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
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.
So it seems a bit naive for Jacoby to say that black families choose to live in “self-segregated suburbs.” No doubt some like having familiar faces around, just as some Jews select suburbs where they will not be the exception. But the fact remains that black Americans have seldom had the choice—as Jews and Asians do—to live in integrated suburbs. Or, more accurately, that option lasts only until whites deem that too many blacks have arrived and start moving away. The “separatism” on the part of blacks that Jacoby so deplores is in a great many instances an understandable reaction by blacks to being rebuffed: since we aren’t wanted, we’ll make do by ourselves. This said, it should still be emphasized that all but a very small proportion of black youngsters and adults still seek employment within the mainstream economy and hope to succeed there.
None of the books under review speculates on what a racially integrated America might look like. One reason may be that the only available models for absorbing outsiders have been based on the experience of immigrants, who until recently have been overwhelmingly white. While most of these newcomers were scorned on their arrival, after a probationary period almost all were allowed to move widely within the larger society. Samuel Heilman begins his Portrait of American Jews in 1950, by which time a generation of Jews had learned and accepted the manners and attitudes of the gentile middle class.5
His book is also about integration, and in many ways shows what would have to happen if black Americans are to be absorbed into the larger society. The best measure of acceptance, he suggests, “has been the extent to which Jews have located themselves in Jewishly-sparse suburbs and communities.” This has happened most commonly in newly growing cities like Seattle and San Diego, which have not had traditions of ethnic neighborhoods. Thus younger and mobile Jews have found few if any problems when looking for a house in generic white districts. Once there, “ties to non-Jews would necessarily become a larger component of Jews’ lives.” Indeed, a study cited by Heilman showed that “no more than a quarter of their children’s closest friends were Jewish.” And in an even stronger index, among Jews now getting married in Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas, over 60 percent are selecting non-Jewish spouses.
Despite social separation, interracial marriages are actually increasing. Currently, among black men and women who are married, one in twenty-four has a white spouse. It should be noted that in most of these unions it is the husband who is black, and in many cases he had a first wife who was black. Any children of these interracial marriages will, by social usage, be regarded as black. America is one of the few nations that does not employ a mixed-race or intermediate category, such as South Africa’s “coloureds” or Latin America’s “mulattos.” Thus Lani Guinier, Walter Mosely, and August Wilson, all of whom had one white parent, describe themselves as black. Nor have they a choice, since white Americans are made uneasy by the idea of an intermediate designation. By contrast, children of Jewish-Christian couples are allowed an indeterminate status, and like their parents are considered part of the generic white population.
Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom have been stressing that one third of all black families now live in suburbs, which is twice the proportion of a quarter of a century ago. This is true, but not the cause for congratulation they claim. For one thing, one might ask why the figure isn’t higher, since the number of black families earning over $75,000 (in constant dollars) has grown threefold during this period—one of the more telling signs of black progress. The Thernstroms then add that “these suburbs are generally racially mixed.”6 This is simply not so. Indeed, Alan Wolfe, after visiting suburbs in the four states he studied, came closer to the truth. “In most cases,” he says, “the rise of a black middle class produces black middle-class suburbs distinct from white ones.”
Just to take one of Wolfe’s suburbs, the Census Bureau reports that DeKalb County outside Atlanta is 54 percent white and 42 percent black, which might seem to verify the Thernstroms’ statement. Yet closer examination of DeKalb and other suburban counties shows them to be as racially divided as most cities. Thus, within DeKalb County, the towns of Gresham Park and Pantherville are both 95 percent black; while elsewhere in the county, Tucker and Dunwoody are, respectively, 90 and 94 percent white.
Michigan shows an even deeper racial division. Since it is a state with major industrial firms and a large black population, it should by now, according to the Thernstroms’ theory, have a black middle class whose members are accepted by their white peers. The major Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, and Dearborn have a total of 146,871 households, presumably enough to accommodate considerable racial diversity. Yet according to the latest Census, the three towns together could count only 535 black families, not even four tenths of one percent. The overall black population for Grosse Pointe amounts to precisely twelve families, and local sources tell me that most of them are live-in domestic couples. While the Detroit auto companies may be hiring black managers, they are unlikely to mingle with their fellow executives after work. Indeed, most of Michigan’s black families who earn over $100,000 still live within the state’s cities, whereas nine in ten of the white households at that level live in the suburbs.
The Thernstroms also fail to observe that by no means all suburbs are prosperous. Indeed, a depressing number of those that are mainly black are just a few steps from slums. In this regard, New York’s Westchester County mirrors the nation’s racial picture. As Table A shows, over a third of its black families have incomes below $25,000, hardly enough today to rank as middle-class status. And almost two thirds of the black families make less than $50,000, now surely a minimum for suburban middle-class life. In all, the median Westchester black family earned only $562 per $1,000 made by its white counterpart, barely half, and even less than the $614 earned by its black counterpart within New York City.
