The Limits of Indignation

Late one June night in 1982, Willie Turks, a thirty-four-year-old New York City transit employee coming off his shift, was surrounded and beaten to death by a mob of fifteen to twenty young whites in the mostly Italian-American, Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend. "There was a lynch mob that night," the judge remarked in sentencing one assailant for manslaughter. "The only thing missing was a rope and a tree." Indeed, four years later, when whites in nearby Howard Beach chased Michael Griffith onto a highway where he was struck and killed by a car, New York Newsday columnist Murray Kempton would note that "direct homicide was clearer cut in Turks' case than in Griffith's."

Yet Turks's awful death prompted nothing like the national outpouring of condemnation and concern that would descend upon Howard Beach in 1986. Though the Howard Beach case was flawed, it riveted the national media, drew protest marchers from far and wide, and even inspired a TV docudrama.

I have often puzzled over what this discrepancy in public outcry might reveal about our political culture's mood swings and fault lines around the problem of race. I wonder whether incidents like Howard Beach, which intermittently capture public attention, really help to rekindle the sense of "moral urgency" about racism that journalist Nicholas Lemann rightly says we need. To the public, such events seem to be long on human interest, but depressingly short on political clarity. Often, they distort as much as they reveal, alienate those who are harmed by their over-simplifications, and thereby compromise the country's ability to frame and keep long-term commitments. Our challenge, it seems to me, is not simply to arouse a sense of moral urgency but also to devise political strategies that can temper, sustain, and direct it toward restructuring the society that spawns racism and ghettos.


* * *

I am reinforced in these thoughts by the effusions of reviewers and columnists this spring over Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here and Lemann's The Promised Land. Kotlowitz's book is a loving, heartbreaking portrait of two black boys growing up in a violent Chicago housing project. Lemann's is an epic account of personal and political dramas in the great black postwar migration, taking us from the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s, where the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker uprooted poor black sharecroppers, to the Chicago ghettos, then to the Washington aeries where the War on Poverty was hatched; and finally back to the Delta, where some Chicago migrants, barely touched by federal programs and seared by paradigmatic personal and political tragedies, have returned in confusion, exhaustion, and, sometimes, bitterness.

These are certainly two serious and important books. They complement each other beautifully to give us historical and personal portraits of poor rural and inner-city blacks. But each, for different reasons, is short on hard-headed political intelligence -- the realism that informs Thomas and Mary Edsall's profoundly troubling essay on race in The Atlantic, adapted from Thomas Edsall's forthcoming book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, to be published by W.W. Norton in September.

Just as Willie Turks preceded Michael Griffith, so have many compelling accounts of ghettos and black poverty preceded Lemann's and Kotlowitz's. Yet in April, for the first time in perhaps twenty years, a broad range of commentators seized upon these two books in a sudden surge of indignation over the fate of the inner city. The New York Times's Anthony Lewis, long a civil rights advocate, celebrated Lemann's "riveting" account as a clarion call to renew the fight against black poverty. Conservative George Will seemed to have been on some personal road from Nancy Reagan's White House to the biblical Damascus when he encountered Lemann's book, which he pronounced "comparable in scale to, and even better in execution than, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, published forty-seven years ago."

A New York Times editorial opined that Lemann's and Kotlowitz'sbooks "can educate America....If comfortable citizens can only come to see how much even the poorest blacks want to escape, America can start making the ghetto disappear." "On to Washington!" cried Osborn Elliott, reflecting the rising mood, in a Newsweek column calling for the greatest march on the nation's capital since 1963, this time on behalf of our beleaguered cities. The Wall Street Journal's Albert Hunt urged the presidential librarian to put Lemann's and Kotlowitz's books on George Bush's night table in hopes of igniting a new domestic agenda. On a darker but no less impassioned note, Gary Wills found in The Promised Land a long-overdue indictment of self-indulgent white racist condescension toward blacks, which, he warned, is ubiquitous among liberals and certain to undermine all efforts to help the black poor if we don't fully acknowledge our guilt.

