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"By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race,"

by Leonard Steinhorn & Barbara Diggs-Brown November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

There is a conventional wisdom about the 1960s that most writers and commentators follow. The story line is this: we came close, very close, to solving America’s racial dilemma completely in the mid-sixties, until a number of factors stalled our progress and undermined the consensus. Great strides were made toward integration, according to this view, but unfortunately we now live with a bitter aftertaste. This version fits with the popular tendency to look at the early 1960s through the romance and nostalgia of Camelot and King, an innocent time when the great civil rights struggles united the black and white majority in America. We had a teachable moment for racial harmony, the story goes, and we squandered it. To liberals, blame for our current problems falls squarely on President Nixon’s parochial and cynical strategy to build a silent majority from racial resentment and to draw discontented George Wallace voters into the Republican party - the southern strategy. It was a strategy that, liberals say, Ronald Reagan turned into a fine art. To conservatives, the villains include the black nationalists who fueled racial discontent and the liberal social engineers who rationalized violent crime and foisted divisive policies like busing, affirmative action, and group rights on well-meaning middle-class whites, deeply embittering them. To be sure, this type of finger-pointing is as much about present agendas as past events, but this fact should not obscure the similarity between the liberal and conservative points of view: that we had a chance to put this racial thing behind us if people had only put the national interest ahead of their special interest.

The trouble is, this view is not wholly accurate. The fact that some of us dreamed of integrating does not mean it was ever close to happening. The civil rights movement ended legal segregation in America. It created unprecedented opportunities for black political power and economic mobility. It established a social norm that no longer tolerated or condoned overt discrimination and bigotry. It was no doubt a crowning moment in American history, justifiably embraced and celebrated today by people of every political stripe. But it simply couldn’t build an integrated America. As much as we like to blame the southern strategy, the silent majority, affirmative action, busing, race riots, multicul–turalism, black power, or the precipitous rise of inner-city violent crime for poisoning the “beloved community,” the evidence shows that the infrastructure of a separated America had already been established by the time any of these factors even entered the realm of race relations. The racially divided urban and suburban housing patterns of today were set in place in the early sixties. So were the dynamics around desegregated schooling. Even the way we now interact and perceive each other was foreshadowed then. In November 1964, only four months after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination in employment, government programs, and public accommodations — a law whose purpose, as President Johnson stated, “is not to divide, but to end divisions” — the people of California, by a resounding two-to-one margin, approved a constitutional amendment for their state that overturned an open housing law and effectively allowed racial discrimination in housing. We may get misty-eyed when we think back to Martin Luther King’s remarkable speech at the 1963 March on Washington, but barely two months later, Bower Hawthorne, the editor of two Minneapolis papers, the Star and Tribune, said, “We’re getting increasing complaints from our readers that we are overplaying the integration story. Some of our white readers are getting tired of reading so much about it.” We can accuse Nixon, Reagan, limousine liberals, black leaders, urban ethnics, or the social engineers of sowing discord, but they were merely acting out roles that in many ways already had been written for them in the early sixties. To those who decry what they see as the balkanization of America by racial preferences today, the truth is that the boundary lines of today’s balkanization were shaped long before racial preferences even became an issue. To those who fret over what they see as resegregation today, the sad truth is that there was never an integration from which to resegregate….

Many of these same [white backlashers] voted against real integration with their feet as early as the 1950s, and there was no shortage of overt backlash among self-proclaimed moderates even during the halcyon days of the civil rights era — before affirmative action, race riots, black power, and busing supposedly alienated them. Praise for the bedrock fairness of America’s middle class is a staple of political rhetoric these days, but the bottom-line is this: from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, from the moment desegregation became the law of the land, most whites were willing to accept and indeed applaud a degree of public interaction with blacks, but drew the line when it came to family, home, social life, school, and work — the linchpins of real integration. Whenever and wherever blacks threatened to cross that line, whites first tried to flee and then, tired of running, resisted and fought….

