State of the Debate: The Rise and Fall of Racialized Liberalism


Fred Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities (Free Press, 1997).

Tamar Jacoby, Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration (Free Press, 1998).

In the mid- to late 1960s, when reform still seemed both limitless and inevitable, a few dissident big-city writers warned of an impending crisis in urban liberal politics. "Liberal politicians (with the concurrence of radicals)," the New York feminist critic Ellen Willis observed, had dangerously "dismissed the workingman's fear of crime as racist paranoia and his resentment at having to support people who did not work as social backwardness." The dissidents charged that these mainstream liberals, viewing white racism as the chief source of urban injustice, had demonized white ethnics while pandering to zealots who claimed to speak on behalf of the ghetto masses.

At the time, these warnings did not win much attention in the tone-setting liberal editors' offices and foundation boardrooms. Nor, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, was there much hope of building enduring political alliances between urban blacks and blue-collar whites, despite the efforts of figures like Mario Cuomo, Ray Flynn, and Major Owens. On the left, confrontations and black-power rhetoric became substitutes for politics; on the right, bigotry and cynical opportunism forestalled appeals to conscience and civic virtue; and the nation's cities fell deeper into debt, despair, and disrepair. Liberals continued to dominate the city councils and, in most cases, the mayor's offices of the largest American cities through the 1980s -- but to little avail. By the early 1990s, many voters were ripe for revolt -- and in heavily Democratic New York and Los Angeles, the nation's greatest cities, moderate Republican mayors took power, pledged to rejecting the liberal ideas of the past.

What went wrong? Why did big-city liberalism, one of the durable cornerstones of modern American reform, fail to rectify long-standing urban ills? In particular, why did race relations in the big cities, so fundamental to recent urban turmoil, appear only to worsen under liberal municipal governments?

According to such influential writers as Andrew Hacker, Derrick Bell, and Tom Wicker, race has actually been the key factor in explaining the cities' difficulties. Minimizing the advances made by black Americans since the 1950s, these writers claim that the nation's deep-seated white racism has utterly confounded even the best-intentioned efforts to improve conditions in the inner cities. Over the past 30 years, they charge, white urbanites have voted first with their feet (by fleeing to racially homogenous suburbs), and then with their ballots (by helping to elect conservative state and national candidates who have been happy to let the cities rot). Integration, a rallying cry of both the early civil rights movement and of 1960s urban reform has, supposedly, turned out to be a sham -- one that, at best, was based on a naive optimism about the goodwill of white Americans and that, at worst, advanced paternalist and racist desires to eradicate black American culture.

Fred Siegel and Tamar Jacoby stoutly contest this view -- and in doing so they recover and amplify some of the forgotten misgivings of Willis and others. In many ways, their books are remarkably similar to each other. Both examine the politics of liberalism and race in three American cities (with both discussing New York) from the 1960s to the present. Both identify the rise of the black-power movement as a disastrous turning point. Both authors are staunch integrationists and are hard on contemporary liberal and left views about race and the cities. They share connections to the center-right Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (Siegel is the former editor of the institute's periodical, City Journal; Jacoby is a current adjunct fellow), and they share the same publisher. Siegel is a historian-turned-journalist; Jacoby is a journalist-turned-historian.

There, however, the similarities end. Siegel's book, the thinner of the two, paradoxically takes its title from some poignant remarks of Cuomo's, to the effect that during the New Deal era, the future took shape in the nation's big cities. Siegel shares Cuomo's admiration for the federal and municipal efforts of the 1930s and 1940s (especially in Fiorello LaGuardia's New York) that put the unemployed to work and that built public housing projects, parks, parkways, public schools, and more. But whereas Cuomo and other liberals might hanker for a revival of the good old days, Siegel thinks that the New Deal legacy has become a terrible burden. As early as the 1930s, Siegel points out, economic decentralization and suburbanization (underwritten by low-interest long-term federal mortgages for single-family homes) were beginning to weaken the established big-city economies. Even where, he notes, federal and state largesse covered the lion's share of new spending (as in New York), municipal spending and debt expanded precipitously, opening the way for fiscal philandering. And although the New Deal helped the older eastern and midwestern cities, its massive aid to the South and West also helped build up competing cities, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, in what would become known as the Sun Belt.