Missing from every one of these discussions and from the books themselves is an adequate analysis of how a national commitment to relieve the plight of the ghettos might be shaped and sustained. There are, after all, political trenches beyond the covers of these narratives and the sympathetic community that will read them -- a vast and shifting terrain peopled by beleaguered white ethnics and lower-middle-class blacks, white-collar suburbanites, and growing communities of immigrant Asians and Latinos, in short, the majority of Americans. Are they to be enlisted in the new urban crusade? If so, how?

If those who would expend energy and resources against racial and economic inequity don't answer these questions, the current fervor is bound to dissipate in one of two directions. Either it will evaporate in clouds of pious abstraction, or it will sink into gratuitously bitter denunciations of past efforts and fatalism about the supposedly immutable racism behind the horrors Kotlowitz and Lemann portray.

Our challenge is to blend moral passion with unsentimental political analysis, such as that in the Edsalls' work, to build a new politics that speaks to the nation we have become. Merely rekindling the old sense of moral urgency, or seeking new Democratic buzzwords to attract alienated white ethnics, won't be enough. Liberals need to find a new common ground, on compelling, substantive agendas that can unite working Americans across the deepening racial divide.


* * *

It is hardly Kotlowitz's fault that these books have incited a movement of columnists leading marches on bookstores. Kotlowitz does not pretend to address political questions in There Are No Children Here, and nothing about the sort of book he has written obligates him do so. Rather, Kotlowitz's vivid portrait of Lafayette, Pharoah, and LaJoe, two young boys and their mother struggling to survive with Lajoe's other children in Chicago's terrifying Henry Horner projects, owes its great power to unusual, personal qualities in both the author and his subjects. Kotlowitz deeply loves the people he is writing about, yet his compassion for their terrible adversity is rendered in a quiet prose that enhances their humanity -- and the author's.

Kotlowitz focuses intensely on minute aspects of his subjects' daily lives to convey their plight, their yearning, and, ultimately, their dignity. It is a noble and searingly beautiful sublimation, weaving the terrors of drug wars into the ordinariness of kitchen breakfasts, spelling bees, and window-shopping trips to the Loop. As the writer Samuel Freedman said to me of this book, you read it almost ploddingly, put it down, and then the cumulative power of the narrative just explodes inside your head.

Because There Are No Children Here is at once so intimate and so unobtrusive, it gives the reader the knowledge and the freedom to develop a personal commitment to Lafayette, Pharoah, and LaJoe. Putting the book aside during a busy week, I found myself wanting, morally as well as emotionally, to return to Pharoah, wanting not to leave him trapped there between the book's hard covers. I couldn't help him and his family, yet somehow I wanted to join Kotlowitz in bearing witness to their experience and, in so doing, to take up what felt like a direct relationship with them. I cannot imagine Kotlowitz's story having gripped me this way had he not first placed himself at risk in his subjects' lives, sometimes even bruising them and being bruised in return. In a footnote, he reports that Lajoe's welfare benefits were cut off after one of his articles about her in The Wall Street Journal prompted welfare workers to open an investigation into the status of her relationship with her husband. The cutoff, based on flawed documents that failed to record the parents' actual separation, plunged Lajoe and her children into despair. It forced her to search unsuccessfully for work and to stay out nights gambling with friends to make a few dollars. Coming home late on one of those nights, she was assaulted by a mugger who severed the nerves in two of her fingers. Kotlowitz channels what must have been deep feelings of guilt and obligation (he never mentions them) into a narrative ever more intense, ever more spare. The depth of this quiet personal commitment recalls that of Ned O'Gorman, a white teacher in Harlem, in his The Children Are Dying, and of Robert Coles in Children of Crisis.


