Tanner Colby wants to use history to rethink liberal orthodoxy on questions of race and racism, but his stories so far reproduce as much rotten accepted wisdom as they challenge.
Over at Slate, Tanner Colby is celebrating Black History Month with a series titled “The Massive Liberal Failure on Race.” The premise is simple: despite having been “ceded a monopoly on caring about black people” by the Republican right, liberals “hold on to some really bad ideas about race.” As a remedy, Colby prescribes a dose of history, a retelling of the “liberal establishment’s mishandling of this volatile issue” in order to encourage today’s liberals to “purge outdated orthodoxies, admit past mistakes, and find real solutions that work.”
To a student of history, this all sounds like a fantastic idea. Indeed, it’s something historians have tried to do for a very long time; consider W.E.B. DuBois opening Black Reconstruction (1935) with the assertion “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience,” or C. Vann Woodward’s gentle gibe at the beginning of The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), “the people of the South should be the last Americans to expect indefinite continuity of their institutions and social arrangements.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called Strange Career, which demolished the notion that there was anything natural about the Jim Crow order, “the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” giving hope to historians everywhere that their craft could transform the present. Sure, Colby’s not a historian: his credentials are a bestselling personal odyssey about race in America, Some of My Best Friends Are Black. Sure, he’s writing a critique from Slate’s snarky-contrarian-centrist editorial position (see Yglesias, Matthew). Still, why not give him the benefit of the doubt? Despite our better judgment, historians remain enamored with the idea that serious study of the past can indeed purge orthodoxies, reveal the contingency of the settled order, and influence the future.
All of this, however, makes Colby’s series thus far that much more disappointing. His goal is laudable, and he offers a few sharp observations, but the history he writes is riddled with lazy mythology and accepted wisdom. He shows no familiarity with the voluminous recent scholarship on the Black freedom struggle, postwar metropolitan segregation, and the collapse of mid-century liberalism, work that would bolster his claims and clarify his arguments. He conflates “liberals” with “the left,” despite the fact that a robust and active left in the 1960s was vociferously critical of “liberal” failures on race (and has been since), presaging many of his own critiques. Most troublingly, the voices of Black Americans, which Colby tells us in passing to heed, are almost completely absent from this narrative, save for a few poorly-contextualized quotes and a dismissive report on the current NAACP.
Colby’s argument suffers grievously from these omissions. In breaking down some widely-held beliefs, he unwittingly props up and reproduces many others, in ways that confuse his argument, confound the reader, and lead to contradictory conclusions. At their worst, these pat assertions and tired tropes reproduce stereotypes of Black Americans that should be the first thing to go in any serious purging of liberal orthodoxy.
Under most circumstances, the spectacle of one privileged white man (this blogger) criticizing another for his mishandling of Black History Month would be too obnoxious to carry out. However, Colby’s express aim is to speak as a white liberal (or at least, someone who once identified this way) to other white liberals. If Colby’s piece is any indication of the state of this conversation, he’s right about one thing: it’s in dire shape. While white liberals will never be the vanguard in the struggle against racism, we can and should do a hell of a lot better than this. A counter-series with a counter-narrative would be an ideal reply, but that will have to wait for someone with more time, energy, and ability than this blogger. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of the bogus history Colby relies on to make his case, with readings cited for all the same reasons he prescribes history to his audience. If we really do want to get past liberal orthodoxies, there’s a lot of good writing out there lighting the way.
In “How the Liberal Embrace of Busing Hurt the Cause of Integration,” the first installment in the series, Colby introduces his premise, and then launches the project by flippantly dismissing the “liberal academics” who produced a report for the UCLA Civil Rights Center in 1999 that showed statistical evidence of new and growing segregation in American schools. Colby rejects their report because he doesn’t remember the 1980s as a time of racial harmony (the decade ended when he was a teenager). Refuting data by anecdote is a strange strategy, but Colby attempts this gambit because he thinks the implication of the study is that American schools were fully integrated before these new trends emerged. In a maddening fashion that becomes a pattern, he makes a clear, sensible statement – in this case, that substantive integration was never truly achieved to begin with – and then strangles it with twisted logic.
