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"What is the Question: Integration or Defeat of Racism?,"

by James Early January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Research, principled discussion and debate about how to address the racial reality of the nation should always be welcomed, as they help focus public attention and politics on what Peter Drucker identifies as “the basic American problem, race relations between white and black.” A fundamental contemporary issue which he locates historically and qualifies in importance is his projection that “ ...the legacy of the sin of slavery has been the central American challenge for a hundred and fifty years and is likely to remain the central American challenge for at least another fifty or hundred years.”

The Steinhorn/Diggs-Brown excerpt connects to this important topic by reexamining one of the enduring philosophical and strategic attempts to define the nature of the problem, identify specific goals to be pursued and tactics to be employed. Integration, although a debated philosophy and strategy, inspired literally millions of people across racial and class backgrounds from the 50s through the 60s to actively enter in the watershed struggle to defeat American Apartheid. And so the integration philosophy and strategy played a critically important political role in confronting and defeating the reigning social, economic and cultural forms of racial power that permeated every private and public aspect of national life. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown acknowledge the social and transformative power embodied in the integration philosophy of that era as it galvanized a broad and diverse body of citizens to shatter social, legal, religious and economic conventions.

However, their analysis and evaluation of integration and racial realities constitutes a rather “thin-skinned” treatment of the systemic nature of racism, and of the protracted struggle and varied strategies required to defeat it. Despite useful critical reflections about the miscalculations in the positive hopes and expectations many placed on integration, the authors’ own faulty understanding of America’s racial dilemma and how to address it is further compounded with their personal defeatist conclusion that integration can never be achieved. Their personal lament that integration will not be achieved in their lifetime is a diversion from their more important conclusion that continued devotion to the integration/assimilation strategy avoids a real reckoning on race.

The authors do appropriately challenge us to forthrightly consider that emphasis on stated idealistic hopes for “tolerance,” “racial harmony,” “color-blindness” and the contradictory life-ways of whites provides little depth of understanding of the substantive realities of today’s “America’s racial dilemma.” Shared values and ideals about integration among Blacks, whites and other ethnic groups alike, important as they are to what racial progress has been achieved, nevertheless do not in and of themselves translate into concrete plans and actions required to resolve the ongoing nature and present forms of the social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of race and racism in the United States (e.g., presumed innate racial and cultural superiority, educational inequities, job discrimination in private industry and government, redlining, police brutality and unjust incarceration, discrimination in access to capital, health care and insurance, etc).

The authors also make an important contribution by noting the stubborn nature of African-American exclusion in relation to recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants who are assimilating in ways that Blacks have never been able to integrate. Little surprise to some of us who understand that the essentials of racism are historically evolved from white oppression and exploitation of Blacks. Thus, Black struggle became a crucible of American democracy on many fronts (and continues today) — an under-recognized factor in how other people of color are treated and what access they achieve. This history and ongoing particularity of white/Black relations sets the bases for the still dominant white/Black national social psychology, and underscores the centrality of African-American struggles to the future of American democracy.

That we are trapped in an illusion of integration (a debatable conclusion certainly among the most discriminated) is less the issue than the fact that systemic racism, despite much racial progress, is alive, virulent and destructive in American social life, corporations, local and Federal governments, sports, the media and even in liberal and left circles and institutions.

What then are we to do? Debate the ideals of an integrated society? Or work out the social and philosophical constructs as we confront and defeat racism in practice, building the social organization of the new society as we go. As an African-American, I am more concerned with fairness, justice and equality than the efficacy of one or another personal philosophy or defeatist conclusion. We will never be a color-blind nation. We can, however, through honest confrontation with racism, lower the negative valence attached to social constructions of race and physical characteristics. In doing so we will take a major step to becoming a new nation of diverse cultures who along the way construct new dominant values about the social individual and the social role of the state in public life.

There is no predetermined route or panacea to an integrated society. Nor is the path (or goal) merely integration of the excluded into the existing paradigm – a point the authors seem unable to consider.

James Early is Director Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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