Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 72–76.
Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration. By Tamar Jacoby. Free Press. 614 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Scott McConnell
Whatever happened to racial integration, frequently proclaimed as a national goal in the early 1960s? In Someone
Else’s House former New York Times staffer Tamar Jacoby, while lamenting the waning of the aspiration it represented, notes that the word "integration" now sounds as dated as "nylons" or "gramophone." Contemporary liberals now promote "diversity"—a term which acknowledges differences of perspective between races and ascribes a positive meaning to them. Jacoby wonders what killed the idea that American blacks and whites could acquire a true commonality of spirit.
She seeks an answer in the experiences of New York, Detroit, and Atlanta during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—each city representative of the varied ways the civil rights movement broke apart after the major nondiscrimination battles were won. The result is an extremely rich book, deeply researched, eminently fair-minded, and written with an eye for the telling detail. As a history of recent American race relations it is a formidable achievement, and can be read with enthusiasm even by those who might not concur with its analysis and conclusions.
The blush has long disappeared from the reputation of John Lindsay’s mayoralty (1966-1974) and Jacoby does not seek to restore it. No one can avoid the two dreadful legacies of his administration: welfare rolls that more than doubled to over a million, and budget holes that left the city teetering on the brink of insolvency for decades. But how great were the hopes stirred by the first Lindsay campaign! Here was a sublimely handsome, supremely self-confident, liberal, can-do WASP (now there’s a vanished historical type) committed to ridding New York and maybe the country of the racial injustice that had festered since America’s birth. In 1965, the national press couldn’t get enough of him, and at least in terms of the energy he devoted to racial issues, he didn’t disappoint. The new mayor’s readiness to walk the streets of Harlem or Bedford Stuyvesant in shirtsleeves at the first sign of trouble took genuine physical courage—and probably did head off more serious conflagrations. Unfortunately, Lindsay’s peacemaking led him to seek accommodation with the most demagogic of black activists. Sonny Carson, then embarking on a long career as Brooklyn agitator, had an open line to a top Lindsay aide, which he used as a rope to jerk City Hall officials around the city.
At the center of Jacoby’s New York account is the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school battle, where the best of liberal intentions led to disaster. Ford Foundation officers, imbued with utopian attitudes about education, were allowed to set up and fund a plan to turn over management of several Brooklyn school districts to "the community." The experiment empowered local black educators, produced aggressive rhetoric against Jewish school teachers, and left a residue of bruised feelings between two groups whose cooperation in past civil rights battles had been exemplary.
Jacoby is justly critical of this kind of readiness to cut deals with black racial nationalists, but her own account shows how limited Lindsay’s options were. In New York after 1965 (or even after 1960) pro-integration black community leaders hardly existed, and Malcolm X was far more popular than Martin Luther King on the streets of Harlem. No one who mattered in the black community was ready to argue that black "acculturation" (the term used by Jacoby) to the educational and behavioral norms of the American white mainstream was essential to black advancement. But having made racial progress, dialogue, reaching out, empowerment, etc. the keystone of his mayoralty, Lindsay had little choice but to dance with the militants. In retrospect, today’s New Yorkers might have reason for gratitude that he succeeded at least in heading off a major race riot.
If Lindsay’s New York showed the limitations of what could be achieved by accommodation, Detroit shows how bad things got when the appeasers were overwhelmed. For much of the 1960s the city had a whiz-kid white liberal integrationist mayor (Jerome Cavanaugh) and a business elite committed to opening up more opportunities for blacks and to investing in the inner city. In 1967, the Big Three automakers scrapped their decades old employment guidelines, no longer inquiring about high school diplomas, work experience, or even prison records in an effort to get more blacks on the assembly line.
But unlike New York, Detroit suffered a full-scale riot, unleashing a crime wave that has never really ended. After 1967 whites no longer wanted to live in the city. They weren’t drawn back by the gaudy Renaissance Center, a mega-million dollar effort to anchor businesses downtown, and they resisted efforts to integrate their children, fighting a Michigan governor’s elaborate plan to create racially mixed schools by busing inner city and suburban children around the metropolitan region. So blunt and devastating is Jacoby’s brief description of Detroit classrooms, unruly places where pupils could reach the eighth grade without mastering the alphabet, that the resistance of suburban parents to the busing plan needs no deeper explanation.
