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Grand Illusion

Reaching Beyond Race

by Paul M. Sniderman, by Edward G. Carmines
Harvard University Press, 191 pp., $22.95

1.

Alan Wolfe’s One Nation, After All summarizes a study he calls “The Middle Class Morality Project.” This phrase is engaging and raises hopes it will provide a commentary akin to Tocqueville’s, on how middle-class Americans are conducting their lives. And it does, even if inadvertently.1 The book records the responses of 200 suburban householders to varied questions posed by a research assistant, whom Wolfe sent to suburbs outside Boston, Atlanta, Tulsa, and San Diego. In what may be a sign of our times, only a quarter of those she approached agreed to be interviewed. The ones who did were asked to react to statements much like the following:

Middle-class people who live in the suburbs can do an awful lot more to help people in the inner city who live in poverty.

Of the 192 who voiced opinions on this question, three quarters said they agreed that suburban Americans, presumably including themselves, could be doing much more for the inner-city poor than is now being done. As Wolfe sees it, these avowals are evidence of a laudable “middle-class morality.” Thus his survey showed that “in every part of the country, middle-class Americans wanted it on record that they recognize that sometimes people need help and that they are prepared to pay for the help they need.” Hence too, his conclusion that “the history of America is a history of generosity and caring.”

Curiously, the 200 people were only asked whether they thought that more “can” be done, in the sense of being possible or feasible, and not if they personally wanted such steps to be taken. Neither were they asked how much more in taxes they would be willing to pay for such programs. Nor was it ascertained whether the “help” they had in mind might be akin to the recent measures taken to slash welfare rolls and require single mothers to take full-time jobs.

Needless to say, simply saying “inner city” rouses feelings about race. Wolfe begins with the premise that almost all “white Americans have accepted ideals of justice and integration.” Well, what did his survey show? Regardless of the obligations his suburbanites claim to feel toward the inner-city poor, they also make it clear that they want them to remain at a distance. Further along in the survey, the two hundred were asked if they agreed with this statement:

My suburb ought to work much harder at becoming more racially integrated than it is at present.

Here, of 170 who had an opinion, almost three quarters disagreed, conveying that they felt neither a desire nor a duty to have any more black neighbors than they currently do. While Wolfe does not provide figures, the Census Bureau has racial information for two of the suburbs in his study, Boston’s Brookline and Tulsa’s Sand Springs, where black families make up, respectively, a not exactly threatening 3.1 percent and 0.7 percent of the population. And since the question did not specify the economic status of the newcomers, it seems reasonable to conclude that even upper-income blacks would not be welcome.

Virtually all the studies we have show that poor children do better when they are in classes with middle-class students.2 Were this proposition to be acted on, at least some considerable number of inner-city students would be dispersed among suburban schools. We can question whether children will be eager to take long bus rides to suburbs from which they would return every afternoon, and in which they would have little chance to be part of the local community. Some, no doubt, would be keen to have the chance of better schooling; others would not. But, as needs no recounting, the courts have refused to order busing across city-suburb lines and so the question is moot. Indeed, Wolfe’s parents might be comforted by a 1995 Supreme Court opinion, in which Justice Clarence Thomas argued that it demeans black children to say they must have whites as models if they are to excel. “There is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment,” he wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins, in which Kansas City was told that it could abandon its efforts to desegregate its schools.3

Demeaning or not, we do know that many black parents try to enroll their children in public or private schools that are predominantly white. Thomas himself chose to spend his undergraduate years at Holy Cross and then went to Yale Law School. In the best of worlds, schools with only black students would attain the same academic standing as ones that are wholly white. However, as matters currently stand, no all-black schools I know of have achieved this parity, even in the best-off black suburbs. The main reason, in my view, is that there are not enough concentrations of well-to-do black families to create counterparts of the Scarsdale, Grosse Point, or Beverly Hills school systems. If children were brought up in communities made up of highly successful families, they would be more likely to go to first-rate schools and get the kind of attention and stimulus that makes for better performance in them.

The current racial disparity can be seen by holding income constant when we look at the records of students taking the Scholastic Assessment Test, far from a perfect measure of intellect but still a measure of readiness for college. If we confine the analysis to students from families in the $60,000-to-$70,000 range, still a respectable middle-class income, the black students in this stratum average 801 against 959 registered by whites. This lag persists despite income parity, largely because even better-off black youngsters continue to spend much of their lives at a distance from the dominant culture. Their experience of segregation makes it less likely that they will develop the cast of mind needed to master the SAT and similar tests.4

2.

The Supreme Court’s Brown decision, handed down in 1954, held out the hope that not only would black children soon share classrooms with whites their own age, but that this mingling would lead to close associations in later life. Nine years later many citizens responded with sympathy to Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated America, where color would become irrelevant to residence and relationships. Or so it seemed.