From time to time, I am asked to speak at colleges where the classes and audiences are largely white. A lesson I have learned from these encounters is to avoid using the words “racist” or “racism” when talking about white attitudes or behavior. I happen to believe that racism is real and remains very much alive in our society. However, I have found that when the word is used, whites immediately tune out. It may apply to others, they say, but it does not describe me. They cite their liberal opinions and speak of having black friends. Indeed, one would have to look hard to find any Americans willing to accept the racist label. Jesse Helms has black aides on his staff and we would not be surprised to hear he counted Clarence Thomas as a close friend. If there are so few racists, how can we account for the persistence of racial subordination, or simply the feelings of most black Americans that whites continue to judge them unjustly?7
Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines attempt to provide some answers to this question. With funds from the National Science Foundation, they hired interviewers to telephone 3,678 white Americans in order to elicit their opinions on race. In fact, some of the questions were so designed that respondents were asked their opinions on topics like welfare assistance and the general role of government, without any mention of which racial groups might be affected. The answers showed that whites were willing to criticize fellow whites whom they felt were abusing government entitlement programs or otherwise acted irresponsibly. In the same vein, while few favored aid designed expressly for blacks, more supported the same measures if they were open to all races.
Extrapolating from these responses, Sniderman and Carmines conclude that most white Americans “consistently profess good will toward blacks.” Yet when asked if certain words accurately describe “most blacks,” 34 percent chose “lazy” and 52 percent agreed with “aggressive or violent.” Even so, the authors assure us that “making a negative judgment of a group is not prejudice.” Indeed, only a small minority of whites may properly be called prejudiced, since that term should be confined to “bigots” who “irrationally and intensely dislike black Americans.”
Basing their analysis on this definition, they write that when whites oppose affirmative action, they do so on some principle and not because they have an aversion to the blacks who may benefit. They also tell us that 72 percent of their white respondents denied that their own race seeks to “keep blacks down intentionally.” But it would be very strange if, forty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, whites were willing to say that their opposition to affirmative action arose from their dislike of the black race. And it would be equally odd if most declared there is a white plan to render blacks subordinate.
Where, one wonders, did Sniderman and Carmines get the idea that an intense dislike of an entire race must pervade the US for racism to exist? We can agree that many whites feel free to disparage conduct they find typical of too many black Americans. We know that most white householders make residential choices which place them in communities where black families are few or far away. But none of this is evidence of a generalized aversion for all persons of African ancestry. Indeed, as has been noted, most whites would like to be able to say that they have a model black neighbor. Doubtless, there are white supremacists who react viscerally if a black person takes a seat next to them in some public place. But when the test of bias is based on such primitive feelings, all but a very few Americans will end up acquitted of that charge.
It is not that the people lie to interviewers. Indeed, to do so wouldn’t seem to make much sense, since they are talking to strangers they will never see again. What should be understood, however, is that when whites talk about race, they have an image of themselves they wish to convey. Or, as Erving Goffman put it almost forty years ago, they are engaging in a “presentation of self.”8 Of course, we realize that this image is contradicted by some of our behavior. Still, it is the image of the self we wish to hold of ourselves and present to the outside world. And in the case of race, the image we create is most often that of a compassionate and unprejudiced American. Not surprisingly, an interviewer can offer an opportunity for an affirmation that we want someone—often a stranger will do—to hear.
The word “integration” is usually applied to neighborhoods and schools, but hardly ever to places of work. Yet insofar as the term connotes not simply admission but a measure of acceptance, it has meaning for black employees who take jobs in what had hitherto been essentially white firms. As Bari-Ellen Roberts describes her experience in Roberts vs. Texaco, all in all she had been given a fair chance to compete at Chase Manhattan bank, where, when not yet forty, she was earning $80,000 a year as a trust officer. In 1990, she decided to accept a $65,000 offer from Texaco, since its suburban New York offices were closer to her home and because the job in Texaco’s finance department held the promise of overseas assignments. A white friend, whose husband was with Texaco, told her the company was “looking for blacks” and made a point of assuring her that “Texaco’s changing.” The last was crucial for Roberts, since while at Chase she had attended meetings with Texaco people, and had come away viewing them as “smug, standoffish, and utterly inflexible.” Curiously, she did not get in touch with friends or friends of friends, to obtain names of some blacks already at Texaco who could clue her in on what things were like. She quickly found out.
