By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, by Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, New York: Dutton, 299 pages, $23.95
Hollywood's executives found themselves scrambling last summer—scrambling to find some blacks. The networks' fall 1999 lineup was as white as the roster of a professional hockey team. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declared itself outraged and threatened to sue. Ultimately, the show business powers-that-be managed to write a few minority roles into their otherwise white-centered shows. One can be sure that TV tokenism won't soon be neglected again.
But this is a step in the wrong direction, if one accepts the argument of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, a compelling book by two American University communications professors. In fact, this book suggests the original network lineup revealed the real America: a society with virtually no black-white integration.
Leonard Steinhorn (who is white) and Barbara Diggs-Brown (who is black) argue that the fantasy of representational diversity hinders actual racial progress, which they define as black and white integration. "What television has done is to give white Americans the sensation of having meaningful, repeated contact with blacks without actually having it," write Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown. "We call this phenomenon virtual integration, and it is the primary reason why the integration illusion—the belief that we are moving toward a colorblind nation—has such a powerful influence on race relations in America today."
The authors are "believers in true [black-white] integration"; they just don't think it's possible. In a country of racial optimists and pessimists, Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown cast themselves as racial realists. And their realism leaves them with a "choice of telling a truth we did not want to tell or of perpetuating a fiction that we wanted to believe." They tell the truth, as they see it: America lives an "integration illusion," which they define as "the public acclaim for the progress we have made, the importance of integration symbolism, the overt demonstrations of racial harmony, the rejection of blatant bigotry, the abstract support to neighborhood and school integration—all coupled with a continuing resistance to living, learning, playing and praying together."
And the authors don't exempt themselves from this analysis. In a curious disclosure, they admit that neither of them lives an integrated life, as they define it. Steinhorn, like most other D.C. area whites, lives in a predominantly white suburb. Diggs-Brown lives "a predominantly black personal life." Even though they worked closely on the book for two years, their families never once socialized together. This distance becomes a model for their book: If they can't integrate, who else can be expected to cross the black-white color line? Perhaps this is why they are hesitant to assign blame. "But let's not be too hard on ourselves," Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown write in the book's final chapter, "for it is wrong to say that we have failed when our goal was never realistic in the first place."
By the Color of Our Skin is not a policy book. It aims to describe America's black-white condition, not to point the way to racial harmony. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown support affirmative action; they could hardly avoid discussing the most contentious racial public policy issue, but they don't dwell on it. Rather, they dwell on academic studies, their personal experiences, interviews with others concerned about racial issues, and coverage by major media outlets: The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the newsweeklies. In two chapters, they use these sources to describe our condition: Blacks and whites live, learn, work, pray, play, and entertain separately. They spend five more chapters analyzing why this is the case. They conclude by looking at integration success stories and offering their vision for a more racially honest America.
Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown aren't shy about making strong claims, chief among them that America is no more integrated than "the day when a quarter of a million Americans descended on Washington for the great civil rights march of 1963." Shocking but true-if one accepts their terms. Their key point is to make a distinction between desegregation and integration. Desegregation, they say, "means the elimination of discriminatory laws and barriers." Integration, by contrast, is "governed by behavior and choice." It occurs only when individuals on both sides of the color line choose to cross it to live, to socialize, and to love, in addition to maintaining the pro forma workplace relations with which we are all familiar. "America is desegregating," the authors write. "But we are simply not integrating."
There are tricky definitional issues here, even after we recognize the distinction they propose. What exactly does it mean to live an integrated life? That one has black (or white) neighbors? That one invites one's black (or white) neighbors over twice a year for a barbecue? For those whose lives are less residentially based, is it a matter of peer or hobby groups?
Most would consider Washington, D.C., residentially segregated, and large sections of its northwest quadrant are predominantly white. Yet my white friends there just purchased a house next to a black family. They entertain frequently, and often my wife is not the only black at the party. Optimistic scholars of American race relations, such as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of the 1997 book America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, would point to my friends as examples of America's racial progress. They cite statistics that show residential segregation is receding: 83 percent of blacks and 61 percent of whites have at least one member of the other race in their neighborhood, a huge increase from 30 years ago.
Another white friend of mine owns a townhouse out in Virginia. When I ask him if he lives an integrated life, he replies with a question: What do you mean? His neighborhood is integrated by some standards: More than a handful of black families live on his block. He doesn't know them, but he doesn't know many of his white neighbors either. Perhaps his wife, who is at home with their 1-year-old daughter, does, he muses. Day in and day out, he mostly interacts with whites, but he figures that's a function of his interests and class, rather than any racial malice, a comment I heard from every white person I interviewed. The blacks at his D.C. office are concentrated in support jobs, especially the cafeteria, he says, and there just aren't a lot of black Straussian political theorists.
