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"A Wake-Up Call for Liberals,"

by Richard D. Kahlenberg November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown make a compelling case that integration remains an illusion, and for that reason, the book is a powerful antidote to the happy talk of conservatives who tend to emphasize only the progress that we have made. But the authors’ sobering evidence on the state of race relations might also be taken as a wake up call to liberals. The policies we progressives have been pursuing for a generation haven’t worked nearly as well as we’ve hoped and it’s time to try alternatives.

While there is an undeniable logic to relying on race-sensitive policies (affirmative action, school desegregation) to remedy racial wrongs, there is also an undeniable downside to the explicit use of race: further bal-kanization and the reinforcement of race as a salient category. By The Color of Our Skin poignantly raises the question: what new policies might better promote the integrated society that so many of us desire?

Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King is instructive. They correctly point out that King was unsatisfied with merely passing antidiscrimination laws and calling it a day. In Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote that he wanted a positive program to remedy “three hundred years” of discrimination. But the authors quickly glance over the significance of his actual proposal: a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” This is quite different than a Bill of Rights for People of Color. Indeed, King wrote, “While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill...It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”

Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown properly note that race-based programs, like affirmative action and school desegregation, didn’t create the white backlash, which predates those efforts. But these programs may well have kept the backlash going in a way that economic programs would not have. One of King’s key advisors, Bayard Rustin, noted back in 1971 that poor and working-class whites often hold the swing vote in American elections, and that “The question is not whether this group is conservative or liberal, for it is both, and how it acts will depend upon the way the issues are defined.”

Where racial efforts emphasize difference, class-based efforts — better schools, better health care, a leg up in college admission to poor and working-class students, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit — will all disproportionately benefit African Americans, helping to bring them into the economic mainstream, and at the same time will reinforce the notion that we are all in it together. Racial inequality is, of course, distinct as an issue from economic inequality, and anti-discrimination efforts will always be important in housing, education and employment. But if the goal is greater fairness and integration, the programs that arouse the most opposition today — preferences and school desegregation — will work best if they apply to disadvantaged people of all races. The sooner that the public disentangles race and class, the more likely we are to have a truly integrated society.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), and is Executive Director of The Century Foundation Task Force on the Common School, chaired by Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.

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