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Remember the Dream
Racial integration is a uniquely American, 20th-century ideal. None of the societies that represent our heritage so much as thought of it, much less practiced it. This is not a Greek, Judeo-Christian or Anglo-Saxon idea. It is ours alone. And it would be a tragedy if we were to abandon it, as Tamar Jacoby thinks we may, for the twin causes of multiculturalism and racial separatism.
In "Someone Else's House" (Free Press, 614 pages, $30), Ms. Jacoby uses three cities—New York, Detroit and Atlanta—to trace the nation's 30-year slide from its aspirations for racial inclusion to its current comfort with racial isolation.
Central to her story is Dr. Martin Luther King's own journey from his limited goal of desegregating public institutions to his formulation of the "beloved community," a vision of a racially neutral America in which both blacks and whites would live side by side. Dr. King was determined to hold the country to its own high standards of morality. In the famous speech in Washington in 1963, he said: "l have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Dr. King is quoting Thomas Jefferson here, but he is echoing James Madison. For it was Madison in Federalist 10 who set out the nation's enduring political principles. The "mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished," wrote Madison, derived from the natural human tendency to form factions—what we today call interest groups. Their worst effects could be tempered by encouraging such a variety of parties and interests—including a diversity of interests within every citizen—that no single faction would be able to coalesce and perpetuate violence and injustice against a minority.
Thus Madison himself might have voted as a Virginian on one issue, a stockholder on the second, a Protestant on the third. But no one of these traits would so define him that it would always capture his vote. If Ms. Jacoby is right, this is where the country is now going so wrong. Race has become the dominant trait defining many Americans.
This is not, of course, what Dr. King wanted for either blacks or whites. Ms. Jacoby holds onto Dr. King's ideals as a lodestar while telling her story of three cities. Her most compelling story—perhaps because it's the saddest—is Detroit.
No American city ever fell as far or as fast as Detroit. From its pinnacle as the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, Detroit crashed to a pit of unemployment and decay 50 years later, a symbol of all that was wrong with urban America. As the world's dominant car manufacturer, Detroit had built half of the world's cars in 1950; by 1990 Detroit was making one car out of every thousand.
While Detroit's long, relentless decline can be blamed on many parties, public and private, the searing episode that nearly destroyed the city was the 1967 riot. Three decades later, Detroiters still speak of the "Rebellion." Coleman Young, who became mayor in 1974, wrote that the rebellion "put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes . . . and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and white people who fled as fast as they could."
When Mayor Young left office in 1993, nearly 80% of white Detroiters had left. Less than half the remaining adult population was in the labor force. Detroit's economy was a shambles.
While understanding that secular economic trends were pitted against Detroit, Ms. Jacoby tells a story of misguided public policy converting a difficult situation into catastrophe. Even as Mayor Young excoriated the white suburbs, federal and local policies ensured that suburbanites would work to separate themselves even further. Federal threats of busing between Detroit and its 53 suburbs, rising taxes, soaring crime rates (even as Mayor Young dismantled the police department), a City Hall wracked by corruption—with all this Detroit became another name for chaos. Mayor Young did many things wrong, but perhaps the worst was the quenching of Detroit's entrepreneurial spirit in the name of black autonomy.
Sad as Detroit's story is in the telling, it is a hopeful story in the end. Mr. Young was succeeded by Dennis Archer, once his protégé. Mr. Young had been a political warrior; Mr. Archer was a corporate lawyer. Mr. Young fought the establishment; Mr. Archer moved up through its ranks, eventually representing Detroit's corporate elite as a partner in the city's premier law firm. About one-fifth of Mayor Archer's full-time appointees are from business, signaling the importance of Detroit's economy to his administration. More important, his is an administration of inclusion—for the city and its suburbs. He has replaced combativeness with conciliation.
If Detroit ends up as one of America's great comeback stories, it will be in part because the city has returned to the dream of integration, led by black officials. Those who doubt the wisdom of this direction should heed Ms. Jacoby's tale of the nightmares wrought by racial hatred.
Ms. Vitullo-Martin is the editor of “Breaking Away: The Future of Cities" (Twentieth Century Fund Press).
©1998 The Wall Street Journal
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