In October 1964, one of America’s greatest political journalists looked into the crystal ball and wrote a prophetic, searing essay for Life magazine on white middle-class resistance to integration. Backlash, observed Theodore H. White, is “as invisible, yet as real, as air pollution.” It would probably not show up in the 1964 presidential election results, he wrote, but it “is an unease whose impact will be felt not as much now as over the long range,” particularly as whites see increasing black encroachment on their holy trinity of home, school, and work. For the Democrats, the long-term peril of a divided party is clear, he noted. The Republican party, “born in racial strife, [must] choose whether it abandons its tradition and becomes the white man’s party or refreshes its tradition by designing a program of social harmony.” And so he concluded: “Only one political certainty can be stated now which will outlast next month’s election: If, at this time when the nation is so rich and strong, both parties ignore the need for constructive answers to the question ‘What Do They Want?,’ then disaster lies ahead — and backlash — the politics of chaos — will carry over, its snap growing in violence from 1964 to 1968 and all the elections beyond, until the question is answered….”

Consider the many survey findings that herald the good news of white America’s tolerance. A significant majority of whites say they would prefer to live in a mixed neighborhood, perhaps as mixed as half black, half white. But almost everywhere you look in every part of the country where more than a token number of blacks live, whites begin to flee from their communities the minute the first black family moves in. Often these are suburban communities where the new homeowners are middle-class or even affluent blacks. It is a classic case of the domino effect: each black family that moves in increases the likelihood that the remaining white families will leave. Integration exists only in the time span between the first black family moving in and the last white family moving out.

The very era that we applaud for racial progress tells a different story in communities like Sherman Park near Milwaukee, which lost 61 percent of its whites between 1970 and 1990; or Palmer Park, near Washington, D.C., which went from being virtually all white in the 1960s to virtually all black today; or the middle-class Philadelphia suburb of Yeadon, which doubled its black population in the 1980s, going from one-third to two-thirds black, and saw a corresponding decline among whites. Real estate agents will tell you that prospective white buyers show no interest in moving to these neighborhoods….

The story is no different when it comes to schools. A majority of whites support mixed public schools, but apparently not for their own children. A 1993 survey of whites from the Minneapolis suburbs found that two thirds favored sending white suburban children to the predominantly black Minneapolis public schools as a way to increase integration, but only seven percent said they would send their own child….

In Baltimore, every one of the nine all-white schools that were required to integrate in 1954 had become all-black just seven years later. Roosevelt High School in northwest Washington, D.C., had 747 whites and no blacks in 1953, the year before desegregation; 634 whites and 518 blacks in 1955, the second year of desegregation; and 19 whites and 1,319 blacks in 1963, the tenth year of desegregation. White parents in Milwaukee even protested when some black children were transferred temporarily to white schools in 1963 while schools in predominantly black neighborhoods were being rebuilt. Years before busing roiled the educational waters, the pattern of school separation had been set…. In community after community, the story is the same: blacks make up a significantly larger proportion of schoolchildren than their percentage of the school-age population, which means that large numbers of whites begin to flee the system for private schools when the black student population inches above the token….As of 1998, there were fewer than 4,000 white children left in Atlanta’s public schools. Nor should we be misled if the numbers for an entire school district make it appear integrated; the actual schools themselves are often segregated by race. In Illinois, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey, almost three in five black public school students attend schools that have fewer than 10 percent whites….

The dissonance between professed racial attitudes and actual racial reality should come as no surprise. Ever since the 1960s, as society began to shun overt bigotry and applaud gestures of racial tolerance, social scientists have found whites to exaggerate their contact with and support for blacks. As with any norm, people understandably want to be seen as conforming to it — in this case, they are evincing society’s antiracist and tolerant attitudes. In exit polls after elections, for example, more whites say they vote for black candidates than actually do. One study compared the different responses offered when the phone survey interviewer could be clearly identified as white or black. On topics such as racially mixed schools, friendships with blacks, and who’s to blame for current black problems, white survey respondents who were interviewed by blacks consistently provided a more liberal or integrationist response than whites who were interviewed by whites….

The point here is not to deny the credibility of all polls, many of which can be useful in comparing black and white attitudes, but merely to show how powerfully the integration illusion defines our perceptions and self-image. Call it racial civility, decorous integration, or the politeness conspiracy — the bottom line is that our professed attitudes, symbols, and public expressions masquerade as integrated when our lives clearly are not. And what people say is less important than what they do….

