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"Keeping the Dream,"

by William L. Taylor January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown have made an important contribution with their trenchant analysis of where matters now stand in the long struggle for equality and racial integration. Sadly, race remains a seemingly intractable problem, an (perhaps the) American dilemma. W.E.B. DuBois’ observation that the color line would be the American problem of the 20th century is carrying over to the 21st. And one scenario offered by the authors — that some newer immigrant groups, even those of color, may be accepted and assimilated into society while black people continue to be excluded — is all too real a possibility.

But if those of us who consider ourselves advocates for racial and social justice are to be thoughtful and strategic in looking to the future, we must take into account another reality. We must understand how far we have come and how we got there. In conducting this examination, the measure should not be confined to “integration” as a narrow concept but should include the progress black people have made in becoming part of the economic, civic and political mainstream in the United States.

In my 45 years as a civil rights lawyer I have seen some astonishing changes. Here are a few:
• Black people have entered into every business and profession. These include sectors such as banking, insurance and communications in which they were once almost totally segregated, and jobs such as skilled construction work from which they were almost totally excluded. While discrimination and tokenism remain, the progress made has led to a great expansion of the black middle class.
• Black enrollment in colleges, universities and professional schools increased greatly beginning in the late 60s and 70s, due in no small measure to the adoption of affirmative action policies. In addition to the obvious occupational and economic consequences, as William Bowen and Derek Bok have documented in The Shape of the River, black people who graduated from selective institutions are playing a larger role as civic leaders.
• Between 1970 and 1990, black teenagers cut the academic performance gap between themselves and white teenagers almost in half on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress. There is strong evidence that school desegregation and programs like Head Start contributed to these gains.
• Even in housing, where there is ample cause for discouragement, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, the chroniclers of American Apartheid, show gains in residential integration in many communities.
• Not least, the removal of voting barriers has led to political participation by blacks in regions of the nation where once they were virtually excluded.

The consequences of this accrual of political and economic power are worth pondering. In 1987, Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated in large measure because of the growth of black political power. In the 90s, while anti-affirmative action referenda have prevailed in California and Washington, a Republican-dominated Congress has several times voted down anti-affirmative action measures. Republican leaders fear that their chances of becoming and remaining a majority party will suffer if they alienate black voters. In 1999, when the NAACP protested the non-participation of blacks in television programming, heads of networks made at least some changes quickly, something that would not have happened in years past.

In short, the political and economic gains made by blacks have created a new reality which white Americans have had to accept regardless of their prejudices. It is telling that most whites feel impelled to respond to opinion polls by accepting the new norm of equality, even if, as Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown suggest, many may not mean it or live it. In fact, changes in behavior brought about by changes in law have led to some genuine reductions in biased attitudes. Racial stereotypes are continually challenged by the integration of black people into the mainstream. And even at the cosmetic level, it is interesting that conservative groups peddling such nostrums as school vouchers feel impelled to market their solutions as beneficial to black and poor children.

No, I am not suggesting that the millennium in civil rights has arrived. In addition to the old problems there are newer ones: the growing gap between the wealthy and poor that is seemingly exacerbated by the technological revolution and the nation’s general prosperity; the increasing difficulty of focusing solely on a domestic agenda in the face of global economic injustice; the rising distrust of government’s capacity to solve problems; the paradoxical fact that the communications revolution is in many ways leading to a decline in community life and increased isolation; and the political use of the progress that has been made to deny the need for more effort.

These challenges call for new ideas and strategies. But many of the fundamentals remain the same. Black people were not empowered politically or economically by laws. They used the laws to empower themselves through education and community and political action. These, along with coalition-building, will remain key to future progress.

Finally, there is the importance of ultimate goals. On this I disagree with the suggestion by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown that integration is a chimera that may have to be abandoned as a goal in order to have a “real reckoning on race.” In thinking about our aspirations today, we should be informed by the experience of four decades, stripping from the goal of integration old elements of paternalism and recognizing more clearly than we have the values of diversity. That said, it would be foolish to succumb to the thinking that in the 60s told us that race riots were the result of raising the hopes and expectations of people too high. Any movement must have hopes and expectations that go beyond its current reach. No one I know has articulated the goals of racial and social justice and integration any better than Martin Luther King. His dream will have to do until a better one comes along.

William L. Taylor a PRRAC Board member, is a Washington, DC lawyer who advocates for poor and minority children. He teaches education law at Georgetown Law School.

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