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"Do We Still Have a Dream?,"

by Paul L. Wachtel January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown perform a valuable service in reminding us of how the reality of daily life in America contradicts some of our society’s cherished illusions. But in referring to integration as an illusion there is also a problematic ambiguity that has a potential to impede the very struggle whose continuing uphill nature they illuminate. There is a huge difference between viewing as illusory the idea that integration has very largely been achieved and viewing as illusory that integration is an attainable – or desirable – ideal.

In many sectors of the African American community today, and among progressives of all races and ethnic groups, the very ideal of integration is being seriously questioned, in part because integration is viewed as entailing submission to white norms and standards. Certainly this view is understandable. There is clearly arrogance and ethnocentrism aplenty in the attitudes of white America toward all of its minorities and toward African Americans in particular. An integration or assimilation predicated on the idea that white suburban culture is the apex of human achievement most certainly should be challenged. But there is a troubling return of what amounts to the idea of “separate-but-equal” in much contemporary progressive critique of the goals of integration or assimilation. In my view, while the effort at integration has indeed been less than a resounding success, abandonment of the very goal of integration would be a strategic disaster.

In demonstrating that our continuing failure to achieve genuine integration can be traced to circumstances already in place before either liberals’ or conservatives’ “usual suspects” for explaining that failure had emerged, Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown actually illuminate why the dream of an integrated society is still worth pursuing. What becomes very clear from their analysis is that the disappointment many now feel about the fruits of the integrationist effort corresponds to an unrealistic optimism at the outset of those efforts. As Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown state in a perceptive and noteworthy phrase, “the infrastructure of a separated America” was already in place when the civil rights movement hit its stride. The housing and transportation patterns established by suburbanization and the abandonment of our inner cities – phenomena which, as Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown point out, preceded passage of the landmark 60’s civil rights legislation – do present enormous structural obstacles to achieving true integration and equality (as they do to maintaining the quality of our environment). Appreciation of this brute fact makes it clear that the task the movement faced was in some ways even more monumental than was appreciated at the time. It thus suggests that the gains that have been achieved are even more impressive than they otherwise might appear.

To be sure, Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s observations also point to the long-standing racism that led to this pattern of housing, which was by no means motivated simply by a desire to live near trees. But no one in the movement disputes that racism lay at the core of our society’s divisions; that was what the movement was designed to overcome. The real question is whether the degree of racism has in any way moderated in the last thirty years. Here, while I can understand and respect the view that the changes have been superficial and even illusory, I draw different conclusions. It is true that the new norms, in which attitudes once readily expressed in public are now unacceptable, are honored much more in word than in deed (and in public words more than in private). But they are new norms. Changes in the basic rules of acceptable public discourse are not insignificant occurrences.

What I think Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown (along with many other writers and activists) may underestimate is the central importance of conflict in psychological life. As a psychologist, I am accustomed to seeing in people’s behavior the kinds of contradictions that Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown point to. When close attention is paid, it is clear that all of us, in almost all aspects of our lives, show such contradictions. And interestingly, psychologists, as much as social and political activists, often make the mistake of depicting one half of the conflict as the person’s “real” attitude and the other as a deceptive or self-deceiving facade. This works very poorly in psychotherapy, and it does not work much better in the social sphere. White America does very largely profess one set of ideals and apparently lives by quite another. That contradiction must indeed be highlighted and illuminated. But it is a terrible mistake to conclude from this correct observation that the commitment to racial equality expressed by many whites is simply false or illusory. Dismissing the majority who hold political and economic power as simply hypocrites or racists is a path that leads to certain failure and to the perpetuation of the very injustices we yearn to transcend. Rather, the task is to speak to those inclinations in the conflicted white majority – however submerged or limited to mere verbiage they may be at present – that reflect a genuine wish for a more just society.

The infrastructure of inequality to which Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown refer is still very much in place, and is part of a still larger set of structural obstacles to real integration. Their impact cannot be underestimated. But it is the very pervasiveness and power of that infrastructure that calls for persistence in pursuing the goal of integration. A separate Black economy is scarcely a realistic option. At the very least, integrating African Americans fully into the economic life of our society is an urgent necessity. Where there is greater controversy is in the realm of culture and personal association.

Many African Americans have abandoned the ideal of integration on this level largely for two somewhat related reasons. First, integration (to the extent it has been achieved) has often meant hurtful interactions. African Americans often feel slighted, overlooked, perceived through the filter of stereotypes. Many have concluded that they’d just as soon spend as little time as possible with whites when the work day is over. Second — and here objections to the goal of integration are based on assumptions it is particularly important to reexamine — integration is seen as a process in which African Americans must give up their own culture to assimilate into what is essentially “white” culture. But the view that American culture is “white” culture ironically concedes too much to racist assumptions regarding what America is about. Yes, power and wealth are disproportionately white; but the vibrant culture of American society has been very powerfully shaped by the contributions of African Americans and other groups either presently or formerly accorded marginal status. The culture into which African Americans would assimilate is a culture on which their own imprint is already strongly evident.

The Supreme Court got it right in 1954 when it concluded that, in the context of our nation’s terrible history with regard to race, separate can never really be equal. It would be a tragic error if the victims of that history were now to conclude that separate is the way to go.

Paul L. Wachtel is CUNY Distinguished Professor of Psychology at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His book is Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle between Blacks and Whites (Routledge, 1999).

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