Whites are not blind to black anger and see it on or just below the surface. Part of white fear of black crime is the idea that black-on-white crime is not really random, that black rage toward whites actually leads to violence against whites. Whites describe how they consciously bite their tongues and refrain from obscene gestures when irritated with a black driver, but wouldn’t show the same restraint if the other driver were white. Blacks know their anger frightens whites and pushes them even further away. That is why middle-class blacks work so hard to contain it when they are around white colleagues and employers. Other blacks take advantage of white fears by channeling their anger to arouse white guilt and perhaps obtain some short-term political benefit. Still others take silent pleasure in finally having a way to put white people on edge. Some young blacks even have fun with the anger, using it to intimidate whites in a nonverbal mind-game that seems momentarily satisfying when they are walking on the sidewalk or crossing the street — put on an attitude and see how they run….

To be sure, let us not overlook an important area of consensus: blacks and whites share a nearly unanimous distaste for overt expressions of bigotry and blatant acts of discrimination. Considering the state of our nation just four decades ago, we should not underrate this accomplishment. We should be proud of establishing the norm and knowing it will not change. Beyond this, however, there is little consensus.

Most compelling are the different ways whites and blacks view the problem of discrimination. According to surveys on race conducted over the years, a substantial proportion of whites say that the civil rights gains of the 1960s largely ended the problem of discrimination in America. Whites see themselves as well meaning and concerned about racial equality. They believe themselves to be fair, if not color-blind, and they cannot imagine themselves as blatantly discriminating. With Jim Crow gone and outright bigotry diminishing, most whites just don’t see discrimination as a major barrier for blacks any longer. They think Dr. King’s integration dream is within reach. “Large majorities think blacks now have the same opportunities as whites in their communities in terms of obtaining jobs, housing and education,” the Gallup Poll News Service reported in 1989. “Many whites are unable to name even one type of discrimination that affects blacks in their area.” As columnist William Raspberry observed in 1995, “Younger whites know the cruder facts: that America once had slavery and Jim Crow and now has Colin Powell. Their sense… is of a problem confronted and mostly resolved.” The problem is so resolved, most whites believe, that society has gone too far to accommodate blacks. Significant majorities of whites tell pollsters that prejudice harms blacks much less than affirmative action harms whites. Whites are not oblivious to the problems discrimination can cause blacks, but if anyone is to blame for black problems today, whites point the finger at blacks. They simply don’t have the willpower or motivation to improve their lot, whites believe. All of these views are not of recent mint …they actually began to form during the early civil rights days in the 1960s, before affirmative action and welfare became national issues. So it is safe to say that whites have a fairly static and consistent view of black life, which has developed over the past three decades: discrimination no longer unduly hobbles blacks, government has helped blacks at the expense of whites, and blacks have only themselves to blame for their problems. Given these assumptions, white opposition to affirmative action and other government programs seems logical….

The discrimination may be more subtle today, but blacks feel it just as deeply. It is expressed not in the blatant fifties style — “blacks need not apply” — but in the subtle cues and decisions that are made on a daily basis. Blacks also see how whites hear about jobs and opportunities — through their church, union, sports club, community group, or fraternity network — and they know they will never be part of that. So as blacks see it, they have made progress in spite of these obstacles, with little help from whites. Their dream of the integration of truly color-blind equals remains precisely that, a dream. Blacks don’t deny they are partly at fault for their problems, but they see society changing much less than whites think it has changed, and they see whites growing indifferent to racial problems altogether….

These different views of discrimination spill over into the larger perception gap about life and politics in America. Generally speaking, whites believe that our nation’s problems with racism and civil rights were solved three decades ago, while blacks see racial discrimination as an ongoing and daily obstacle to opportunity and equality. When blacks see discrimination, whites see equal opportunity. When blacks say civil rights, whites say special interests. When blacks support affirmative action, whites label it quotas, preferential treatment, and reverse discrimination. And where blacks see racism, whites respond that they are being overly sensitive….

