Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

One Nation, Under God

A DREAM DEFERRED: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.\o7 By Shelby Steele (HarperCollins: 186 pp., $24)\f7 ; SOMEONE ELSE'S HOUSE: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration.\o7 By Tamar Jacoby (The Free Press: 614 pp., $30)\f7 ; LIBERAL RACISM: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream.\o7 By Jim Sleeper (Penguin: 196 pp., $12.95 paper)\f7 ; WE HAD A DREAM: A Tale of the Struggles for Integration in America.\o7 By Howard Kohn (Simon & Schuster: 368 pp., $25)\f7

October 04, 1998|JACKSON LEARS | Jackson Lears teaches American cultural history at Rutgers University. He is working on a book about gambling and luck in American history

One evening some 30 years ago, the Smothers Brothers sang "The Lord is Colorblind" to a nationwide television audience. The movement for black equality had not completely passed beyond its early, epic phase; racial integration remained a shining ideal in many Americans' minds. It was a long time ago. Imagine the reactions that song might evoke today--bafflement, embarrassment, derision. We have entered an era when awareness of race seems inescapable, part of the atmosphere we breathe. Notions of colorblindness seem a remnant of liberal sentimentality.

The decline of integration was part of a broader transformation of American political culture, a shift from a universalist vocabulary of justice and freedom to a particularist language of identity and self-esteem. All the social movements of the 1960s were affected by this sea-change, but none as profoundly as the struggle for racial equality. The turn from colorblindness to black power was an understandable response to assimilationist orthodoxy, a necessary rejection of the assumption that the majority white culture epitomized everything admirable and desirable in American life. Yet the long-term results of this rejection have been more problematic. Race controversy has produced the longest-running psychodrama in town; substantive reform has given way to rituals of expiation; racial politics has turned into an awkward amalgam of bureaucratic mandates and group therapy.

Amid this confusion, the integrationist vision becomes all the more appealing. These authors share it. Shelby Steele, Tamar Jacoby and Jim Sleeper want to rescue it from sensitivity trainers, diversity managers, affirmative action activists--the whole "race industry" (in Sleeper's phrase) which has acquired a major stake in the color-coding of American society. Howard Kohn is less concerned with policy than with the intermingling of public and personal lives in a single community: Prince George's County, Md., a rapidly integrating suburb of Washington. The stories Kohn tells suggest that Americans of various hues may be finding their own ways out of the morass of race-consciousness. The most hopeful evidence lies beyond the rancor and posturing of the public debate, beyond the bureaucratic formulas. The integrationist vision is being realized--however imperfectly--in the private realm of love and marriage.

These books, whatever their various flaws, constitute an encouraging resurgence of integrationist thought. Steele's "A Dream Deferred" is the most sweeping in its formulations, the least attached to detailed evidence. Still he makes some perceptive observations. His sharpest is that interventionist programs often serve to establish white virtue as much as to aid black development. He wonders what would have happened if the young Charlie Parker had been the target of affirmative action aimed at improving black musical performance: His tutor secretly believes the boy is too damaged ever to master the saxophone or read music; Charlie himself senses his tutor's pity and fears his own inadequacy; both parties suspect that the saxophone, a European instrument, should probably not be imposed on an African American child; ultimately Charlie quits, but the tutor's father tells his son: "What pleases me most is how YOU are developing as a human being." Solicitous interventions sometimes damage the object of solicitude.

Steele is a clever critic of therapeutic cant, but his polemic suffers from its uncritical attachment to certain neoconservative assumptions. He assumes without citing evidence that affirmative action has been "obviously ineffective," but if the aim of the program was professional advancement for women and minorities, then it was effective. He accepts SAT scores as evidence of achievement, without questioning the pernicious influence of the Educational Testing Service in promoting a class-bound, narrowly technocratic model of education. Like other would-be meritocrats who embrace the ETS model, Steele fails to see its connection to a narrowly managerial position of personal achievement.

The bland sterility of this ETS model makes African American culture seem a sensuous, spontaneous and sociable alternative for white kids seeking some vitality outside the mainstream. Steele overlooks the complex significance of crossover styles (rap music, baggy jeans and the like), relying on a familiar litany, invoking familiar values of self-reliance, hard work and moral responsibility. These values are central to American ideals of citizenship and character; it would be frivolous to deny their importance. But they are not a full prescription for a satisfying life nor an antidote to contemporary racial injustice.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|