Monday, January 16, 2006

Chaos or Community

Almost half a century after the event, many people are still familiar with the Little Rock desegregation picture of a neatly dressed young black girl walking to school with a white girl following her, her face twisted into a mask of spitting hatred, shouting, "nigger, nigger, nigger!" Americans who weren't even alive then have seen it in their school textbooks and on PBS specials. How many have seen the photo taken years later, by the same photographer, of the same two women, now matronly? They are chatting cordially on the high school steps about mutual friends. Apologies, on the one hand, and forgiveness, on the other, have long since been exchanged. They embraced, and they live together in the same city.

Both pictures are true. It says something that we cling to the earlier one.

The Civil Rights movement, from, say 1949 to 1969, was a process of tearing down. It tore down legal and institutional barriers that kept black Americans from participation in society. It tore down the "whites only" signs from water fountains. It tore down the rotten trappings and symbols of injustice as well as the legal machinery of it.

In reading memoirs from the '60s, and in the movies, the music, the books, you get a sense of the thing called "the movement." It was self-conscious good (mostly young) fighting evil (mostly mature). People seemed to feel they could tell truth from injustice, freedom from repression. And the "good" side seemed to be winning. Hunter S. Thompson writes about it as a wave cresting -- a sensual, urgent metaphor.

The world clarified. On one side, little Rosa Parks. On the other, police dogs and burning crosses and burning men.

So much was accomplished; it was fast and amazing work, and by the early '70s the goal seemed in sight. Jim Crow was dead, and it must have seemed that one more push would bring America to racial equality.

And we've been stalled on the edge of that dream for more than 30 years now. Busing was a deadly wrong turn. Nothing much since then has panned out. One wonders if we haven't abandoned the dream altogether. What would Martin Luther King make of our fetish for "diversity" and "multiculturalism"? Can we claim to be honoring his legacy, which had integration (of hearts and minds as well as bodies) as its goal, while we chant these new mantras of separationism?

Some people are still trying to push America. Others are waking up to the fact that it's not going to be that simple, and that what is needed now is not the activists' pushing but the quieter, unglamorous work of building communities.

When you've torn down something decrepit and dangerous, you've only done half the job. You have to build something to replace it. And the tactics and organizations that did the tearing down are not usually suited to building up. You don't call the wrecking crew when you want to add a deck to your house.

Government can encourage it from the sidelines, but it can't pass laws to force people to sit down and get along. The good thing is, people tend to do that on their own, if left alone. They do it one by one, as individuals, not as demographic blocs, not as census statistical brackets. They go to school together and they work together and they meet in public places and hash out respect for one another amid their differences. That's what people do, unless they're sociopaths. It happens on the level of a neighborhood -- the 5,000 or so people who live within walking distance of some public swimming pool or library.

* * *

May 17, 1954, is supposed to be the day everything changed in the South. That's when Earl Warren delivered the unanimous opinion in Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, and destroyed all the legal foundations of segregation.

In fact, it changed nothing. The court took its time in writing the decree of implementation, which did not come until May 31, 1955. And that decree set no deadlines for compliance, was sympathetic to local issues, placed responsibility on local school authorities, and put federal district courts in charge of assuring "good faith implementation."

Segregationists rejoiced, because those district court judges were in many cases home-grown men who might easily decide a "reasonable time" for desegregation was 200 years.

But they didn't. By January 1956, in 19 decisions, the lower courts upheld the end of segregation and stressed the need for a "prompt and reasonable" beginning to the process. In Louisiana, for example, J. Skelly Wright, New Orleans born and bred, shot down the state legislature's plan to circumvent Brown and save segregation. And the work of desegregation began in ernest in school districts in many place.

That's when the mass segregationist backlash began: After the white Southern courts and white Southern school boards began to work (without a National Guardsman in sight and Ike all but publicly saying he wouldn't use them), not after the Brown decision itself. All that's left out, along with the fact that more than 1,000 black students were admitted to formerly all-white colleges and universities in the South without a hint of violence before the University of Alabama riot of Feb. 6, 1956.

Yet as the story is told now, the entire white South was dragged into the Civil Rights movement by the Freedom Riders, the Supreme Court, the NAACP, and federal bayonets.

A few years ago I had the honor to work with the family of one of the central, if relatively unsung, heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Frances Freeborn Pauley, whose lifework was mostly done in Georgia, happened to die up here in Lancaster, Pa., where her daughter lives. I helped them put together the obituary notice for the local newspaper. I confess, I had not heard of her before.

Her daughter gave me a copy of Pauley's autobiography, and it's delightful reading: direct, positive, determined. Pauley grew up in segregated Georgia and became a champion of civil rights. Friend of Martin Luther King Jr., consummate political organizer and activist. She had already been at it for more than a decade by the time Julian Bond, former NAACP head, got to know her. Bond was the source of the quip that became the title of her autobiography: "Everybody's Grandmother & Nobody's Fool."

