New York Times Book Review
By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Raceby Leonard Steinhorn
While signs of racial progress are everywhere, the reality is that America is hardly more integrated than it was before the civil rights movement. Beyond the rhetoric of politicians, the media, and the prevalent symbols of integration lies a very different reality: 70 percent of black children attend predominantly black schools; and an Hispanic or Asian American with a third grade education is more likely to live in an integrated neighborhood than is a black with a Ph.D. Fueled by these startling statistics, By the Color of Our Skin argues that integration does not exist now; that it never had a chance to exist in the past; and that it will never exist in the future.Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown would themselves like to see integration become a reality but find--through polls, statistics, interviews, and anecdotes--that the illusion of integration is more damaging than useful because it keeps society from having an honest dialogue about the problem of race. By the Color of Our Skin explodes powerful myths and outlines a new vision of race in America.
New York Times Book Review
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It was an emotional, inspiring moment meant for an audience of millions. The opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was designed as a pageant not about athletics but about race. Carefully choreographed in ebony and ivory, blacks and whites performed together as brothers and sisters, climaxing when a mixed group of four blacks and four whites carried the Olympic flag around the track. Moments later the music stilled and the powerful, stirring voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed throughout the stadium, evoking once again his dream that the children of former slaves and the children of former slaveholders could sit down at the table of brotherhood. The camera flashed on President Clinton as tears welled up in his eyes. Through symbolism and words, the Atlanta Olympics had reaffirmed with great fanfare our national commitment to racial integration. Our task may not yet be complete, but we shall overcome. We shall overcome.
Barely a few months later another symbol of the great American melting pot was in the news, but this time the story line was very different. In an article buried on page 49 of the Sunday New York Times, a black man described the "pride and dignity" that surged when the National Park Service made him a ranger at the Statue of Libertyuntil it dawned on him that he and other black rangers were being isolated from visitors at the statue and nearby Ellis Island simply because of the color of their skin. Other black employees described racial intimidation, a secret ban on the hiring of blackmaintenance workers, and rampant prejudice that was most profoundly manifested in keeping black personnel of the Statue of Liberty out of the public eye.
The Statue of Liberty story never made the front page, and unlike the Atlanta Olympics it never will be publicized or broadcast to millions as an allegory about American race relations. But its portrayal of black Americans literally being quarantined from our most powerful symbol of inclusionwith the implication that black faces might taint our national imagetells us more about race relations in America than any pageant, political speech, or public event ever could. For it illustrates the stark and striking contrast between our very public ideal of a racially integrated America and the daily, grinding reality of a society, deeply divided by racea society in which almost 70 percent of its black children attend predominantly black schools, a society in which middle-class whites flee from their suburban communities when equally middle-class blacks begin moving in, a society characterized by racially distinct perceptions, images, choices, and experiences. And it begs us to ask whether this reality is ever likely to change, whether the integration ideal can ever amount to more than a futile illusion or tantalizing dreamand what we should do if the answer to these questions is a sad and poignant no. Herein lies the new American dilemma on race.
Certainly, it was not supposed to turn out this way. In the decades after World War II, no other national goal captured the spirit and imagination of American democracy more than racial integration. "Integration," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "is the ultimate goal of our national community." It is the "Promised Land," a destination worth all our sweat and sacrifice, where "all of God's children" would live together in a "beloved community" of harmony and peace. It is about believing "in the possibilities of one America, one community, one house, one family," wrote civil rights veteran John Lewis. Like so many others of his generation both black and white, Bill Clinton has repeatedly called integration the most important moral idea he grew up with.
Born in the heady and hopeful days of the civil rights era, the integration dream was fueled by a national culture eager to validate its commitment to decency and pluralism. It was perhaps the ultimate expression of the melting pot ideal, that the most victimized and vilified part of American society could be integrated seamlessly into mainstream life, and that the white majority could overcome its prejudice and welcome black Americans as full brothers and sisters in our national community. Integration spoke to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, the idea that blacks and whites can live together in harmony, friendship and mutual respect. So powerful was the ideal that for many Americans it overwhelmed any doubts about the possibility of achieving it. Right after the Supreme Court struck down separate but equal schooling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark, two giants of the civil rights movement, expressed confidence that America would be integrated by the mid-1960s. Many others, black and white, simply assumed that blacks would begin to assimilate as millions of immigrants had done earlier in the century. Let us be "knit together as one," wrote Massachusetts governor John Winthrop more than 300 years ago, and that vision of the American community still holds sway today. Realistic or not, racial integration remains a thoroughly American ideal.
