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by S. M. Miller January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

How one evaluates the last four decades largely depends on one’s expectations. My outlook in the ‘60’s was that an untroubled, clear, upward progression to real, full integration of African Americans would not occur. “Cost-free liberalism” was the somewhat caustic term that I applied to the liberal confidence that economic growth would make everyone better off, alleviate strain, with the result that great social change would occur “on the (economic and political) cheap” with little disruption. I did not share that optimism.

When I went to work in l966 at the Ford Foundation, I assigned myself the mission of moving the Foundation to broaden its civil rights activities in two ways. One direction was to support more activist organizations than the National Urban League. The other was to involve the Foundation in developing programs with Appalachian whites, Hispanics and Native Americans.

My assumption was that the War on Poverty would not maintain support if it was regarded as an economic program to aid mainly black people. It had to be seen as also benefiting non-black groups. For my view, then and now, is that the United States is a deeply conservative country politically with short liberal remissions. Race barriers are not easily overcome.

The ‘60’s was a great positive surprise to me. Much greater change occurred than I had believed possible. Nevertheless, my belief was that a transformation in race relations would not come easily or swiftly.
Consequently, I am not disillusioned. I like to describe myself as unillusioned: I believe that enormous positive changes have emerged, while recognizing the difficult, disturbing barriers to integration that remain.

Since barriers, shortcomings and regression are now familiar, I cite the gains. Occupationally, both black men and women are less concentrated in low-paying occupations than they were in l960. Educationally, African American youth are graduating from high school at almost the same rate as white youth. These are not minor advances.

A more minor illustration of change is in major professional sports. In the 60’s they were just really opening up to black players; today, African Americans and Latinos predominate as players. And — miracle of miracles — as these “minorities” entered basketball, football and baseball, salaries did not decline but jumped to unheard-of heights. Yes, that is due to union organization and the courts, but also somewhat to changed attitudes.

Youth and, to a lesser extent, adult pop culture is dominated by black music, performers, themes, language. (That is different from the ‘30’s when white musicians like Benny Goodman predominated in playing black-derived music.) This is cultural integration — especially for white youth — although we don’t know what to make of and do with it. But it does signify something positive in an entertainment-oriented period, not just a coloring of minstrel time.

While I do not accept as reality the General Social Survey’s report that more than 50% of white respondents say that they have at least one black friend, I would not dismiss that finding as unrevealing. My interpretation is that whites feel that they “should” have African American friends. That is a big change in outlook if not in actual behavior.

This listing is not a Pollyannish desire to ignore the extent of housing and educational segregation, the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in employment and policing, the intolerable incidence of poverty, the deterioration and neglect of cash and non-cash services. It is an effort to have a more balanced view so as to promote decisions which are shaped less by disillusion and more by creating new possibilities.

Two ideas of the ‘60’s might still be useful. To combat redlining and “white flight” as blacks move into white neighborhoods, improve public and school services in these changing localities. That is often the opposite of what now occurs. A second approach would attempt to deal with the economic component of the fear propelling white flight, that housing values will decline. Changing neighborhoods could be issued insurance policies that would guarantee the current value of owner-occupied homes. That could be done by federal or state agencies or by having them insure private insurers against losses. Improved services and a guarantee against loss might improve chances of having truly integrated neighborhoods.

John Powell’s efforts to affect the siting of schools and housing could be used in many areas to maintain or induce integration. (See his article in the Sept./Oct. 1999 Poverty and Race, “Achieving Racial Justice: What’s Sprawl Got to Do With It?”) A major issue is occupational concentration. Blacks are disproportionately in low-paying occupations. This situation is accentuated by the ending of “welfare as we know it.” Getting on the job market ladder is insufficient if it is broken and one is stuck at the first step. Moving up quite a few rungs to a decent-paying occupational and industrial place is crucial. Training for entry-level jobs is only a beginning. What is needed is accessible, well-designed, subsidized training that will definitely lead to better jobs, an upward mobility program. Dead-end jobs — low-paid, hard and boring work — as one’s future do not encourage good work habits or motivation to act in positive ways.

Latinos and Asian Americans also experience the broken ladder, and so do the much larger number of whites who did not graduate from high school or have only a high-school diploma, an increasingly devalued credential. Cross-race coalitions for an effective job mobility program might yield results. At present, race-oriented policies are not likely to win wide support. “Going it alone” is not a wise strategy for African Americans in a rapidly changing economy and society.

These suggestions and many others that are around will not lead to real integration. Progress has been made but much, much remains to be done. Consequently, improving areas where African Americans live is important. That is happening through asset-building efforts that promote home ownership and entrepreneurship. Neighborhood improvement associations are making a difference. But these efforts and gains should not close out efforts to build toward a greater measure of integration. Without such a push, “separate but equal” will always be prey to separate but unequal.

A two-track approach is needed: improving black neighborhoods and integrating schools and neighborhoods. We should have expected a long struggle; we still should.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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