Race in America: One Step Forward, Two Steps Sideways
Every morning I walk my dog for 25 minutes. That's how long it takes to go round the block, given doggie mental processes ("Gotta sniff this! Oh, wow, gotta sniff this!! Oops — gotta pee! Whew, that's better! Hey, gotta sniff this! …") and the fact that the object of the exercise is not restricted to just walking. We've had Boris for ten years, and I've walked him round the block every day, except when we've been away on vacation, or during the spell back in '96 when I broke my ankle. That's got to be better than three thousand walkies round the block.
Total distance is about a mile. (Which means that since 1992, Boris and I have walked coast to coast. Good grief!) We go to the end of my street, a few yards down to the next street, the length of that street, a few yards up, then most of the length of my street. Figuring an average 60- or 70-foot frontage, counting both sides of the street and allowing for undeveloped land, I suppose I pass over a hundred houses in this pleasant lower-middle-class outer suburb of a major American city in a very liberal state (Senators Schumer, Clinton). They're one-family houses, all of them: we're not zoned for multiple occupancy, and don't want to be. To the best of my knowledge, not one of those houses is occupied by a black family.
How does this happen? Is it all the fault of the realtors, "steering" people into segregated neighborhoods? Well, there is probably some of that. I doubt the motivation is "racism" on the realtors' part, though. They just don't enjoy wasting their time, any more than you or I do. You're a realtor: a young white couple walks in, looking for a house to buy: you send them to a black neighborhood: they take one look around, say: "We don't want to live here," and find themselves another realtor.
I doubt it even gets that far very often. Most young couples probably do what Rosie and I did when we decided to move out of New York City. We settled on a broad region we thought we'd like, based on geography, commuting distance, and so on, then went and eyeballed a few neighborhoods. Once we found a neighborhood we liked the look of, we went to the nearest realtor and said: "We really like it round here. Whaddya got?" We borrowed a car for some of these excursions, but three or four times we just rode out on the train from Penn Station, got off the train at random, and looked around. One time we got off the train in a town that was pretty solidly black. It took us about five minutes to figure this out. Then we went back to the railroad station and sat half an hour waiting for the next train.
Are we racists? Depends what you mean. Just like everybody else, except for a small fringe of lunatics, I deal with individual people as they come, and hold off forming individual judgments about them till I've had some experience of their character and abilities, as I assume they do with me. My wife, who never even saw a black person till she was 24 years old, is the same. On the other hand, no, I don't want to live in a black neighborhood, not even a middle-class one. When cruising for a house, I have nothing to go on but statistics; and the statistics of black neighborhoods are not good. This is ordinary everyday decision-making: when you have no specific facts to work from, you go with the percentages. For American blacks, the percentages — school performance, crime, drugs, illegitimacy — are terrible.
This is not a big secret. In the next county to mine there is one of those black towns (not the one we stopped at when house-hunting). It has been in a state of chronic crisis for years. Latest news is that the town school system has been taken over by the state, to save it from complete collapse. The town's main drag is seedy: check-cashing places, liquor stores, dirty shebeens, and a lot of boarded-up windows. Easy to see why, as our regional newspaper reports, there is effectively no commercial tax base. Crime is high. Away from the center, parts of the town aren't bad. There are carefully-kept homes, neat gardens, well-dressed people driving SUVs. I wouldn't want to live there, though. A write-up by a black reporter in today's edition of that newspaper notes that the town was only 20 percent black in 1957. Now the figure is 87 percent. The reporter blames the town's problems on "institutional racism."