What exactly is racial integration? It is about the realm of life governed by behavior and choice, not by statutes and institutions. It should not be confused with desegregation, which means the elimination of discriminatory laws and barriers to full participation in American life. Although desegregation is a necessary precondition for integration, it is entirely possible to desegregate without integratingfor blacks and whites to attend the same schools without ever learning much about each other or becoming friends, or for blacks and whites to work for the same employer without mixing much on or off the job. Desegregation may unlock doors, but integration is supposed to open minds, which is why some say that integration makes desegregation look easy. Indeed, what makes racial integration so compelling is that. it is about people, not laws. It is about the way we perceive each other, about the way we act toward each other, about whether there will ever be room in our hearts, homes, classrooms, and communities to welcome each other comfortably as neighbors and friends. Steeped in the pluralist tradition, integration is both color-blind and color-conscious. It insists on a color-blind approach to character, ability, and personal relationshipsthat people be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. It is built on a universal acceptance of people as individuals. Yet it appreciates and welcomes the different black and white traditions, perspectives, and historical experiences that make our nation whole. Its model could be Protestant-Catholic or Jewish-Italian relations in America today, a mutual respect that acknowledges the differences and embraces the similarities.
In a racially integrated America, blacks and whites would choose to live side by side, socialize with ease, see each other as peers, recommend each other for jobs, harbor little mutual distrust, respect each other's outlook, and appreciate each other's contributions to American culture. Prejudice and stereotypes might not completely disappear in an integrated society, but they would not define relationships, images, and behavior as they do today. Skin color would become incidental rather than fundamental. In a color-blind society, a middle-class white person would feel equally at home living, learning, or working in an environment 80 percent black or 90 percent white; the black-majority neighborhood would perhaps feel different but by no means threatening or disagreeable. For blacks, as Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Tom Teepen puts it, it means finally having the "opportunity to define themselves and to calculate their lives non-raciallyas architect, say, or bass fisherman or Republican." Or, as former civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin used to say, we will be truly integrated when a black person can make the same mistakes as a white without anyone drawing special attention to it.
To hear most white Americans talk about it, they are living up to their end of the integration bargain. As evidence that race is no longer a barrier in America, whites point to Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, Vernon Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby, the late Ron Brown, and the scores of black lawyers and executives in fine wool suits and tasseled shoes who seem to inhabit the corridors of social and political power. Most whites believe the core of the problem was solved with the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, when the nation outlawed discrimination, ended legal segregation, and created a level playing field in the eyes of the law. Almost every public opinion poll shows large white majorities saying that black Americans have at least as good a chance as whites to obtain a quality education, a decent job, and their choice of housing. Whites also point to affirmative action as proof of how they bent over backwardalbeit grudginglyto guarantee access to the system and right any lingering wrongs from a bygone era. If there's any problem at all, many whites believe, it's because too many blacks have brought it on themselves through crime and loose values, and then have tried to blame white people or racism for their mistakes. As white America sees it, every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream, and now they're on their own. "No place that I'm aware of makes people ride on the back of the bus or use a different restroom in this day and age," wrote a white respondent to a survey in Essence magazine. "We got the message; we made correctionsget on with it."
Whether you agree or disagree with this perspective, it's hard to blame people for having it when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress toward reaching it. Integration as a goal may be hotly debated among a few intellectuals within the academy, but within our major institutions it is almost beyond criticism. Integrationist symbols pervade American politics, whether in campaign rhetoric, nominating conventions, or presidential inaugurals. Conservative Republican leader Newt Gingrich feels as comfortable as Democrat Bill Clinton in quoting Martin Luther King, praising the 1960s civil rights movement, and calling for racial unity. We have governors proclaiming ours a "color-blind society," and even a firebrand politician like Patrick Buchanan celebrating America as "a nation committed to racial justice." The Republican party may have few black members, but that didn't stop it from showcasing a disproportionate number of black speakers during the precious prime-time hours of its 1996 convention. Even the conservative Christian Coalition has acknowledged that its adherents were on "the wrong side" of civil rights a generation ago and has now established a "minority outreach" program to absolve itself of this sin, complete with photo opportunities of coalition leaders praying hand in hand with black ministers.