Colby takes issue with the word “resegregation” because he thinks it’s a liberal ruse to imply failed integration schemes were working. The problem here is that describing new segregation as resegregation does not imply that integration was “working,” but rather that NEW forces can be observed RE-segregating people in new ways. As generations of scholars since the aforementioned C. Vann Woodward have shown, segregation is not a natural order, but one that has to be created and sustained by particular people in particular places. The people, institutions, and incentives that segregated the Jim Crow South are not the same ones that segregate twenty-first century Los Angeles. If Colby considers segregation a problem, he should be concerned with evidence that it’s on the rise. By suggesting otherwise, he characterizes an active, present process as some sort of natural phenomenon or ancient holdover.
After demonstrating his disdain for such liberal orthodoxies as “observed data,” Colby hops in his time machine to take us back to the place where busing went bad, Detroit, America’s most derided city. As he tells it, “The urban riots that rocked Detroit in 1967 were among the worst in the nation. White flight in the Motor City was well ahead of the curve.” While white flight and black riots have been linked in the popular imagination since the long hot summers of the 1960s, this linkage is both problematic and pernicious. Dozens of scholars have demonstrated that federal funds and policies with explicitly racist provisions – from fixed-interest mortgages to interstate highway construction – began shaping the segregated suburbanized metropolis as early as the 1940s. Two excellent books that blow up this myth are about the very city Colby maligns: Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1994), and David P.M Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America (2007). Both works make it abundantly clear that federally funded, racially restrictive economic programs and incentives, and not black rioters, were the drivers of “white flight,” which began decades before the urban uprisings of the 1960s.
Replaying the old “riots and flight” story isn’t just bad history, it’s malevolent history, as we saw this summer when conservative commentators trotted out this old canard to explain Detroit’s decline. If the current (Black) residents hadn’t been such a bunch of riot-happy criminals, the story goes, the good, honest, (white) taxpayers would never have fled to the suburbs, and the city wouldn’t have gone bankrupt. While this makes good cover for racist victim-blaming, neoliberal takeovers and union-busting, it’s not true. After deriding the racism of Republicans in his introduction, it’s surprising and troubling to see Colby taking a page from their playbook.
The next myth, and the centerpiece of Colby’s argument, is that busing didn’t and couldn’t work in big metropolitan areas. He brings up Detroit in the first place because he’s discussing the infamous Milliken v. Bradley decision of 1974, in which the Nixon Supreme Court overturned a metropolitan-wide busing plan for Detroit by a single vote. This was a good thing, Colby tells us, because busing in Detroit was never going to work. As he puts it “Segregation in the North was a different disease than segregation in the Deep South” because “In the South, where busing originated, most people lived in small towns and cities. Even the biggest metro areas, Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., weren’t really that big at the time.”
This is a bizarre and demonstrably false assertion. Yes, Detroit (4.4 million people) was the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the US at the time, but Atlanta (1.8 million), Houston (2.2 million), Dallas (2.4 million), and St. Louis (2.5 million) were all in the top twenty. Moreover, it’s incredible that no one has pressed a copy of Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (2008) into Colby’s hands. In this book, Lassiter takes up the remarkable case of Charlotte, North Carolina, which had a massive and successful metropolitan busing program for decades. Scoffing at metropolitan busing, Colby writes of the “great heights of absurdity” that empowered liberals to even suggest “redistribut[ing] tens of thousands of students in a school district that covered hundreds of square miles.” Charlotte did just that, and was rewarded with some of the best-performing schools in the nation; so much for geographical determinism.
As Lassiter would be quick to point out, particular circumstances helped Charlotte succeed, and the city’s experience does not offer a simple model that could have been replicated anywhere. Still, its success demolishes the assertion that metropolitan busing could never have succeeded. Lassiter’s book also squashes the notion that Northern and Southern metropolitan areas were radically distinct entities by the 1970s. Metropolitan areas across the country received similar federal funding and suburbanized in remarkably similar – and remarkably segregated – ways. This gets back to the point that segregation isn’t a natural phenomenon or ancient relic that hangs around the South; it’s an active process that is made (and RE-made) in the present. Cammpaigns in the urban north and west from the postwar era on also disprove this essentializing, Southern-centric vision of educational segregation; this month marked the fiftieth anniversary of what was arguably the nation’s largest protest for integrated schooling, in New York City.