* * *

LaJoe seems a person as remarkable as the author. I believe Kotlowitz wrote the kind of narrative he did because there was no other way to keep faith with her stoic endurance. Lajoe loses a good husband to heroin; a daughter to prostitution; her oldest and once-closest son, Terence, to drug gangs and prison. (On the eve of his departure, Terence blames her for having abandoned him by giving birth to Lafayette and Pharoah.) Yet somehow she remains a loving, watchful, patient, and determined mother to Lafayette and Pharoah, who in turn feel so protective of her that, sometimes, watching her suffer, they cry.

LaJoe is all the more startling amid the brutality and social disintegration that have claimed so much of her family. She is a person with deep values, which she is powerless to employ beyond the confines of her dilapidated apartment and her relationships with her younger children. That she may fail ultimately even there is suggested in the fates of her older ones. An internal refugee from what her own people have become, keeping her head down amid the mayhem, Lajoe hangs on to hope and, at the book's dose, Lafayette and Pharoah still hang on to her.

Something in the nature of the bond I found myself forging with LaJoe and her sons allowed me to forget that they are black. At least I forgot it for what seemed like long stretches of time, as Kotlowitz, too, must have done. I think that forgetfulness is a credit to the depth of the author's moral imagination, his ability to feel his way inside these people's skins -- even as he faithfully reproduces their distinctively black, inner-city idiom -- and look out at the world in the familiarly human way they do. Kotlowitz's greatest gift to race relations may be this willingness and ability to submerge our sense of racial difference in a common humanity.

In The Promised Land, I never entirely forgot that Lemann's subjects are black. Lemann seems to have debriefed Ruby Lee Daniels Haynes and her family and friends at great length and summarized what they've told him in order to fulfill a narrative mission -- to trace the great black northward migration of the postwar years. The resulting portrait of Lemann's migrants is clinically flat, a style noted by David Garrow in Newsday and The New York Times's Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote that Kotlowitz's intimacy with his subjects fills in "the dead spot" in Lemann's book. But what The Promised Land lacks in human depth, it amply achieves in historical sweep. Lemann's well-structured account of The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America weaves together an impressive array of narratives and experiences, and it is clearly, sometimes elegantly, penned. He has done prodigious research and borne witness to tremendous exertion, pain, and sadness.

Lemann's account of Ruby and her circle places great weight on the effects of the sharecropper culture, borne of racist exploitation, which the migrants brought North with them. He believes that its loose family structure and its enforced isolation from formal education, job training, or property ownership all but foredoomed the migrants to failure in the urban ghettos. But many historians, including James Grossman, author of Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration, demur. They think that northern racism and economic dislocation played a far greater role than sharecropper culture in the immiseration of the ghettos. That the sharecropper culture alone was not decisive is suggested in the fact that there were at least twice as many two-parent families among blacks newly arrived in northern cities in the late 1940s -- and less than half as many births out of wedlock at that time as there are today. The sociologist Reynolds Farley reports that Census data from 1910 to 1960 show that marriage rates among women in the rural South were actually higher than among women in the cities in the South and other regions. And the first waves of blacks who migrated out of the South were, like most immigrants from abroad, the better educated and more skilled. The problems Lemann describes characterize those who were literally driven off the land by the widespread adoption of the mechanical picker.

In short, factors other than the sharecropper culture have played a more important role than Lemann has assigned them. These include not just Northern racism and economic dislocation, but the impact of poorly designed, needlessly polarizing social policies -- such as wholesale busing of schoolchildren and the abandonment of tenant screening in public housing projects -- as well as serious tactical mistakes by militant black urban leaders and well-meaning whites who indulged them.

Lemann's acknowledgement of these other forces is eclipsed by his heavy emphasis on two simple factors: the absence of discipline in Ruby's own community and mistaken policies that emanated from Washington. Political isolation, exploitation, and unemployment did as much to fracture interracial progress as did the legacies of the sharecropper culture or the whims of Washington policymakers.