Among the things that impressed me about Pauley: after desegregation was achieved, she didn't go to work dragging down Confederate symbols wherever she found them; she devoted the last decades of her life to battling poverty, AIDS, and the other real scourges of the families of poor Southerners.

I picked a passage from her book, literally at random, to show you the Civil Rights movement through her eyes. It is in the chapter where the struggle to integrate schools has moved from Georgia to Mississippi.

I always used to say they had three Mississippis. They had one Mississippi in the Delta, and they had another Mississippi on the coast, and another Mississippi around Jackson. You can't summarize something as being typically Mississippi, and I had cases throughout the state. There were various kinds of superintendents and various kinds of school boards.

The coast was always the easiest place. They were the most tolerant of each other, and you'd find real desegregation. You'd find some places where blacks and whites would really be living on the same street. It seemed to me that the southern part of the state was much less rigid and much less prejudiced than the Delta. The Jackson area was a lot more like Georgia; it was pretty much the same as integration in Georgia -- some powerfully mean segregationists, and also some other people that were trying really hard to have the situation smooth and that weren't really prejudiced.

I found Mississippi better than Georgia, by the way. Usually they didn't want conflict; they wanted everything to be smooth. It wasn't that they weren't dedicated to integration or segregation; they just wanted a good school system and they wanted it to move smoothly. In Mississippi I found fewer of what I call the armchair liberals. Very liberal in their talk, but they weren't going to get out of their chair and do anything. In Mississippi it seems to me that more people, if they felt that way, were apt to try to put it into motion. It was easier to work with white people in Mississippi, because you knew what side they were on.

I remember one man who was on a school board who helped us work out a plan for his district. He had sent his children to some kind of integrated summer program with black and white teachers. His son had some words, got into some trouble, and came back. This man took his son back to find out what happened. He found out his son had been rude to a black teacher. He went back home, and he said, "We're teaching our children to lie, and we're not teaching our children the truth. My child is going to apologize to that teacher and my child is going to the integrated school." This man's whole sense of values was good and honest. Lots of people were like that, and some of them were brave enough to stand up, like he did, and work for it. And his community desegregated schools smoothly.

You see, everyone had been brought up under "separate but equal," and that was the law. If you were a law-abiding citizen, you'd been taught that the blacks eat here, and sit there, and drink out of this fountain. You didn't think about it in any moral, or immoral, way. At least I didn't as I came up. You just hunt for the restroom that says, "White Women," just like you hunt for something that says, "Restroom." It doesn't have any moral effect on you until you begin to think about it and work on it. And then you see how crushing it was. The man who was just a good citizen obeying the law, going along, and then all of a sudden he saw, with a flash maybe, that segregation was wrong. A lot of them helped to change it.

Now, this woman is no apologist for anything. She went toe-to-toe with Herman Talmage and the hardest of the hard-core racists, and she didn't flinch. But so much of this book is stories just like those told above. Native-born Southern white woman working with native-born Southerners, black and white, reasoning together with a shared sense of decency to accomplishing the work of desegregation. Not a Freedom Rider in sight. Not a bullhorn or a German shepherd or a firehose water cannon in the chapter.

Where is this side of the story in the textbooks? Where is it told in the museums or the PBS specials? How many times did it happen like that, for every time it exploded in bombs and blood?

In the interest of historical truth, I'm for telling Pauley's stories of thousands of decent, average white folks in the South who did they part in the transition from segregation to integration. Just like I'm for telling more about the role of blacks in the Underground Railroad, which has been historically over-weighted on the side of the white folks of the North (including at least one of my ancestors) who took a hand in it.

* * *

Too many of the Americans who who defined themselves in the tearing-down phase of the Civil Rights Movement, who found identity and purpose in it, find ways to prolong it. Maybe for some it's a cynical attachment to a well-evolved fund-raising machinery. Maybe others are old soldiers who can't give up the intoxication of fighting a good fight. Still others, perhaps, just can't believe the enemy is gone. The injustices had stood for so long, far older than the Confederacy, far older than the Constitution itself, that some people are suspicious whether they're really gone. Just like the Cold Warriors who will go to their graves believing the Soviet Union is just playing dead.

America has awakened. The evidence is in the majority shifts, not in the radical fringes. In 1940, more than two-thirds of whites believed blacks were less intelligent. Today, less than 6 percent think so. Before World War II, in the North as well as the South, fewer than 40 percent supported any kind of desegregation. Today, between 95 and 100 percent of Americans support the idea of integration. That percentage among whites is actually higher than among blacks.