Integration has been enshrined in the Martin Luther King national holiday, in the ritualistic replaying of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and in Supreme Court decisions that sanctify color-blindness, warn against balkanization, and strike down policies that might "carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters." The NAACP has expelled chapter presidents for questioning the ideal. It is the framework for corporate and university diversity programscertainly it is hard to find an institutional brochure that does not feature blacks and whites comfortably working together. Nor should we forget the role of the almighty and ubiquitous media, which are filled with countless images of racial harmony, uplift, and interaction, from sports broadcasts to the happy talk on the news to the racially mixed operating rooms on medical dramas. Indeed, few images are as appealing to a photo editor or television news producer as one where blacks and whites are embracing or holding hands in common cause or in response to tragedy. Go to any major theater production and the cast will likely be racially mixed; a show like the Tony Award-winning Rent or the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker will feature an unpretentiously color-blind cast. Given the ubiquity and power of the integration image, it is no surprise that Americans in public opinion polls estimate that blacks constitute up to 40 percent of the populationmore than three times the actual percentage.
Few would dispute the notion that the public culture of America today is decidedly antiracist, with racism in this case defined as the overt, crass, hard-core expression of antiblack bigotry. "Racial prejudice has declined so significantly in the United States that the white politician who appears to be anti-black hurts himself with white voters," wrote columnist Mark Shields back in 1983. So powerful is the antiracist norm that many whites imagine it more palatable to be a victim of racism than to be accused of racism. The portrait of a bigoted person is someone uneducated, narrow-minded, boorish and unsophisticateda redneck perhaps. Even former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has tried to distance himself from his own history, claiming that he is not antiblack, that he only opposes welfare and affirmative action. In the aftermath of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, a Gallup Poll surprisingly found that Simpson's 62 percent unfavorable rating among whites (24 percent favorable) was dwarfed by the resounding 88 percent unfavorable rating (four percent favorable) given to Detective Mark Fuhrman, apparently because of his racism. So when President Clinton vows an "all-out assault on hate crimes," everyone rightly applauds and feels good about our fight against intolerance. As Washington Post writer Richard Cohen put it after observing that most people don't use the word nigger anymore, "So I thinkI knowthat things are getting better here."
To many white Americans, this broad consensus is compelling evidence of our national goodwill on race. It suggests we are moving inexorablyeven if haltinglytoward the Promised Land of integration that Dr. King envisioned three decades ago. "Most whites desperately wish to see the fulfillment of King's vision," wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer soon after the first O. J. Simpson verdict. "They may argue over the best way to implement it, but it remains a powerfully unifying theme." To another columnist, James K. Glassman, "The lines between the races are fading." Journalist Jim Sleeper, writing with the deep conviction of a color-blind idealist, describes "a transracial belonging and civic faith for which Americans of all colors so obviously yearn." Novelist John Updike puts it this way: "An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one." More decisive is the language of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: "In the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American." So pervasive is this integration consensus that people who pride themselves as students of American race relations are often unprepared when confronted with evidence of its breakdown. "I thought I knew a lot about how people of different races viewed things in America," President Clinton observed when the first O. J. Simpson verdict revealed the deep racial fault lines we rarely acknowledge, "but I have been surprised by the depth of the divergence in so many areas." Shock and surprise are sentiments expressed by one or another political leader almost every time overt racial conflict breaks outthese incidents must be the exception, not the rule.
Apart from seeing legal segregation end in the South, white Americans feel the greatest pride in what appears to be the profound transformation of their own attitudes toward blacks. This pride is seen in the affluent white urban apartment dweller who puffs up at the mention of the five or six black families in his three-hundred-unit building. It is seen in the white workers who feel their tolerance affirmed after talking basketball outside the bathroom with black coworkers. It is seen in the casual acceptance of black athlete role models for white kids. It is seen in the elevation of Colin Powell and Bill Cosby to national father figures. "Can't you see how we've rejected racism," white people say. Indeed, countless polls show widespread acceptance of complete racial integration in America. A 1994 Harris Poll found that two-thirds of whites favored "full integration." A Gallup Poll the same year found that 87 percent approve of school integration. There are surveys showing that most whites would work with blacks to advance race relations, that a majority of whites would prefer living in racially "half-and-half" neighborhoods, that nearly half of all whites believe racially mixed schools have improved educational quality for white children, and that nearly three-fourths of all whites disapprove of laws against interracial marriage. One poll reported that only six percent of whites rated themselves as prejudiced. A survey of the Chicago metropolitan area, considered the most residentially divided area in the nation, found that a majority of whites supported programs to attract blacks to predominantly white suburbs. This list can go on and on, but the point is this: these polls are universally described as "good news"strong evidence that whites have accepted full integration and support real racial equality.
Given this apparent integration consensus and the professed devotion to it on the part of so many whites, it is fair to ask why there is so much racial angst in America. Isn't it enough that almost every public institution has made integration a formal priority? Shouldn't whites be praised for a tolerance almost unthinkable just a generation ago? Do we pay too much attention to the doom and gloom crowd in the civil rights movement, who may have an organizational stake in bad news? Hasn't remarkable progress been made? Lurking behind these questions is the one heard for almost forty years: What more do "they" want?