Lemann's account of the War on Poverty, like his overemphasis on the sharecropper culture, is one-dimensional and ultimately inconclusive. His view of the policy process is top-down. He does not quite grasp the rich interplay between mass demands and elite responses, captured so effectively in Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. In accounting for the genesis and failure of the War on Poverty, Lemann gives great weight to the eccentricities of such willful men as Robert F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Lyndon Johnson, and Sargent Shriver. Some of these criticisms seem telling. Lemann is certainly right to identify as the signal failure of federal policy the refusal of both Johnson and Richard Nixon to develop hundreds of thousands of jobs for the inner-city poor.

But I would like to have learned much more from Lemann about the larger forces that conditioned the War on Poverty -- the national political temper outside the Beltway, which afforded presidents and policymakers only the narrowest window for antipoverty policies. Political and budgetary constraints drove them to place too much faith in race-specific remedies, and not enough emphasis on multi-racial economic uplift. Foreign policy preoccupations drew Johnson and others into Vietnam, drawing attention and, ultimately, resources, away from antipoverty programs.

Lemann's political account is flawed at the local level as well. While he correctly reports that Chicago blacks faced a virtual wall of white ethnic resistance, he tells us next to nothing about the history, culture, and economic stakes of those white ethnics. When he mentions them at all, he often stereotypes them. The implication is that the virulence of their racism is explanation enough of what went wrong. There are more intricacies in the relationship among blacks and whites in Chicago than in Lemann's account of the combination poker and chess game over neighborhood change.

For example, Lemann describes at length the game of bluffing, bargaining, and brokering played by white realtors and Democratic machine politicians aiming to channel and contain the black influx. But he says next to nothing about the social experience and economic vulnerability of working-class whites whose life savings and retirement plans are bound up in the property values of bungalows in neighborhoods targeted by block busters and isolated by bank redlining. He does not acknowledge that the ethnic poker game over neighborhood change is driven as much by valid fears for economic and personal security as by simple racism.

Lemann sometimes mischaracterizes black aspirations and strategies,too. To show that poor blacks want only to escape the inner city as individuals, Lemann cites the black Contract Buyers' League in Chicago. In 1970, by stopping Lawndale realtors from selling blacks houses they couldn't afford in the expectation of repossessing them quickly, the League won what Lemann calls "a victory for blacks who wanted to establish themselves outside of the slums." But that characterization misses the point. Elsewhere in the book, Lemann correctly describes Lawndale as one of the poorest parts of the city. The league was, in reality, an organization of people who wanted to strengthen a specific community and their roots in it, not to flee it.

Lemann too easily conflates all black inner-city life with the underclass life that indeed makes community organization all but impossible. In fact, Lemann betrays a profound disillusionment with cities in general. He may be justified in feeling that way, but he fails to explain or defend the implications of his dismissal of virtually every kind of grassroots, urban politics.

In fairness, Lemann chose one of the nation's most hyper-segregated cities, a place where whites have engaged in some of the most aggressively exclusionary tactics recorded anywhere outside the deep South. Chicago's institutionalized racism may resemble that of some cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, but it does not so clearly resemble that of New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or even Dallas. Before one can generalize about black poverty and its remedies, there are important lessons to be learned from the experience in other regions and cities.


* * *

The Promised Land is valuable as an original synthesis of narratives that have not been brought together in this way before. What it lacks, I think, is political radar, by which I mean not an ideology but a capacity to oscillate between theory and practice. Lemann seems uncomfortable with both political conflict and political theory. Yet, unlike Kotlowitz, who is content to stand his ground in one apartment and the few square blocks around it that fix his subjects' horizons, Lemann attempts a kind of omniscience. At several points in the narrative and in an afterword, he makes an explicit bid to be taken seriously as a policy analyst. Here, I think, commentators are terribly wrong to have indulged him.

