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WICKER'S TRAGIC FAILING

12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By DAVID FRUM
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As a columnist for the New York Times, Tom Wicker stood for 25 years among America's preeminent liberal journalists. What he said in the thousands of pieces he has published since the mid-1960s, he is saying again in Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (Morrow, 218 pages, $ 25). It is as if none of the ideas that have transformed American thinking about race in the past quarter century has reached Wicker in his writer's lodge in Rochester, Vt.


Reading Tragic Failure is a peculiarly claustrophobic experience, like a weekend in colonial Williamsburg or Nantucket. Fully one-quarter of the footnotes in the book refer the reader to articles in the New York Times. It's jarring to put it down and return to the contemporary world of e-mail, personal computers, and 1997 model year cars. The book isn't a defense of liberalism, because it won't engage with any of the conservative critique of liberalism. It is rather a restatement of the ancient liberal truths -- not one word has been added, not one word has been taken away.


Wicker's world is the world of Eyes on the Prize. Blacks are always noble -- but also pathetic and powerless. Whites are always smug and callous - - but also securely in control. In Wicker's world, blacks can flourish only when whites help them and must fail when whites do not. One anecdote in the book sums this whole world up. In the early 1980s, Vernon Jordan attempted to enter a Florida bar and was shut out by the woman at the front door. Meanwhile, a group of whites was admitted. Jordan reminded the woman of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; she told him she didn't care. Wicker reports that Jordan concluded that the woman at the bar had been encouraged indirectly by " what she heard coming out of Washington" -- that is, from the Reagan administration. End of story.


One wants to ask: And then? What did Vernon Jordan, superlawyer, multimillionaire, friend of presidents and governors, corporate director, backed by all the civil-rightsstatutes of the United States and by the full rigor of Florida's tort law, do then? What did the governor of the state and the mayor of the city do? And what happened to the minimum-wage bigot who affronted him? If I were Vernon Jordan, I'm not sure I'd appreciate a telling of this story that represents me as a pitiful victim, and the clerk at the bar as a member of the ruling class. If I were Jordan, it would occur to me that it's not just the bigot at the bar who will never be able to see me as anything but just another black -- it's also some of those who regard themselves as my friends.


Nobody doubts that incidents like the one described by Jordan to Wicker still occur in America, as do subtler forms of discrimination throughout the labor and housing markets. But it does seem rather incredible that anyone could write a book at century's end about America's racial dilemmas on the assumption that discrimination plain and simple -- what Wicker condemns as whites' "fear or hostile instincts about black neighbors or employees or schoolmates or job competitors" -- is the sole, or even most important, cause of America's racial troubles and black America's economic and moral plight.


Is it really racial discrimination that accounts for black illegitimacy and crime rates? If so, why are those problems worse today than they were forty years ago? Is it really racial discrimination that explains why the percentage of black men enrolled in college has not increased in a decade, despite a vast network of implicit and explicit racial preferences? These are polemical points, it's true, and they've been made so often before that it's tedious to read them again. But Wicker shows no sign that he's ever encountered them or that, if he did, he would take them seriously.