Denaturalizing the process of suburbanization is also important because it exposes Colby’s argument that busing programs were “ludicrous” undertakings out of all proportion with the proper role of government. As big as a metropolitan busing plan for Detroit would have been – in terms of people moved, dollars spent, and infrastructure required – it would have paled into comparison to the massive government projects that actually happened (transit, public utilities, urban renewal), which moved many more people, spent many more dollars, and built much more infrastructure as they segregated metropolitan Detroit in the first place. Lack of state capacity is not what undermined integration.
But, asks Colby, if it was such an unworkable proposition, why did liberals love busing so much in the first place? In his third section, he runs through a tortured series of definitions of integration (it’s harmony! no, agency! no, power!) by discussing three “blunders” by white liberals 1) they didn’t know what integration was, 2) Black Americans weren’t asking for it anyway, and 3) they foolishly tried to send white kids to Black schools. Colby briefly alights on worthwhile critiques before smothering them with bad history, to the point that it becomes hard to believe he’s arguing in good faith.
The liberals who ran Washington in the 1960s, Colby tells us, “put their faith in top-down, technocratic solutions to society’s ills,” and in doing so, the best and the brightest marched us into quagmires at home and abroad. A fair critique! As for busing, Colby tells us, it could never work, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us as much when he called integration “an unenforceable demand” because it required “true intergroup, interpersonal living.” From this Colby concludes that the liberal focus on numbers and institutions is all wrong:
To this day, the language of racial balance, as used by the left, keeps us talking about ‘integrated schools.’ But institutions don’t integrate. People do. If a school is 3 percent black, but all of those students are actively engaged in making friends and participating in student activities, then those children are well and fully integrated. If a school is 20 percent black but all the black students stay on their own side of the cafeteria and then get bused home at 3 p.m. every day, then there is no integration taking place at that school.
However, if there are no black students in a school (because, say, the Arkansas National Guard is barricading the entrance), interpersonal integration seems rather unlikely. Dr. King knew this, of course, which is why he spent the better part of his life working on desegregation campaigns. Critiques of top-down liberal paternalism are useful and deserved, but Colby makes a libertarian pivot, suggesting the state should butt out because numbers don’t mean anything. He’d do well to recall that it took the 101st Airborne to get ANY black students into Little Rock Central High School. Sure, “top-down” action doesn’t deliver harmony (more on whether this is the goal of integration in a moment), but institutions have to integrate before people can do so within them, and that, in many cases, requires state intervention.
Discussing the second “blunder,” Colby repeats a leftist critique of liberal failure on civil rights, but doesn’t follow through. He writes:
Black America wasn’t fighting for integration, per se. They were fighting for agency, the right to exercise control over their lives and, hopefully, to enjoy the full protection of the government while doing so. In education, that’s not what they got … With Jim Crow, black America lived under an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school. Now, with busing, black America lived under … an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school.
I’d replace the word “agency” with “power” or “self-determination,” (see Walter Johnson’s “On Agency” for the problems with this kind of phrasing), but hot damn! This is a heckuva critique that goes right to the heart of the problem with liberal paternalism. Has Colby been reading Malcolm X, who defined a segregated school in “The Ballot or the Bullet” not as all-black but as an environment that produced “crippled minds?” Or perhaps Ella Baker, who told Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. of New York that integration in the city was impossible without “the highest degree of democracy in its public school system?” Did he consult Nikhil Pal Singh’s Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy(2006) or Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (2012)? Is he going to cite Michael Fultz’s work on the mass firing of black teachers post-Brown, or Jack Dougherty on the way that black communities were disproportionately saddled with the costs of integration?