In the end, black Detroiters voted in Coleman Young, a charming and rascally racial nationalist, who saw the city’s destiny as an African American mecca where whites weren’t really needed or wanted. The criminal justice system collapsed, black juries refused to bring convictions, and burned out city blocks began returning to meadow. Yet Young won reelection again and again.
Of the three cities, Atlanta’s race relations are the least troubled, "as good as it gets" in Jacoby’s phrase. But the triumph is not integration but "power sharing"—a deal between the white business elite and the rising black political class. Atlanta’s commercial establishment read the national winds when the civil rights revolution arrived and made adjustments. By the mid- 1960s, new corporate headquarters and capital were streaming in from all over the country, and office towers were shooting up: Birmingham, Alabama, a southern town of exactly Atlanta’s size at the end of World War II, fought the civil rights movement and remained a backwater.
The growing pie left both groups much to divide, and Atlanta pioneered rigid racial quotas and set-asides. In the building of a new international airport, dozens of office towers, and a vast subterranean mid-town shopping and cultural space (the Underground), black contractors were guaranteed a certain percentage. Often this was pure graft, with politically connected black front men simply collecting checks for signing their names on the papers. Other black subcontractors did participate in construction, while being patronized by their white "partners." Few who got their start in such deals ever expanded beyond the setaside sector. Several black builders became rich—but they were in business before the color-coded deals began and in Jacoby’s estimate would have made it anyway.
The black poor received almost nothing from all this, and efforts to jump-start a black small-business class may have been the saddest failure of all. Many franchises in the Underground were reserved for black shopkeepers, who, it was said, would employ young people. The franchisees received subsidized start-up loans and all kinds of good press, but none of it was an adequate substitute for entrepreneurial mettle or experience. When the businesses failed, the beneficiaries were resentful and expected the political class to bail them out. Designed as a vehicle to bring black and white Atlantans together, the Underground became a source of rancor—increasingly crime-ridden and avoided by white shoppers.
In relating these histories, Jacoby provides ample evidence that key white business and political leaders were willing to work for black advancement and integration; her criticism of the ’60’s-era liberal establishment is not its lack of resolve but its readiness to tolerate black separatism, color-coded standards, and the like. Integration, she would argue, failed because the pro-integrationists weren’t tough-minded and rigorous enough.
The weak point in this argument is its assumption that the integration consensus in the 1950s and early 1960s was sufficiently broad or deep that better tactics could have made much of a difference. It is true that after the nationally televised confrontations in the deep South in the early 1960s, there arose a groundswell of sentiment for greater fairness toward black Americans, and for the end of racial discrimination. But for integration? Few in the 1960s could even agree on what the term meant, and Jacoby cites research showing that whites and blacks still hold divergent views of what constitutes a desirably integrated neighborhood or workplace. (Whites consider 2/13 an appropriate black/white ratio; blacks prefer when the races are in rough numerical balance.) Integration may have been a goal of the litigators and social scientists who were the driving force behind Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation decision. But Dwight Eisenhower’s mild skepticism about the ruling was surely more representative of the feelings of most Americans, and it is not clear they had changed much by the 1960s, or that they would ever change other than at an incremental pace.
Here Jacoby might usefully have grappled with Norman Podhoretz’s "My Negro Problem and Ours," an essay published in 1963. Its argument, built on Podhoretz’s reminiscences of attending integrated schools in a racially mixed New York neighborhood in the 1940s, was that proximity and interaction of whites and blacks, far from leading to any sort of harmony, exacerbate tensions and even inflame hatred between the groups. Integration was agonizingly difficult not because of the pull of old segregationist law or custom, but for deeper psychological and social reasons. Podhoretz’s pessimism was to be substantially confirmed in the years following the essay’s appearance.
Jacoby hopes for a new push for integration—a wiser one that doesn’t rely on color-coded solutions and leans more heavily on black "acculturation." People, she writes, can be ethnic "on the weekends." But Someone Else’s House provides little ground for belief that ethnicity can be so easily relegated. Even the "white" melting pot, a model for the most far-reaching integration hopes of the ’60s, required generations of simmering, and still has its detractors. (Note the alarms about intermarriage now sounded by many leading American Jews.)
Whatever its weaknesses (and these may boil down simply to matters of opinion), Someone Else’s House is outstanding as contemporary history, one of the strongest books in a decade that has already seen publication of several good ones in this field. However much has changed in the American racial landscape since the 1960s, its core lesson is highly relevant: the best of intentions are no guarantee of racial harmony.
Scott McConnell is a writer living in New York City.