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"Neither Praise Nor Burial,"

by S. M. Miller November/December 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

I write not to praise and certainly not to bury The Advisory Board's Report (for it is likely to be ignored or maliciously treated by the media). Rather, my quest is how to move to the next stages of the long-time fight to improve the conditions of "the others" in American society. The Report should be thought of as a beginning measure that requires people to lift it to the next step.

The difficulty faced by the Advisory Board and all of us is that two very different stories or narratives can be told about the last 40 years. One story line centers on the considerable success in overcoming prejudice and discrimination and in reducing differences in the well-being of "whites" and African Americans and Latinos. (I concentrate on the two largest groups of "minorities" or "others.") A lot of data support this narrative. Unfortunately, the too frequent lesson is not that further success is possible but that not much more has to be done or that too much in the form of affirmative action has been pursued.

The other story, which many organizations of the "minorities" recount, is that of failure or defeat. Things have not changed enough, and backsliding occurs. Great and sometimes widening differences between "whites" and "people of color" exist. As the Advisory Board stresses, a major task is reducing inequalities (usually expressed as comparisons of whites-minority percentages of selected indicators), not just improving the position of "minorities."

These two contrasting stories or interpretations of American experiences in the last few decades are barriers to the effective dialogues that the Board seeks. "Minorities" should acknowledge successes because they show that improvements are possible. In that context, they can point then to the obstacles that continue to harm them. Struggle and programs have wrested important changes. It has not been one long agony of unrelenting defeat. Such a sigh does not ring true. Nor does that outlook mobilize people; hope is needed, and success ignites hope. Those who only see success and great or disturbing change have to be brought to recognize the limits of what has been achieved and the further steps that have to be taken to make us truly "One America."

The Advisory Board's image of "One America" needs filling in a debate. It is not about the "melting pot" where "minorities" presumably shed their pasts and styles of life and where all Americans pretend to follow the "mainstream" or "white" way of life in a patriotic jubilee. The main thread of its analyses is about the reduction of inequalities, mainly economic, educational and police-judicial, between "minorities" and "whites." That is the key objective. Unfortunately, it is not enough to assure social connections and closer relations among people that the Board seeks. A condition of achieving that state is the development of group respect (see my article, "Respect,' in the Jan/Feb. 1996 P&R). Economic and educational gains do not automatically assure the emergence of respect for once-dominated groups.

The debate about integration vs. separatism and building "the ghetto" is muted for the time being, although important changes occur. Many inner-city areas are building on their assets to improve their conditions and prospects. How successful, how wide-
spread and how well they would weather economic downturns are highly uncertain. While occupational segregation declines, school segregation expands.

A politics of change is needed to achieve the goals of the Board and other important objectives. A disconnect appears between the Report's emphasis on dialogue and its legislative and appropriation objectives. Politicians act when they sense pressure to move. Political muscle is needed. Presidential orders and legislative appropriations are unlikely to happen without pressure demanding them. The unfortunate, disheartening truth that has to be recognized and improved is that "minorities" are not doing an effective job in building political strength. Almost all the "minorities" are not well organized as political actors. For example, African Americans and Latinos vote much less than whites despite their high stakes in elections. Their communities are seldom organized on a continuous political basis, which involves many residents. Leadership is often contentious, narrowly self-serving and little interested in widening and deepening their base. The various "minorities" do not work closely together. They do not act as though they have a common cause to meet objectives. Gaining allies outside their communities is often neglected.

While most political constituencies are not doing well - the significant exception is politically awakened religious fundamentalists - "minorities" are hardest hit by their lack of political clout. The failure of race and poverty politics demands soul-searching, reaching out and new grassroots and national designs, activities and organization.

The Report unfortunately ignores gender issues. "Minority" women have improved economically relative to "white" women, but both groups have not gained much if at all when compared to "white" men. Gender discrimination as well as "race" discrimination is important. Many of the difficulties and burdens of this unequal society are borne by women. On the
other hand, women are the spark plugs and mainstays of many neighborhood activities and organizations. Improving their situations is important.

The "inner city," "the ghettos" need special attention, for their populations suffer economically and socially. At the same time, stereotypes about minorities are reinforced by what people think occurs in these residential areas.

In progressive circles, a current argument is that is that class (economic) issues have been sidetracked by the focus on identity group issues affecting race and gender. The contention is that concentrating on economic questions would overcome divisiveness among "race-ethnic" groups and attract "whites" that are also hurting economically. Thus, a majority for positive change could develop. There is not room here to examine the effectiveness and morality of this perspective, but one strategic approach can be gained from this outlook - the importance of pushing on economic issues that benefit many, both "whites" and "minorities." Many of the Report's recommendations, e.g., raising the minimum wage, have this effect but their cross-"race" benefits are not stressed.

The Board regards its Report as a (re)-beginning in a period when we are not likely to be moving toward a Third Reconstruction Era. Whether it plays even that limited role depends less on elected officials taking the initiative than on ordinary people and their leaders pushing strategically and wisely for change.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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