In his afterword, Lemann sets out presumptive truths about how the politics of social reform might proceed:
Obviously the public is not now clamoring for a major increase in government spending on the ghettos. That should not be a cause for despair. Racial progress has almost never been a populist or popular cause, except, of course, among blacks. The alliance that in the past has produced racial reform is one between blacks and white liberals, and they have been able, in the best cases at least, to bring a recalcitrant public around to agreement with their views.... The real impediment in the short run is not a lack of political support -- which in racial matters always comes after the fact, if it comes at all -- but a weakness of spirit. ... Our lack of faith in Americans' ability to put aside selfish concerns and address the big problems has produced a conviction, even among people who want to mount a new assault on ghetto poverty, that it would have to be camouflaged in some way. So the call to action is always couched as something else: a new family policy, or children's policy, or drug policy, or civil rights policy... The result of all this well-intentioned fuzzing up of the true nature of the tragedy in the ghettos is a loss of moral urgency, and all causes need moral urgency if they are to be fulfilled.... The United States has an undeniable strain of racial prejudice in its character, but it also has a racial conscience, which periodically comes to the fore. What brings it out is the demonstration of conditions in black America that are intolerable and that are clearly linked to the country's history of departing from its democratic ideals in the case of blacks. To be born into a ghetto is to be consigned to a fate that no American should have to suffer. The more clearly we can be made to see that and to understand the causes of the situation, the less likely it is that we will let it stand.

With these words Lemann concludes The Promised Land. But in a society where most poor people are white and where most whites' real incomes have been stagnating, "couching" help for poor blacks in broader social programs has a far more compelling justification than squeamishness about racism. It is quite simply the only way to moderate the inequities that deepen the virulence of racism itself.

A good illustration of Lemann's misunderstanding of class and of local politics is his myopic rendering of the experiences of interracial community organizations and unions. Their history suggests that calls to transcend a "weakness of spirit" have never been potent enough to advance social justice without independent, economically grounded political work that does far more than bring white liberals and blacks together.

Think of the striking New York Daily News employees who put aside racial grievances to defend the principle of unionization, with strong and astute support from Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union, an organization of poorly paid black and Latino women that was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "favorite union" and one of his finest legacies in New York. Think of the thousands of low-priced Nehemiah Homes being built, in New York neighborhoods long thought drained of political and economic clout, by low- and moderate-income church-goers of all colors who work together in organizations nurtured by the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Of such efforts, Lemann has either a low opinion or none at all. At best, he says, community organizing "can do no harm." In his view, such organizing presumes "a link between political empowerment and personal economic advancement that doesn't exist." The rigors and rewards of personal upward (and outward) mobility are, for him, the only game in town: People will rise or fall according to how seriously they are able to strive.

Lemann does not understand that people learn these disciplines in groups; that they build insurgent unions and community organizations after finding that the deck is stacked against them and that collective action is needed to remove obstacles in their path. These are not just racist obstacles, but capitalist ones, refracted through the cooptive politics of urban political machines. The Daley organization in Chicago claimed to speak for the ethnic neighborhoods, but it deferred to the big-time developers, leaving blacks and white ethnics to fight over what was left.

On the national level, it is simply not true that, as Lemann claims, "racial progress has almost never been a populist or popular cause, except, of course, among blacks." The civil rights movement, and, before it, the labor movement and the political left, worked the political trenches in factories, fields, churches, and neighborhoods North and South for thirty years, forging a broad popular consensus that the nation must open up new opportunities to blacks. That consensus, electrified in the early 1960s by televised beatings of peaceful demonstrators, may have been short-lived, but it was critical, and it was long in the making. TV was one of its catalysts, not its creator.

Lemann seems to acknowledge at least part of this truth in claiming that forthright showings of black suffering and need can prod America's racial conscience. But that hope, which he expresses in a disembodied way, is contradicted by his contention that enlightened white liberals and blacks can somehow drag a recalcitrant broader public along. The "we" in his closing sentence -- those responsible for racial progress -- are really a morally aroused social elite, not an economically aroused mass electorate.


