Racial Integration

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

Racial Integration

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Black and white critics of the integrationist ideal now abound. Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, once integration's most stalwart advocate, is reconsidering its goal of racial integration. Who are integration's critics? What is their position? Who advocates separatism for blacks? Why are critics of integration gaining momentum?

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The integrationist ideal holds that blacks and whites should live, work, and study together. Government policies designed to accomplish these goals include school busing, affirmative action in public schools and in the workplace, forced integration of public housing, and laws barring discrimination in housing and employment.

The most surprising new critics of integration are found in traditional civil-rights groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although the organizations still support integration, their dissident members are dissatisfied with the outcomes produced by government policies. They note that while the African-American middle class is expanding, nearly 26 percent of all African-Americans still live below the poverty line.

Black separatism dates back to the 19th century, when Martin Delaney and others promoted the "Back to Africa" movement. The literal return to Africa was seen as the only option for blacks because, they argued, white supremacy could never be displaced. MarcusGarvey and FatherDivine led the movement in the '20s. Separatism fades in and out of media attention: Separatists of the '30s and '40s received little notice.

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S till, segregationists and integrationists have always coexisted within the civil-rights movement. In the mid-'60s, when the integrationist ideal reached its peak, the black-power wing of the civil-rights movement grew by advocating black self-determination--the establishment of exclusively black schools and a self-sustaining black economy. More radical elements called for a black nation in the American South. Even ultra-integrationist Martin Luther King Jr. cast the civil-rights movement as an anti-colonial liberation struggle late in his career. Also, some black leaders in the '60s sought control over their local public schools, which prefigures the current enthusiasm many African-Americans have for running their own charter schools within the public-school system.

Recent markers of black separatism include the Louis Farrakhan-sponsored Million Man March of 1995, to which only African-American men were invited; the debate over the teaching in public schools of Ebonics, the so-called African-American dialect; the establishment of exclusively African-American dorms on college campuses; and single-race schools, which are even supported by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, because he believes they will promote the self-esteem of African-American students.

The best-known separatist leader is the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, although his followers probably number fewer than 50,000. (Click here to read a "Gist" on the Nation.) Many consider it portentous that former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis is now a Nation of Islam minister.

The separatists have new academic allies, the critical race theorists, led by New York University's Derrick Bell and University of Colorado's Richard Delgado. They argue that despite its guise of neutrality, the American legal system is riddled with mechanisms for oppressing black people. Some critical race theorists argue that black jurors should acquit guilty black defendants in protest of the unjust system.

What accounts for separatism's current vogue? Some attribute the new separatism to black demagogues in politics and the academy who deliberately exploit black anxieties to further their careers. Black conservative Shelby Steele argues that African-Americans embrace separatism to cover for their embarrassing lack of skills. Steele also says that separatism appeals to unqualified students admitted to college under the protection of affirmative action. These students compensate for their shortcomings by clinging to one another and striking the defensive pose of separatism.

Another explanation holds that integration is out of favor because the Democratic Party has retreated from the goal. In hopes of attracting more white votes, the Democratic Party has distanced itself from civil-rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, and from issues like welfare reform and affirmative action. Cut off from the political mainstream, some civil-rights leaders and grassroots supporters have embraced separatist politicians and positions.

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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.

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.

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