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"Is Integration Possible?,"

by Leonard Steinhorn March/April 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the Poverty & Race discussion of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race mirrors many of the themes, issues and shibboleths that dominate our national dialogue on race today. After reading the commentaries, what gives me hope is that some critics are probing thoughtfully and creatively about why integration has failed and what can be done to restore a culture of equality in America. What disappoints me, however, is how other critics, in the name of “new thinking,” fall back upon tired cliches, easy ideology and conventional wisdom as a substitute for a critical look at our society today. As for those who wrote polemics laced with the predictable language of the revolutionary class – using words like imperialist, racial dictatorship, political prisoners, psychological warfare – I merely wish them well as they take their struggle into the real-world salons of academia.

Of all the issues raised in Poverty & Race, the most provocative and thoughtful address the relationship between integration and desegregation, a core theme in the book. What my co-author and I say in the book is that America is desegregating – albeit slowly and haltingly – but we are not integrating. We then suggest that America’s failure to move toward integration during this time of progress bodes ill for the future of integration and indicates very deep cultural roadblocks to the Promised Land.

Though no one really takes issue with our analysis of the state of integration in America today, a few writers – among them Herbert Gans, William Taylor and Don DeMarco – suggest that the obstacles to future integration may be less cultural than I believe them to be. What they argue, trenchantly so, is that integration may be failing not because history has set us on a course of racial separation but because our national desegregation effort has not been as vigorous, widespread and deeply rooted as it needs to be. As Gans puts it, until blacks gain greater social, economic and political equality with whites, “white homeowners may continue to treat current middle-class blacks as surrogates for the poor ones that might move in right behind them. This is one reason why white flight continues.” Gans and the others argue that the best way to achieve integration is to ramp up desegregation efforts in America – to provide not merely increased opportunities but guarantees that institutional bigotry will not undermine these opportunities.

I have deep respect for this perspective and wish I could agree. Implicit in it is a very American element of can-do optimism, a view that race relations is fixable through policy and national will. But unfortunately I remain unconvinced. As we describe in the book, America’s unique racial dowry and cultural history have grown too big for political solutions and even structural changes. Just look at the ongoing racial chasm at most colleges and universities, places that aggressively enforce equality and equal opportunity. Or look at it on the very personal level, how even accomplished black families living in predominantly white neighborhoods must still hide their family photos and mementos if they want to sell their homes to whites. Like it or not, culture always seems to trump the most effective policy.

This is not to say, of course, that policy is unimportant – it is, indispensably so, and we cannot sustain desegregation and move toward equality without it. But we should simply have no illusions that better desegregation policy will lead to integration. My co-author and I write in our book that “desegregation is a necessary precondition for integration.” But we also write that “it is entirely possible to desegregate without integrating.” That is the most likely scenario in America’s future, regardless of how thoroughly we desegregate.

The most predictable and unoriginal critique of our book comes from those who argue that we need to move beyond the black-white paradigm toward a multicultural vision of the future. What makes this view even more humdrum is that its proponents are so deeply convinced they’re on to something new. These commentators hail multiculturalism as “breaking new ground” and claim that the black-white divide is old and no longer makes sense in a nation of new immigrants. They trot out the usual statistics that minorities are increasing in numbers and whites are decreasing – and suggest that these apparent new realities demand radical and creative new approaches.

But like a soap bubble, this argument has lots of glimmer but little behind it. Most important, it focuses solely on a snapshot of today and completely ignores American history, which is no surprise since history is often an irritant to those with an ideological or political agenda. Anyone conscientious enough to learn about our past will see how immigrants throughout American history have assimilated into the majority, usually over a generation or two. It may be news to some, but the majority of a century ago looks very different from the majority today – a majority that now includes the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of all those early Twentieth Century immigrants and minorities whom nativists once said were “swarthy” and unmeltable. Much like the Betty Crocker image, the American majority has adjusted and changed to accommodate our changing ethnic population.

