Is Integration the Answer?
No one knows better than OSCAR HANDLIN, Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard, the trials and the prejudices which have best so many of the minorities which compose our bloodstream, He is the author of THK UPROOTED, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1952, and more recently of THE AMERICANS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE OF THK UNITED STATES, in both of which he has thrown fresh light upon the long and troubled process of Americanization.
BY OSCAR HANDLIN
FOR a few weeks, the hope flickered that President Kennedy’s assassination might, after all, be the occasion for a breakthrough on the matter of civil rights. Perhaps enactment of a program that meant much to him would give meaning to his martyrdom. But when the emotion of the aftermath drained away, it became clear that no miracle had occurred. President Johnson persuaded the House Rules Committee to begin hearings on the civil rights bill in January, but as those proceeded, it was apparent that the alignments of a year before had hardly changed.
Meanwhile, the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling against school segregation approached. In May, 1954, a unanimous decision had struck down the concept of “separate but equal” that for sixty years had sustained the inferiority of the Negro. At the time, this had seemed the start of a genuine social revolution. A decade later, the outcome is still not certain. The place of the Negro in American life has significantly changed, but the consequences have not been those anticipated in 1954.
By most conventional measurements, this has been a decade of progress for the Negro. The colored people of the United States have gained a power they never before enjoyed, and they have steadily raised the level of their education, employment, and standard of living. Yet, paradoxically, their grievances remain, and, if anything, are more intensely felt than ever before.
The power of the Negroes is the product of both political and moral influence. The steady increase in the size of their vote as they moved out of the rural South made their support crucial in the key states of the North and the West. No office seeker in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, or California can disregard this sector of the electorate. Even in such Southern stales as Georgia and Florida, the election of Negroes to local office is a dramatic indication of what will come as the franchise spreads to ever larger numbers. There have also been starts, although against heartbreaking obstacles, of voter-registration drives deep in the intransigent counties of Alabama and Mississippi. The guarantees of the new civil rights act may open access to the ballot further and increase still more the weight of the Negro vote. The same results will undoubtedly emanate from the extension of the two-party system to the South and from the redistricting ordered by the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr (1962) to eliminate the anachronisms that nowfavor the country voter.
The development of Negro organizational life has, only within the past decade, revealed how that new power can be used. In 1954 all efforts at amelioration were concentrated in the NAACP and the Urban League, old-line agencies largely supported by whites and confined to conventional tactics of litigation and negotiation. The cases they brought to the courts had been responsible for the gains the Negro had painfully made in a half century of agitation. But their methods seemed intolerably slow to the post-war generation, not content to wait for equality in the remote future.
Since 1954, younger, more aggressive men have formed new groups which compete actively with the old. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), among others, have transformed the struggle for civil rights. Their strength has also revitalized the old agencies. Negroes are now the dominant element in all these organizations, which are well financed and staffed by a competent bureaucracy. The new techniques of the sit-in and of nonviolent protest have been added to those of political agitation and litigation. As a result, the Negroes’ interests are better represented than ever before.
Pressure from these organizations has already produced a striking improvement in the quality of education available to the Negro. Seven states which had maintained segregated systems before 1954 have made considerable progress. In Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma, 80 to 100 percent of the school districts are integrated, and substantial numbers of colored children now study with whites. In Florida. North Carolina, Tennessee. Virginia, and Texas, integration has been accepted as public policy: between 10 and 25 percent of the districts have actually taken the step, although the number of students involved is still small. In Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana, there has been token compliance with the law; fewer than 5 percent of the districts have moved in this direction. Only Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina remain totally intransigent.
The Northern states have begun to deal with their own version of the problem, which arises not from segregation lay law but from the residential distribution that in effect creates separate Negro schools. New York City’s open-enrollment plan, for instance, permits parents to shift children from one school to another in the interest of racial balance. Many communities have recognized the need for redrawing district lines to take in a varied population. More important has been a conscientious exploration of the means of compensating for the educational disadvantages of the Negro. The Higher Horizons program sponsored by the New York City Board of Education, for example, has made an active and successful effort to supply in the school the cultural advantages lacking in the homes of the poor.
Some of the effects have already become visible in employment. The improvement in skills and the abatement of prejudice have opened opportunities that were closed just a decade ago. Colored men and women stand behind the counters of the metropolitan department stores and work in the oflices of the banks and insurance companies that once shut their doors to them. Black models appear in quality advertising, and black faces form a part of any pictorial representation of the nation. The size of the middle class has grown, and there has been a noticeable rise in the level of income. These tendencies can be expected to continue.