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By failing to adjust to these changes, and by clinging to what Siegel sees as an outmoded and corrupting dependency on federal support, the older cities, he suggests, set themselves up for fiscal and political disaster. That disaster, however, along with the problems that still afflict the nation's cities, came, he insists, not from New Deal liberalism per se, but from "policy choices produced in the 1960's" -- choices that racialized New Deal objectives and pitted an alliance of liberal elites and poor blacks against the urban middle class. Siegel supports his argument with evidence from New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles -- three very different cities that nevertheless, he claims, "shaped not just the urban but also the national agenda" and that produced depressingly similar cycles of racial tension, crime, rioting, and corruption.

To be sure, the personalities involved and the timing of the decline varied from place to place -- from the Lindsay administration's debacles over community schooling and expanding New York City's welfare rolls in the 1960s, to Marion Barry's municipal malfeasance of the 1980s and after, to the L.A. riots of 1965 (when Sam Yorty was mayor) and 1992 (when Tom Bradley was mayor). Siegel, who has written important scholarly studies on subjects ranging from antebellum Virginia to the cold war, is too much of a historian to ignore particularities completely or to reduce the past to ideal types. Still, he believes that he has located recurring themes in all three places -- the embitterment and latent fury of blacks whose political and economic exclusion (he writes) also excluded them "from the discipline and self-control imposed by industrial and bureaucratic work"; the class prejudices of elite liberal bien pensants, who blamed white racism for ghetto crime and blamed that racism on middle- and working-class whites; the venality of liberal politicians, who would pay any price, bear any burden -- and bribe any belligerent -- so long as peace prevailed in the ghetto.

Depressing though it is, Siegel's account has the virtue of pointing out the worst local effects of what he calls (following the political scientist David Sears) "the riot ideology" -- "the assumption," he writes, "that the violence of the sixties riots and their criminal aftermath were both justified and, to a considerable extent, functional in rectifying the sins of racism." Siegel hammers home how elite liberals, above all New York's John Lindsay and his advisors, quailed before displays of black anger, in the misconceived belief that crackpot separatists, demagogues, and, at times, armed thugs, were agents of racial justice. He traces how radical ideas -- inspired by the 1960s riots -- about overloading New York's welfare rolls in order to break the system helped to justify a disastrous explosion in welfare dependency, with little hope for delivering jobs. He recounts (without, alas, exaggeration) the combination of race baiting and old-fashioned corruption that accompanied the collapse of Washington's public services under Marion Barry. And he recalls how, even in the 1990s, liberals of a certain stripe insisted on referring to the L.A. riots as a "rebellion" -- an insistence that helped Republican Richard Riordan capture that city's mayoralty in 1993 despite an overwhelming Democratic advantage in party registration.

In effect, Siegel adds historical weight to the works of recent authors, descending in rigor from Orlando Patterson to Jim Sleeper, who have lamented how racial fixations have come to dominate much modern liberal and left thinking. Siegel is at his best when he caustically calls officeholders and policy intellectuals to account for their one-sided view of racial discord, as well as for their implicit snobbish contempt for the supposedly uptight, vulgar, bigoted, and boring white middle classes. Indeed, he presents himself as a tribune for those middle classes.

But perhaps because his loyalties are so intense, he is often one-sided himself. Although he looks hard for commonalties among his three cities, Siegel does not assemble his anecdotal accounts into a coherent survey of the nation's urban problems. New York, his hometown, is really the basis for his model of a supposedly corrupted New Deal metropolis. Washington's story is very different, if only because of the city's peculiar historical connections to the federal government. And the history of Los Angeles -- a city that, by Siegel's own telling, proceeded from something akin to a tumultuous mini police state to a polity in danger of splitting into fragments -- is even more different.

What these cities actually have in common, most of all, is that they have been led for appreciable periods -- New York from 1966 to 1974 and from 1990 to 1994, Washington from 1979 to the present, and Los Angeles from 1973 to 1993 -- by liberal mayors. By highlighting these cities (and he might have included others, like Detroit), Siegel manages, in a neat syllogism, to blame urban afflictions largely on liberal views on race and "the riot ideology." Yet the problems that Siegel discusses have hardly been limited to American cities with liberal leaders. Birmingham, Jackson, Houston, Phoenix, and San Diego -- none of them liberal bastions -- have all had to battle violent crime, souring race relations, and economic decline at one time or another since the 1960s. New Orleans, with its notoriously corrupt and violent police force and with a murder rate that quadrupled between 1970 and 1995, seems to have combined some of the rougher features of D.C. and L.A. life -- but without either Marion Barry or Tom Bradley at the helm.

