THE CLOSEST OF STRANGERS: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York by Jim Sleeper (Norton: $21.95; 330 pp.). While the anticipated military victory in the Middle East is sweeping away our dejection over losing Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam, there is a growing sense that we might have lost Johnson's other war, the one on poverty at home. Despite more than two decades of social engineering, from busing to low-income housing, African Americans in particular continue to be marginalized in big cities like New York, prompting journalists such as Newsday's Jim Sleeper to suggest that the social programs, however well-intentioned, are only "coddling the poor into a chronic dependency." This might sound like rhetoric from a less kind and gentle America, but Sleeper's portraits of inner-city poverty--6,000 young blacks lining up for 2,000 summer jobs, for instance--are so moving that his empathy must be deeply felt.
Sleeper's sharp jabs are directed not at the underclass but at real-estate speculators who milk welfare-tenant buildings into abandonment, leftist journalists who weave "fanatical conspiracy theories" that only intimidate black aspirations, and politicians who buy off minority protest by adding names to welfare rolls rather than attacking the roots of racism. His dismissal of programs such as affirmative action is too glib ("Two wrongs don't make a right") and one wishes he had assailed a political system that encourages everyone to play dirty pool rather than singling out liberal special interests. But all in all, "The Closest of Strangers" is an impressively frank and nimble polemic.