The End of Integration?

This October, race issues dominated public debate more than at any time since the urban riots of the '60s. The overexposed O.J. Simpson trial ended with a verdict that sent TV pundits and op-ed writers on a spree of recrimination and soul-searching. Two weeks later, almost as a coda to the trial, the "Million Man March" confronted white America with the menacing prospect of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan thrust into the center of mainstream black politics. But for all the print and video devoted to these events, public discourse on race in America shows little sign of progress. As someone who regularly works the "race beat," I've been struck by the way these sensitive matters continue to be skirted in an elaborate social minuet. Here's how it's choreographed: Major media identify a racial problem. Mainstream pundits and policy-makers react to the problem in a manner that best burnishes their public image. That done, the major media turn their attention from the problem in a triumph of the "been there, done that" mindset. The problem festers until it erupts again. The dance continues. The pattern recurs throughout U.S. history, but recently the pace seems to be quickening. The cycle of indignity and indignant response continues endlessly. In August 1991, Gavin Cato, a black child, is killed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn by an errant vehicle in a motorcade of Lubavitcher Jews. Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic rabbinical student from Australia, is murdered by a mob of angry blacks in retaliation. In March 1991, black motorist Rodney King is mercilessly beaten by several white Los Angeles police officers. When those cops are acquitted a year later, white truck driver Reginald Denny is assaulted by rioting blacks.With each successive offense, the level of outrage rises, and our social anxiety increases; when it already seems we are drowning in a sea of racial controversy, another wave hits. We know instinctively that something's got to give. But by repeatedly postponing our necessary racial reckoning, we only lay the ground for shriller, and deeper, discord. Symbolic attempts at racial conciliation recur and fade. Just as many white New Yorkers helped elect David Dinkins the city's first black mayor in the hope that he would calm the city's turbulent racial politics, many white Americans hopefully anticipated a Colin Powell presidential candidacy. It was a false hope. Powell's charisma would have done little to bridge the gap between the separate worlds that many blacks and whites inhabit. The Simpson verdict and its aftermath vividly dramatized the vastness of this divide. It was not only the "not guilty" verdict handed down by the predominantly African-American jury that shocked whites, but also the euphoric reaction of some blacks. It seemed as if blacks, in their post-verdict celebration, were doing an end zone dance on the graves of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Writing in the New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates likened the white reaction to the verdict to the numb disquiet that followed Nat Turner's bloody slave revolt, when the Southern slave owner "was left to wonder which of his smiling, servile retainers would have slit his throat if the rebellion had spread as was intended." In fact, most African-Americans were cheering the fact that a black man had finally extracted a fair trail from a merciless criminal justice system, and--as the script of race now seems to demand--many were surprised by the intensity of whites' outrage. A study released two days after the verdict by the Sentencing Project, which revealed that nearly one-third of black men between 20 and 29 are under criminal justice supervision, only bolstered the notion that the races inhabit two separate justice systems. The study was, in fact, a five-year update of an earlier survey that revealed one in four young black men to be in the clutches of the justice system, and reinforced the widespread perception among blacks that racial bias in American society is deepening. But what does this new mood do to the old civil rights movement paradigm? Newsweek magazine posed the question succinctly in its cover headline on Farrakhan's march and its portents: "Self-help or Separation: What's Next For Black America?" The question is slightly tautological. After all, as the wide variation in public perception demonstrates, black and white Americans already live largely separate lives. While we pay obeisance to the ideal of integration, we remain a rigidly segregated society. "No group in the history of the United States has ever experienced the sustained high level of residential segregation that has been imposed on blacks in large American cities for the past fifty years," write Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in their book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Massey and Denton argue that the problem of inner-city deterioration could best be addressed by social policies that promote integration. But an increasing number of African-American activists and intellectuals are concluding that integration is an idea whose time has passed. "Maybe we should be looking more favorably toward nationalism," suggests the Rev. Eugene Rivers Jr., of the Harvard Divinity School. Rivers' support of nationalism is particularly noteworthy, given his reputation as one of Boston's most principled activists. A major architect of one of the country's most successful youth programs, the Boston Freedom Summer Project, Rivers gained attention recently by publicly challenging the authoritarian excesses of Farrakhan's NOI. Another current case points to these changing attitudes. Kenneth Jenkins was recently dismissed as president of the NAACP's Yonkers branch for conceding that court-ordered busing for integration may "have outlived its usefulness." Still hitching its wagon to the cause of integration at all costs, the NAACP found Jenkins' second thoughts embarrassing. But Jenkins defends his revisionism with an appeal to pragmatism. "We need to evaluate what's working and what isn't working," he says. "Are we putting kids on buses just so we can say that we can say we put them on buses?" It is the sense that America is simply going through the motions of the familiar choreographed racial minuet that is provoking the African-American community to consider alternative directions. A number of studies, including one by University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson, shows that African-Americans increasingly are adopting ideas that could best be described as nationalist. The increasing popularity of nationalism among black activists seems simply to reflect that larger shift. Does that mean that the ideal of an integrated society has been discredited? Does activism oriented toward black nationalism exclude a role for whites in developing strategies for racial justice? These are questions that must be addressed candidly. Some advocates of black nationalism argue that African-Americans can truly integrate into this society only after gaining cultural and economic autonomy. "When you bring nothing to the table, you have nothing to offer or to bargain," explains Robert Starks, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University's Center for Inner-City Studies. "For us, integration has been a hollow prize because we had nothing to bring to the deal. Because of that, we are almost as separated now as we were before integration became the goal." As the disastrous minuet of race spins furiously on, African-American activists are no longer dancing to the tune of integration. But it's not yet clear what the new melody will be.

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