The town I live in, taken as a whole, is not any kind of white enclave. My kids' elementary school looks like America. So does the congregation of my church. (And our bishop is black — a hard-working man of God, from all I've heard, who certainly gives a good thoughtful sermon.) Most black citizens of my town, though, live in their own neighborhoods, in projects or "affordable housing." There are all sorts of other imbalances, too. For example, I know the 50 or 60 businesses in the center of town — small stores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, hairdressers, and the like. Come Halloween they all have trick-or-treat baskets out, and we take the kids on a comprehensive tour. I don't think one of those businesses is black-owned. With a few particular exceptions — local banks seem to have a good proportion of black tellers, for instance — the town's tiny black middle class is huddled in the public sector: teachers, town hall workers, road crews, mail carriers. My black fellow-townspeople are not commuting into the city to work, either: I rode that commuter train every working day for seven years, and black faces were rare (and mostly female).
My neighbors in this street are not conservative. The younger ones, anyway — the ones whose kids play with our kids — are ordinary apolitical Americans, who get their news and views from Dan and Tom and Katie and Bryant. They know I write for conservative outlets, but regard this as an amusing eccentricity, tied in somehow with my being originally English. ("Mad dogs and Englishmen write conservative commentary," perhaps.) They are open-minded and kind-hearted people, whose ancestors were Irish, British, Jewish, Italian, Polish or Chinese.* I have never heard any of them make an unkind remark about the street's one homosexual couple. To the contrary, they take pride in inviting that couple to our block parties and Christmas sing-alongs, and seek out their advice on home repairs, at which both have better-than-average expertise. I suppose these friendly, tolerant, liberal Americans could have bought houses in black neighborhoods if they had wanted to. I suppose, like us, they didn't want to.
On Meet the Press this morning (I am writing this Sunday afternoon), Al Sharpton showed up. He's polling well in the line-up for 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. At any rate, he's near the front of the 5 or 6 percent bunch, down there on the sidewalk under Al Gore's towering 41 percent. Probably by coincidence, the brief "from our archives" clip at the end of the program was taken from a 1963 interview with Martin Luther King. Any time I mention King I get a slew of e-mails from people telling me what a rogue he was: plagiarizing his college papers, cheating on his wife, soft on the Soviets, etc. All right; but given the conditions he was working with, it seems to me he did much more good than harm, in the way of wearing down white prejudice.
In 1963 America, the "N-word" was common coin, and white people made cracks like: "Negroes? Fine people. I believe every home should have one," to general laughter. White Americans don't talk like that now, and the fact that they don't is partly due to King. You could see why, watching that archive clip. King was calm and well-spoken, and the things he was asking for were just common sense, and rooted in basic American ideals: respect, dignity, the striking down of unjust laws, fair treatment. The contrast with Al Sharpton was heartbreaking.
I'm going to pass on whether King was a gentleman or not; but he obviously knew that to get justice for his people, he had to act like a gentleman, and dress like one, and talk like one. Sharpton is just a buffoon, and looks like a buffoon (that hair!) and talks like a buffoon ("Why you axing me dat?") and plays the victim card shamelessly (sample quote: "We don't owe America nothin'. America owes us,") and does a weird, ugly shucking and jiving act when confronted with questions about certain episodes in his past, like Freddy's Fashion Mart (burned out, with several deaths, after Sharpton called for "community action" against "white interlopers"). As I said, heartbreaking. Sharpton's up there in the polls, though, and six percent of us — us Americans, I mean — want him as President.
Back in 1963, I guess a minority of whites believed that segregation could be maintained, and unjust laws upheld, and black Americans kept down. Most whites though, with various kinds of feelings about it, probably believed the country would go forward along King's path, to a future of equality, full integration, and racial harmony. The way I see it, both groups were wrong. We didn't get the continuation of lawful segregation, but we didn't get integration and racial harmony, either. We got … something else. Sure, we moved forward a way; but we moved as much sideways as forward. One step forward, two steps sideways — something like that.
Could things have happened differently? I don't know. How will things develop over the next 39 years? I don't know. Another step forward, and a couple more steps sideways, would be my best guess.
* You understand, I am sure, that when I talk about race, I am talking about blacks and nonblacks, the two races that inhabit the United States.