The Ordeal of Integration. – Review

The Ordeal of Integration. – Review – book review

Brian W. Jones

The Ordeal of Integration By Orlando Patterson (Civitas, 1997.233 pp. $ 24.50.)

The twilight of the 20th Century should be an auspicious moment for public intellectuals concerned about race and its implications for the American Experiment. The faculties of elite educational institutions are densely populated by men and women whose racial sensibilities were forged in the progressive fires of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The proliferation of media – from television and magazines to talk radio and the Internet – provides an expanded forum for a greater diversity of voices than could have been imagined at the apogee of officially sanctioned racial discrimination. That broader reach of the media has in turn helped to liberalize the racial attitudes of a vast swath of the American mainstream. And it has allowed us to identify with greater precision than ever the socioeconomic progress enjoyed by erstwhile-dispossessed communities, while underscoring the fact of poverty’s stubborn persistence among the nation’s largely black urban “underclass.”

Nevertheless, racial discourse among the nation’s elite has become shrill and vacuous. Like two alley cats fighting in the night, the competing factions among public leaders who care about race frequently savage the opposition by means intemperate, personal, and dishonest. In The Ordeal of Integration, a rigorous survey of the “race” debate in modern America, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, sets about to correct false premises and to provide a prescription for a more constructive civic conversation.

Despite his professed conviction that “the free market is a clumsy and pernicious tool for distribution and social justice,” Patterson nevertheless reserves his most devastating criticism for “Afro-American” leaders of the left (he eschews both the descriptors “black” and “African American”). In a densely footnoted essay titled “The Paradoxes of Integration,” the author deconstructs the pessimistic picture of the “Sisyphean burden of blackness” so often employed by liberal public intellectuals.

He cites government statistics and academic studies showing historically low poverty rates (the poverty rate for the black elderly has declined from 62.5 percent in the mid-sixties to 25.4 in 1995); increasing instances of interracial friendship and marriage; a burgeoning black middle class (now roughly 36 percent of all black families); increased housing satisfaction reported by Afro-Americans (74 percent of blacks today say they are satisfied with their housing, up from 45 percent 25 years ago); and a substantially closing earnings gap between the races when one controls for levels of education and, more significantly, for family composition (in 1995, for example, married black families earned a median income that was nearly 90 percent of the median for married white families.)

Conversely, single parent families are three times likelier than intact families to be poor – an alarming fact in the context of a nation in which the proportion of black families headed by a married couple declined from 70 percent in 1967 to 46 percent in 1995. This breakdown of the traditional, intact black family is, of course, consistent with larger national trends that cut across racial lines. Even so, it ultimately undermines the left’s claim that the eradication of systematic white racism should remain the nation’s principal civic priority.

Despite the apparently declining significance of race in the lives of average Americans, leaders of the left continue to engage in what Glenn Loury has defined as an “exhibitionism of [racial] failure.” As Patterson more simply states the matter, “the pain completely dominates the gain in the current rhetoric of race.” Patterson rejects the failure-exhibitionism strategy of public leadership for much the same reason that Loury does: he believes in the Booker Washingtonian ethic that civic equality fundamentally presumes the dignity of its subjects. By consistently inflating the failures of all Afro-Americans – and constructing socially deterministic excuses for individual shortcomings – in the service of remedial public policy, liberal leaders undermine progress toward meaningful civic equality.

Patterson’s ire flows beyond the political left. He assails conservative leaders, for example, for their “contradictory” embrace of market principles and individual responsibility, and he rejects “colorblind” public policies, defending instead racial affirmative action policies for a limited phase-out period. The core of this work, however, is its demand for leaders of the left to re-examine the progress enjoyed by blacks in America. To be sure, Patterson’s prose reverberates with a passion to improve the lot of the least among us.

The Ordeal of Integration reminds us that public intellectuals seeking the ends of civic equality and equal opportunity have a public responsibility to lay aside epithets and willful ignorance, and to serve the nation in the light of truth.

Brian W. Jones, Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Pete Wilson, is a director and former president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization.

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

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