[M]ost politicians, especially most affirmative-action opponents, are unable to cite anything of King’s other than his famous line in the “I Have a Dream” speech, that his four little children “one day will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In their zeal to use these words for their own purposes, our politicians have reduced King’s message to one line taken completely out of context. They have turned his vision of an ideal future into a prescription for color-blindness that should apply to the present. “I think the best means to achieve the ends of a color-blind society,” conservative politician William Bennett said in 1986, “is to proceed as if we are indeed a color-blind society.” The King who called for “discrimination in reverse...a sort of national atonement for the sins of the past” is nowhere to be found. Nor is the King who called for “radical changes in the structure of society,” or for “a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” or for “a policy of preferential treatment to rehabilitate the traditionally disadvantaged Negro.” King wrote in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, “It is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.” He realized that preferential treatment might make “some of our friends recoil in horror,” but he also knew that “equal opportunity” without “the practical, realistic aid” to balance the equation was little more than a charade. “Giving a pair of shoes to a man who has not learned to walk is a cruel jest,” he wrote. These were the very color-conscious ideas and policies that King thought might lead us to his promised, color-blind land. But they are too threatening to the integration illusion, too incompatible with what the largely white audience wants to hear, and too inconsistent with what the politicians want to say. So white politicians feed a denatured, neutralized King to their constituents, who want to see themselves — and their opposition to affirmative action — as truly color-blind and fair. It is rhetorical integration at its very best….

If there is any doubt that the integration of blacks and whites is not working and may never work, it is instructive to compare blacks with the two other most prominent ethnic groups who also share the “minority” label, Hispanics and Asians. Because of comparable levels of poverty and disadvantage today, the plight of Asians and especially Hispanics is often equated with that of blacks. Government equal-opportunity laws make few distinctions among these groups, and they are often compared in terms of their educational, economic, and political achievements. But to lump them together based on a snapshot of today’s economic circumstances is to overlook the more compelling evidence that these two recent immigrant groups are assimilating in ways that blacks have never been able to integrate. Indeed, it is a grievous error to lump blacks indiscriminately with Hispanics and Asians because it ignores the profoundly different relationships each has with the current American majority. Blacks are not immigrants and never have been, and the black experience is fundamentally at odds with the immigrant experience in America.

A hundred fifty years ago the unmeltable ethnics, besides blacks, were the Irish and the Germans, and a century ago they were the Italian, Jews, Poles, and Russians. All were vilified, excluded, abused, and discriminated against and were portrayed at times as less than human, and always as less desirable than the Anglo-Saxon majority. All have assimilated, except for blacks. If the current assimilation patterns of Hispanics and Asians continue, it will be no different today….

It has been the case throughout American history that a second-generation immigrant becomes an American while an eighth-generation black is still a black. Comedian Richard Pryor used to joke that the first citizenship lesson taught to new immigrants was the correct pronunciation of the word “nigger.” Ethnic boundaries remain porous for immigrants but virtually impermeable for blacks. “As to this country being a melting pot,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1978, “either the Negro did not get in the pot or he did not get melted down.”

[R]eal integration depends on social engineering, constant vigilance, government authority, official attention to racial behavior, and a willingness by citizens to relinquish at least some personal choice for the greater good. And so we arrive at a fundamental dilemma of racial integration in America. The same factors that appear essential to successful integration run directly counter to some of our deepest beliefs about self-determination, authority, and individual rights. More than two centuries ago our nation was founded on a suspicion of vested power and an affirmation of individual liberty. The Declaration of Independence is as much about a king who abused his sovereignty as about the inalienable rights of humankind. This legacy remains as powerful today as ever. Most of us distrust authority, reject even a scent of social engineering, and must be dragged kicking and screaming to accept any limit on our personal freedoms. The reason better be good, very good, and it must produce unimpeachable results. Even then most Americans resist. Therefore, we cannot but conclude that what it takes even to break the integration ice in our country is largely unpalatable to most of our citizens….

Integration is an ideal both of us would prefer to see realized in our lifetimes. A truly color-blind, integrated America is a vision we share. We believe it is in the best interest of all Americans, black and white. Part of us wants to buy in to the integration illusion, to praise the emperor’s clothes, to embrace the hope of the dreamers that yes, it can work. We want a happy ending. But try as we might, the facts simply fail to accommodate our desires, and the racial reality stubbornly refuses to change. We must conclude, regrettably, that integration is an illusion borne of hope and desire, that our very devotion to the ideal ironically helps us avoid a real reckoning on race, and that for our nation to move beyond today’s racial endgame we must relinquish the hope of ever reaching the racial Promised Land….

Leonard Steinhorn

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