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Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America by Tom Wicker. William Morrow and Company, $25, hardcover
Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson by Marshall Frady. Random House, $28.50, hardcover

From Subject
"James Henson" <henson@spock.nlu.edu> RACIAL INTEGRATION IN AMERICA | JESSE (Henson)


Date: Tue, 18 Feb 1997 08:21:56 -0600
From: "James Henson" <henson@spock.nlu.edu> (

(This review orignally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, August 30 1996.
Thanks to Professor Klass for allowing me to post it

-- James Henson, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Government,
Northeast Louisiana University)

Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America by Tom Wicker. William
Morrow and Company, $25, hardcover

Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson by Marshall Frady. Random
House, $28.50, hardcover

"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. These are virtuous starting points
for both of these books, though the complexities that follow from the
honest acknowledgement of the difficulties of racial politics are daunting

These complexities eventually bog Wicker's book down, but are skillfully
used by Frady to enrich his engrossing account of Jesse Jackson's life

Tom Wicker primarily addresses the failure of racial integration and civil
rights policies aimed at blacks in the United States. Wicker's suggestion
that a third party is the solution to the racial-economic knot in US
society has received much attention in discussion of the book. But his
third-party remedy, while interesting, doesn't sufficiently appreciate the
structural obstacles to the course he's suggesting. This points to one of
the most interesting aspects of Wicker's book: it exemplifies a commonplace
characteristic of the racial politics of New Deal liberals -- lots of
sincere good will and good intentions, compromised by a lack of
appreciation of the tenacity and depth of racist thought and action

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. He includes
generally competent if brief discussions of the issues he thinks illuminate
the failure of post-Civil Rights racial policies: housing; urban decay;
black poverty and economic inequality; black political representation; the
effect of non-black middle class anxiety about crime on blacks and on the
treatment of blacks in the judicial system; and the near hysterical
response of whites to any form, radical or otherwise, of black nationalism

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 society in the
United States. Wicker's explanation for this failure is plausible, at
least especially 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
1960's 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 proactive
measures (such as affirmative action) to "level the playing field" for
blacks. 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,
crystalized in George Wallace's 1968 campaign for presidency. Wallace's
appeal to the resentment of disaffected whites marks a watershed in
racialized electoral politics. The long-term result 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. In various ways, the tactics and response to
Wallace has effected every presidential campaign since 1968. This shift in
the brief mainstream support for civil rights enforcement helped maintain,
even worsen, the polarization that characterizes race relations and racial
discourse into the present

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 does not use
this term and is frustratingly vague on the particulars of the platform of
such a party. The potential members of this part are minority groups,
"liberals and nonconservatives," "poor whites", and non-voters. In other
words, the mass base of the atrophied left wing of the democratic party,
whose interests have been increasingly neglected in recent years or
deferred altogether. In large part, neglect of their interests by both
parties has led large proportions of these voters to abstain entirely from
showing up on election day.
In its outlines, Wicker's prescription reflects the aspirations and
occasional political fantasies of a broad spectrum of progressives and
leftists in the US for much of contemporary U.S. history. At the heart of
this fantasy is a vision of either deserting the Democratic leaderships or
of overcoming the elitist elements that have maintained sway in the
Democratic party and forging a more substantively progressive or social
democratic party with a base in what we used to call the working class,
bound across racial lines by economic interests.
This strategy exhibits two problems that should be familiar by now.
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 cemented a two-party system. In
conjunction with these elements, the continuing insistence on having an
essentially money-based electoral system provides 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. The general point is that
rules and political institutions matter a lot, and they make it extremely
difficult to assemble a viable third party of the character Wicker (and a
wide variety on the American left) would like to see. Arguably, such a
party seems much more likely to incubate on the white Christian right end
of the political spectrum

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
the "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 the numerous ethnic minorities in the U.S

share the same perceived political interests. The assumption is wrong, and
probably becoming more wrong as time goes on. Not only are their 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. The political glue
for Wicker's party would need to come from some other ideological or social

The flaws in Wicker's reasoning here, while certainly not pernicious in
intent, point to the most provocative aspects of Wicker's book. Though the
book sets out to diagnose the persistence of fundamental problems of race
relations, the most interesting aspect of the book is the degree to which
he underestimates the complexity of race and racial identities among both
blacks and non-blacks. The book expresses this in a change in the tone of
the book in its later pages. The glass seems to go from half empty to half
full for no explicit reason. 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 engages in mental and rhetorical
contortions in order to avoid suggesting that the US still exhibits
systematic features that could accurately be described as racist. He 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 against the Jews and others," such attitudes qualify as
more benign "prejudice" rather than as racism. After distinguishing
"racial attitudes" in the US 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,' a view that may give
faint cause for hope

"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." Wicker's good intentions are perhaps in evidence, but they offer
small compensation for his blindness to the fungible nature of racist
thinking. Are we to conclude 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