Slowly but demonstrably the conditions of Negro life have improved. The quality of urban housing, even in the segregated districts, receives increasing attention, and in some places integrated residences offer an escape from the slum. Like the whites, Negroes have spread to the suburbs and have begun to restructure their lives according to middle-class standards. Great as the distance to full equality still remains, the record of the past decade offers a basis for cautious optimism.
But not for complacency. The genuine progress of the past ten years has not diminished the sense of grievance among American Negroes —far from it.
The decade has witnessed a steady rise in the volume and intensity of their complaints.
THE protest continues in part as a result of resentment against the pockets of the country that have made no concessions whatever. Other Americans can push the events in Alabama and Mississippi to the back of their minds; no Negro anywhere can forget that the color of his skin, in those two slates, still exposes him not only to discrimination but to open violence. Murders such as those of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, bombings such as that which killed the Birmingham children, and the harassment of those who wish to register to vote — all unpunished — send recurrent shocks among the more fortunate Negroes, who can never enjoy the fruits of their own progress without an awareness of the continued suffering elsewhere of men like themselves.
Furthermore, a little progress is a dangerous thing. Speaking of an earlier social upheaval, Tocqueville warned long ago that revolutions are most likely in periods and places where some improvement plants the hope for more among the oppressed. A rising level of expectations increases discontent and makes intolerable the grievances which the utterly hopeless accept as a matter of course. The proximity to equality only increases the hunger for it. The black man is less willing to wait than before, because his goal has never before been so clearly visible.
Another significant element also enters into the Negro’s resentment. A subtle change in the past decade has separated the Negro from other Americans and has created a fundamental divergence in experience which unconsciously and unrecognizedly adds a new bitterness to group relations. That change must be understood in the light of the redefinition of the race problem in the past half century.
Fifty years ago, the race problem did not refer exclusively to the black descendants of the slaves, then mostly concentrated in the South. On the Pacific Coast, difficulties with the “Yellow” Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus threatened the stability of the region. In the mountain states, the trouble was with the Red Indians still uneasily separated on reservations. And against these people of color there seemed to be arrayed not a single homogeneous body of whites but various distinct races of Nordics, Mediterraneans, and Semites.
The issue then was not simply one in which blacks faced whites. The society was fragmented into a variety of disparate groups, the inequality of which was justified by deeply held beliefs. The respectable science of the day taught that mankind was divided into races with fixed biological inheritances; these races competed with one another in a struggle in which the fittest would survive. The social order accordingly discriminated against the inferior breeds to assure the worthy of the most desirable places in education, the economy, and politics. The social tension generated by prejudice often broke out into overt violence, against Greeks in Omaha and against Italians in New Orleans, just as against Negroes in Fast St. Louis. The Klan of the 1920s was fully as concerned with Catholics and Jews as with the Negro. But the more important manifestation of prejudice was discrimination — in residential ghettos, in undesirable jobs, and in education. In all respects, the Negro was one among many minorities, all of which suffered from similar disabilities.
Between the end of the First World War and the 1950s, Americans struggled incoherently, but largely successfully, to dissolve those prejudices and to alter the view of race from which they emanated. The findings of the sciences of genetics, sociology, and anthropology invalidated the conception of biologically fixed races. The Depression and the Second World War revealed the dangers of prejudice and created a sense of solidarity and common purpose incompatible with discrimination.
In these years, furthermore, all underprivileged Americans learned that they had a common interest. As minorities, they could protect themselves only by securing the rights of all to equality. Hence, the characteristic tactic of this period was to discourage or forbid discrimination on the basis of color, creed, or national origin. The decision of 1954 was the culmination of a long process which involved not only the Negroes who were its immediate subjects but the joint efforts of many other Americans, all of whom had a stake in equality.
The initial acquiescence with which the Court’s action was received lasted less than three years. At first there seemed no way to counteract a unanimous decision solidly grounded on law and supported by a firm chain of precedents. It seemed only a matter of time before the deliberate speed the Court requested would integrate all schools, just as the armed forces had already been integrated. But procrastination gave the segregationists time to gather strength, to prepare a line of defense, and to muster the resources for resistance. In 1957, Governor Faubus revealed the effective tactics of evasion: persistent defiance of the law until the troops appeared, then token compliance, which deprived the outcome of any real meaning. Ten years after the historic decision, only a tiny minority of Southern Negroes as yet attend integrated schools, and the end of the struggle for their rights is not within sight.
