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"An Integration Scenario OR Ending the Illusion,"

by Herbert J. Gans November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

I agree with virtually all of Steinhorn’s and Diggs-Brown’s analysis, but do not share their disappointment, since few of us who were around in the actual (rather than the now imagined) ’60s had any illusions or expected any miracles. Moreover, racial, and particularly residential, integration was then a priority mainly of affluent blacks and equally affluent liberal whites, for most blacks could not even afford to buy houses in white areas. One of the sensible points made by the early Black Power movement, which at times did speak for the mass of poor blacks, was that racial equality had priority over integration.

Not only does racial equality remain prior for many blacks, but it should be so even for white advocates of integration. Until blacks obtain the opportunity to be more equal with whites economically, socially and politically, most whites will not risk their property and status values to live with blacks. In fact, it may turn out that until the vast proportion of blacks is securely middle- class, white homeowners may continue to treat current middle-class blacks as surrogates for the poor ones that might move in right behind them. This is one reason why white flight continues.

Since blacks are a political as well as a numerical minority, universal policies that benefit all races will be needed. Greater economic equality should be the first priority, and one way to achieve it is aiming for full employment at decent incomes. The minimum and moderate wage income jobs that have fuelled the current economic boom are unequal jobs; their pay scales should be raised as much as economically and politically possible — and workfare turned into legitimate jobs. More economic equality is, after all, one way by which the unmeltable and swarthy ethnics of the early 20th century became today’s lily-white Americans.

I wish the white-ethnic process could be repeated for blacks, but it cannot, since even swarthy ethnics were whites. Blacks, especially African Americans, are not only dark-skinned, but they also suffer from modern forms of the hatreds and fears, the accusations of cultural or genetic inferiority, and the economic exploitation that originated in slavery. Why else, for example, are the blacks who were forced to compete for low-wage jobs with immigrants over a century ago expected to do so again with a new set of immigrants today? No one knows now how these after-effects of slavery can be eliminated, but it is high time to ask, both here and in other countries that permitted slavery.

One possible source of forward progress may turn out to be the rising level of intermarriage. Asians-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other “non-black” Americans are marrying whites at rapid rates. Even now the constantly increasing variety of ethnic and racial mixtures among young people, while still numerically small, suggests that finally, America may slowly be heading in the direction of a literal melting pot.

In the process, the hoary racial skin color scheme of white, yellow, red and brown, as well as other differences in visible physical features, become less and less relevant in every generation until they finally fade into invisibility. Blacks will not immediately be part of that process, for although black-white intermarriage is also on the rise, it is only now approaching double-digit figures, as compared to 50% and more for some Asian-Americans.

Still, it is possible to hope that if blacks are integrated economically, black-white intermarriage will also rise more quickly, and blacks would be admitted to the melting pot. In that case, eventually – and it is a very far off eventuality – race may no longer be used by Americans to classify each other, and then racial discrimination will end as well.

Nonetheless, today’s political struggle for racial integration has to continue. Concurrently, however, so must the pressure for more equality of all kinds, particularly that of income and wealth. In their wake, more political, educational, social and, yes, racial equality, can be achieved as well – and in the long run, more equality will also smooth the path toward racial integration.

Herbert J. Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Columbia University and a past president of the American Sociological Association. He is the author of over a dozen books, including War Against the Poor (Basic Books, 1995).

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