* * *

The problem is that politics does not work this way. Presidents don't just lead; they are also prodded and dragged. As Lemann's own account makes clear, John Kennedy was cornered by the courage and hard work of thousands of ordinary Americans into supporting civil rights and anti-poverty efforts, and Lyndon Johnson felt driven to outdo Kennedy. To suggest that the advancement of social justice depends in the first instance on national leaders' initiatives and on their ability to arouse the national conscience discounts unfairly the role of grassroots politics in forcing politicians to address problems and, even more important, in helping to achieve solutions that can be neither imposed bureaucratically nor left to the market.

Lemann's call to a nebulous "we" to mount assaults on black poverty ignores the necessary politics of multi-racial alliance. It devalues the economic realities of low-income whites and recent immigrants of color. It discounts working-class non-blacks' sense of fair play by expecting more of them than they should give absent a dear national plan that demands sacrifice by the rich and places some social obligations on the poor. Lemann tells us about the self-indulgence of White House crusaders, but not about the mortgage-tax-deduction subsidies on second and third homes which affluent Americans ought to give up to subsidize housing for people who really need it. He does not mention how the social policies of the 1980s have cost New York City 40,000 federally assisted units, roughly equivalent to the number of homeless people on that city's streets. The impasse of racial politics is connected to a political economy that pits economically stressed Americans of all races against one another. Isn't that part of the story, too?

Isn't it necessary, before sallying forth on behalf of the black poor, to sketch the difficult political work to be done in a country where more whites face the specter of downward mobility than anyone could have imagined in the 1960s; where there are now more working-class suburbanites who fear cities than there are working-class urbanites who care for them; and in which blacks are now outnumbered by other people of color whose experiences, ideas, and interests diverge from theirs? And, since Lemann emphasizes Johnson's and Nixon's failures to create a massive jobs program, why does he not call for one now?

* * *

The political realities Lemann overlooks are the subject of Thomas and Mary Edsall's "Race," the cover story of The Atlantic's May issue. This long essay comes on like a cold-air front, sweeping away the high-pressure system that has formed over the Lemann and Kotlowitz books and shifting the focus of debate toward serious politics. It is troubling not only in the salutary sense that its political realism punctures hot-air balloons, but also in the sense that it may lend itself, in the wrong hands, to counsels of political cynicism or despair.

The picture the Edsalls paint is indeed grim. They report that racial resentment, fed by economic contraction and wrong-headed, race-specific public policies, has driven "a wedge right through the heart of the old Democratic presidential coalition and threatens to undermine the genuine advances in racial equality which have occurred in the years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act." Working- and middle-class whites increasingly feel that rights-based and race-based public policies have forced them "to finance a revolution challenging their own values and often undermining their hard-won security." So great is their resentment of the Democratic Party, which they believe conscripted them into that revolution, that they are lining up electorally with conservative Republicans who preach what the Edsalls warn is a phony egalitarianism that benefits only the affluent and the upper-middle class.

The hated public policies -- "busing, affirmative action, and much of the rights revolution on behalf of criminal defendants, prisoners, homosexuals, welfare recipients, and a host of other previously marginalized groups" -- are familiar enough. So is the simultaneous increase in "crime, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, and educational failure," which "have established in the minds of many voters a numbing array of 'costs' -- perceived and real -- of liberalism." Most of the American poor are white, but in recent decades they have been relatively quiescent; in contrast, the minority poor and their advocates are "perceived" by most whites to have been noisy and nasty, while working and middle-class whites whose real incomes are falling amid that disruption have responded, sometimes in kind. By now, these voters have all but foreclosed racially redistributionist policies, whether driven by litigation or legislation.

It does no good to argue that "middle-class" values too have weakened, as if that washes away the threat of the underclass. It may be true, as sociologist Kristin Luker has noted in these pages ("Dubious Conceptions," TAP, Spring 1991), that white births out of wedlock are rising even more quickly than black ones. But that rise has made out-of-wedlock births a cause of alarm in most white communities, where "illegitimacy" is still far from the norm, while among most blacks it has, in fact, become the norm. The result is not the racial convergence the statistics might suggest but, on the level of values, a starker racial polarization based on whites' sense of a "black" threat.