No doubt the myopia and gullibility of liberals who pandered to black militancy compounded urban difficulties where they came into play. No doubt the events that unfolded in the huge media centers where that myopia did come into play, especially New York, have had a disproportionate influence on Americans' thinking about urban politics (including, it occurs to me, Fred Siegel's thinking). In fact, though, continuing nationwide structural changes of the sort that Siegel discusses in passing -- suburbanization, the replacement of railroad freight by truck hauling, the devastating removal of relatively high-paying semiskilled and unskilled urban manufacturing jobs -- along with the vagaries of local boom and bust business cycles have been far more important than liberal coddling and racialist pieties in deciding the cities' fates.

Siegel's considerations of that coddling and those pieties could have profited from greater precision. At one level, he criticizes liberal politicians for appeasing noisy black militants, lest they stand accused of racism and endanger their electoral base. But he fails adequately to distinguish between appeasement -- and other, less dramatic forms of routine, unlovely urban realpolitik -- and the more alarming shift in the thinking of some 1960s liberals (ranging from McGeorge Bundy to Kenneth Clark) toward a naive embrace of black power, under the guise of supporting community control. Siegel gives us no way to explain how and why that shift occurred; nor does he examine that shift as part of the broader historical tragedy that has pitted elite-supported racial liberalism against white working-class and middle-class urban populism. Nor, finally, does he distinguish black-power chic from liberal race-conscious policies such as affirmative action -- policies that are, at least, defensible as an updating of the urban ethnic spoils systems of what Siegel sees as the golden era before the 1960s.

Siegel's arguments suffer from a neglect of the political context outside of municipal government, as if New York, Washington, and Los Angeles have been operating as autonomous neo-Renaissance city-states. Al though urban liberals may have desired more federal support for welfare, for example, the federal government has hardly been forthcoming with increased funds, at least since 1975. Governor Nelson Rockefeller (who merits only a single fleeting mention by Siegel) had a great deal to do with setting New York's priorities about crime and punishment in the 1960s and early 1970s, more than most of the liberal commentators and academics whom Siegel lambastes. It was Rockefeller's draconian 1973 drug law, and not the liberal's "decriminalizing" ideas, that governed the city before, during, and after the crack cocaine epidemic -- though to read Siegel you might imagine that it was the other way around.

Siegel's anger at liberal politicians and black demagogues also skews his analysis of city politics. On New York, for example, he has nothing to say about how Conservative Party activists, led by William F. Buckley, began exploiting racial fears and resentments on the white side of the color line as early as 1965. Mario Procaccino, John Lindsay's Democratic opponent in 1969, is recalled for "coining the apt phrase 'limousine liberals' to describe Lindsay and his Manhattan admirers." It leads one to wonder whether, even with Lindsay's huge shortcomings, New York's race relations would really have been substantially better had one of his chief adversaries been elected mayor. In any case, Siegel slights the responsibility that conservative whites must bear for the city's racial polarization, down to and including contemporary media firebrands like the notorious radio agitator Bob Grant.

Nor does Siegel say nearly enough about what might be called the urban power elite -- the bankers, real estate developers, media CEOs, foundation heads, and mainstream city planners whose interests (and ideas) have been decisive in shaping the cities' situation. In his discussion of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle in Brooklyn, for example, Siegel notes the monumentally arrogant errors committed by the Ford Foundation's president, McGeorge Bundy (fresh from Lyndon Johnson's White House); and when describing the Lindsay administration's failures to confront corporate and industrial flight, he remarks on how "[t]he city elites backing Lindsay, little interested in either outer borough ethnics or the manufacturing economy, placed their faith in a new New York based on the Manhattan financial industry and an expansion of the social service industry in the outer boroughs."

But Siegel fails to examine how those same Manhattan elites (including the Rockefellers) had been acting on that faith long before Lindsay was elected, how their antiseptic, imperial vision of modern New York (exemplified by the plans of Robert Moses) eviscerated many of the cohesive neighborhoods that Siegel celebrates, and how they purposefully accelerated the decline of the city's manufacturing and retailing base without providing adequate economic substitutes for the ordinary citizenry. Siegel has become a champion of unfettered private enterprise as the cities' salvation -- yet he writes about urban capitalism as if the most powerful of urban capitalists had barely existed, except as the victims of high local taxes and rent control.

Above all, Siegel keeps returning to the idiocies of certain American urban liberals and liberalism, in ever more expansive and unconvincing ways. After quoting the opera impresario Peter Sellars on the "exciting" prospect of America's moral breakdown, Siegel lengthens his list of miscreants:

Centuries earlier, the Enlightenment giant Denis Diderot, the first to conceive of victimless crime, compared great crimes with works of art. . . . It was an idea advanced by the Marquis de Sade and mined in the twentieth century by many, including Graham Greene [in Britain], . . . Jean Genet in France and Norman Mailer in the United States.