Colby gestures toward these problems (which would have made a great piece in and of themselves) in a single short paragraph. He flattens a complicated question; activists like Ella Baker demanded self-determination and desegregation, and understood these as mutually constitutive processes (see Barbara Ransby’s fantastic biography of Baker for more on her radical democratic vision). Scholars including Singh and Brown-Nagin have addressed these questions in detail, but Colby seems more interested in using this line of argument to attack busing than in engaging with its substance, which makes it difficult take his deployment of it seriously. Consider his statement about “true integration” quoted above. There’s no sign of power or self-determination in the schools Colby describes, just the onus placed on black students to be “actively engaged” instead of “stay[ing] on their own side of the cafeteria.” If that’s “agency,” it’s sorry stuff indeed.
Tackling the third and final “blunder,” Colby flirts, again, with a strong, uncompromising argument. “Integration” he tells us, revising his previous paean to cafeteria camaraderie “is two different things. It is ‘intergroup, interpersonal living,’ learning to empathize with one another through shared cultural experience. But integration is also about access to wealth and power.” For this reason, Colby informs us, white middle-class suburban parents, who had access to wealth and power, were never going to voluntarily send their kids to powerless ghetto schools. Forget for a moment that this completely contradicts Colby’s first point in this section (seems like the government would have to be involved in redistributing this power, no?): this is good stuff! In fact, the argument that the defense of white, middle-class privilege has determined the trajectory of American schooling for the past half-century was the centerpiece of one of the best books on the subject in recent memory, James E. Ryan’s Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (2010). As Ryan, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes, American education policy and politics operate under the tacit philosophy of “save the city, but spare the suburbs,” and meaningful reform means “alter[ing] the incentives of middle class parents.” Colby has stumbled to the heart of the matter; what does he propose to do about it?
Nothing. Colby argues that it was a mistake to bring white kids to Black schools because this provoked a backlash, and, incredibly, suggests that the people who proposed busing programs were responsible for this backlash (not those who lashed back) and should have known better. He provides this infuriating paragraph to justify the backlash:
Middle-class white kids were never going to get on buses and go and ‘integrate’ black schools because middle-class white people are already integrated, in the middle class. Their immigrant parents or grandparents likely started the process of assimilation for them, overcoming social and cultural barriers to give their kids the tools to move further up the ladder. Why would those families turn around and send the next generation in the opposite direction? White people weren’t going to let that happen.
Reading the first sentence just reinforces the need for Colby to grapple with the Charlotte counterexample (the impossible happened), which Ryan also cites. Reading the rest of the paragraph makes clear that Colby subscribes to the conservative, up-by-the-bootstraps narrative of American history, in which the hardworking white ethnics earned their way into the middle class all by themselves. He doesn’t ask the question this mythology implies, but he might as well have: why couldn’t Black Americans do the same?
Plenty of historians have answered this question, none more forcefully than Ira Katznelson, who titled his book on the topic When Affirmative Action Was White. Climbing into the middle-class is considerably easier with the help of massive government subsidies for housing, education, and industrial employment in the suburbs and Sun Belt, and access to these resources (from the GI Bill to government-backed mortgages) was deeply and overtly circumscribed by race. Having recognized the problem – ghetto schools have no access to power – Colby completely misdiagnoses the cause, and in doing so perpetuates a historical narrative that naturalizes the wealth and power of those who benefitted most from government programs while sneering at integration efforts as government “overreach.” Is this the foundation upon which we’re supposed to build a new politics of liberal anti-racism?
Colby closes things out by charting the failure of integration efforts post-Milliken, in which increasingly poor, non-white city school districts stumbled through losing battles to shuffle the few remaining white students around and attract white suburban students. He’s absolutely right that these were ineffective, but he doesn’t think Milliken had anything to do with it, because metrpolitan integration was doomed from the start. In wrapping up, he suggests that the problem with school integration is that school segregation is just a product of residential segregation. As he writes,
“In that formulation, segregated schools are really just the branches, growing out of racially homogenous neighborhoods and towns. If we want any kind of long-term solution to this problem, we have to look at housing, zoning, mass transit, property taxes. That’s where the roots of our racially balkanized and economically stratified cities lie. We can hack away at the branches all day long, but if we don’t deal with the root of the problem, we can’t expect anything different to grow back in their place.”
