The Saving Remnant
Plural but Equal, by Harold Cruse, New York: Morrow, 420 pages, $22.95
In his famous essay "The Talented Tenth," W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) wrote that the survival of any race depends on its exceptional men. As with all cultures, he believed, blacks could not advance from the bottom up. Harold Cruse's Plural but Equal is an account of how the blacks who have represented the "talented tenth" in the civil rights and intellectual leadership have led the masses not toward the best within themselves and America, self-reliance and freedom, but toward the worst, dependency and expropriation.
In this valuable history of the civil rights movement, Cruse identifies factors that, in addition to discrimination, explain the economic disabilities of most black Americans. He aims to show that by seeking full racial integration, the 20th-century civil rights leadership ignored the pluralistic reality of American society, with its multiple groups, associations, and ethnic and racial identities. He argues that the drive for integration ultimately failed to bring about full equality for black Americans.
Martin Luther King, Jr., could have told blacks "how they might reorganize their lives to cope with the demands of freedom in a plural society," says Cruse. He was the first black leader in over 70 years with the charisma, moral authority, and community base to do so. He should have delivered a message of self-determination that said, in effect, "Get your own minority house in order." Unfortunately, this was not King's message. But it is the central message of Plural but Equal. Rather than seek integration, Cruse argues, blacks should create separate institutions—political, economic, educational, cultural, and social—within the larger, pluralistic society.
This is not a new message. Variations of its perspective have been voiced by blacks since the antebellum period, most notably by Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and later by DuBois. But the message has gone unheeded. Cruse's work is an account of why it has been rejected and of the historical context of that rejection.
Cruse identifies the key idea of civil rights leaders as "noneconomic liberalism." Defined by scholar B. Joyce Ross in her history of the NAACP, this position holds that "the black man's struggle for full civil and political rights must take precedence over any program of economic development, for once color discrimination had been swept away, the black man would be able to compete successfully with his white counterpart in jobs, education, and other avenues to economic stability." This was the preeminent article of faith of the coalition of black radicals, white progressives, and Christian socialists who formed the NAACP in 1905.
Indeed, DuBois and others founded the organization explicitly to counteract Booker T. Washington's emphasis on black economic development. As editor of the NAACP's magazine, Crisis, DuBois advocated a policy of immediate franchisement, insistence on civil equality, and higher education "to train the best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men and leaders." Writes Cruse, "tactically, noneconomic liberalism [was] one means of expunging from the [civil rights]…movement the pro-capitalist, free-market ideals of the Booker T. Washington school in favor of constitutional legalism."
Yet the NAACP's early and continued rejection of black economic development in favor of civil rights agitation had little to do with the reality of American society and the relationship of blacks to it. It ignored America's emphasis on private enterprise, profit making, property ownership, and the high value placed on technological development and industrial expansion. In the face of this reality, observes Cruse, "the American Negro was being advised by white liberals to waive any program of economic advancement as a matter of priorities." Instead, the NAACP came to rely on Roosevelt's New Deal as the "bountiful dispenser of black uplift." The result, concludes Cruse, was that blacks were made "economic wards of the state."
Cruse credits today's black critics of the welfare state such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams with "correctly approach[ing] black progress and achievement in economic terms." Like them, he takes the view that "without economic progress there is no progress." But unlike them, Cruse argues that economic progress does require black leverage in the American political system—a leverage now largely lacking due to the misguided ideas of the black leadership. To correct the situation, Cruse concludes, blacks must turn to the "politics of plurality."
Specifically, he proposes the creation of an independent political party. He views it as a "third force" that would challenge "the Democratic party's monopolistic hold on the left-wing position of the two-party system." The only way to achieve economic justice (understood by Cruse to mean redistribution of wealth) in the free-market system, argues Cruse, is by means of coercive power. An independent, black political party is the initial step toward the reorganization of black life into "first a political bloc, then cultural blocs, and then into whatever internal economic organizations are possible within a capitalistic, free-market system."
But before this politics of plurality—the creation of specifically black political institutions—can be expressed in organizational changes, changes must "occur within the black group itself." Blacks, Cruse urges, must accept the fact that "civil rights legislation has exhausted the power of the Fourteenth Amendment to redress the historical civil rights wrongs against blacks," that constitutionally, "civil rights justice…has been won."
Moreover, Cruse recognizes that the black leadership must convince the children of the children of the New Deal that the welfare state is not in their self-interest and that free-market capitalism and voluntary, community actions are. And a black political party must contend with entrenched individualism in black communities. For black Americans are quintessential Americans, and they are not likely to readily subordinate their individual aspirations to the interest of the race as defined by the "politics of plurality."
Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign has shown just how unrealistic Cruse's hope for an independent black political party is. Jackson's candidacy was a campaign for the very "inclusion" that the traditional black leadership seeks. He explicitly states that the aim of his Rainbow Coalition is not to challenge the two-party system but to challenge the political establishment as an insider within the Democratic Party.
Jackson's capitulation on platform issues at the Democratic convention underscored his commitment to playing by the rules. He told reporters, "We can only win with each other. It is in our distinct advantage to find common ground." This perspective, articulated by today's leading black political figure, effectively rules out any prospect for an independent black political party such as Cruse envisions.