And so on, through Eldridge Cleaver, the gangsta rap group NWA, and the gang-glamorizing writer Leon Bing -- taking us far away from liberalism and even farther away from the nation's city halls. Finally, Siegel's book is less a history of recent urban politics than it is a sustained polemic against a particular set of dogmatic, left-liberal, antibourgeois conceits -- conceits that cannot bear the weight that he assigns them for causing the cities' plight.

Tamar Jacoby's Someone Else's House, although its point of view is similar to that of Siegel's book, is more substantial, more balanced, and wiser. Deeply researched and fully annotated (Siegel's book contains no footnotes), it is also a fluid piece of narrative historical prose. Instead of trying to explain all of urban America's recent follies and travails, Jacoby examines her three cities (New York, Detroit, and Atlanta) in order to answer a more exact but still profound question: In view of the advances made by urban blacks since the 1960s, why has integration failed to flourish? And in attempting to revive the integrationist ideal, she cuts through the intellectual impasse created by multicultural liberals and their most prominent conservative critics. From the outset, Jacoby acknowledges that white racism has helped to sandbag integration, and that racism is far from dead. Indeed, she says, white anger at perceived special treatment of blacks over the past 30 years has led to fresh resentments that sometimes look like the crudest kinds of bigotry.

But whereas liberal pessimists such as Hacker and Bell rest their case at this point, Jacoby presses on. Black alienation and bigotry, too, she says, have helped to bury the old integrationist ideal. And although newly inflamed white hostilities are certainly obstacles to racial harmony, it would be mistaken, after three decades of color-coded political conflict, simply to equate them with the racial prejudices of earlier times (precisely the point that Willis was making way back when). "Far more damaging today than the old bigotry," Jacoby writes, "is the condescension of well-meaning whites who think that they are advancing race relations by encouraging alienation and identity politics."

Her book then examines in detail the roots of that condescension, and liberalism's failures, in the urban battles of the 1960s. To tell the full story of why integrationism flagged would require a sprawling work, treating everything from the long history of American racial separatist movements to the personality conflicts and political infighting that tore apart the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966. Jacoby notes how these national stories affected her own and takes the full measure of the larger economic and social pressures that impinged on New York, Detroit, and Atlanta. By then delving into her three case studies in fine-textured detail, she shows how whites as well as blacks, from the top to the bottom of urban life, squandered the most hopeful moment in the history of modern race relations, as much because of misapprehension as of outright evil.

True, there are some pretty evil-looking characters in her book -- the sociopath provocateur Sonny Carson and his followers in Brooklyn CORE, as well as the white members of SPONGE (the Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything) in East New York; the Detroit black street-gang leader Frank Ditto, as well as a good portion of the Detroit Police Department. But Jacoby is interested in capturing the nuances of racial politics, and she tries mightily to understand her protagonists as all-too-human mixtures of idealism, self-regard, and corruption. A striking example is her treatment of Detroit's Mayor Coleman Young. In many ways, the story of Detroit's downfall parallels that of Washington's, with the important difference that Detroit's private sector (above all the innovation-adverse Big Three automobile manufacturers) played a key role in creating the city's problems.

In a digression, Siegel notes the similarities between Marion Barry's D.C. kleptocracy and, in Detroit, "the strong man regime of black nationalist Coleman Young [that] left the city in ruins." By contrast, Jacoby, who also judges Young's administration harshly, manages to sketch a believable portrait of the man:

Longtime outsider that he was, Young was not exactly a separatist. He had attended the 1972 black political convention in Gary, Indiana, but walked out in the middle. "The black agenda" espoused by most of the three thousand delegates was "completely off-target and unacceptable," he later said. Still, there could be no mistake: Young was not really an integrationist, either. . . . As his prickly campaign made abundantly clear, he had no intention of compromising his blackness, and even inside the system, he would go on rebelling against it.

It was, as Jacoby reveals, Young's political balancing act, neither wholly deferential to whites nor wholly hostile, that permitted him "to be at once an inside player and a classic race man" -- and, tragically, to retain his credibility with the city's surviving "do-good" white establishment far longer than he deserved, leaving Detroit a fiscal and social basket case.