This is where American race relations turn deeply bittersweet, and this is where our story begins. For when you look behind the words and symbols, when you focus on what we do rather than what we say, when you explore who we are rather than who we think we are, a very different and racially divided America unfolds before usso different that you would think it wasn't the same country as the one of goodwill gestures and expressions of tolerance described above. Indeed, the history of American race relations is in many ways about the sad reality hiding behind the professed idealabout the contrast between the lives we actually lead and the way we want to see ourselves. This contrast was evident from the beginning of our nation, when our founders declared that "all men are created equal," but maintained slavery in their midst. It was evident when we fought two world wars to make the world safe for democracy, but with racially segregated army units. And it is evident todayalbeit more subtlyas the private lives we create for ourselves belie our public protestations of integration. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks," wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, and so do we about race. We have created a mass fiction of interracial comity, a grand illusion of imminent integration, perhaps because as a culture we have lost our ability to distinguish between symbolism and reality, or perhaps because we don't want to face the unpleasant truths about our beloved but divided America, or perhaps because we do indeed know the truth but for any number of reasons simply want to deny it.
Consider the many survey findings that herald the good news of white America's tolerance. A significant majority of whites say they would prefer to live in a mixed neighborhood, perhaps as mixed as half black, half white. But almost everywhere you look in every part of the country where more than a token number of blacks live, whites begin to flee from their communities the minute the first black family moves in. Often these are suburban communities where the new homeowners are middle-class or even affluent blacks. It is a classic case of the domino effect: each black family that moves in increases the likelihood that the remaining white families will leave. Integration exists only in the time span between the first black family moving in and the last white family moving out.
The very era that we applaud for racial progress tells a different story in communities like Sherman Park near Milwaukee, which lost 61 percent of its whites between 1970 and 1990; or Palmer Park, near Washington, D.C., which went from being virtually all white in the 1960s to virtually all black today; or the middle-class Philadelphia suburb of Yeadon, which doubled its black population in the 1980s, going from one-third to two-thirds black, and saw a corresponding decline among whites. Real estate agents will tell you that prospective white buyers show no interest in moving to these neighborhoods. And even if whites and blacks share the same zip code, they usually live on different sides of town. Near Atlanta, which bills itself as the city too busy to hate, residents of the predominantly white Gwinnett County overwhelmingly rejected a proposal in 1990 to join the area's rapid transit system, despite clogged roads and traffic jams, apparently because they did not want to open the gates to black suburban migration. It seems that everyone is for integration except in their own neighborhoods. None other than radio personality Howard Stern, not known for his racial sensitivity, summed it up best when talking about the transformation of the Long Island neighborhood of his youth: all the adults "preached brotherhood," he said, "and overnight there was an exodus, as soon as there was black skin in the community. That community didn't have to become all black at once. It could have become a fully integrated community. But people were phonies and left."
The story is no different when it comes to schools. A majority of whites support mixed public schools, but apparently not for their own children. A 1993 survey of whites from the Minneapolis suburbs found that two thirds favored sending white suburban children to the predominantly black Minneapolis public schools as a way to increase integration, but only seven percent said they would send their own child. Indeed, few whites will say they object to sending their kids to school with blacksit just depends on how many blacks. The public schools in Southfield, Michigan, have an active PTA and graduate about 90 percent of their students, which should appeal to any parent. Twenty years ago Southfield was nearly all white, and whites made up nearly 90 percent of the children in public schools. Today whites are still a majority in Southfield, making up about two-thirds of its population, but the schools are 70 percent black, as nearly half of the white school-age children opt out of the public schools. In community after community, the story is the same: blacks make up a significantly larger proportion of schoolchildren than their percentage of the school-age population, which means that large numbers of whites begin to flee the system for private schools when the black student population inches above the token. Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, is 53 percent black, but its schools are 97 percent black. Oklahoma City is 16 percent black, but its schools are about 40 percent black. As of 1998, there were fewer than 4,000 white children left in Atlanta's public schools. Nor should we be misled if the numbers for an entire school district make it appear integrated; the actual schools themselves are often segregated by race. In Illinois, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey, almost three in five black public school students attend schools that have fewer than 10 percent whites.
