In Black and White

Jesse Jackson and Tom Wicker


Tragic Failure: Racial
Integration in America

by Tom Wicker
Wm. Morrow and Co., $25, hard



Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage
of Jesse Jackson

by Marshall Frady.
Random House, $28.50, hard

However familiar and even tiresomely repeated a proposition by now," writes Marshall Frady on the first page of Jesse, "it nevertheless remains the case that the fundamental American crisis is still that of race." Similarly, retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker begins Tragic Failure with the statement that "the continuing separation of whites and blacks into hostile and unequal classes... is the fundamental cause of the political deadlock, economic inequity, and social rancor that mark American life." Both books thus begin by attempting to dispense quickly with the predominant racial reflex of white Americans: Denial that race remains a problem in the United States.

Tragic Failure is a New Deal liberal's lament about the failure of the civil rights reforms to remedy the effects of slavery, Southern apartheid, and the nation-wide systematic classification of blacks as inferior humans that existed since the first blacks were brought to the North American continent. Wicker provides a diligent survey of the failures of racial reform politics in the U.S., with particular attention to national policies related to race during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton periods. These treatments provide a reasonable overview of such issues for the general reader, though the brevity of the discussions gives the book a somewhat shallow feel.

But Wicker's purpose is not to be a policy wonk explaining the issues. Rather, he surveys these problems to illustrate the incomplete results of efforts to address the effects of slavery and then racism in the United States. Wicker's explanation for this failure is plausible, at least in the early pages of the book. He argues that many whites assumed that political rights would be sufficient to provide a "level playing field" for blacks by providing federal enforcement according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965.

But these and other measures that were induced by civil rights activism in the early 1960s produced neither substantial integration nor social or economic parity with whites. These failures and increasing and diversified activism in black communities fed what Wicker calls the backlash against pro-active, mostly federal measures such as affirmative action. Whites stopped wanting to hear about race, based in part on what Wicker identifies as a widespread white sentiment that blacks seem lacking in gratitude for the limited concessions already made by white institutions. Such sentiment among whites, both Northern and Southern, crystallized in George Wallace's 1968 campaign for presidency. The long-term result of the cue provided by Wallace's success has been a retreat from aggressive support for civil rights by significant portions of the electorate, by elected officials, and by the hierarchies and mainstreams of both political parties. This shift in the brief mainstream support for civil rights enforcement helped maintain, even worsen, the polarization that characterizes race relations and racial discourse.

Wicker suggests that the best way out of the dilemmas created by the failure of racial integration is for blacks to strike out on their own in a third political party. This would not be a "black party" per se, but more among the lines of a social democratic party, though Wicker is frustratingly vague on the particulars of the platform of such a party. The potential members of this party are minority groups, "liberals and non-conservatives," "poor whites," and non-voters. In other words, the mass base of the atrophied left wing of the Democratic Party, whose interests increasingly have been neglected in recent years, resulting in large proportions of these voters abstaining on election day.

This strategy exhibits two problems. First, the institutional framework of U.S. politics, with its constitutional emphasis on winner-take-all elections and separation of powers, has evolved in ways that have reinforced a two-party system. Also, the continuing insistence on having an essentially money-based electoral system erects substantial barriers to the inevitably cash-poor, labor-intensive party Wicker envisions. In this regard, it is no surprise that our strongest recent third-party manifestation was the H. Ross Perot mutation. Rules and political institutions matter, and make it extremely difficult to assemble a viable third party of the character Wicker (and many to his left) would like to see.

A second problem with Wicker's scenario points to larger confusion in his thinking about race, ethnicity, and identity, and the sticky conundrums these issues present for New Deal liberal Democrats. Wicker argues that "such a new party could build upon predicted demographic change that in the next century will bring today's minority groups into rough numerical equality with non-Hispanic whites." A key assumption embedded in this assessment is that blacks and ethnic minorities share the same perceived political interests. But not only are there evident differences in the political positions of different ethnic and racial groups, there is ample and not surprising evidence of increasing political differentiation within particular groups. Both types of heterogeneity among "minority groups" place real limits on their potential cohesion as some kind of inclusive pan-ethnic, pan-racial group.

Though Wicker sets out to diagnose the persistence of fundamental problems of race relations, he underestimates the complexity of race and racial identities among both blacks and non-blacks. The book expresses this in a change in its tone in its later pages. Wicker spends several chapters illustrating the persistent structural inequality in the position of blacks, and the persistence of both racist actions and white resistance to measures designed to redress systematic discrimination. Yet as the book nears its end, Wicker writes that since white animosity toward blacks "may not be racism in the dictionary sense of an ideology of racial superiority, such as motivated the German Nazis," such attitudes qualify as benign "prejudice" rather than as racism. After distinguishing "racial attitudes" in the U.S. from the "ideology" of Nazism, he writes: "It's commonplace among whites, however, to believe that African-Americans they know or know about, not the entire race, are less industrious, responsible, socially accomplished, educated, and perhaps intelligent than are they and their white friends. Nicholas Lemann sees this pervasive American attitude as `prejudice' rather than `racism' . . .

