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A century ago, the black writer Charles Chesnutt predicted confidently that in 100 years there would be no more "race problem," because blacks would intermarry with whites and disappear as a separate race.
So much for prophecy. Black-white marriage rates are still only one-fifth as high here as in Britain, and they are far lower than intermarriage rates between whites and other racial groups. It may have been naive to expect blacks and whites to turn lovey-dovey after such a long and bitter history. But nowadays they often seem to be actively retreating from the ideal of integration that Martin Luther King conjured up so eloquently 35 years ago. Civil rights groups are for "integrating the money," as former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young once put it, and less and less interested in bringing blacks and whites together. Race-baiting extremists like Louis Farrakhan may not speak for the majority of blacks, but they draw on a broad groundswell of separatist feeling. "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand," reads a popular T-shirt slogan. Many whites return the gesture—either because they're fed up with what they perceive as black hostility, or because they embrace the kind of liberalism that welcomes such hostility as deserved or racially "authentic."
This state of mutual aloofness is the target of Tamar Jacoby's book, Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration. She sees both blacks and whites abandoning "the hopeful consensus that formed around King's vision of a single, shared community." This growing separatism, she argues, is an acid in the fabric of American community, encouraging distrust and preventing constructive debate about issues like affirmative action and the ghetto.
Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute as well as a veteran journalist, makes no apologies for her own opinions. She is against preferences and set-asides for minorities, and she comes down hard on black political leaders for failing to explore more constructive solutions. It's no accident that she has a note tacked over her desk (as she tells us in the introduction) reading, "If you can't call a black thug a thug, you're a racist." She's equally tough on those white liberals who, as she sees it, encouraged the worst elements in black leadership and opinion. "Far more damaging today than the old bigotry," Jacoby writes, "is the condescension of well-meaning whites who think that they are advancing race relations by encouraging alienation and identity politics." In some respects, this book is a polemic against the prevailing liberal consensus on race. Yet it's also an inspiring reminder of all that was best in the struggle for integration and a call for us to take it up again.
Jacoby's first and longest chapter, on New York City in the 1960s, is her vehicle for an extended attack on the liberal approach to racial conflict. The story begins in 1964, when the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement began to turn nasty, culminating in a full-scale riot in mid-July. Liberal whites were understandably baffled and frightened. It had only been two weeks since the passage of the landmark civil rights act, yet many blacks in the movement had already soured on the ideal of integration, tempted away by more defiant leaders like Malcolm X. Most middle-class whites, and many blacks, saw the New York riots as just that: young men giving free rein to their worst impulses. But to John Lindsay, the liberal patrician who won the mayoral election in the fall of 1965, the riots were "a rational response to particular ghetto conditions," as Jacoby puts it. This was Lindsay's great mistake. By elevating the riots into a form of political insurrection, Lindsay tacitly encouraged them.
To her credit, Jacoby doesn't simply deride Lindsay for his errors. Instead, she makes us feel his courage and steadfastness in the midst of a deepening national crisis. Desperate to prevent more violence, Lindsay went on frequent "ghetto walks" in the worst parts of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx, often virtually unaccompanied, and at the worst possible times (such as right after Martin Luther King was assassinated). This populist approach may well have made a difference; unlike other cities, New York did not suffer any major riots during Lindsay's tenure as mayor. Largely for that reason, he was nominated to the Kerner Commission in 1967, and became the dominant force behind the commission's influential report on race relations, released the following spring.
Yet Jacoby argues convincingly that Lindsay's short-term victories came at a terrible price. His analysis of the riots, which became the centerpiece of the Kerner report, echoed the self-serving rationales of militants who claimed ghetto violence was a legitimate and just rebellion against white authority. Lindsay thus "signaled to young blacks that they were right to blame their frustrations on white society," Jacoby writes, "and that there was no meaningful distinction between generalized racial rage and focused, constructive political demands."