Even self-consciously progressive whites have their integration threshold, though they are often unwilling to admit it to themselves. A 90 percent black private elementary school tried to set down roots in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, but was driven out after a grassroots campaign opposed it for traffic and safety reasons, even though these issues had not arisen during the fifty years another prep school occupied the same building. Then there's the well-known, predominantly white New York City private school that distributed an anonymous questionnaire to its parents. Large numbers supported black-white friendships and goodwill scholarships to attract some minorities to the school. Everyone felt good about those findings. But when the survey revealed that almost nine in ten parents would not be comfortable with interracial dating among the kids, the parents collectively expressed outrage. Who could feel this way, who are these bigots among us, they asked with righteous indignation.
Perhaps the most intriguing evidence of our desire to appear more integrated than we are can be seen in the many surveys showing that 60 to almost 90 percent of whites claim to have a close, personal friend who is black. Now think about how we make close friends. It's usually with someone who lives nearby, someone we went to school with, someone whose kids are in the same class, or someone in the same profession, at the same status or socioeconomic level. How often do blacks and whites share these factors? Certainly not on suburban Long Island, home to approximately 200,000 blacks but where the chance of white people encountering a black living in their neighborhood is less than three percent. In fact, nearly half of all the counties in the United States have fewer than 250 blacks, and in areas where large numbers of blacks live, very rarely are the neighborhoods genuinely mixed. Nor is the workplace much different. Almost half of Americans work in small businesses, which tend to be the least racially mixed. And studies show that blacks and whites in the same workplace rarely hold jobs of equivalent status. There is also plenty of research showing that blacks and whites rarely socialize together and have only limited contact with one another in any venue outside of work and public transportation. So where do we become such close friends?
A closer look at the friendship numbers reveals an even more startling fact: If three quarters of whites have close black friends, then every black person in Americaincluding the isolated underclass locked in inner cities and the substantial number of blacks who say they don't have any meaningful contact or friendships with whiteswill on average be close friends with five or six white people. Or put it another way: there would have to be about 160 million blacks in America, not the 30 million who live here today, if every black were to have one close white friend. A 1992 Boston Globe survey of Massachusetts youth found that if whites and blacks were telling the truth about their interracial dating habits, "then each black person would have had to date an average of nine white people." To be generous, let's call it highly improbable, a product of our desire to be absolved of racism and our will to believe we are tolerant and good. As a black character in the John Grisham film A Time to Kill says ruefully in response to his white lawyer's affirmation that the two are friends: "We ain't no friends, Jake. We on different sides of the line. I ain't never seen you in my part of town. I bet you don't even know where I live. Our daughters, Jake, they ain't never gonna play together."
The dissonance between professed racial attitudes and actual racial reality should come as no surprise. Ever since the 1960s, as society began to shun overt bigotry and applaud gestures of racial tolerance, social scientists have found whites to exaggerate their contact with and support for blacks. As with any norm, people understandably want to be seen as conforming to itin this case, they are evincing society's antiracist and tolerant attitudes. In exit polls after elections, for example, more whites say they vote for black candidates than actually do. One study compared the different responses offered when the phone survey interviewer could be clearly identified as white or black. On topics such as racially mixed schools, friendships with blacks, and who's to blame for current black problems, white survey respondents who were interviewed by blacks consistently provided a more liberal or integrationist response than whites who were interviewed by whites. It could be that some whites simply know the socially acceptable answers and don't want to be perceived as prejudiced even to strangers on the phone. Others might truly believe their answers reflect their realitiesand in some cases they do. But even when they do, many times those realities are plainly misleading. One poll, for example, reported the apparent good news that a majority of whites say they live near blacks. But if one black family lives in a neighborhood of fifty families, every single white100 percentcan make that claim. So can all the remaining whites who live in neighborhoods undergoing racial change. Not only does such a snapshot fail to tell the whole story, but in this case it perpetuates an illusion. The point here is not to deny the credibility of all polls, many of which can be useful in comparing black and white attitudes, but merely to show how powerfully the integration illusion defines our perceptions and self-image. Call it racial civility, decorous integration, or the politeness conspiracythe bottom line is that our professed attitudes, symbols, and public expressions masquerade as integrated when our lives clearly are not. And what people say is less important than what they do.
Once we strip away the rhetoric and symbolism of integration, we are left with a society only marginally less divided than it was on that hot August day when a quarter of a million Americans descended on Washington for the great civil rights march of 1963. The barriers then were legal segregation and the complete violation of the rights of America's black citizens. The barriers today create a different type of separationbehavioral, social, residential, and psychologicalbut it is an abiding and resilient separation nonetheless.
Meet the Author
Barbara Diggs-Brown is an associate professor of public communication at the American University School of Communication. She writes and lectures on cultural diversity in the media and has served as a media and press adviser for political campaigns, public officials, and advocacy groups. She lives outside of Washington, D.C.
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