Tamar Jacoby believes the dream could have been achieved had the wrong people not taken charge. Someone Else’s House recounts reactions in New York, Detroit, and Atlanta to the promise of the civil rights era. Her 614 closely printed pages are based largely on newspaper accounts and her own interviews with once-prominent black leaders like Sonny Carson, George Crockett, and Lincoln Watson, who were active in the three cities. The problem, she feels, is that neither these leaders nor their followers truly wanted integration. In New York, she says, “the tyranny of community control” imposed a racial cast on its public schools. Detroit’s first black mayor all but urged whites to quit the city, and “few blacks seemed sorry to see them go.” Atlanta’s white elite agreed to share public funds and do business with willing blacks, on condition that the races remain apart, so “whites live on one side of the city, blacks on the other, their tree-lined neighborhoods often indistinguishable but still color-coded.”

No less culpable, in Jacoby’s view, were overly self-confident white officials, notably New York’s John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation. Dedicated to “wholesale social engineering,” they sought “forced integration between people who are not social or economic equals.” Hence her title, Someone Else’s House. Lindsay and Bundy’s own neighborhoods were unlikely to be sites for integrated housing. And, more generally, Jacoby criticizes “the condescension of well-meaning whites who think that they are advancing race relations by encouraging alienation and identity politics.” The white officials who promoted the original plans for community control of schools in Brooklyn failed to foresee both the degree to which white teachers would feel threatened by the new system and also that some local leaders would be more devoted to building up their own power bases than to improving education.

Jacoby’s central conclusion is that “black bigotry,” fomented by “racemongering demagogues,” doomed any chance of integration. It was blacks who demanded “separatism” and insisted on “color coding.” Yet the fact was that in New York demands for community control began with a real desire on the part of parents to improve their children’s education. The problem was that local black figures used the schools to build political bases—the Reverend Al Sharpton got his start there—just as white politicians have been known to do. However, as Jacoby shows, stridency was not an apt vehicle for improving classroom performance: inner-city education has hardly improved since the days she describes. But apart from counseling greater patience, she offers no alternatives for parts of cities that have been neglected or ignored—unless it is that urban blacks should do more to please whites who have the power. Indeed, for the most part, she denies that white resistance was the obstacle to integration. Relying on poll results, Jacoby assures us that

Whites of all ages look back on the civil rights movement as one of the high points of American history, and more whites than blacks—in the 95 to 100 percent range—defend the idea of integration.

If over 95 percent of white Americans profess to want an integrated nation, why would blacks resist? In fact, Jacoby provides a reason, although she doesn’t seem to realize that she is doing so. It concerns how whites visualized integration. Even today, many will say that they wouldn’t object to having a few well-prepared black youngsters in their children’s classes and an unresentful neighbor on the next block. But a premise of such toleration, in Jacoby’s view, was that “integration will not work without acculturation.” If they wish to be accepted, blacks would do well to adopt an outlook and demeanor that makes whites feel at ease with them. So construed, the legal changes brought about by the civil rights movement placed the onus on blacks to show they bring an appropriate attitude to integration.

Many white Americans have their own idealized roster of blacks who do have suitable attributes, and it is not uncommon to hear hints that the bearing of such prominent people could well be emulated by the rest of their race. Examples run from Sidney Poitier to Colin Powell, celebrities who suppress such anger as they may have and ration their remarks on racial matters. Jacoby is troubled because black Americans have not come up with more “constructive, gradualist leaders.” She likes Powell because “he was ready to lay down the burden of race.”

It hardly needs saying that many blacks find this kind of position patronizing. If Colin Powell says, from time to time, that he finds affirmative action necessary for black advancement, why shouldn’t black leaders, more directly involved in contending with prejudice than Powell, say the same thing more often and with more intensity? But there has been another suspicion at work among blacks, a feeling that whites never really wanted them nearby in anything more than token numbers. The first tests came in the suburbs, where the blacks who could afford to buy houses were middle-class and had the same aspirations for their children as the whites already there. Indeed, some of these families managed to move in. But soon after they did, their white neighbors began moving out. By 1990, the once-white Prince Georges County outside Washington, D.C., had become predominantly black. From 1950, New Jersey’s East Orange went from being 12 percent black to over 90 percent. In such communities, which have suburban counterparts around the three cities Jacoby studied, it is not as if the newcomers were from a lower social stratum. Race was reason enough for whites to leave, almost as if proximity to blacks even of their own class might somehow contaminate them.

  1. 1

    Alan Wolfe and Tamar Jacoby reviewed my Two Nations when it appeared six years ago. Both reviews seemed to me fair and thoughtful, despite their disagreement with my major premises. In Reaching Beyond Race, Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines also cite my book as an analysis they are most concerned to rebut.

  2. 2

    For a review of findings, see Gerald Jaynes and Robin Williams, editors, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society (National Academy Press, 1989), pp. 80-83.

  3. 3

    515 U.S. 70 (1995), pp. 121-122.

  4. 4

    In fact, the average SAT score for Asians at this income level is 1,011, surpassing the average score of whites. The chief reason, I believe, is that college-aspiring Asians have been assiduous in learning America’s academic ways. Upper-income white students could and should be doing better, but the test results suggest that fewer of them are taking their studies seriously.

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