THE psychological effects on the Negro were cataclysmic. In this decade, whoever stood still or slowly crept forward fell behind. While other minorities were making rapid progress and escaping the prejudices which had formerly weighed on all, the Negro was left to suffer alone.
The gains of some Negroes in these years were offset for the group as a whole by drastic changes in the national economy. Automation and the structural transformation of American industry drastically reduced the number of unskilled jobs and opened new places only for those with training or with access to the skilled unions, from which the Negroes were often excluded. The reshuffling of opportunities thus compounded the educational deficiencies of the Negro. While his income rose, the gap between it and that of the whites widened dishearteningly. He was the most likely to be laid off when payrolls shrank, the least likely to be hired when new openings occurred - not only, or not so much, because of prejudice but because of his lack of preparation. Unemployment statistics in Detroit, Chicago, and almost every other industrial center told the same dismal story.
Although some individuals among them inched ahead, the Negroes as a group fell further behind as everyone else moved forward more rapidly. In their growing isolation, colored men began to distrust not only the racist who condemned them to permanent inferiority but also the liberal who seemed content to postpone equality to the remote future. This growing sense of abandonment had unfortunate consequences for all Americans.
Ten years of frustration have confused both the objectives and the tactics of the civil rights struggle. To the spokesmen for the Negro, the issue is deceptively simple. He is a citizen and demands full and equal rights now. No one can dispute the validity of that goal.
In some areas of the South the problem retains its traditional form. In Mississippi or Alabama, equality still means access to the same treatment at the hands of the law, to the same right to the ballot, to the same education, the same housing, and the same jobs enjoyed by the white man. To achieve that condition it is necessary to eliminate discrimination in the legal and the social systems. What must be done is apparent, however difficult the doing may be.
Equality under the new conditions of urban life, North or South, is far more complex, however. Negative action against discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, or national origin has only limited effect in Philadelphia, New York, or Chicago, where the law does not single out the Negro, but he remains unequal. There segregation is not imposed by ordinances or by organized community pressures; it is de facto, the result of separate residential districts and the product of a cycle in which lack of skill condemns the Negro to inferior jobs, low income, poor ghetto housing, and slum schools. Hence the demand that the state intervene actively and positively to further equality through integration.
The obstacles that keep Northern Negroes out of desirable jobs are no longer the products of overt prejudice; more often they arise from differences in opportunity and training. The sons of existing union members have an easier time of it in securing apprenticeships in the skilled trades; the children of middle-class people do better on the tests that lead to higher education. The liabilities of generations of inferiority are not easily eradicated. Hence the call for preferential treatment, for a quota to ensure the representation of Negroes at all levels of employment, even for a kind of domestic Marshall Plan to aid the colored people. Such favoritism would be in the nature of reparations to compensate in part for the injustices of the past.
The hidden costs of such remedies are high. “Positive integration" sacrifices important communal values embedded in the neighborhood and in the ethnic institutions within which Americans have in the past organized their urban life. It threatens to reduce the individual to an integer to be shuffled about by authority without reference to his own preferences or to the ties of family and other social groupings. Preferential treatment, on the other hand, demands a departure from the ideal which judges individuals by their own merits rather than by their affiliations, for what they are rather than for who they are. These expedients may He necessary, but their effect ought to be weighed seriously.
Furthermore, there is a tragic and often unrecognized contradiction in these remedies. De facto integration looks toward a suppression of the Negroes’ identity, since it assumes that any kind of separation, no matter how defined, involves elements of inferiority. It envisions a society which mixes all men so as to minimize the effects of diverse antecedents and anticipates ultimate racial balance or homogeneity in the whole population. Yet the demand for preferential treatment tends to preserve the sense of separateness that sets the Negroes off from the rest of the population. The inability to clarify their long-term goals for themselves and for others adds to the Negroes’ frustration.
Without some such criterion, all prejudice seems on the same plane. The Negroes who equate Harlem with Mississippi and the Chicago schools with those of Birmingham or who protest that they are as much slaves in 1963 as they were in 1863 deny the reality of any progress at all. In doing so, they are inaccurate, and they also obscure the gradations that make any advance possible.