Jacoby's decision to include Atlanta, moreover, was also an inspired one. Compared to New York's dispiriting confrontation politics and Detroit's entrenched warfare between white suburbs and the black inner city, Atlanta presents yet another variation, of a New South city where sincere efforts at racial accommodation and the genuinely integrationist intentions of Mayor Andrew Young came to considerable grief, chiefly over controversies about affirmative action and minority contract set-asides initiated by Young's predecessor, Maynard Jackson. The more that Jacoby inquires into Atlanta's recent troubles -- a mounting class divide within the black community and its demoralizing effect on the black majority, the rise of (and, initially, white liberal endorsement of) Afrocentric school curricula, a hardening of racial animosities among the young, black and white -- the more it is clear that even the most principled integrationist leadership could not fully overcome suspicions and cynicism on both sides of the color line. She leaves us with a picture of Atlanta as a city that is vastly improved from the days of segregation, perhaps as good as it gets in American urban race relations -- but more a place of peaceful coexistence than genuine integration, a far cry from the old civil rights dream of the beloved community.

Jacoby's analysis begs some questions. Like Siegel, she strains to find commonalties among her three cities; and like him, she tends to lump together everything from black nationalist posturing to affirmative action as woeful racialist heresy. Yet surely there is a profound difference between, on the one hand, Sonny Carson and his New York liberal patrons and, on the other, Maynard Jackson and the black construction contractors of Atlanta. All things considered, from Jacoby's own account, the Atlantans seem to have done as good a job as could have been reasonably expected in widening the scope of city patronage in a fairly brief time. Unanticipated conflicts certainly arose; and affirmative action is a long way from the beloved community. But Jacoby might have taken more pains to draw distinctions among her cases, and to discern where liberal policies led to genuine improvements.

By upholding the integrationist dream, meanwhile, Jacoby ironically runs the risk of sounding like the pessimistic liberal voices she wishes to challenge. Unlike them, she places blame for past failures on both sides of the color line -- but she still appears awfully weary when she describes how far we have to go to achieve genuine integration. After completing Someone Else's House, readers might ask themselves: If we haven't advanced farther than we have in 30 years, what's the use of integration anyway?

Jacoby's gloomy tone, however, is at odds with what I take to be her substantive conclusions. She is well aware of the momentousness of recent improvements, both in widened opportunities for blacks and in the decline of white racial intolerance -- trends that she notes repeatedly. Rather, as I read her, she wishes to own those facts without slipping into smugness about how far we've come or about the inevitability of continued improvement. By putting a name on what she sees as the ultimate goal -- the much-abused, long unfashionable goal, integration -- she wants to give us something to fight for.

And Jacoby is not without hope. Like Siegel, she sees promise in New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's refusal to deal with racial demagogues, his administration's successful attack on crime, and his insistence (delivered with far less "law 'n' order" rancor than during the Procaccino days) on setting one standard of behavior for the entire city. (Although, Jacoby notes, many blacks are deeply alienated from all white authority in the aftermath of David Dinkins's defeat, a 1997 New York Times poll showed that more than two-thirds of black New Yorkers actually approve of Giuliani's anticrime efforts.) Recent political shifts in Dennis Archer's Detroit give her far more reason for optimism than anything that has occurred in Marion Barry's Washington.

Although she offers no panaceas, Jacoby sees some clear possibilities for future progress, above and beyond the sort of deregulation and aggressive entrepreneurship that Siegel favors. Some of these possibilities -- of better political leadership, for exampleunobjectionable. Others -- including a renewed encouragement of acculturation without stigmatizing racial pride or ethnic traditions -- will upset multiculturalists; and still others -- the ending of affirmative action -- will upset many liberals. But unlike so many of today's critics of 1960s liberalism, Jacoby also sees a positive role for government to play. She writes:

The free market alone cannot make the inner city safe for children or business. The economy no longer provides adequate job opportunities in urban neighborhoods, and it cannot heal the alienation that prevents many blacks from taking advantage of what chances they do get. Popular as the idea of self-help may be among both black activists and white conservatives, mainstream America cannot wash its hands of these problems, assuming that they will take care of themselves.

Jacoby calls for, among other things, improved public schooling, job training programs, and apprenticeships -- locally based and, where possible, in partnership with business -- understanding that truly leveling the playing field and achieving the preconditions for continued integration will be a hard and drawn-out battle. In all, she wishes to revive an unembarrassed integrationist liberalism, chastened by the unintended consequences of the 1960s and in the fray for the long haul. "The first step," she concludes, "is the hardest: deciding that integration is what we want." Her book is eloquent historical testimony to the political and social (as well as moral) certainty that, all along, we have really had no other choice.

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