It's not clear that Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown would, like the Thernstroms, consider my friends' lives integrated. They give integration an almost impossibly strict definition. It's not enough for whites to interact with blacks with whom they share space, whether residential, professional, or personal interest. Whites must actively seek out and embrace blacks. "In a racially integrated America," they write, "blacks and whites would choose to live side by side, socialize with ease, see each other as peers, recommend each other for jobs, harbor little mutual distrust, respect each other's outlook, and appreciate each other's contributions to American culture." My home is clearly integrated: We've got a one-to-one ratio of black to white. But I'm not sure I live an integrated life by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's standard, since I probably don't have the proper appreciation of outlook and culture.
This appreciation is not a minor issue. Based on American art, sports, music, film, and television, a person from another planet might estimate this country's black population at 40 percent, as Americans have in public opinion polls. American culture doesn't exist apart from black American culture. Some of this integration may be virtual—corporate ads and university brochures, for example. But other aspects, such as the black influence on music, visual art, youth culture, and high-profile athletics, are undeniably real. Yet due to centuries of separation, black Americans have developed a culture that is distinct from, even as it exerts a disproportionate influence on, America's white or mainstream culture. It's difficult to articulate the differences without relying on stereotypes, but they do exist. And it is in large part white America's unwillingness to accept and incorporate black America on its own terms that has led to disaffection among black Americans.
This alienation constitutes the essence of a moving 1996 book by journalist Sam Fulwood III, Waking From the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class. Fulwood was in the first generation of Southern blacks to have access to white institutions. He attended a formerly all-white high school and the University of North Carolina. He excelled at his chosen craft—journalism—but found he could never transcend his race and fully be accepted into American life. So he quit trying, as have many of his friends. "Deep inside they are unhappy, knowing they are not accepted as equals by their white colleagues or acquaintances," writes Fulwood, describing his middle-class black neighbors who don't want any whites to move into their piece of suburbia. Later Fulwood repeats the point: "The refusal of the larger society to accept us, on our own terms, combined with our unwillingness to return to the ghetto, is likely to result in even more isolation, frustration and desperation" (emphasis added).
Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown don't deny that blacks have made impressive educational and economic progress since 1963. Or that America has become stridently anti-racist. Nor would Fulwood. But they all claim we are kidding ourselves if we think we are making any progress toward behavioral integration. Though white and black Americans can live wherever they choose, and though there are some integrated neighborhoods, whites typically live among whites, and blacks among blacks. Even Atlanta, which prides itself on racial harmony, is residentially segregated. Again, this is a result of choice, not legal compulsion. "People can live anywhere they want in Atlanta," the city's then-Mayor Andrew Young said in the mid-1980s. "It's not a segregated town. It's just not an integrated town. There's a difference."
Independent sources bolster Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's claims. America's government schools certainly aren't integrated, at least not the ones most black children attend. Seven in 10 blacks attended schools that were at least 50 percent black in the 1996-97 school year, according to a June 1999 study from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. The same study found that nearly four in 10 blacks attended schools at least 90 percent black. The typical white student attended a school that was 81 percent white.
The lack of integration bothers fewer people than one might expect. A recent poll of 18-to-29-year-olds found that half had no problem with blacks and whites living separately, so long as they have equal opportunities. Upper-income blacks like Fulwood are retreating from integrated neighborhoods to upscale black enclaves. "Black colleges are experiencing a renaissance," writes Fulwood. "Black organizations—churches, fraternities, sororities and professional groups—are attracting legions of new members." Even environments that look integrated on paper—high schools and universities, metropolitan statistical areas, and large corporations—are often internally segregated. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown found a Mississippi high school with one building but two schools, one black and one white, each with its own principal, class presidents, and yearbook. "It may be the most honest public high school in America," they write.
Blacks and whites experience myriad pressures that keep them separate, a fact that becomes clear when you attempt to straddle the race line, talk to people who have, or simply read the newspaper. Blacks who choose to integrate, whether residentially or in institutional settings such as high school and college, often get hit from both sides. In addition to wariness from whites, they face rejection by blacks who see them as selling out. The aversion to whites is so strong that, even in schools where few are present, black students who excel academically are ridiculed for "acting white." This is a serious problem. The problem's source and solution, however, reside entirely in the black community.
Aside from risking black rejection, blacks who choose to integrate must play cultural ambassadors to whites, who are often insensitive to black issues and concerns. If black women dare to date interracially, they may receive random threats of violence from black men who encounter them in public. My wife has suffered verbal assaults on the streets of every city in which we've lived and some where we haven't. If black men date white women, they too can expect such attacks from blacks. There are strong pressures to stay within the group.