The Edsalls' reference to "perceived" as well as "real" costs is important, since many of the developments they cite as contributors to social decay and economic insecurity reflect neither liberal indulgence nor liberal policies. It is the globalization of the economy that widens the wage differentials between college and high-school graduates, locking a disproportionate number of blacks out of economic advancement and hence out of any viable coalition with middle-class whites. And it is suburbanization, a trend accelerated by Republican as well as Democratic policies, which, combined with Republican "new federalism," localizes public taxing and spending, producing a white electorate increasingly indifferent to the fate of inner cities.

Faced with this political and economic realignment, the Edsalls note, Democratic incumbents outside cities have sustained themselves by pandering to suburban interests, just as Republicans do, and by collecting money from an "essentially corrupt" system of campaign finance. That undermines their ability and their inclination to lead coalitions of dispossessed and working people, even where the potential for such alliances exists. And "as liberalism fails to provide effective challenge [to the interests of the rich] the country will lack the dynamism that only a sustained and vibrant insurgency of those on the lower rungs can provide."

The obvious conclusion to the Edsalls' analysis is that Democrats must rethink their support for race-specific, rights-based policies. They must find ways to affirm and defend basic civil rights without attempting to tailor public policy to produce racially distributed outcomes. Not until the party clears its deck of such programs and the minority-rights-based rhetoric that supports them can it hope to focus both blacks' and whites' attention on the larger economic injustices that harm the latter as well as the former. Such hard-boiled prescriptions could not be further from Lemann's call for an alliance of white liberals and blacks to prick the nation's racial conscience and inaugurate programs designed explicitly to save the inner cities.


* * *

But if the Edsalls appear to have scant faith in Lemann's sanguine proposals, they seem to have no faith at all that the Democrats will negotiate the necessary shift away from race-besotted policies and dependence on political action committees. Their essay ends on a note of despair. Nothing short of a full Democratic defeat, they say, including the possible loss of control of Congress, is likely to bring to its senses a party that has mortgaged itself so steeply to special interests, high and low.

This is not entirely fair. Though they excoriate liberal elites, in a manner not unlike Lemann, the Edsalls' own account makes clear that liberal leaders were not responsible for all of the developments that pushed racial politics to center stage in the 1960s, and that trapped many Democratic politicians into supporting race-based remedies in the 1970s. Democrats were, more often, the reactive agents than they were the active champions of the racialization of public policy. And as social decay continues to hurt blacks even more than whites, it is not so easy, morally or politically, to sponsor a radical break with the sometimes perverse legal doctrines that have spawned race-specific remedies.

Still, the Edsalls are basically right about our present political impasse. If liberals continue to assume, as too many are wont to do, that eternal racism explains every instance of popular resistance to the "civil rights agenda" -- if Lemann's "we" continue to prescribe race-specific remedies instead of calling for full employment and universal health insurance and building interracial coalitions to support them -- we will end up blowing our trumpets in the wind.

Certainly racial violence and discrimination must be fought wherever they surface -- not just when we feel like it, as we did in Howard Beach. Our inattention to Willie Turks and Gravesend notwithstanding, liberals have a long and noble heritage of struggles against racism with which to keep faith. But we have to learn to say more frankly that racism's bitter legacies will not be dissolved by anti-racist activities or racially targeted programs alone. If anything, they may be compounded by such efforts at this pass in our history.

The long, sorrowful journey of the black poor from Clarksdale to Chicago and back traces a deep fault line in our society, and it is an enduring national shame. But that legacy will never be ended by an alliance of white liberals and blacks dragging the rest of the country along. That essential truth, and the painful reassessment of recent liberal strategies which it ought to compel, was fatefully missing from all the excitement about the Lemann and Kotlowitz books. The message of the Edsalls' essay is that the limitations of that quintes-sentially 1960s alliance must be understood more fully, and without recrimination, if we are to move forward from here.

You may also like