By Joe Feagin and Yvonne Combs (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
In practice, racial desegregation has often become a game of numbers, a game that does not serve well the basic needs and interests of the black community. Clearly, the end of legal segregation has meant some increased housing, job, and education options for black Americans, especially those in the middle class. There has been some societal desegregation in many areas.
Yet, a token number of blacks in formerly all-white neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces have signaled to many whites that conditions for blacks are now the same as for whites, if not better.
However, what the omnipresent numbers on desegregation fail to show is the quality of this social change in everyday life. Many black Americans have not benefited much from racial desegregation.
They got some increased opportunities here and there, but they remain informally segregated and racially targeted across most institutions in the society. Moreover, the quality of life for blacks in desegregated institutions is often negative and filled with racist obstacles. So-called integrated institutions have mostly incorporated blacks and other people of color in limited numbers without changing their white-washed character and culture; most are still run by white men according to the rules and norms long ago established in the white interest. Much research shows that today a majority of whites are still quite racist in their thinking about black Americans and that a majority will still sometimes discriminate — in areas like housing or promotions — when given the chance. Today, the white majority still gives the ideal of racial equality only lip-service.
Given the failure to achieve large-scale integration and continuing white racism in all major institutions, many black Americans have shown a growing interest in community control and self-development strategies. In the mid-1990s, New York Times reporter Isabel Wilkerson interviewed several dozen middle-class blacks in LA and found them angry over police brutality and other racism issues. As a result, many were becoming more committed to black businesses and greater black community solidarity and separation from whites. In his important book, Integration or Separation?, leading black legal scholar Roy Brooks — formerly a dedicated integrationist — shows the defects in the integration strategy. As he sees it now, black Americans should keep integration as a strategy but couple it with strong community-focused strategies necessary for their short-term and long-term well-being. Working in the tradition of Malcolm X and W. E. B. DuBois, numerous scholars and community leaders have reiterated the importance of African values and understandings for African Americans in building stronger communities and community control strategies.
In short, it is possible today to have safe neighborhoods, healthy homes, good economic activity and successful school experiences within predominately black communities. Mere proximity to whites does not ensure socioeconomic security or advancement. It is possible for African Americans to develop greater community control and a more independent infrastructure.
Consider, for example, the little-known story of the prosperous “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 20th century. Destroyed by white rioting and arson in 1921 [see “Unearthing a Riot” by Brent Staples, in the Dec. 19, 1999 N.Y. Times Magazine], this center of black prosperity is a possible prototype for greater economic independence. The money made in the community there, and in many other cities at that time, tended to stay in those communities.
As John S. Butler has made clear in his research, that so many strong black communities existed on the heels of slavery clearly points to the ability of blacks to set their own agenda outside the confines of white society. A vicious war against these communities in the 1920s and 1930s — by whites at all class levels — and the impact of the Great Depression wiped out much of this black-controlled prosperity.
Some improvement in material circumstances for many black Americans, coupled with official desegregation of schools and neighborhoods, has failed to close the gap between black and white living standards. Indeed, in many ways, the socioeconomic gap now seems to be widening. And racial discrimination remains widespread.
In the long run, hopefully, the strategy of thorough-going racial desegregation and integration may still make sense for African Americans and for the larger society. However, it is an ideal still rejected in practice by most whites, who have the greatest power to implement it. In the meantime, one clear recommendation of a growing number of black voices is for black Americans to embrace the opportunity to develop greater solidarity and community control within black communities.
Joe Feagin (email@example.com) is Research Prof. of Sociology, Yvonne Combs (firstname.lastname@example.org) a doctoral student in sociology, at the Univ. of Florida, Gainesville. Feagin is President (1999-2000) of the Amer. Sociological Assn.