Historians are beginning to challenge this claim as too simplistic – Ansley Erickson’s work on Nashville is among that which explores how real estate and education policies reinforced one another – but even granting the point, does Colby think housing integration is easier to achieve than school integration? Perhaps the strongest argument he’s made in this entire piece is that white suburbanites don’t want to surrender power. If they don’t want their kids on a school bus, why on earth would they give away their taxes to other school districts (they don’t have to, either, as another Nixon-era Supreme Court decision, 1973’s San Antonio v. Rodriguez, ensured), or the let the poor move next door? Colby’s familiar with the backlash against busing, but not the sustained and horrific attacks on black families who braved fury and firebombs when they tried to move into white neighborhoods? And could residential integration possibly happen without state intervention, especially when the implements of segregation he’s identified – zoning and property taxes – are themselves governmental implements?
How does Colby propose to handle this? Why, the very way that his despised liberal orthodoxy tends to address these questions: with an out-of-context, thoroughly-defanged reference to Dr. King. He writes: “True integration,” King said, ‘will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.’” So, for those keeping score at home, all we have to do to achieve educational equity is wait for the white suburban middle class – the same folks that Colby has expressly told us will never relinquish power willingly – to obey unenforceable obligations and integrate their suburbs. Don’t hold your breath, America.
Affirmative Action Doesn’t Work. It Never Did. It’s Time for a New Solution.
Colby’s second piece in the series takes up the issue of affirmative action. Having blasted liberals for ignoring “what Black America was asking for” in favor of “top down” solutions in his first installment, he opens this one by depicting the NAACP as a bunch of clueless liberals for their support of affirmative action, and later suggests that Congress should chuck it (from the top down, since Congress doesn’t exactly do things from the bottom up); so much for listening to Black America.
This introduction encapsulates the main problem with this second piece: Colby’s studied ignorance of the black freedom struggle, which he appears to think had nothing to do with affirmative action whatsoever. Instead, he offers a very accurate but completely disembodied description of the Nixon administration’s deeply racist perspectives on Black America. As Colby tells it affirmative action as we know it today – quotas, window-dressing, etc – was an effort to address unrest and appear even-handed with the “least we can get away with” (as Nixon told his aides). Nixonian affirmative action, Colby tells us “put more money in black wallets than JFK, LBJ, and MLK combined” and as a result, “black Americans and their white liberal champions fell in love with quotas and set-asides.” These lovestruck liberals were clueless to the fact that “quotas were comically easy to evade,” the government never really enforced them anyway, and even if it had, these programs were far too small to effect an economic transformation on the scale that might truly empower Black America.
Colby’s not wrong about the problems with Nixonian programs, and their specific origins are well worth noting, but he appears to think these policy choices had nothing to do with Black activism or even with the major policy shifts of the Civil Rights Era. It’s a story of history without causation, or, as becomes clear in the details, a very troubling idea of causation.
Colby deploys a left critique of the middle-class embrace of these programs, cribbed from William Julius Wilson and others. He writes, “Thanks to affirmative action, the black middle class was now vested in the very system the civil rights revolution had sought to overthrow.” Meanwhile, he tells us, Nixon was launching the law-and-order crackdowns that would culminate in today’s mass incarceration of the Black poor and working class. Colby cites a serious scholar on the current implications of this double move, noting that Michelle Alexander wonders in The New Jim Crow whether the Black middle class has been “bought off by a bribe.”
If Colby presented a serious political or ideological position of his own to add to this chorus – perhaps like the arguments made by Walter Benn Michaels or Barbara Fields – this could be a worthy endeavor. However, rather than grappling with tough questions as to whether anti-racism and economic equality are mutually constitutive or mutually exclusive principles of political organization, Colby dismisses the value of affirmative action with a link to the theme song from “The Jeffersons” (Colby really loves “The Jeffersons,” but would it have killed him to cite Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race here?). The glib way in which he cites complex debates to bolster his thin contrarianism rankles, but it’s not his biggest problem.
