The issue is not housing, nor even segregation. It is the underclass. The ghetto is not just another neighborhood that happens to be poor and black, but rather a social structure that created the black underclass and threatens to perpetuate it across generations.
Since this nation’s founding, we have struggled with the issue of racial justice. The Civil War was a turning point, but even those who emerged victorious from that calamitous experience knew full well that true equality could not be achieved by simply declaring an end to slavery. Uncorrected, the vestiges of that institution would live on, and a new caste structure would emerge, making a mockery of freedom.
The arduous process of reconstruction began in the years immediately following the War. By 1875, that effort had collapsed and by the end of the nineteenth century the nation had embarked on a very different course. Jim Crow, a state-supported system of separation, exclusion, and disenfranchisement, spread like wildfire, and turned the newly freed slaves into second-class citizens.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century we were frequently reminded of the constitutional commitment to equality and how far we have departed from it. Then, on that fateful day in 1954, the High Court issued an edict condemning Jim Crow, and called on us to renew the process of reconstruction. Many resisted, and some even took up arms. But through the determined but diplomatic use of judicial power, the support of the coordinate branches of the federal government, and the mobilization of multitudes of citizens, largely spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr., the most blatant forces of resistance were overcome.
My essay begins with a recognition of the fact that the Second Reconstruction–as the period begun by Brown v. Board of Education is known–has come to an end, if not in the mid-1970s, then certainly in August 1996, when Congress enacted and President Clinton signed into law the welfare reform bill. My aim was to reflect on the achievements of that extraordinary era of reform and define the challenge ahead. Though we must, of course, remain ever vigilant against the continuation and resurgence of Jim Crow-type discrimination, and press for the full enforcement of 1960s civil rights laws, we must also recognize that the issues of racial justice have changed, in part due to the specific policies of the Second Reconstruction.
At the time of Brown,the caste structure had a decidedly racial character. Most blacks were poor, and although their poverty posed significant obstacles to their upward mobility, we understood their subjugation principally in racial terms–first, because racial discrimination acted as an independent constraint on their lives and, second, because the enormous economic disadvantages blacks suffered could be traced directly to their race.
Today, however, the hierarchical structure initially engendered by slavery and perpetuated by Jim Crow is no longer simply racial. Blacks as a class are not the worst-off group. Many blacks now enjoy so-called middle-class status and participate in almost all walks of American public life, including some of the most prestigious. Rather, the most disadvantaged group is the black underclass, a group that is defined by both race and class and that now shoulders the legacy of centuries of racial oppression.
To see the black underclass, as I do, as a manifestation of the caste structure set in motion by slavery and continued by Jim Crow is not only to acknowledge the utterly deplorable conditions that individual members of this group must endure, but also to underscore the structural constraints on their upward mobility. This form of stratification is an affront to the egalitarian ideals that animated the Second Reconstruction and that so define this nation. It represents a moral and constitutional betrayal that demands swift and effective remedial action, not as a matter of public policy, but as a requirement of justice.
None of the participants in this debate–for whose responses I am grateful–deny the conflict between our egalitarian ideals and the maintenance of the black underclass. Nor do they deny that the ghetto is an institution that isolates and concentrates the worst off, thus magnifying their disadvantage. Indeed, James Rosenbaum, a pioneer in this field, once again provides detailed documentation of the relationship between the underclass and the inner-city ghetto of today.
Basing his argument on studies of the Gautreaux program, Rosenbaum points to improvements–he here describes them as “amazing”–in the lives of ghetto residents of Chicago who were given an opportunity to move to better neighborhoods. He concludes, “Housing policy can do more than provide shelter, it can radically improve people’s lives.” To this, I add that even more than improving lives, housing policy aimed at dispersal or deconcentration can, if adopted on a broad enough scale, help eradicate caste, and thus deepen and extend the process of reconstruction begun more than a century ago.
No matter how stark the evidence, Robert Coles and Phillip Thompson are reluctant to embrace deconcentration. They want to begin with all that is good and decent in the ghetto, and build from there. Thompson favors what he calls “in-place” remedies such as job creation. Coles is silent on the remedial issue, but like Thompson expresses a faith in the capacity of ghetto residents to shelter themselves from the many destructive forces that engulf their neighborhoods. In the closing passages of his essay, Robert Coles shares with us the testimony of an African American father of four in Roxbury who admits, “I wish I could get us out of here,” but finally concludes: “It’s nice to cut and run, but it’s nice to dig in hard and long–to keep remembering that you stood up for who you are, and for what you think really matters in this life that the good Lord has leant you to keep.”
I was deeply moved by this man’s evident courage and determination. Yet on further reflection, I wondered whether he would make it, even with the help of the local churches, community organizations, and clubs Phillip Thompson celebrates. Even if he beats the odds, it is doubtful most others will. Wouldn’t it make more sense, indeed, wouldn’t it be more just, given that society put him in his predicament, for the state to provide him the resources to move if he so chooses? The decision to stay put requires courage, but we cannot read the dictates of justice out of every act of courage.