Jacoby's second chapter, on Detroit, is focused mainly on failures of black leadership. Detroit had a long history of open racial conflict even before the National Guard's tanks rolled in to quell the riots raging through the city in the summer of 1967. In the next few years racial tensions only got worse, as rising crime rates pushed whites out of the city and forced busing led to a backlash led by middle-class parents. By the time Coleman Young became the city's first black mayor in 1974, he knew the city's salvation lay in a truce that would retain its rapidly fleeing white businesses. Yet he slashed the already demoralized police department until the city became a virtually lawless zone, where roving gangs of teenagers raped and murdered with impunity. White flight accelerated, and Young's hopeful efforts to revitalize Detroit's downtown languished. By the early 1980s a bumper sticker appeared: “Will the last one who leaves please turn out the lights."
Of course, Young wasn't entirely to blame. As in New York, the white business community inadvertently radicalized the city's blacks by funding violent extremists, in a misguided effort to prevent more rioting. By the time Young became mayor, baiting whites may have been a matter of political survival. In fact, Jacoby concedes that in Detroit and elsewhere, part of the problem was that "gradualist leaders were in short supply, and they had little credibility with the impatient black public." This awareness helps to prevent Jacoby's book from becoming another scolding tirade against liberalism, and it gives her narrative an atmosphere of tragic inevitability.
The third and final section, on Atlanta, addresses that city's elaborate affirmative action and racial set-aside programs. An island of relative peace and prosperity, Atlanta did not become bitterly polarized as New York and Detroit did during the '60s. The challenge for black mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young was to bring more blacks into the city's swelling economic mainstream. They did so by establishing a variety of racial preferences and set-asides in the construction and management of the city's new airport, commuter rail system, and "Underground" shopping mall during the '70s and '80s.
In practice, the programs didn't work so well. Many white firms won contracts with a nominal black CEO who went along for a fee—the so-called "rent-a-skin" scheme. Most of the program's "joint ventures" involved white firms doing the job alone and handing a check to their black partners. When scandals like these came to light, Jackson and Young retorted that they weren't the whole story, and that the programs had boosted the city's black business class. But most of these businesses folded quickly, because the program had failed to provide them with the experience and training they needed. The only real black beneficiaries were a handful of black firms who would have succeeded anyway.
Jacoby also argues that Atlanta's affirmative action programs "mock[ed] the dignity of the blacks involved" by forcing them to compete out of their depth and making them look lazy and incompetent. The result was more racial division and mistrust, not less. Yet she admits grudgingly that the programs were and are very popular among blacks, and even among the city's white business elite. For blacks, the programs served a powerful symbolic purpose, even for those who didn't benefit from them. For whites, the answer is more cynical. As one white developer put it, "It was the price of racial peace." Jacoby seems reluctant to admit it, but the developer may have been right. Clumsy and divisive as they were, Atlanta's programs were probably far better than nothing at all.
Which isn't to say they couldn't be improved. The trouble with most affirmative action programs is that they focus on symbolic inclusion rather than the hard, unglamorous, and time-consuming work of bringing disadvantaged blacks into the mainstream. As Jacoby puts it: "Vastly improved public schooling, some form of school choice or vouchers, more money for community colleges, need-based scholarships and remedial tutoring, job-training programs, apprenticeships, outreach and mentoring networks: This is only the beginning of the long, hard assault that is necessary to develop black capacities in a way that will truly level the playing field." The only serious flaw in her prescription is a concession to the current skepticism about federal involvement, which, she says, "works best at the margins." She does acknowledge that "the old idea of government-mandated mingling" has been one of the great routes to integration—as for instance, in the volunteer career-track army. But a few suggestions on how to renew this crucial federal role would have made this book a far more useful addition to the current debate on race.
Still, Someone Else's House is a powerful reminder of what went wrong in the struggle for racial equality, and an inspiring call to put it right. It will draw fire from those who believe a white woman must not speak openly about the flaws of black culture or leadership. But it's refreshing to see someone flout this liberal shibboleth, and it's impossible to question the civic spirit with which she does it.
©1998 The Washington Monthly
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