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The Integration Blues

Sunday's NYT contains an article entitled: "Years on Integration Road: New Views of an Old Goal". It mentions a 1993 New York Times/CBS News poll that found that a majority of blacks and whites, "generally speaking", favored full integration. Nevertheless, the article points out, the African American community has serious misgivings about integration as a goal. On the one hand, most people would agree that all barriers which prevent blacks from achieving the full measure of the American Dream should come down, that blacks should have the right to do whatever they wish, live wherever they wish, work where ever they wish, attend any schools they wish. On the other hand, many blacks lament the loss of a sense of community that blacks experienced under earlier, more segregated, times. This argument focuses on the loss of black institutions which once served our communities because no other institutions would serve those communities. It focuses on young black professionals returning to live in black communities, on efforts to rebuild a sense of commitment to black life in America.

Economically, the black middle class has greatly expanded over the last 30 years. Where about five percent of African Americans could historically be considered middle class, today over twenty-five percent of blacks qualify for that category. The article points out that the percentage of black families earning incomes of $50,000 (in 1992 dollars) has risen from 10.2 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 1992 (compared to 24.5 and 35.7 percent respectively in 1970 and 1992 for white families, but still a significant increase). Over that time period, the median household income of black households continues to be about 58 percent of the income of white households.

Nevertheless, segregation continues unabated for many blacks, with 66 percent of the 6.9 million black public school students in the 1991-1992 school year attending predominantly minority schools. The article indicates this is the highest percentage documented since 1968.

To quote the article:

"Some blacks lament what they believe was lost in the quest to integrate -- black neighborhoods, etched by the confines of segregation, that forged a bond between the poor and the middle-income who lived side by side; incubators for black commerce, and support systems for black families and institutions.

"They emphasize they would never give up the hard-won right to choose where, and with whom to live. But they say there is a need for blacks to regain a self-reliance that flourished when it was painfully clear how important it was that blacks be able to count on one another."

The article points out that this dichotomy is nothing new, with the two philosophies "each gaining or losing strength depending on the political and economic climate or the time."

The personal anecdotes quoted by the article were interesting, although not new by any means. In recognition that "interaction on purportedly equal terms has not necessarily led to understanding and friendship," Marcus L. Alexis 2d, talked of blacks retreating "back into their comfort zone." He also said:

[There is] "a subtle part of racism that's very different from what our parents and grandparents experienced. The subtle part is unspoken. It's inflection, it's body language, it's all the nuances people feel that suggest 'you're not welcome here.' And that's what a lot of my friends are feeling when they decide they don't want to participate in conversations and social gatherings with white folks."

Karen Phillips who runs the Abyssinian Development Corporation in New York was quoted as saying "with time has come a recognition that integration all too often meant blacks meeting whites on whites' terms."

Finally, Michael Myers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said: "To overcome institutional racism and sexism, you can't settle on a strategy of retreat and withdrawal and cynicism. If there's nobody pressing against the gates, it's only going to get worse."

Obviously the debate over integration has been a long-standing one. But the dichotomy presents a false choice. First, we have no choice but to continue to press for complete and total inclusion in and access to all aspects of this society, economic, political and social. At the same time, we need to continue developing institutions of our own as well as demanding that the institutions of this country serve the needs of African Americans. Second, African Americans are very diverse, and becoming increasingly so. Any strategy that chooses one of the two paths is bound to fail because blacks simply aren't going to all go down one road.

Which is not to say there isn't a lot of arguing going on about _the one right way_, particularly -- judging from some of the traffic on internet -- among young, college-age blacks. This argument appears not to have changed much in the last 20 years, except I now find myself on the older end of the generation gap. In any event, the argument is a false, and ultimately unproductive one. What is needed is a movement that aims to help meet our needs but that is sufficiently broad and inclusiveness to use all the talents we have available without driving each other away based on narrow ideological grounds. It's interesting that that is just what Ben Chavis is trying to get the NAACP to do. But more about that in the next little Meandering...

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Meanderings 1.04 -- April 11, 1994