Whites, too, face barriers to integration. Given differing cultures, experiences, and histories, it matters on whose terms integration happens. Predominantly black cliques erect insuperable cultural barrier of tastes and behavior that are unintelligible to whites. As the T-shirt says, "It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand." And, like blacks excommunicated for "acting white," whites who adopt black culture are likely to face resistance at home and in their former cultural community. They're labeled "wannabes" and "wiggers." If whites integrate on white cultural terms—the norm, in my experience—they must cultivate sensitivity to black issues. But there's a taboo against asking too many questions. This taboo is necessary; a black woman with 20 white friends will burn out quickly if she has to explain everything from her hair to Juneteenth to each of them. But it makes developing deep friendships hard.
There remain significant barriers to interracial friendships in the workplace, as Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's lack of socializing seems to attest. Friendship requires communication, and communication requires both trust and grace. These are often in short supply between blacks and whites. Whites, who know what happens to people accused of racism, feel it's a good idea to keep it professional with blacks. Blacks perhaps perceive this distance as coldness. Friendships that otherwise might develop don't. Many people don't like to socialize with co-workers anyway, and so integration just doesn't happen.
Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown provide an excellent example of what can happen in the workplace to whites who aren't sensitive to black concerns—that is, those who treat blacks in a color-blind fashion. They tell the story of a white Maryland educator who was chairing a court-appointed panel on school desegregation. Upon entering a meeting with the NAACP, he introduced his influential black colleague as his "800-pound gorilla." A mistake for sure, but only because he didn't consider race, not because he did. After all, introducing a white person as an 800-pound gorilla is a compliment of sorts, an acknowledgment of his status or power. The man apologized, but that wasn't enough. The NAACP called for his termination. And when a white school board member came to his defense, she too was asked to resign. People learn from incidents like this.
Some learn their lessons early. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown describe a 1997 brouhaha at American University. It was election time, and the school paper had failed to endorse the president of the Black Student Alliance for vice president of the student government. It ran an op-ed piece by her criticizing the paper's position and made the mistake of running an unrelated editorial cartoon of two baboons complaining about animal testing under it. This prompted black students to protest, American University's president to declare the decision to run the cartoon "morally repugnant," and the newspaper editors to publicly apologize, while privately insisting that there was no racial content to the decision to run the cartoon.
By now we all know the drill: Black expressions of outrage trigger concessions from contrite and cowering whites. Whites are no different from other people: They prefer to be neither cowering nor contrite. Since they are never sure what will trigger outrage, it's just easier to avoid unscripted, and hence unsafe, interactions with unknown blacks. Write Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown: "Whites see so many racial double standards that they would prefer not to deal with them at all. Most whites choose their words carefully and are always amiable and polite when around blacks. But self-conscious civility is an effort, and it's just plain easier to avoid blacks altogether." Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown conclude that "black and white Americans [have learned to] accommodate one another in the public spheres that require interaction, but remain distant in the private spheres that involve choice or any form of intimacy."
Thus we arrive at a paradox. In a country that celebrates color blindness as an ideal, the only spaces in which Americans can live without thought to color—be they neighborhoods, offices, or social clubs—are nonintegrated. This is true for both blacks and whites.
What's the problem, if this is all a product of choice? Integration may have been the stated goal of the civil rights movement, but isn't desegregation the most that public policy can hope to achieve in a free society? And it's not as if segregation is being pushed on blacks. Journalist Tamar Jacoby, author of the 1998 book Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration, notes that in 1962 "a black man defending integration risked looking like a chump." Integration may have been the rhetoric used to woo liberal whites, but in Northern black neighborhoods, a year before the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights movement was already about black power.
By the 1990s, even black candidates for statewide office were openly redefining integration. "Integration is not about sitting next to white people or going to the same school," Jacoby quotes Georgia gubernatorial candidate Andrew Young as saying in 1990. "It's about having equal access to the resources." In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson observed: "Even though the majority of African-Americans still favor ethnic integration, educated and middle-class African-Americans have largely abandoned it in favor of promoting ethnic pride and developing their own communities. There has been a return to the old Southern doctrine of separate and equal, as long as it is truly equal, at least for the middle classes."
The problem, as I see it, is that access to the public spheres, specifically the commercial sphere, often depends on being comfortable with the norms of white society. If a significant number of black children aren't comfortable with them, it isn't by choice: It's because they were isolated from those norms. It's one thing for members of the black elite and upper middle class to choose to retire to predominantly black neighborhoods after a lucrative day's work in white America. It's quite another for people to be unable to enter that commercial sphere because they spent their formative years in a community that didn't, or couldn't, prepare them for it. Writes Patterson, "The greatest problem now facing African-Americans is their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture, and this is true of all classes."
