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"Half Full? Half Empty?,"

by James W. Loewen January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

We all stare at the half-full glass of integration and racial justice. We all wish it were full. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown and some others emphasize the empty top half, singling out neighborhoods and schools that have resegregated and stressing that white ethnic groups — “the Italian, Jews, Poles, and Russians” — have all assimilated, “except for blacks.” This strategy offers ideological payoffs: social scientists can feel more honorable than those who admit to some satisfaction with the gains that have been achieved, can identify with militants who deny that any basic change has taken place, and can assure themselves that their expertise will be required until some distant future to help things get better or explain why they won’t.

Three key problems still maintain America’s racial hierarchy, almost without change. First, all-white or nearly all-white towns like Darien, Connecticut, still sit atop the social status hierarchy and pose as a goal for the rest of white America.

Second, schooling for the elite, whether at private schools or affluent suburban high schools like Darien, is far better than schooling for the poor, especially poor people of color. Race plays an important role in addition to class, because differential expectations are laid on the groups that John Ogbu calls “caste minorities” — African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans. These expectations afflict the performance of these groups within desegregated schools, as well as across schools and school districts, and to some degree have been internalized by the oppressed groups themselves.

Third, our social curriculum, by which I mean how we understand our country and our history — not just in school but also as written in bronze and stone on our landscape and as celebrated or discussed in our public rhetoric — still largely derives from the “nadir of race relations.” During that vicious era, from 1890 to about 1920, lynchings reigned, and not just in the South; white clubs expelled Jews; Northern universities sequestered their black students; Major League baseball banished black players; the Kentucky Derby eliminated black jockeys; and Woodrow Wilson segregated the entire federal workforce. As my new book Lies Across America shows, the legacy of this period is still visible even at John Brown’s gravesite. Tentacles from this era still clutch at the minds of every child growing up in America, pulling ideas and beliefs toward white supremacy.

We must deal with each of these problems, which have proven intractable down to now.

At the same time, in at least three key areas, segregation and even racism are clearly on the run. One is the racial makeup of higher education and of workplace institutions. From the armed forces to, yes, Denny’s, African Americans and other caste minorities are now hired to positions denied them before about 1960.

Second, and here we return to the glass metaphor, many neighborhoods and schools across America are desegregated. By 1990, according to research by Reynolds Farley and William Frey, many U.S. cities showed black/white residential segregation indexes from 32 to 50, not much higher than Italian/non-Italian residential segregation indexes (on a scale where 0 = totally equal dispersal and 100 = total apartheid). Nor were all these cities “new” ones like Anchorage and Honolulu and San Jose — also included were Jacksonville and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Other towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Bangor, Maine, hovered around 50. Yes, Chicago and Philadelphia and some Florida cities remain in the 80’s, but even these show small declines in segregation levels.

Attitudes have changed to accompany this behavioral change. In the early 1960s, 60% of whites agreed with the sentence, “White people have a right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods if they want to, and blacks should respect that right.” By 1990, only 20% agreed. Of course, part of this change is hypocritical: elite whites especially know that giving the desegregated reply conveys status, just as living in a segregated neighborhood conveys status. However, there is a self-fulfilling aspect here: if most whites feel or at least say they feel that whites do not have the right to keep blacks out, it becomes difficult to mobilize the quick white response required to do it.

Herbert Gans (in his response in the November/December P&R) pointed out the third success: the rising level of intermarriage. Not only do interracial couples show that segregation has waned, they also prompt further waning. Their very existence challenges the system of white supremacy, just as their children challenge the system of racial classification in the Census.

A critical current battle ties one of the problems, unequal schooling, with one of the successes, college admissions. As affirmative action gets attacked, judicially and by voters, showing again that the glass is half empty, some whites are nominating “standardized” tests like the SAT as an allegedly racially neutral alternative. These tests are not racially neutral, partly owing to unequal schooling; and if they determine college admissions, they will largely destroy the progress made in this area.

It is critical, therefore, that we all keep our eyes on those areas in American life where the glass is largely empty or where reactionary forces threaten to empty it, rather than waste our time analyzing whether overall it is half full or half empty.

James W. Loewen is author of Lies My Teacher Told Me; The New Press released Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.

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