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"Today's Integration Challenge,"

by Angela Oh January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Americans are confronted with the fact that we are a multi-racial, multi-cultural society that has yet to define a new vision, strategy or language that allows for the kind of transformation that integration once symbolized. A thorough and relevant assessment of our challenges in connection with race relations and integration today requires an analysis that moves beyond our temptation to resort to the traditional duality (black/white). We are in dire need of models that can allow Americans to continue to hold hope for the future and make use of what has happened in the realm of race relations in the past three decades. Conversations such as the one shared by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown do not allow us to make use of the intelligence we have gathered through organizing and advocacy efforts aimed at interracial justice. The experiences, insights and analyses of those who are neither black nor white have added far more texture to what has been described as the “dilemma [of integration] facing America’s democracy.” In this respect, the discussion in By the Color of Our Skin falls short.

Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown provide us with yet another well-documented, accessible and clear example of how the conversation between black and white can go on, ad infinitum – without getting any closer to breaking new ground. Theirs is a conversation that is familiar in that it celebrates the victories won when the politics of protest were effectively used to dismantle racial segregation and discrimination. It provides an analysis of how the lack of bold political leadership essentially missed an opportunity to transform American society, and ultimately it concedes the fact that most Americans are reluctant to sacrifice even a modest measure of personal choice for a greater good – in this case, integration. It is yet another good citation that can be used by those who wish to write about the black/white divide and the not-so-new revelation that blacks and whites see things differently in this society.

When it comes to the question of integration, however, we can no longer describe our dilemma as one that is black and white. Without diminishing the importance of the reports done by those who contributed to the work of the Kerner Commission and the McCone Commission in California, our current circumstances have developed well beyond what the analysts and policy experts in the 1960s ever imagined. Today’s greatest challenges lie in divides that are inter-generational and intra-racial (not just between youth/elders but also between native and foreign-born). And these divides are made more complicated by the lack of progress in taking care of historical wrongs and by the rapidity with which this society has realized advances in the realms of telecommunications, technology and media. Advancing the concept of integration in America and the goal of creating a truly color-blind society has just gotten tougher.

People of conscience, of all races, are looking for ways to create relationships that are productive and meaningful, not just integrated. Perhaps this is why integration has failed. Maybe it has less to do with resistance and the lack of trust among black people, white people and other people in America and much more to do with the fact that we do not understand what “greater good” will be fulfilled by integrating. (This is where the lack of vision is glaringly clear.) A common understanding about the benefits of integration is absent. It has been almost four decades, and what we have learned is that integration sets up new patterns of migration. We have seen that integration has created new conflicts in old places like neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. We have noted that those who integrate may ultimately assimilate – a concept that has in itself been debated so vigorously that the word, for many, is a pejorative. And if these are the lessons that have come from integration efforts to date, what makes us believe that integration in itself advances the interests of democracy?

We should open ourselves up to possibilities by examining the insights of those who offer a unique perspective on what a “color-blind” democracy in America may have to offer. This may mean looking for concepts, models, and values that do not reside in today’s black/white world. In his new book Interracial Justice, Eric Yamamoto offers substance and a methodology by which fundamental and persistent race-based problems of inequality and conflict can be addressed from four dimensions that he describes as recognition, responsibility, reconstruction and reparation. The concepts take into consideration both the historical and contemporary ways in which racial groups harm one another, take affirmative steps to redress justice grievances and restructure current relations. Examining integration, utilizing this approach and these concepts, could produce options that have yet to be considered.

The work of Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown can be appreciated as an important source of data and historical analysis concerning one aspect of this nation’s experiences with integration. By no means has America reached any conclusions about the issue of integration and how it may reshape our democracy. To the contrary, the hardest questions we have ever had to confront are now emerging, and it will take principled, courageous and creative individuals to introduce new concepts, dismantle old myths and set new examples in order for answers to be found.

Angela Oh is a former member of the Advisory Board to President Clinton’s Race Initiative. A former partner at the Los Angeles law firm Beck De Corso Daly Barrera & Oh, she was a Visiting Scholar and Lawyer-in-Residence at UCLA in 1999, and in 2000 will be a Distinguished Lecturer in the Dept. of Social Sciences at UC-Irvine.

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