The Magazine


How the Civil Rights Movement Lost Its Way

Jul 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 43 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, released its report on the race riots plaguing American cities during the 1960s. The Kerner Report's introduction, written by aides to the commission's vice chairman, New York mayor John Lindsay, warned that America was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." If steps weren't taken, we would see "the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values." The report's implication of white society in the plight of the ghetto and its recommendations for massive federal action to redress racial inequality have formed the core of liberal thinking ever since.

Thirty years later, Tamar Jacoby has written a new study, Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration, with a similar observation of the polarization of the races. Yet her explanation of how we arrived at our predicament and her prescriptions for how to escape are exactly the opposite of the Kerner Report.

A journalist and former editor of the New York Times op-ed page who has written for Dissent and Newsweek, Jacoby is now a fellow at New York's Manhattan Institute. What makes her book so novel and valuable in the present discourse on race is that she dissents from the conventional morality tale, represented by the Kerner Report, that blames white racism exclusively for our racial ills. She occupies a narrow strip of intellectual terrain in the race debate with such like-minded contrarians, black and white, as Stephan and Abigail Thernstorm, Stanley Crouch, Fred Siegel, Orlando Patterson, Jim Sleeper, and Shelby Steele.

Jacoby takes seriously America's uneasiness with the current state of race relations, arguing that the nation has lost the integrationist moorings that informed the early civil-rights movement. But rather than simply rehash the tired litany of recent racial controversies, she takes the reader on a journey through the tortured history of race relations over the last thirty-five years in three cities: New York, Detroit, and Atlanta.

If only "we could learn from these years of mistakes," Jacoby believes, we could still "achieve real integration." In each of her three case studies, she examines how political, business, and community leaders handled the growing demands for equality from the black community -- from the early days of the civil-rights movement with its narrow window of racial goodwill, through the age of Black Power, and on to the confused situation of today.

Each city's tale is distressingly similar in Jacoby's account. What she finds is that for many years we have pursued integration with flawed means. "Wholesale social engineering, color-coded double standards, forced interaction between people who are not social or economic equals; one after the other, the old stratagems have proved bankrupt or worse."

The dream of integration was lost, according to Jacoby, when Mau-Mauing black militants with separatist dreams and incendiary rhetoric obtained the support of wealthy white liberals. "So many of the mistakes of the past," she argues, "can be traced to feckless leadership, race-mongering demagogues, patronizing civic elites, would-be racial healers who confused compromise with appeasement and ended up creating standoffs instead of helping people listen and reach out."

And she names names, taking to task liberal elites in each city: Mayor Lindsay and the Ford Foundation's McGeorge Bundy in New York; the New Detroit Committee founded by businessman Max Fisher, Henry Ford II, and department-store owner Joseph Hudson; and Atlanta's business community. In each case, men with little knowledge of the local black situation set out with the best of intentions to atone for America's racist past.

Jacoby describes how these men, listening earnestly to black militants, poured money into the inner city to support affirmative action, create experiments in the schools, and build white-elephant projects like the Renaissance Center in Detroit -- all in the name of racial healing. They excused often inexcusable behavior by blacks, and when they were finished, they found to their astonishment that things had gotten only worse.

Jacoby also criticizes the blacks who rejected integration: Brooklyn CORE's Sonny Carson; Detroit judge (and later congressman) George Crockett; Detroit mayor Coleman Young, who built a political career playing on the mistrust of black Detroit towards the white suburbs; and Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, who pursued the same course as Young, though with greater subtlety.