Another way to get at this issue is to ask who bears the cost of America's lack of integration. I submit that it's not white Americans. Consider the school integration statistics: The average white student attends a school that is 81 percent white. This is another way of saying that the average white student attends a school that closely approximates America. Most have a friend or two, certainly friendly acquaintances, who are black. In 1994, the Thernstroms note, 73 percent of whites reported that they had a good friend who was black. They probably feel as if they already live an integrated life. They define integration as the Thernstroms do, as interaction, and they have interaction with blacks.
As Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown document, whites are satisfied with the access they have to black America. They can enjoy its intellectuals, athletes, singers, comedians, writers, and artists. While in some abstract sense not knowing more blacks personally might diminish white people's lives, they don't know what they are missing. It certainly doesn't hurt their chances for happiness or success.
Nor is it upper-middle-class black isolationists who bear the cost of nonintegration. Insofar as they choose not to integrate, they presumably benefit from it. Describing a "self-protective buppie cocoon, separate from poor blacks and all whites," Fulwood writes, "It is where I live, reluctantly, but more comfortably than anywhere else I could imagine." Besides, theirs is less a segregated life than a dual life. Residentially segregated buppies seem well-equipped to prepare their children for the same experience, providing them with the skills to operate in the mainstream economy while feeling secure in, and even celebrating, a cultural detachment from it.
But the same is not true for poorer black Americans, the very people in whose name so much radical theorizing occurs. Despite significant economic gains during the last 40 years, only four in 10 blacks considered themselves middle class in 1994 and 1996, a third fewer than whites. Only 50 percent of black households had income more than double the poverty line, compared to 75 percent of whites. For low-income blacks, to be estranged from white culture and norms is to be estranged from America's norms. Seventy-two percent of the population can thrive while being fundamentally estranged from 12 percent of the population. The same cannot be said of the reverse. There's a reason that all minority groups—and groups outside of power, arguably such as women of my grandmother's generation—know and care much more about the majority than the majority knows or cares about them. Such an asymmetry of information is necessary for success, in some cases survival. This may not be fair, but it is a reality.
The cost of America's nonintegration, therefore, is borne by blacks, many of whom didn't choose their isolation. And therein lies the rub: Responsibility for integration, in the view of Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown and other intellectuals, largely rests with whites, whose racism and unwillingness to live among blacks and accept blacks on their cultural terms are the main factors preventing real integration. Yet whites, for the most part, don't see the lack of integration as a problem.
I imagine that a significant proportion of whites—especially young, educated, urban-oriented whites—would prefer, in the abstract, to live more-integrated lives. In an interview, Fulwood says he thinks whites currently want integration more than blacks. But at what cost? Not a very high one. And since crossing the black-white color line can be quite costly for all involved, I share Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's racial realism, up to a point. Whites simply aren't likely to see the world in Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's terms and make extraordinary efforts to live integrated lives. In fact, it seems that even Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown aren't likely to do so.
So where are we left? Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown call for a racially honest America where blacks and whites basically coexist, similar to the environment at the bifurcated Mississippi school they describe. They argue that blacks should be separated from the minority coalition and granted special status for affirmative action purposes. In essence, they would have us recognize that blacks are a special case, and return affirmative action to its remedial roots. It's a tepid ending, incidental to the rest of the book.
I'm not quite so pessimistic. The major weakness of Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's book is their insistence on interpreting everything in the worst possible light. This is probably a function of their one-time idealism and the sources they use. Newspapers report conflict. Racial conflicts, such as school board fights and hate crimes, are much more likely to get ink than signs of racial harmony, such as interracial friendships and marriages. The academic race specialists who carry out the studies on which Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown rely also have an interest in focusing on problems, especially problems that can be plausibly blamed on society at large. (For a lucid treatment of this issue, I recommend Shelby Steele's latest book, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.)
I see America's rhetorical and "virtual" integration, as reflected on TV, as a sign of progress, even while I find the NAACP's threat to force it by lawsuit absurd. Theatrical and other public displays of racial harmony and mixing, however inaccurate in any given situation, may represent a standard to which an American audience aspires, perhaps even a model for eventual behavioral integration. They may even be the reason why I, emerging from a home that didn't place any independent value on integration, nevertheless find myself living what I consider an integrated life. I'm partial to John Updike's formulation, quoted by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown: "An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one." Perhaps I'm still under an illusion. But I'm living it. I've already made my choice.
Michael W. Lynch (email@example.com) is REASON's Washington editor.