There is no reason to think the same dynamic is not taking place today. Assimilation is not easy, and immigrants have always faced rejection and worse, but recent studies – for example, of Latino immigrant attitudes and lifestyles – show clear patterns of assimilation not very different from the process immigrants undertook a century ago. If history is any lesson – and it’s the best one we’ve got – today’s immigrants will face considerable hardship but ultimately will assimilate into the majority, and in the process they will change the majority, just as Jews and Italians and Poles did throughout the last century.

However, both history and current trends also show the exception to the rule: blacks will remain on the outside, noses pressed to the glass looking in. America has never let blacks integrate the way it lets immigrants assimilate. It is a process that repeats itself every time new immigrants arrive. First we talk about a broad multicultural umbrella of minorities that includes both immigrants and blacks; over a generation or two the immigrants begin to assimilate; a new majority is then created that excludes only blacks. Assuming white is a shorthand way of saying majority, the black-white paradigm remains our core national dilemma. It may be old, but it is central to our history and is as current as ever.

It is also worth noting some of the sloppy or ideological group-think in some of the critiques on the assimilation issue. One author quotes a description of assimilation as “the nonchoice between being either different and inferior or the same and invisible, between eternal alien and assimilated mascot.” It sounds trendy and nice, and it carries quite a sneer about an idea that many on the left demean and ridicule. But just as with any group-think, it has little to do with people’s lives. Does that quote apply to Irish? To Jews? To Italians? To Poles? To Russians? To Greeks? To Armenians? To Cubans? To any of the immigrant groups whose families have undergone the assimilation process? Do those who deride assimilation really believe that today’s immigrants, if given the choice, would not want to follow the footsteps of the immigrants who came before them?

No one should minimize or trivialize the immense hardships many Latinos and Asians experience today. But they are not unlike the hardships immigrants a century ago lived through. Assimilation is a process that does not happen overnight. We must look to history to put today’s conventional wisdom in its proper perspective.

The final Poverty & Race commentary worth noting is the romantic view that race is less important than class, that somehow class-based policies will take the rough edges off racial conflict and tension. The class approach sounds very enticing. It appeals to popular leftist images of solidarity and common ground, and on first blush offers a politically savvy way of promoting progressive social goals without generating racial resentment.

But once again experience and history are hard taskmasters with little tolerance for ideological or wishful thinking. Take the idea of class-based affirmative action. If affirmative action is based on class, then presumably it would be targeted at the lower end of the job market. But what would happen when mid-level and managerial jobs need to be filled? The old boy network would take over, which means white people would generally recommend their neighbors, friends, fellow parishioners, Rotary Club colleagues and other whites. Without race-based affirmative action, blacks once again would be left out – indeed left out of an important part of the economy, the decision-making part. With all due respect to the Marxists among us, America has done a remarkable job of erasing or at least blurring class distinctions among whites. But no matter how much black Americans achieve, the color line remains impermeable and strong.

As for those who promote a class-based approach for political reasons because they believe it would take race out of equation, our current experience with affirmative action should serve as a cautionary note. Affirmative action today covers both women and minorities, a large group which, like class, could create common ground. But while most white Americans support affirmative action for women – their spouses, daughters, sisters, neighbors, friends – their blood begins to boil when it applies to blacks. Again, culture triumphs over reason.

No single book or idea or journal of commentary will solve our nation’s racial stalemate, but it is heartening to read the many insightful observations in the two Poverty & Race issues devoted to By the Color of Our Skin. Some observations are quite elegantly stated, such as that idea that we must make a “common understanding about the benefits of integration” a national priority – or the notion that integration requires more than black effort, that white and middle-class Americans must be full partners – or the exhortation that we must seize on the opportunity provided by whites who may not want integrated lives but claim they do. Though the path to a more racially just society will have to be built brick by brick, and the final destination remains unclear, one thing is clear: we cannot give up trying to make this a better world.

Leonard Steinhorn

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