservative Manhattan Institute, she resists easy ideological categorization.
Jacoby, in fact, echoes opinions that could be described as ranging from chastened liberalism to out-and-out conservatism. Explaining the black retreat from integration, she writes, "Paradoxically, even as white America moved toward full inclusion, more and more younger blacks began to turn away, embracing a modern-day version of separatism." About white liberals, she says: "Far more damaging today than the old bigotry is the condescension of well-meaning whites who think that they are advancing race relations by encouraging alienation and identity politics." Blaming public policies as well, she contends: "The government fosters color-coded hiring, voting and school admissions."
But Jacoby’s forte is description, not prescription or analysis. Her book’s greatest merit is its insightful recounting of race relations in three cities, New York, Detroit and Atlanta. Skillfully, she uses each one as a jumping-off point for discussing different issues and eras.
Thus, New York is a springboard for addressing the internal debates within the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, as well as the limits and legacy of the 1968 Kerner Commission. Detroit takes her history through the 1970s and the battles over school busing. Atlanta continues the narrative through the 1980s and the debate over affirmative action in hiring and contracting. Although she covers much ground that has already been strip-mined by earlier investigators, Jacoby unearths new information and offers new insights on virtually every event she describes.
Her New York section displays perfect pitch in the treatment of two controversies that deepened the divisions between the black community and lower-middle-class whites: the nearly-forgotten battle over the Civilian Review Board, and the all-too-well-remembered 1968 teachers’ strike in response to the "transfer" of dozens of educators by a community school board. More than most commentators, Jacoby understands that, by singling out police and teachers for attack, black leaders and their elite liberal allies needlessly antagonized many less privileged whites, particularly union members and Jews. The majority of them were not prejudiced against African-Americans nor inclined to oppose their advancement, so long as it did not come at the expense of whites who also had reason to fear for the security of their jobs and the safety of their communities.
Jacoby is fair-minded yet ultimately devastating in her presentation of patrician liberals like former Mayor John V. Lindsay and Ford Foundation ex-president McGeorge Bundy, who were so preoccupied with preventing racial disturbances that they precipitated conflicts between the have-nots and the have-littles persisting to this day. A particularly damning detail is her revelation of how much of the Lindsay administration’s time and money was devoted to pacification programs, such as summer swimming pools, rather than potentially more productive efforts, such as job training.
Turning to Detroit, Jacoby finds the pattern repeating itself. The city’s absentee-owner business elite cultivated the most extreme black leaders, failed to make good on promised job opportunities for inner-city residents stranded by the auto industry’s decline, and eventually sank huge sums of money into a fortified downtown office and commercial complex called "Renaissance Center." Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Detroit’s first black Mayor, Coleman Young, and a court-ordered school busing program that would have bused youngsters to and from Detroit and adjoining suburbs (but was overturned by the Supreme Court) exacerbated the estrangement between urban blacks and suburban whites.
After these stories of good intentions gone awry, Jacoby’s account of Atlanta during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s comes almost as a soothing afterthought. The city’s aristocracies, white and black, had grown accustomed to working together to keep their fellow citizens "too busy to hate." Cleverly, Jacoby presents affirmative action in Atlanta—and, by extension, across America—as a bargain between white and black elites to give African-American businesspeople and professionals a piece of the action in municipal contracts and jobs. Nevertheless, she concludes, by the end of the ‘80s middle-class whites and blacks coexisted peacefully but separately, while low-income blacks were poorer and more isolated.
All in all, Jacoby’s tale of three cities offers an invaluable history of the turbulent era from the end of the civil rights movement’s heroic period through the triumph of conservatism that was partially produced by a white backlash. Ironically, though, her book’s strengths, especially its clarity and integrity, tend to underscore its flaws. She never really defines what she means by integration. She overemphasizes the impact of black separatists and white radicals. And she underemphasizes the impact of the growth in economic inequality even as racial barriers were falling.
A true believer in the integrationist dream, Jacoby wants this country to achieve something better than simply the dismantling of legal obstacles to opportunity. Hers is "a vision of a more or less race-neutral America to which both blacks and whites would feel they belong."
