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"Take Another Year,"

by William L. Taylor January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

1. Conversation is needed but it doesn't pay the rent

Some years ago Bayard Rustin, the brilliant strategist of the civil rights movement, stated his reservations about the social-psychological approach to race relations. Rustin said he could envision Americans being persuaded figuratively to lie down on the psychiatrist's couch to examine their feelings about race. They would likely arise, he said, pronouncing themselves either free or purged of any bias. And nothing would have changed.

Much history supports Rustin's view. The progress of the last four decades in civil rights did not come about initially through a revolution in public attitudes but through changes in law and public policy beginning with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. President Eisenhower, a critic of that decision, repeated William Graham Sumner's shibboleth that "law could not change the hearts and minds of men." But ultimately, through a torturous process, the national conscience was aroused and we achieved the will to enforce the principles of Brown.

The laws changed behavior, which in turn changed attitudes. I will not forget the days in the Summer of 1964 when I led a group of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights lawyers in an investigation of rights denials in Mississippi. When the Civil Rights Act was passed prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, we became the first interracial group staying at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Jackson, Mississippi. Each day, as we ate m the restaurant, we could feel the hard stares of local diners. But on the last day of our stay, as I waited on line to pay the bill, I heard an elderly man say to his wife, "I guess this is something we will have to learn to live with." His words were prophetic. The trappings of the seemingly entrenched caste system in the South — the segregated buses, hotels, restaurants — are gone, changed by law, and hardly anyone today gives it a second thought.

In sum, the racial discrimination that persists today, the deprivation that stunts the lives of people who live in concentrated poverty in inner cities, are objective conditions. They will not be cured by conversation, but only by concrete measures that offer opportunity. At the same time, dialogue and debate are clearly needed to establish the political conditions that will lead to policy changes. But it must be focused dialogue, tied to policy, not group therapy or conversation designed mainly to make us feel good about ourselves.

2. If we are going to have a conversation, let us talk about the hard issues.

History tells us that having an honest dialogue about race will be very difficult. From the beginning of the Republic, race has been the issue that has clouded the minds of Americans. From the declarations of black inferiority that sustained slavery to the massive fiction of Plessy v. Ferguson that separate really was equal and that if black people thought otherwise they were being overly sensitive, to contemporary claims that segregation is defensible because that's the way most black people prefer to live, opinion leaders have been extraordinarily adept at constructing rationales for the worst injustices.

Today, racial inferiority talk is largely out of fashion (although not completely, since we still have Dinesh D' Souzas and Lino Graglias spouting bigotry). But now the focus has shifted to bashing poor people. Canards that once were addressed to people of color — that they were shiftless, uncaring about their children, amoral, etc. — are now freely said about the urban poor, and those who are on the receiving end are not being paranoiac~ when they believe that there is a continuing racial element to the charges.

These are stereotypes that must be addressed directly and thrashed out to help establish a political basis for extending genuine opportunity to the poor. Elijah Anderson, William Julius Wilson, Alex Kotlowitz, Elliot Liebow and others have written clearly about the conditions of life in inner cities. Fred Wiseman has just released his documentary about life in Chicago's Ida Wells public housing project. Anyone who gives serious attention to this portrait (offered without any commentary) will understand what a struggle it is to get through a day and accomplish even the minimal things most of us who are middle class take for granted. People will gain a better understanding of the conclusion that contemporary researchers have drawn — that being poor is bad enough, but that living in concentrated poverty creates barriers and conditions of hopelessness that few can overcome.

Perhaps the most important thing the Race Initiative can do is to find ways to give the American people an understanding of the plight of their fellow men and women. Among the questions that must be asked is why, though poverty affects all races and nationalities, it is only black people and Latinos who live in conditions of concentrated poverty. Surely the answer cannot be choice. Recently, I heard a suburban state legislator in Missouri object to a measure designed to give additional education aid to children who live and attend school in concentrated poverty. He asked how he could justify to his constituents giving more money to the education of the poor than to their children. I suggested he ask his constituents whether, if they were offered an extra thousand dollars for each of their children, they would be willing to enroll them in the central city public schools in St. Louis. And of course, state finance systems based on property taxes in fact continue to reward wealthy districts with far more education dollars than are available to the poor.

3. The conversation should not let anyone off the hook and should lead to concrete policy proposals.

Certainly all views should be heard, but people ought to be asked to support their positions with more than glib generalizations. There may be a special burden on those who would discard policies such as affirmative action that have produced real progress in favor of loosely reasoned alternatives that have not been thought through. For example, Abigail Thernstrom and her fellow foes of affirmative action assure us that the place for education initiatives is in elementary schools and the family and that this would obviate the need for affirmative action in higher education. She fails to acknowledge that affirmative action policies that universities pursued in the 70s led to educational success for students of color, who then found decent jobs and formed stable families. That success has now created the conditions for the success of their children, who were able to cut the gap between their performance and that of white teenagers in high school in half from the 1970s through 80s.

Certainly, there are other components of a successful effort to improve public education. But if the need is to improve teaching, how are we to attract the most talented people into the profession now that the once captive pool of talent — women and people of color — have many other opportunities? If we do attract them, how do we assure that the poverty schools that need good teaching most will receive and retain their share of the most able people? For those who believe that more choice will improve public education, the question is how we assure that minorities and the poor will actually benefit from choice programs and avert the possibility that charters or vouchers will lead to more racial and socio-economic isolation than exists right now? And do Ms. Thernstrom and her colleagues favor or oppose the continued racial and socio-economic isolation of poor children in schools in the face of evidence that such isolation is a formidable barrier to the success of the poor?

There are comparable questions to be asked in all areas and of people of liberal as well as conservative views. But people who want to be taken seriously ought to offer reasoned views. Ms. Thernstrom, presumably a supporter of higher order thinking, should be able to hold two thoughts in her head simultaneously: first, that the nation has made great progress in civil rights, and second, that hard work and sacrifice are needed to extend opportunity to the many who have not benefitted from the civil rights revolution.

The odds may be against the whole endeavor. Reasoned dialogue about any important public issue (much less the volatile issue of race) is hard to find these days. It may be that the days of Myrdal's American Dilemma and the Kerner Commission Report and the debates they prompted are over. If so, we will have to devise forums where opinions are not thought to be equivalent to facts and where the competition is not for the best sound bite.

Mr. Clinton has demonstrated a genuine concern about equal opportunity and race relations. But if his effort is to pay any dividends, he should acknowledge that it will take more than a year. He should put all those good minds in the White House to work on finding ways to elevate the debate; and he should pledge now that the end result will be a comprehensive proposal to extend opportunity to those who, because of continuing barriers of discrimination and deprivation, are worst off in our society.

William L. Taylor a PRRAC Board member, is a Washington, DC lawyer who advocates for poor and minority children. He teaches education law at Georgetown Law School.

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