Monday, April 28, 2008

Our confused time

Thomas Sugrue has a nice review in The Nation of a few recent books to emerge on the omnipresent theme of "race in America." After running through these latest volleys, he offers some particularly cogent concluding remarks:

If there is one lesson to be learned from the past half-century of struggle for racial equality, it is that accusing elite blacks of selling out, calling on poor blacks to shape up or ship out and making a high-minded effort to change the hearts and minds of white Americans have not fundamentally reshuffled the deck of racial inequality in America, especially when black interests threaten white power and privilege. Change did not come only because of high-minded rhetoric or hope. It took the coercive power of the federal government and courts to desegregate schools. The opening of the American workplace did not happen because the shingles fell from the eyes of racist employers. It took grassroots activism and the threat of disruption, along with litigation and the power of regulation, to break down Jim Crow on the factory floor and in the corporate office.

The struggle for racial equality and its partial and incomplete victories are forgotten in our confused time. The politics of race in 2008 is, more than ever, a politics of national redemption through personal transformation. It is all strangely removed from the experience of most black and white Americans. Despite more than a half-century of progress on racial matters, rates of black-white segregation remain incredibly high; neighborhoods and public schools in the North and South remain separate and unequal (and, despite our myths of progress, they are resegregating); and blacks fare worse than whites on nearly every measure of health, well-being and success. Nearly half of African-American children live in poverty, and there are more black men in prison than in college. Black households have on average only 10 percent of the wealth of white households. The current housing crisis affects all Americans, but blacks are disproportionately represented in the ranks of those with subprime loans and foreclosed properties. All of these amount to a crisis--but one that is almost wholly absent from the political agenda. So long as the battle for racial justice continues to be fought on the battleground of hearts and minds, so long as it misinterprets the gauzy politics of symbolism and rhetoric as victory, and so long as it holds out the misguided hope that ferreting out the last hard-core racists or sellouts will transform American life, then the day when "we shall overcome" will remain a distant dream.
Utterly depressing, on several levels.