But the activists persist, finding more and more that needs to be torn down, going over and over the ground they purged 30 years ago, seeking something they overlooked. They find increasingly dubious examples of repression and prejudice to mobilize against. Thus the perverse importance of the KKK. Miniscule in numbers, politically powerless, the Klan yet exists. As long as there are pictures of white-robed men to be published, those who insist on tearing down more and more will publish them to galvanize support.

This not only retards the rebuilding, it prevents it. Another generation is raised to hate, to see the other color as the enemy. The wheel of resentment consumes another graduating class. Inner cities more devastated than those Sherman left behind stay that way another year.

So where do you want to live? Do you want to build cities and towns where whites and blacks can live together as they choose to live, where all races, white included, feel involved, respected, at home. Or do you want to stir the pot, keep anger alive, keep whispering to blacks who will listen, "they don't like you; they're out to get you; you can't trust them." Keep the wheel of resentment turning. Rub salt in old wounds in the name of fostering color consciousness. Teach people what to hate about each other.

Black paranoia about the criminal justice system, which shocked a lot of white folks who saw the reaction to the first Rodney King verdict and to the O.J. Simpson acquital, is not going to be helped by misguided white impulses to win blacks' favor by encouraging them to dwell on their alienation. A people who are alienated and convinced that they need special help are going to be angry. Anger is what we don't need. It doesn't heal, it doesn't help. It tears down. It burns.

Since the '70s, Whites of good-will, reacting with compassion and indulgence, have reached out to make allies with black community leaders, and ironically often met hard-core race men. The sort of constructive, gradualist black leaders who would have helped foster true integration had little credibility with the black public. Patronizing white elites who don't know the difference between appeasement and compromise have left ugly stand-offs wherever they've stepped in.

As a result, we have a different kind of white bigotry in America today. It's not segregationist screaming; it's quiet resentment. There's bitter resentment against what is seen as "special treatment." About half of whites tell pollsters "blacks could do better if they tried harder." Rap singers shout the "N" word everywhere, while "Huck Finn" is yanked from library shelves, and a man is rebuked and punished at his job for using the innocent adjective "niggardly" in conversation. Now the same people who made "intolerance" anathema had to invent a new phrase, "zero tolerance," to cover the intolerance they approve of. Resentment builds.

"Just what accounts for this new resentment is not easy to untangle," writes Newsweek reporter Tamar Jacoby in "Someone Else's House," a study of race relations in modern America, "but it is not always the same as out-and-out bigotry. A white man who thinks a black woman on welfare should get a job may in fact be responding to her color, voicing an ugly and unthinking assumption about black attitudes toward work. Or he may be reacting to something he didn't like in the racial rhetoric of recent decades: the claim that white society is responsible for the problems blacks face. Thirty-five years of color-coded conflict have taken a huge toll on both sides, and fairly or not the showdown has left many whites embittered. Their feelings may be an obstacle to harmony, but they are not necessarily prejudice in the conventional sense.

Far more damaging today than the old bigotry is the condescension of well-meaning whites who think that they are advancing race relations by encouraging alienation and identity politics. After three hundred years of unfulfilled promises, it's not surprising that even the most successful blacks mistrust whites and that many hesitate to cast their lot with the system that held their people back for so long. But no one is served by a mainstream culture that spurs this estrangement, encouraging blacks to believe that the system is inherently racist and that all responsibility for change lies with whites. Well-intentioned as such deference is, it will not lead to inclusion. It will not empower blacks or make them feel more welcome. On the contrary, it can only delay the kind of push that is still needed to bridge the gap, particularly for the poorest blacks with the fewest chances and the most meager skills.

What have we learned? Jacoby writes, "...integration will not work without acculturation." This is the kind of suggestion that makes a lot of people squirm. Many blacks don't like the idea of adopting a set of values from outside. A lot of whites can empathize with that. But, as Jacoby writes, "That's part of why we couldn't win the War on Poverty: when it turned out that it required extensive acculturation -- programs to change people's habits, their attitudes toward school, work and the law -- many otherwise well-meaning whites lost the will to fight the battle. For more than thirty years, we tried to ignore the development gap, and those who dared to mention it were written off as bigots. But the difficult truth remains that people who cannot speak standard English or have never seen anyone hold down a regular job have little hope of fitting into the system or sharing its fruits. If anything, the past few decades have taught us that the preparation gap is wider than we thought, and more needs to be done than we ever imagined: everything from getting poor mothers into prenatal care to teaching job applicants about deferring to a boss's authority. What makes this hard is that acculturation is along, slow process -- one that will require a kind of patience till now largely lacking on race matters."

Should we work to reconcile ethnicity with citizenship, or the other way around? In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. offered us a choice: "chaos or community." Which are we choosing?

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