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Civil Rights and Social Wrongs: Black-White Relations since World War II.

John Higham, ed. Civil Rights and Social Wrongs: Black-White Relations since World War II. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1997. 231 pp. $28.50.

A funny thing happened at the Baich Institute conference in Philadelphia, October 1994, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Sponsors of the event expected to publish a book of conference papers that would include a ringing endorsement of Affirmative Action. None of the participants obliged. The result is Civil Rights and Social Wrongs, a relentlessly moderate volume that offers general readers slightly shaded differences on the subjects of race, ethnicity, and diversity.

Edited by John Higham, professor emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and a distinguished American historian, the ten essays in this collection directly or indirectly address the central dilemma of the American history: how to create a country out of many peoples. As the great exception to the ideal of one nation indivisible, African Americans provide this volume with its main--but by no means exclusive--focus. Higham begins with an informed overview of the movement for civil rights through the twentieth century. This movement splintered in the late sixties, he points out, when poor blacks in the big city, hardly touched by Civil Rights laws, rebelled against continuing isolation by burning down their own neighborhoods. But even as the Civil Rights Movement was fading, the federal courts were prescribing the remedy for racial discrimination that we call Affirmative Action.

In a confessional piece, the political scientist and policy intellectual Lawrence Fuchs describes his personal journey through the Movement. Like Martin Luther King, Fuchs began by affirming a color-blind America, in which African Americans as individuals would enjoy equal rights. When the Movement switched to the color-conscious remedies of Affirmative Action, Fuchs switched with it. Results-oriented Affirmative Action programs measured success by the number of blacks in jobs, in schools, in elective office. In time, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and others also became beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs. Fuchs now believes that he and the Movement stretched the meaning of civil rights too far. He regrets the extension of preferential treatment to groups unburdened by the unique history of African Americans. He is ambivalent about ethnic gerrymandering to elect black officials. He supports Affirmative Action programs only if they can pass the Supreme Court's standard of strict scrutiny--prog rams that are temporary and neither impose "blatant quotas" nor discriminate "egregiously" against others. By the year 2010, Fuchs says, Affirmative Action should be gone.

After the conference, hoping to commission a stronger defense than this of Affirmative Action, the editors solicited a paper from the constitutional lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky. It is unlikely they were entirely satisfied. The main purpose of Chemerinsky's contribution is to dispel the confusion on both sides in the debate that Affirmative Action is "a unitary concept." In fact, Affirmative Action may have many different goals, Chemerinsky says, and may employ many different techniques. Chemerinsky defends Affirmative Action against blanket condemnation, but he also offers something less than his blanket endorsement. Sounding rather like Fuchs, or even the Supreme Court, Chemerinsky concludes, "A practice that is as varied as affirmative action cannot be deemed either good or bad. It all depends on the goals sought and the means chosen."

In his essay on multiculturalism in the schools, Nathan Glazer attempts to explain the puzzling emergence of a movement which a majority of Americans apparently deplore. Pressure for multiculturalism did not originate among immigrants, Glazer writes. It originated in the disappointment of blacks at the slow pace of their advance since the mid-1970s. Integrated education was supposed to provide the avenue out of the ghetto. After integration stalled, African Americans wondered how they could improve the education of black children in all-black schools. The answer of muliculturalism was to replace the old curriculum with one concentrating heavily on black subjects, actually a monocultural curriculum of oppression studies. Older ethnic communities have no interest in multiculturalism and little place in the new curriculum, Glazer asserts. Latinos now play a role but one distinctly secondary to blacks. Whether or not they should be included, women have shouldered their way in. Gays and lesbians are not far behin d. Glazer harbors little hope or even desire for restoration of the old curriculum. But he pleads for a middle ground that would recognize those aspects of the old America still genuinely worthy of respect.

Other contributors to this volume are less resigned than Glazer to multiculturalism. Historian Diane Ravitch observes that nations composed of rival tribes are prone to disintegrate. To cohere, the United States must "identify and build a common culture that overrides all of our particularities." America's civic culture, Ravitch writes, derives from the founding ideas of liberty, equality, and government by consent. Open to a variety of races, ethnicities, and religions, this culture promises justice for all of them. Schools should "teach the history of our civic culture and of the American people, warts and all," Ravitch says, a history which is, ironically, multicultural. While Ravitch places her emphasis on the nation, social philosophers Jean Elshtain and Christopher Beem, in their essay, locate the decline of American civil society in the decay of neighborhoods, particularly ethnic neighborhoods. Neighborhoods once provided individuals with institutions of participation and acted as the bridge between t he individual and the group. Insofar as the Civil Rights Movement attempted to end racial injustice, it was right. Insofar as it tried to obliterate localism in the name of the national community, these authors argue, it was wrong. Multiculturalism cynically dismisses "the possibility of reaching outside one's own group," Elshtain and Beem conclude, but revived neighborhoods--freed of racism, of course--could restore the balance between the nation and its diverse components.

The most compelling of these essays is Douglas Massey's study of residential segregation. Though the fashion is to assert the declining significance of race, Massey shows how little progress has been made in eradicating the black ghettos where most African Americans live. Those ghettos exist because of white racism. Because they concentrate poverty, they breed "crime, single parenthood, welfare dependency, and educational failure." The implication of Massey's data is clear. All Civil Rights laws, Affirmative Action programs, and multicultural curricula together have not relieved this tragedy. Pleas in this volume, by Massey and others, for federal measures to attack black poverty and black isolation are woefully lacking in specifics and oblivious to the failure of such efforts in the past. In the end, Civil Rights and Social Wrongs affords as much reason to despair of the future as to celebrate the gains of the past. The racial contradiction mocking American claims of e pluribus unum remains.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Matusow, Allen J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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