This is not to say that Wicker is simply a racist in integrationist garb

Wicker exemplifies the position of many a conscientious white New Deal
liberal wholeheartedly supportive of racial integration and civil rights
guarantees. The point, rather, is that the ambiguity and confusion here
are emblematic of well-intentioned but troubled efforts of whites to
confront the persistent reality of racism, and their desire to find hope
and perhaps even a little cause for comfort. More importantly, there is a
powerful urge to use such a confrontation with their own views on race 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 resume of racial
politics, it ultimately rings hollow

Whereas Wicker attempts to confront racial dynamics in the US head on,
Marshall Frady uses the story of Jesse Jackson's career as a less frontal
but ultimately more subtle and telling exploration of race in the
contemporary United States. Frady's book succeeds where Wicker's only
rarely (sometimes embarrassingly) treads: 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.
Frady's account of Jackson, without shying away from Jackson's human
flaws, 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 held on to most of his
contemporaries and to become an unique international public figure. 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 the
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, to 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. All this is accomplished without
losing sight of the complexities of Jackson's own background, personality,
and choices. Frady accomplishes his task as a biographer by focusing on
the multiple 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 icon 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. I recall jackson's appearance on the cover of all of the major
news magazines in the summer of 1988. One cover in particular was
striking. The cover pictured Jackson close-up, preaching with sweat pouring
down his face, his eyes dark and stern, his hand frozen in mid-gesture.
Large letters asked simply, "What does Jesse want?" It took little
imagination to come up with an array of answers that the lurid cover, by
design, evoked: to ruin the Democratic party; to satisfy his own craven
political ambitions; to give them more power. But the most evidently
plausible answer negated the need for the question in the first place: the
man wanted to be the president of the United States of America. Of course,
a man (or woman, for that matter) with Jackson's particular combination of
politics and skin tone evokes anxiety and irrationality ahead of a respect
for the obvious or evident. Jackson's candidacy in 1984 and 1988 evoked a
range of racial and political anxiety, from the reluctance of many black
leaders to enthusiastically support his candidacy, to the constant attempts
of the mostly white Democratic party leadership to keep him away from power
inside the party, to the hundreds of death threats against he and his

But if Jackson was an outsider to the political system, he wasn't without
substantial company. Part of the anxiety generated among elites and white
bigots by the "outsider" Jesse Jackson was that he could demonstrate
substantial popular support. The former were threatened by his potential
to increase participation in the political system, the latter by his
blackness and their failure to acknowledge that Jackson might legitimately
lead non-blacks as well as members of his own racial group. In the end,
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. Frady
is particularly fascinating when recounting his travels with Jackson in the
farmbelt during and after his campaigns, and the support he witnessed among
whites in places such as rural Iowa. 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
considering of Wicker's desire to address the "tragic failure" of racial
integration and justice through a third political party. One of Wicker's
discontents is the reluctance of the Democratic party to enthusiastically
mobilize the very elements to whom Jackson successfully appealed and to
some extent mobilized in the Rainbow Coalition. The Democrats' reluctance
has at times bordered on downright hostility, as when Bill Clinton used a
Rainbow Coalition gathering to strategically and ceremoniously crap on
Jackson via Sister Souljah. This was done in order to demonstrate to
suburbanites all over the country that the "New Democrat" Clinton not
beholden to Jesse Jackson or to blacks. Even after this indignity,
seemingly trapped in the Democratic party, Jackson still campaigned for
Clinton, just as he had campaigned for Mondale and Dukakis before him.
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 Guanier)
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.
Jackson of course uses the threat of a third party insurgency to his ends,
but has proved unwilling to follow through at his moments of peak momentum

The difference between the political calculations of Wicker and Jackson
here result partially from electoral math, partially from an assessment of
how flexible US political institutions are 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 bloc of support may not be as large as
he thinks, and it is difficult both to mobilize and to keep organized and
involved. Voters mobilized by Jackson are crucial as swing votes, but 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. Frady's accounts of Jackson's constant hectoring about
the number of voters he registers and mobilizes for the Democrats suggests
that, in the harsh political calculus, he is wedded to spending this
political capital to wedge open space inside the Democratic party. Despite
the resistance Jackson meets inside the Democratic party, and the ability
of forces inside the party to beat him back in the past, he has clearly
concluded that it is not yet strategically sound to abandon the Democratic
party as the institutional vehicle for at least some progressive politics.

How do we assess Jackson's apparent determination to stay inside the
Democratic party? Jackson seems searching for definition, as he was in the
mid-1970's, and as during that period many have commented 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. Shirley Chisholm's 1972 run for the
democratic nomination notwithstanding, 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 was a serious contender
for the Democratic presidential nomination, largely as a result of his
intense sense of mission, his enormous gifts and equally enormous will to
promote himself. 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 the talk of such a
candidacy, while Jackson himself remains a prominent figure yet still
ever-liminal as a candidate

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