Other respondents, most notably Jennifer Hochschild, Alexander Polikoff, Richard Ford, and Gary Orfield, endorse the idea of providing those trapped within the ghetto with the resources they need to move to a better neighborhood. They too see the ghetto as an institution that perpetuates the underclass and acknowledge the rightness of deconcentration, but take this strategy in new directions. I welcome their proposals. Fashioning appropriate remedies will require all the imagination we can muster. Still, two aspects of their recommendations concern me.
One arises from the fact that much of what they offer are half-measures. Hochschild, for example, recommends cutting the amount allocated for relocation in half and using the remainder for improving life within the ghetto or for transportation systems that might get ghetto residents to jobs in the suburbs. Polikoff proposes to tie deconcentration to the process of demolishing obsolete public housing projects. Both of these ideas have great appeal, yet I fear that if we limit deconcentration in the ways they recommend, we may make even more miserable the lives of those who will inevitably be left behind–for example, those living in privately owned tenements or those who remain on the waiting list because there are not enough funds to go around.
The ghetto of today is not just a product of the containment policies of Jim Crow; it also takes its character in part from the fact that in recent decades those most able to move out have in fact done so. This exodus improved the life chances of those who moved, but also enhanced the concentration and isolation of the most disadvantaged. Richard Ford rightly points out that my proposal might intensify this very same dynamic of isolation. Some of the most disadvantaged may not take the subsidy I would offer and choose to stay behind, thereby threatening to create what he calls a “super-underclass.” Aside from providing information to enable residents to weigh adequately the advantages of a move, I see no way of eliminating altogether the danger Ford describes–at most, it can be minimized. I fear, however, that the risk of creating a “super-underclass” would be magnified considerably by the proposed half-measures.
My second concern stems from the acknowledged motivation underlying some of the proposed alternatives–“political feasibility.” Phillip Thompson, for instance, rejects deconcentration on the ground that it will not be acceptable to what he calls “white suburbia”and throws his support behind Wilson’s job-creation proposal because it is “a lot more politically realistic.”Speaking more generally, I was struck by the spirit of defeatism that so pervades all the responses. So many of my interlocutors hesitate to embrace deconcentration in all its fullness because they fear it is not politically feasible.
Buckminster Fuller once said that it is a virtue to be naive. I second that sentiment, but I also believe it is a virtue to be realistic. Our task is to describe what justice requires, but we must be aware of the forces that resist the delivery of justice, regardless of whether they arise from incompetence, from a narrow regard for self interest, or from a difference of opinion about the requirements of justice. We need to take account of the mood of Congress, the interests served by the containment, and the hostility deconcentration is likely to engender in the so-called receiving communities.
At the same time, we must never confuse feasibility with rightness. Moreover, we must take care not to exaggerate, in the name of realism, the forces of resistance or the barriers to implementation, which vary city to city. The pockets of goodwill that exist in this country–and that hopefully may soon be enlarged by the prosperity and sense of triumphalism America is now experiencing–must be nourished and developed to the utmost.
We must also be aware that sometimes self-interest can be put to service for justice. Throughout the debates surrounding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the advocates of reform often explained how opening public accommodations and jobs to blacks would be good for business, and I imagine that the eventual passage of that law could be seen as a triumph of both justice and economic interest. Polikoff’s strategy of linking deconcentration to the demolition of obsolete public housing projects is in this same tradition, though with an odd twist.
As Polikoff explains, the maintenance of a number of public housing projects would at this point require additional investment, but such an investment would not make economic sense. As he put it, it would only be throwing good money after bad. He reports that in the end Congress required that some of the worst public housing projects in fact be closed. Polikoff celebrates the result, calling it “a tiny gleam of hope,” and then adds, somewhat gratuitously, “let us acknowledge that it emanates not from a willingness to do justice but from a reluctance to throw good money after bad.” Why? What is the point of such an acknowledgment? What is to be gained by disavowing justice? The experience with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 leads me to imagine the possibility of reform motivated by a confluence of justice and economic interest.
Finally, no matter how fierce the resistance, we should not regard it as fixed nor the opponents of reform intractable. Housing integration has always been intensely difficult. Even after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening to blacks places of public accommodation and jobs in the private sector, Congress refused to heed the voices demanding a fair housing law. It took as horrendous an event as the assassination of Dr. King, and perhaps a week of riots, but ultimately Congress came to its senses, and did what simple justice required.
Residents of upscale neighborhoods, whether they be white or black, may well try to fence out poor blacks from the ghetto. Some might fear a diminution of property values, or a re-emergence of the very problems they sought to avoid by moving to a better neighborhood. We should not ignore these concerns, but neither should we capitulate to them. So we must choose the receiving communities carefully, and support the changes that inevitably will take place in them. As Gary Orfield wisely counsels, we must not only set changes in motion, but also shepherd communities through these changes. We must not create new ghettos.
We must also be clear about our purposes. Deconcentration is not just based on a desire to secure for ghetto residents a right to choose one’s residence, which would only pit the associational liberty of one group against another, but derives from a desire to eliminate a horrible inequality. In attempting to tear down the walls of the ghetto, we are trying to dismantle an institution that continues, in a different and more calibrated form, the caste structure that has disfigured our nation from the very beginning. “We must come to see,” King once said, after the long march from Selma to Montgomery, “that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”