Cruse gives the impression that without leadership, especially the leadership he envisages, American blacks have no hope for the future, because they are incapable of fending for themselves. But his story of failed leadership is only a slice of black history. Still largely untold is the story of those leaderless masses who have struggled in their communities—first, behind the walls of imposed segregation and now behind the absurdities of imposed integration—to survive without the help or support of the leadership. They are, to use a DuBois characterization, "a saving remnant [that] continually survives and persists, continually aspires, continually shows itself in thrift and ability and character."
Across the country, groups are involved in community self-help projects in enterprise development, alternative education, foster care, crime prevention, public housing administration, family preservation, and entrepreneurship training among youth. These groups operate outside the network of the traditional civil rights and social welfare leadership. It is debatable whether the independent self-help networks require mobilization either by a new leadership, such as Cruse proposes, or by the old (belatedly reformed) leadership. The best alternative to bad leadership, which Cruse certainly documents, may be no leadership, certainly no national leadership.
There are some major flaws in this immensely informative work. The most interesting and troubling involve Cruse's effort to reconcile what he sees as the integrationist implications of the Constitution and the pluralistic reality of American society.
Cruse's reading of the Constitution is extremely problematic. He asks whether, on the basis of the 14th Amendment, a society's intergroup relations should be assimilation, pluralism, or a combination. But the amendment's implications are of an entirely different order. It focuses not at all on the form of intergroup relations but on the relation of individuals to each other and to the state, on the extent to which these individual relationships should be voluntary or coercive.
The 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's major school desegregation case, is the centerpiece of Cruse's analysis of noneconomic liberalism and black advancement. It represented the highlight of the NAACP's legal campaign for full equality over the previous four decades.
As Cruse rightly points out, the noneconomic liberalism underlying some of the arguments set forth in the Brown decision (and subsequent school desegregation cases) laid the groundwork for undermining pluralism in the name of equality, even when plural institutions resulted from voluntary behavior. He rightly objects to the justices' arguments that separateness is inherently unequal. He views such arguments as socially unrealistic, grounded in questionable social scientific research, and without justification in the 14th Amendment. Indeed, he believes separateness is not inherently immoral. In equating separateness (as opposed to imposed segregation) with inferiority, says Cruse, Brown absolved the state of the obligation to make separate equal.
He overlooks, however, the more important and constitutionally valid basis for the Brown decision—the 14th Amendment's requirement of equal protection of the law for individuals, not groups. As sociologist Nathan Glazer notes, "even if [the schools] were 'equal,' their being 'separate' would have been sufficient to make them unconstitutional. The major ground of the decision, it seems clear, was that distinctions by race should have no place in American law and public practice.…This was clearly a matter of the 'equal protection of the laws.'" This aspect of Brown, as Glazer says, is clearly mandated by the 14th Amendment and is consistent with the original Constitution.
Cruse instead emphasizes the less important features of the Brown decision that erroneously imply a constitutional recognition of group rights. For example, by concluding that segregated education led to inferior education for blacks as a group, the Court laid the foundation for future decisions mandating racial balance—an implicit recognition of group-based rights. Endorsing this notion of group rights, Cruse argues that "the separate-but-equal doctrine that Brown found unconstitutional should have been supplanted by the truly democratic doctrine of 'plural but equal.'" Instead of sending blacks to inferior segregated schools, the government should have provided segregated but truly equal schools.
Cruse believes that group rights, which he concludes are constitutionally recognized, justify "plural but equal" public schools. He implies the necessity for equal protection of governmentally subsidized racial separation. But this interpretation of equal protection would turn the 14th Amendment's focus to interest-group privileges (disguised as rights) and eliminate the basis for protecting the freedom of individuals. Although the laws of welfare-state capitalism provide justification for this proposition, the Constitution does not.
It is possible to find constitutional justification for a voluntary (unregulated) and just plural-but-equal pattern of intergroup relations. Such a pattern, which I call individualist pluralism, would mean restricting the concept of equal protection to the political equality of individuals, not the general equality of groups. It recognizes that individuals have a plurality of interests, attributes, and affiliations and ought to be equally free of state interference as they bring those dimensions to bear on their aspirations.
If individuals are to be free, they must be free to choose. Group diversity reflects the choices of individuals to pursue their opportunities through groups, which function as "mediating structures" between themselves and the wider society. Pluralism, in this view, is based on the legal freedom of individuals to strive, in cooperation with others, for social, economic, and political goals that do not require the violation of individual rights.
Against this perspective of individualist pluralism, Cruse's pluralism leaves much to be desired. But despite the flaws in its analysis and proposals, Plural but Equal should be welcomed as intellectual ammunition for blacks who have been demanding emancipation from various self-appointed leaders, exploitative caretakers, and condescending liberators. It should also be welcomed by whites who, in fear of being called racists or charged with "blaming the victim," refrain from supporting those black Americans who insist that blacks must take responsibility for their freedom and help themselves. But the utmost circumspection is advised.
Anne Wortham, author of The Other Side of Racism, is a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution and a sociologist at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Saving Remnant".