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"Viable Integration Must Reject the Ideology of "Assimilationism","

by John O. Calmore November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

While I think integration is possible, I nevertheless agree with Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown that “what it takes even to break the integration ice in our country is largely unpalatable to most of our citizens.” They make an important point in observing that “our professed attitudes, symbols, and public expressions masquerade as integrated when our lives clearly are not.” Even the masquerade, however, is fading, as whites become more comfortable with the segregated status quo.

Thirty years ago the Kerner Report characterized aspirations of African Americans as two-fold: “to share in both the material resources of our system and enjoy its intangible benefits—dignity, respect and acceptance.” What I am calling “viable integration” would at least entail reaching both of these aspirations. Viable integration must provide both the material and the intangible benefits. Beyond population mix and sharing space, integration — to be viable — must fundamentally address issues of equity, where each group is significantly represented, genuinely respected, broadly distributed, and sharing power and equality. Without incorporating these features, as Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown conclude, integration will remain an illusion, and our continued quest for this ideal will continue to cause us to “avoid a real reckoning” with race/ism.

A fundamental impediment to viable integration is the inability to define its operational features outside of the bounded ideology of “assim–ilationism.” According to Christopher Newfield and Avery Gordon, assimilationism is not the benign road map used by immigrants to obtain the benefits of the economic, social and political mainstream. Rather, assimilationism refers to “a specific ideology that sets the fundamental conditions for full economic and social citizenship in the United States.” Any insurgent or critical multiculturalism must challenge this. The ideological dictates of assimilationism are at war with what I am calling viable integration. First, it demands that we adhere to core principles and behaviors, marginalizing those who do not. Second, it opposes race consciousness. Finally, it repudiates the distinctively cultural equity of diverse groups.

A viable integration will require people of color — all of our groups —to reject an identity that Elaine Kim characterizes as “the nonchoice between being either different and inferior or the same and invisible, between eternal alien and assimilated mascot.” Thus, proponents of viable integration will have to struggle to renegotiate core principles that narrowly define America’s common ground, shared values and rules of the game. The dominant principles establish a conventional wisdom that is biased toward masking and reinforcing white supremacy and privilege. Color-blindness works hand-in-glove with these principles.

The challenge to whited-in core principles and colorblind integration raises significant questions for all of us. What does a constructive concept of race consciousness mean? What does it mean not only for African Americans, but also for Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and whites? How will people of color fight the new forms of racism that operate within partially integrated settings? What will motivate good-intentioned whites to move away from their presumed innocence and aversive racism? Can whites refocus their attention beyond the negative consequences of racism experienced by people of color, and consider the advantages that accrue to whites from living within a system of racial inequalities?

Because people of color are almost forced to integrate, at least strategically, whites must become more involved in the integration project. Aside from hostile backlash, if good-intentioned whites remain so little concerned and inactive, the integration project cannot advance. White involvement must mean more than merely acknowledging white privilege, although this acknowledgment may be a first step toward reawakened accountability. Real integration is a two-way street. Whites must somehow come to see themselves not merely as the gracious hosts of integration, but, rather, as the hard-working, risk-taking joint agents of integration. They must push for it more, assume some of the risks and carry a heavier load. They, too, will have to go through some changes.

Whites must stop demanding, or quietly supporting the demand, that people of color adapt to so-called universal expectations of what is proper behavior and presentment, when these race-neutral expectations really turn out to be white. Beyond the level of embracing token mascots, whites must admit that they are unwilling to incorporate people of color as people of color into their work places, seats of government, media, schools, neighborhoods and social relations. This admission must lead whites to feel uncomfortable enough with their complicity in a segregated status quo that they seek not only a new way of relating to people of color, but also a different culture, a different set of institutional arrangements, and a different societal organization. A lot needs changing, because the segregated status quo has been so bad for so long.

We must come to realize that the presence of blacks and whites, properly mixed, may still fall short of constituting viable integration if Asians, Latinos and Native Americans are missing. Similarly, people of color must look around not only for more of their particular groups, but also for the broader mix of all. Most importantly, colored people, we must not be used against each other. Honorary whiteness is not worth it — not in the long haul.

If we all will not do these things, then we should simply admit that we do not support an integration that operates free of fear, division, individual self-interest and the dictates of assimilationism. At least, then, we would stop waiting for (integration as) Godot.

John O. Calmore is Reef C. Ivey II Research Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill.

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