"In the short run, in daily life, the distinction may make little practical difference. In the long term, however, prejudice may be counteracted, if not overcome, though no one examining race in America could be optimistic about that. The phenomenon seems more stubborn than vicious." Are we to conclude from this analysis that because some whites now claim racial superiority based on "African-Americans they know or know about" rather than a more overt ideology, that they are no longer systematically racist? The distinction between Nazism as a formally enunciated ideology and a more culturally embedded covert racism such as Wicker describes is a useful distinction. But it is not a distinction between racism and its absence. Wicker's "prejudiced attitudes" emerge from the assumption that racial differences determine hierarchies of ability and basic worth, and use this assumption to make sense of their human relationships. This is indeed a prejudice in the strict sense -- a racist one.

The ambiguity and confusion here are emblematic of well-intentioned but troubled efforts by many whites and other non-blacks to confront the persistent reality of racism. Such confrontations with their own views on race produce a powerful urge to see racism as a problem of errant attitudes rather than broadly and deeply linked institutions, ideas, and practices. In this sense, Wicker's book rings very familiar. But for all its virtues as a resumé of racial politics, it ultimately rings hollow.

Marshall Frady's biography of Jesse Jackson succeeds where Wicker is only rarely compelling: Frady portrays the endlessly complex ways in which racism endures in the cracks and closets of institutions, and then is expressed in the lives of individuals shaped by those institutions.

Without shying away from Jackson's human flaws, Frady suggests that Jackson's frustrations in the political arena are inseparably linked to his being black in the United States. Jackson grew up in the world of Southern apartheid, in a barely working-class family in a small South Carolina town. Frady argues that Jackson's seemingly relentless public self-confidence and assertiveness, and seemingly endless capacity to merge compassion with sometimes shameless self-promotion, enabled him to escape from the poverty that snared most of his contemporaries. But these same qualities that helped him combat the effects of racism on his way up worked in conjunction with continuing racism at the national level to frustrate his political ambitions. As Frady writes near the end of Jesse: "And in the circular, bitter calculus of that irony -- that he could lose, in the wider society, because of what it's taken, exactly because he is black, to win as much as he has -- would lie a more particularly bitter question: To what degree, in presenting himself as a contender for a leadership role, did he seem too arrant, too irregular and theatrical, also simply because he is black?"

Frady subtly intertwines both the effect of a racist society on Jackson's personality and tactics and the continued influence of race in that society's reaction to its own product. Frady focuses on the contradictions driving both Jackson's personality and his public career. He portrays Jackson as the public epitome of the outsider who craves and ultimately revels in insider status; as a social activist with a seemingly irresistible impulse to self-promotion; as a spiritual crusader deeply implicated in secular politics; as a progressive crusader with deeply conservative impulses and values.

These oppositions and their complex effects are evident both in Jackson's private life and in the consumption of his political evangelism in the polity. But if Jackson was viewed as an outsider to the political system, part of the anxiety generated among elites and white bigots by the "outsider" Jesse Jackson was that he could demonstrate substantial popular support. The seemingly incongruous elements of Jackson's personality and of his politics nonetheless resonated among the millions of farmers, progressives, blue-collar workers, and blacks who voted for him in large numbers. For all the persistence of racial animosity, Jackson's success in stitching together a multi-racial coalition testifies to the potential for redefining prevailing understandings of race and politics.

Jackson's fortunes in the U.S. political system are instructive in consideration of Wicker's third political party. Wicker criticizes the Democratic Party for its reluctance to address the very elements to whom Jackson successfully appealed and mobilized in the Rainbow Coalition. But crass as Clinton and his backers in the Democratic Party have been toward Jackson and blacks in the party generally, Jackson's treatment still does not conclusively illustrate that Wicker's solution is the best strategy. Wicker argues that Clinton's poor treatment of Jackson and other black progressives suggests that blacks need to "strike out on their own" in order to force the Democratic Party to chase them. Jackson has occasionally suggested that he would be willing to do just this, as recently as last year. But the impression that emerges from Frady's account is that Jackson remains aware of the substantial obstacles to achieving success with this strategy, and for better or for worse sees the hierarchy of the Democratic Party as less obstructing than the barriers to the success of a third party.

The difference between the political calculations of Wicker and Jackson here result partially from electoral math, partially from an assessment of the flexibility of U.S. political institutions in the face of a racially-tinged progressive challenge, and, finally, from Jackson's own ambition. The experience of Jackson's electoral runs suggests that while the potential for Wicker's coalition exists, this block of support may not be as large as he thinks and it is difficult both to mobilize and to keep organized and involved outside the Democratic Party. Voters mobilized by Jackson can be crucial as the margin for victory in particular elections, but are not determining on their own. Mobilized in 1986, they helped return the Senate to the Democrats; not mobilized in 1994, Republicans took control of both House and Senate.

How do we assess Jackson's apparent determination to stay inside the Democratic Party? Jackson seems to be searching for definition, as he was in the mid-1970s, and like that period, many have commented recently that perhaps Jackson's day has passed. But the achievements he has already accomplished, their consequences, and Jackson's phosphorescent ambition should not be underestimated. Jackson almost single-handedly introduced the country to the reality that a black person might seriously be a presidential candidate, or president. In some ways, we may not allow ourselves to be stunned by the enormity of this event in American political and cultural life, but we should. Twenty years after George Wallace made his infamous run for the White House, Jesse Jackson mounted a serious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. As Frady and some of his interviewees observe, Jackson opened the door through which, much to his chagrin, Colin Powell has been enthusiastically invited to step. Given that so many have worked to bar Jackson himself from taking that step, Jackson's cool response to talk of Powell's candidacy should elicit little surprise. Jackson's own struggles against and inside the political system greatly enabled talk of such a candidacy -- albeit by a less-threatening black candidate. n

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