Colby’s affirmative action origin story is premised on an origin story of its own that casts Black Americans only as rioters. Colby’s narrative of causation goes something like this: Black folks riot, white conservatives get spooked and throw them crumbs, and clueless liberals shout “yay” and embrace crumb-throwing as a political strategy. He mentions riots a whopping seven times in this article (after kicking off his series with them – see above). Not once does he discuss the massive and sustained campaigns led by Black organizers in workplaces, within the labor movement, and – most relevant for his story – on college campuses. If we want bust up liberal orthodoxy, we should start by discarding portrayals of Black people as lawless lunatics.
This is all particularly frustrating because there is great new work on what Martha Biondi calls, in the title her 2012 book, The Black Revolution on Campus, or what Ibram H. Rogers (now Ibram X. Kendi) dubs The Black Campus Movement in his book of the same year. Both works demonstrate that Black-led movements transformed higher education in the 1960s and 1970s, demanding not just affirmative action (which they did) but also the incorporation of Black Studies into the curriculum and the structure of Universities, new initiatives to make urban Universities more responsive to the needs of the communities they occupied, and programs to provide adult, continuing, and professional education to working-class people. Their efforts, like those of many other campaigners in this era, were met with resistance and state violence, and their victories were incomplete (Colby is right to point out that embracing watered-down affirmative action was the path of least resistance for moderate conservatives). But when Colby marvels that the NAACP or other liberals might defend affirmative action, he would do well to remember that these policies did not appear to Richard Nixon in a dream, but were the result of sustained activism on the part of the Black community. The fact that they exist today as a pale shadow of the reforms that these activists sought should not lead us to forget the holistic, transformative vision that these organizers articulated. We live in an era when the hosts of local sports talk shows quote Audre Lorde. It can’t be too much to ask a self-appointed “official participant in our National Conversation About Race” to demonstrate some knowledge of the Black freedom struggle in the era he writes about. So far, Colby has given us over 10,000 words, one disembodied James Baldwin quote, a few bits and pieces of Dr. King’s least-threatening pleas for tolerance, and The Jeffersons.
Colby closes this piece (and the series so far) with a half-baked recommendation and a false dichotomy.
Right now, the Democratic party and the racial justice movement are sitting on a junk heap of racial preference programs that aren’t doing anyone much good, and they lack the substantive programs they need: a true, New Deal–style reformation that repairs the infrastructure of our cities, ends mass incarceration, provides access to early education and paid family leave and job training and other programs that put all of black America on more solid footing.
Yes, absolutely, let’s get those New Deal-style programs going! Ira Katznelson makes much the same recommendation at the end of When Affirmative Action Was White, but unlike Colby, he suggests that affirmative action should be a part of this effort, urging politicians and the public to “extend affirmative action in order to end it within one generation.” Targeted state aid to those who have been, and continue to be, targets of state racism isn’t inimical to the implementation of “substantive programs”; it should be an essential part of such an intervention. Colby’s suggestion that affirmative action programs (which he’s rightly characterized as cheap, tiny band-aids on a gaping wound) could be exchanged in the halls of Congress for a “New Deal-style reformation” (which would be anything but cheap or politically easy) is so vague and poorly thought-out that it’s hard not to see this as a tack-on to make his criticism, most of which is cribbed from conservatives, look “liberal,” but at least he’s not on his libertarian kick about “unenforceable obligations” anymore.
If the key takeaway from this series on the “massive liberal failure on race” is that a new New Deal is in order, perhaps we shouldn’t gripe. But if the goal is to challenge liberal orthodoxy and encourage clear thinking, we should demand that our commentariat educate itself about this complex history, instead of repeating tired tales of riot, flight, fear, and failure. Colby is right that history has much to teach us.
Nick Juravich is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. He studies the history of social movements, education, labor, and urban policy in the US in the twentieth century. He lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he worked in youth health and education programming before coming to Columbia, and where he still writes periodically on contemporary community issues.