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Whatever Became of Integration?
We reflexively honor Martin Luther King Jr., but not many still pursue his vision of what he called "the beloved community": a more or less race-neutral America in which both blacks and whites would feel they belong. Today, the word "community" means not one integrated nation but a minority enclave, as in "the black community." The word "brother” evokes not the brotherhood of man but the solidarity of color. "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand," the T-shirts say—and few of us question the underlying assumption.
Blacks as a group have made enormous progress in the past three or four decades. The black middle class has quadrupled, education levels have soared and blacks are increasingly represented in electoral politics and other influential realms of national life.
But many blacks still feel irreparably cut off from what they see as a white world. "I've seen plenty of physical integration," a black student told me during the seven years I spent researching a book on race relations in Detroit, Atlanta and New York. "That doesn't guarantee integration of the heart."
Only a tiny minority, black or white, have repudiated integration outright. But increasingly, there is a contrary mood on both sides. Some whites, tired of the issue and the emotion that comes with it, have grown indifferent to the problems that blacks face. Other people, black and white, think of integration as more or less irrelevant to the real problems of race in America—black poverty, black joblessness, lack of black advancement. Still others, particularly blacks embittered by a long history of exclusion, view the old color-blind dream as a pernicious concept. Wittingly or not, we as a nation are turning our backs on integration.
In fact, since emancipation in 1863 most blacks with any realistic hope of inclusion have chosen to try to make their way into the political and economic mainstream. The first nationally known black spokesman Frederick Douglass, was an ardent integrationist, and the popular thrust from the 19th century onward was for incorporation into the body politic. Of course, there has always been another tendency, too—the proud and angry separatism that flourished in the ghetto in periods, such as the 1930s, when segregation still reigned and integration seemed impossible.
Unlike the street-corner chauvinism popularized by Marcus Garvey and others in the 1930s, today's separatism does not dream of a return to Africa. Unlike the Nation of Islam, the new insularity involves few rituals. More an attitude than an ideology or a political program, it is part pride, part disappointment in whites, part diffidence, part defensiveness and part resentful defiance.
This new, "soft" form of the old separatist vision is capturing poor and better-off blacks alike. It caught on first on the left, but then spread through the moderate middle and on to the new black right, where prominent conservatives such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas now doubt the value of mixed schooling and maintain that only blacks can help less privileged blacks out of poverty. Gangsta rap, Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March and Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X,” with the reverential following it awakened, all reflect and enshrine the credo—the system is inherently prejudiced, that blacks are somehow fundamentally different from whites, that they will never be fully at home in America, that they are right to be angry and that only good can come out of cultivating this bitterness.
Unlike old-fashioned black nationalism, the new separatism often co-exists with functional integrationism. Young black professionals are making their way into the system and up the ladders of mainstream success, but many feel that the system is rigged against them and that as long as racism exists, they can only go so far. Even these prosperous citizens, wary of prejudice, often prefer to live in a realm apart, to buy homes and spend their leisure time in the racial comfort zones of self segregated suburbs.
Strangest of all, the white mainstream encourages this clannishness—in the name of integration. The government favors color-coded hiring, voting and school admissions. Businesses such as Time Warner lead the way in promoting gangsta rap. Philanthropic institutions such as the Ford Foundation fund the development of black curriculums. Magazines such as the New Yorker publish profiles of black figures—intellectuals, celebrities, sports heroes and others—that make a shibboleth of "how black" they are. In the name of racial justice, accommodation and respect, the mainstream culture has accepted the new separatism. The idea is to make blacks feel more welcome and to recognize their historical grievances. But in the long run, this well-meaning endorsement of separatism can only help prevent the realization of the civil rights vision.
Whatever the benefits of the new separatism in promoting pride and self-esteem, the overlay of anger and alienation that comes with it is poisoning our lives, both black and white. Underclass youths ruin their own futures by declining to make an effort in the "white man's school." Others refuse to obey the "white law." Even the most promising middle-class black students are encouraged to feel different and forever apart. In the image of Malcolm X, they adopt anger as their identity—and spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with its corrosive side effects.
As for whites, the new separatism has become an excuse for ignorance, indifference and worse. Increasingly resentful and put off by racial rhetoric, many feel little responsibility for the problems of the urban black poor. Others—including those who believe themselves free of prejudice—still harbor half-conscious notions of black inferiority. Cut off from all but superficial contact with blacks, their stereotypes become all the more distorted.
Have Americans really given up on a common humanity? My research tells me no. Despite their anger and alienation, I believe that most blacks want in—and most whites still want to do what they can to truly make this a land of opportunity and equal access. But if most Americans still believe in integration, they don't know how to reconcile that belief with identity politics and diversity.
Just what would real integration mean? What would it look like? By definition, inclusion is an ideal—more a beacon than a concrete prescription. We know now that it will take more than physical mingling. We know it starts but doesn't end with equal opportunity, and we know it won't look like the monotone conformity some people imagined in the 1950s.
The first step will be the hardest: deciding that integration is what we want. But that may not be as much of a leap as it sometimes seems. Many people reacted enthusiastically to President Clinton's call a year ago for a national debate about race, and polls consistently show that voters would be willing to spend more for social programs if they could only be confident that the government knew what worked.
The alternative to integration is not, as many people hope, a rich feast of diversity. Far more likely, given America's history and the enduring problems many blacks face, a decision to give up on integration would leave us with a permanent, festering sore. The political values we have inherited could not survive in a nation divided. If the civil rights era taught us anything, it was that—and slow as we were to grasp the lesson, it is not something that we can forget now.
Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. This article is adapted from her new book, "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration.”
©1998 The Washington Post
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