The same confusion complicates tactical judgments. Sit-ins and street demonstrations are the only recourse in those areas of the South where the Negroes are excluded from political decisions and due process of law. But the same devices, used in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, reflect a misreading of the situation with unfortunate consequences. Negroes in those cities do have legitimate means of making their wants felt, and when they move outside those channels, they are likely to arouse antagonism that makes it more difficult to attain their immediate and ultimate goals. The sitin on December 30, 1963, in Superintendent
Gross’s office at the very moment when he was negotiating with the civil rights leaders was superfluous. It would not have been so in a Southern city where such negotiations were not tolerated.
MISAPPRISAL of the position of the Negroes also leads some to imagine that what cannot be gained by negotiation may be gained by threats. The past two years have seen increasing references to violence, both by extremists who look to force as a last resort and by more moderate Negroes who warn that the extremists will take over if gains are not speedier. By the same kind of logic, Jews have been cautioned that the Negro will turn anti-Semitic unless his lot improves drastically, as if what cannot be gained from the growth of understanding may be attained by extortion. When the Reverend Milton A. Galamison, chairman of the New York Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools, publicly states that he would rather see the city school system destroyed than permit it to perpetuate de facto segregation, he expresses a nihilism that can only damage the whole society. That is the Northern Negro equivalent of the white attitude in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
The willingness to pull the whole social structure down unless it is forthwith reformed demonstrates the unhealthy focus of the energies of Negro communities on the single issue of integration in these ten years. Other tasks have been neglected in the urgency to reach the promised land which the Supreme Court decision revealed. But however important it may be to sit in or picket, these actions alone will not develop the responsible political leadership or the social organization or the training in skills which modern American life demands.
The frustration of the past decade has left other Americans adrift along the same perilous course, confused about goals and tactics. The solid core of white supremacists has always been a minority and has not changed except insofar as delays in implementing the decision of 1954 have emboldened its resistance. More significant are the subtle shifts in the views of moderates and liberals who consider racial equality inevitable or desirable. They recognize the justice of the Negro’s grievances but are tempted to appeal for time, consoling themselves with the little steps forward but postponing the great leaps to the future. They therefore feel guilty when the news comes from Mississippi or Alabama, and they absorb the rebukes of James Baldwin or Whitney Young masochistically. But the rhetoric suggests no feasible program and is a substitute for action rather than a goad to it. As time passes, some liberals become accustomed to the castigations; their own attitudes harden; and they come to believe that the familiar pain will be always with them.
The dilemma is most acute for those who were formerly minorities and therefore allies of the Negro. The children and the grandchildren of the immigrants, now second or third or fourth generation, are completely American. They no longer suffer as acutely as the Negroes do by being Catholics or Jews or by bearing Italian or Greek or Polish names. The more prosperous have escaped to the suburbs and have settled down into the respectable round of middle-class life. Their fight is over; they wish to enjoy the fruits of victory.
Such people retain a general commitment to equality, but they do not quite understand the Negro situation. They themselves succeeded once opportunities were opened to them. Why, they ask, should not colored men and women do the same? In practice, the demands for de facto desegregation threaten the education of their own children, who would be compelled by schemes for racial balance to share classrooms with boys and girls from the slums. The suburban family resents especially the suggestion of preferential treatment. It interprets equality as an open chance for all individuals to compete for admission to a good college, and often the qualified Negro already has the easier time of it. He seems to be claiming more than his legitimate share, at the expense of others. These misunderstandings increase the distance between the wellintentioned blacks and whites in our society.
THESE circumstances have given racism an ominous new form, most clearly revealed by extremists but visible also among moderates and liberals, black and white.
The old conception of mankind fragmented into a multitude of distinctive and unequal races has given way to a new belief which recognizes but a single line, that created by the color of the black man’s skin. Carleton Putnam’s Race and Reason (1961), endorsed by the White Citizens Councils as well as by Senators Byrd, Russell, and Thurmond, puts the dogma “in a nutshell”: “A gullible, trusting nation has been misled by various minority groups . . . into believing that Negroes have an inborn capacity for Western civilization equal to the white race. . . . The facts are that the Negro does not have the aforesaid inborn capacity and that social integration with him invariably produces deterioration.”
Even were these propositions true, they would not diminish the Negroes’ constitutionally guaranteed right to equality before the law. Were they innately inferior, the black children in mixed schools would simply remain at the bottom of their classes and would present no threat, to the purity of the whites. One suspects that those who fear to extend the same chances to all may not be as secure in the faith in their own superiority as they say they are.
