Racial Integration

A cheat sheet for the news.
Nov. 23 1997 3:30 AM

Racial Integration

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I n the past, the most obstinate white opponents of integration (the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party and conservative Southern Democrats) argued that people should have the right to associate--or not to associate--with whomever they wish. Goldwater later recanted this view, and even the most conservative Southern politicians now laud the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which removed barriers that legally prevented blacks from living and working where they wished. Many conservatives still endorse the segregationist line that government shouldn't interfere with people's preferences.

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White critics of integration include the neo-conservatives, former liberals who supported the civil-rights mainstream until the early '70s. Theirs is now the dominant right-wing critique of integrationist programs. While continuing to endorse the ideal of integration, they say affirmative action, busing, and the rest do more harm than good. In 1984 Charles Murray wrote, in Losing Ground, that government programs sap the initiative of the black population, creating feelings of dependency and entitlement. Black conservative critics like Thomas Sowell concur, adding that government programs allow blacks to blame racism for their self-inflicted wounds.

Also attacking integration is social democrat Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School. Government-mandated integration is wrong, he writes, because any endorsement of racial preferences is immoral.

Keeping the integrationist faith are black liberals like Professors Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. Joining them is black economist Glenn Loury, a conservative who broke ranks to endorse affirmative action as a necessary policy.

Has integration succeeded? Not really, say neo-cons Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. Their new book, America in Black and White, says that the playing field has been leveled in spite of government programs. The black middle class benefited from the postwar economic boom, not affirmative action, they say. Orlando Patterson writes in his new book, The Ordeal of Integration, that government programs have helped many African-Americans to join the economic and cultural mainstream, but the programs can't be expected to further expand the black middle class.

Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.