But how do we bring about a mingling of whites and blacks in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our schools without being conscious of color? That question has perplexed people of goodwill for the past four decades, and, unsurprisingly, Jacoby doesn’t have the answer either. Many of the remedies she attacks—including school busing and affirmative action hiring—were intended to advance integration and were promoted by the mainstream civil rights movement, not black nationalists or white radicals.
The NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund favored legal actions to desegregate school systems and expand employment opportunities. The Urban League’s Whitney Young and the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer called for preferential hiring policies. Self-styled militants like Farmer’s successor Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent: Coordinating Committee, emphasized black identity and control of community institutions. The least divisive, but tragically untried, remedies were proposed by labor liberals like A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, who sought a shift in emphasis toward economic policies that would benefit working people of all backgrounds. Since so much of what she condemns was intended to reach a goal she shares, Jacoby often finds herself criticizing both sides of the same debate—for instance, the Federal officials and civil rights activists who supported busing as well as the black community leaders who eventually opposed it for sensible, not separatist, reasons.
Frequently it appears that her views are less integrationist than gradualist. She favors an emphasis on education, training, and what she calls "acculturation" to a common American culture. In the turbulent ‘60s, this course lacked the drama to capture the imagination of both white and black activists. Today, as the great majority of blacks wisely try to join the mainstream economy, instead of pursuing the abstractions of integration or separation, "acculturation" still sounds patronizing. It fails to recognize how anger at past oppression, pride in one’s heritage and individual and communal achievement can coexist in any number of groups from Irish-Americans to Jewish-Americans and African-Americans.
Jacoby’s extensive critical scrutiny of black separatists, their white sympathizers, and even mainstream civil rights advocates results in a one-sided explanation of why the drive for integration stalled. She not only slights the persistence of racism among individuals and within institutions, she misses the real tragedy of the civil rights revolution: that the doors began to open for blacks just as New Deal America was coming apart and the entire society was becoming less cohesive and egalitarian.
Jacoby hints at this point in her section on Detroit, where she mentions in passing that business and jobs had begun to flee the city during the ‘50s—long before the 1967 riot, Coleman Young’s mayoralty, the oil shock, and the auto industry’s decline. But what was true for Detroit was true for much of the country: New inequalities of class were being layered onto old inequalities of color.
With all the good will in the world, the most enlightened civic leaders could not generate decent employment opportunities for inner-city residents at a time when jobs were getting scarce for working people of every color everywhere. Furthermore, the decline of New Deal bread-and-butter liberalism that stressed education and employment over identity politics left no one at the national or local levels who could have told the poor and working-class folk, from whatever background, that their enemy was not one another.
Jacoby’s errors are mostly those of omission, not distortion. Yet they are remarkable for a book about race in the U.S. during the ‘60s and beyond. Martin Luther King Jr. is portrayed merely as an orator urging a color-blind America in 1963, not as the fighter for economic justice who was killed while supporting striking sanitation workers in 1968. Bayard Rustin is presented only as a moderate integrationist, not as an advocate of alliances between the black community and the labor movement. His mentor, A. Philip Randolph, is not mentioned. Neither is Robert F. Kennedy, who was supported by working-class whites as well as inner-city blacks and insisted on high standards of civility and responsibility from everyone. Urbanologist William Julius Wilson, the leading current advocate of race-neutral programs to aid working people, is just cited in the bibliography.
Perhaps the most pointed statements in Someone Else’s House are made by two Detroit-area residents who apparently never met, but might have reached across the racial divide. At a meeting of the New Detroit Committee of business mid civic leaders, a black official of the United Auto Workers, Horace Sheffield, rebuked the white committee members for appeasing the most extreme elements in the black community. "Financing the man who says, ‘Burn whitey,’ isn’t common sense," Sheffield declared.
Not far away a self-described "blue-collar" suburbanite, Irene McCabe, was leading the white opposition to school busing. We’re "losing control of our lives," McCabe complained. She was referring to her feeling of economic vulnerability and her not having any say over her children’s schooling.
America’s tragedy—then and now —is that the Sheffields and the McCabes have rarely been given an opportunity to work together to solve common problems. Instead, they have been buffeted by economic dislocations and social engineering. In these circumstances, it should not surprise Tamar Jacoby, or any of us, that racial integration became a dream deferred.
© 1998 The New Leader
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