Soon after she arrived, colleagues and superiors made demeaning remarks—one called her a “little colored girl”—and were then surprised when she found this offensive. When she and some other black employees were asked to prepare a report on diversity, their suggestions were summarily rejected by an executive who said, “the next thing you know we’ll have Black Panthers running down the halls.” A black worker who asked why he was passed over for a promotion was informed, it’s “only human nature to give it to the white person.” Roberts’s immediate superior, a white woman who sat in on executive meetings, told her, “You should hear how they talk about blacks.”
By her third year at Texaco, Roberts says she was fed up with a “plague of racial insults” and “egregious acts of bigotry.” Her excellent performance record was downgraded, she learned, because one executive thought she was “uppity.” With several other black employees, she filed a discrimination suit citing “the poisonous racial atmosphere that had enveloped Texaco for decades.” Her original informant had been wrong: Texaco hadn’t changed. In the past, it had been run largely by good old boys from the oil patch, not notable for sensitivity. If the company was now headed by lawyers and MBAs, it still showed no desire to regard the blacks it was hiring as integral to the company. When the suit was filed in 1993, out of Texaco’s 7,639 employees being paid over $51,000, only 258 were black. And of these, not even a handful were seen as having executive potential: as Table B shows, only two were among the 460 at Texaco receiving over $129,000.
The case never came to trial. An executive happened to record a strategy meeting, where one person referred to black employees as “black jelly beans.” Another, speaking of Roberts, said, “I can’t punch her in the face, so I play mind games with her.” They were also heard agreeing to shred incriminating personnel records. The man who made the recording was fired shortly afterward, albeit for other reasons, and he got even by turning the tape over to the plaintiffs. Once aware that this had been done, Texaco chose to pay $141 million in compensation and retroactive raises, to be distributed among the company’s 1,400 black employees at all salary levels. In addition it agreed to accept an outside task force to supervise reform of Texaco’s discriminatory practices.
Roberts does not claim that Texaco’s record on race is typical of American corporations. On the contrary, part of her complaint was that Texaco refused even to consider the kinds of diversity programs that had been put into effect at IBM, AT&T, and Levi Strauss. Her book shows, moreover, that she could be quite prickly on nonracial matters and that she is not inclined to mute her feelings. She calls one executive a “racist bully” and castigates another as a “born-again Christian and a bore.” While agreeing that Texaco’s managers were devious and unfair, some readers may also come away wondering if Roberts herself took offense too readily.
This might be Tamar Jacoby’s reaction; she asks blacks as well as whites “to approach race matters with a lighter touch.” While such calls for even-handedness have an appealing ring, we should also ask how many white Americans can say with some certainty they have been held back at their workplace because of their race. And if that were to happen, would their resentments be very different from those expressed by Roberts? It is true that white women also experience discrimination, not to mention hostility and harassment, and many have also initiated suits. Whether injustices based on sex take a greater toll than those related to race is a difficult question. Still, each page of Roberts vs. Texaco suggests that being black worked against Roberts far more than being a woman.
Wolfe, Jacoby, and Sniderman and Carmines all claim that most white Americans support racial integration, at least as an ideal or a goal. Texaco, for its part, has said it wants to integrate its executive offices, and, partly as a result of Roberts’s suit, perhaps one day it will. (Each year finds more Fortune 500 companies selecting Jewish CEOs, something that would have been hard to imagine sixty years ago.) Given these assurances, why do so many black Americans remain so skeptical? One reason clearly is that they are well aware of measures, supported generally by whites, to rescind affirmative action. At the least, they realize how much their entry to the middle class has depended on those programs. They are aware that while the University of California’s three law schools enrolled forty-three of their black applicants in 1996, they enrolled only sixteen last year. At the University of Texas law school, the number of entering black students fell from thirty-one to four. The implication is obvious: ending affirmative action will mean less integration.
To take another measure, black inmates now outnumber whites in the nation’s prisons and jails. The Department of Justice estimates that a male black child born this year will stand a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in a cell, compared with a 4.4 percent prospect for a white boy. If this outcome is not averted, at least one black family in three will have a son or father or brother behind bars at some point. It should not be surprising that most writing about racial progress comes from white authors.
June 11, 1998
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. ↩
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. ↩
515 U.S. 70 (1995), pp. 121-122. ↩
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. ↩
At the turn of the century, at least one Harvard professor felt free to write that he found his Jewish students “socially untrained” and that “their bodily habits are not good.” Quoted in Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth (Beacon Press, 1989), p. 235. ↩
“American Apartheid? Don’t Believe It,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 1998. Their views are amplified in America in Black and White, One Nation Indivisible (Simon and Schuster, 1997). See George Frederickson’s review, “America’s Caste System: Will It Change?” The New York Review, October 23, 1997. ↩
See Randall Robinson’s recent memoir: “In many very real ways, America remains for blacks a huge plantation. We control nothing.” Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America (Dutton, 1998), p. 261. ↩
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Doubleday, 1959). ↩