In any case, Mr. Putnam’s arguments have not won the assent of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, or psychologists. No evidence supports the assertion that there are inherent disparities in the intelligence of human groups; Africans have produced civilizations of their own, and environmental factors are adequate to explain the differences between those and Western civilization. Only a handful of aged scientists wedded to outworn conceptions of eugenics and anthropology accept Mr. Putnam’s ideas. But that does not trouble him; he explains that a massive conspiracy has intimidated all American scholars and prevented them from perceiving the truth.
Yet Putnam has his counterparts among the Negroes — the Black Muslims. They, too, accept the premise of an ineradicable difference between the blacks and the whites, who are permanently hostile to one another. Equality is therefore a sham which the dominant group uses to blind those it exploits to their own true interests. To the Black Muslims integration is a “hypocritical trick” that lures the Negro deeper into the American hell.
Neither the followers of Carleton Putnam nor those of Elijah Muhammad represent more than a tiny minority of Americans. Yet each has a wide circle of sympathizers who shrink from the extreme racist position but are attracted by its easy explanations. Not a few readers approved of Carleton Coon’s Origins of Races (1962), an old-fashioned head-measuring analysis which showed, on the basis of the fragmentary evidence, that the Negro had entered upon the process of evolution later than other men. Although the author himself had no intention of furthering the racist argument, it was consoling to think that there might be a basis in what happened 40,000 years ago for today’s inequities.
By the same token, the wild statements of Malcolm X titillate respectable Negroes who do not accept his doctrines or join his movement. A grudging respect for the Black Muslims discounts their eccentricities and emphasizes their race pride, their morale, and their boldness in rejecting the whites. The chauvinism of color thus spreads on both sides of a serious fissure in the society, which can have damaging consequences for the future.
At best, it will be difficult to compensate for the delays of a crucial decade; the damage may discount the value of the genuine gains of the period. It will take a clear perception of the vital issues on the part of both Negroes and whites to halt the threatening deterioration.
A free society that functions through the consent of the governed can secure order without the use ol force only by extending to all its members the equal protection of the law and equal access to opportunity. Such equality ought to be the salient objective of all Americans.
In terms of that objective, there is a consequential difference between Jackson. Mississippi, and New York City, between Birmingham, Alabama, and Chicago. No rhetoric should obscure the fact ol that difference. In the South, segregation was historically a device, built into the legal and social system, to establish and perpetuate the inferiority of the freed slave. It was tolerated only because of the myopia of Americans busy with other affairs, it must go, immediately and without qualification. The Barnetts and the Wallaces who wish to preserve it are an imminent danger to the survival of free institutions in every part of the United States.
In the Northern cities, too, there are all-Negro schools and all-Negro residential districts and desirable types of employment in which Negroes are not represented. But that separateness has historical origins, motives, and effects which are altogether different from the segregation of the South. The ghettos of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago antedated the arrival of the Negro. They were not established by law but by the adjustment, largely voluntary, of a heterogeneous population to the conditions of metropolitan life. The Irish, Germans, Italians, and Yankees who peopled these cities chose, and still choose, to live in communities of their own because they could thus best satisfy their social and cultural needs. The Negroes who came in after the First World War inherited that pattern, and most of them would prefer still to follow it if they could do so as a matter of their own choice and without the penalty of inferior facilities.
Here, therefore, integration is not an end but a means toward an end. Equality in education, housing, employment, and politics is the true goal, and genuine progress in that direction will push the problem of de facto segregation to the background, as it has for other groups.
The inability to differentiate between the two situations complicates both. The bitter news from Alabama and Mississippi narrows the attention of Northern Negroes to the sole issue of integration, so they cannot conceive of any other road toward equality. And, conversely, the emphasis on integration lends substance to the Southern fear that complete amalgamation will be the end result of any approach to equality. Yet our experience as a nation should teach the Negro that ethnic groups can retain their character and identity and still be equal. And from the same experience the Southerner should learn that equality leads not to the effacement but to the strengthening of group lines.
There may not be much time to dissolve the confusion. The question we have evaded for a century is now catching up with us. Can a nation which has in the past found strength in diversity and freedom in the ability of voluntary groups to coexist in equality now learn to make room for people whose color is the badge of ancient prejudices and injustices? The position of the Negro will not remain fixed; it will either improve as he is allowed to grasp the opportunities of American society or deteriorate as he is prevented from doing so. Whether he follows one course or the other may prove the crucial test of American democracy.