Commentary Magazine

Someone Else's House by Tamar Jacoby

Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration
by Tamar Jacoby
Free Press. 614 pp. $30.00

From its inception in the early postwar era, the American civil-rights movement took as its goal a fully integrated, color-blind society: a society in which race would no longer be either a barrier or a preference. This, indeed, was the declared purpose of the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, which boldly prohibited discrimination “on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Yet as is well known, it was only a matter of a few short years before the stated goals of the 1964 Act were completely inverted, and both federal and local policy-makers turned explicitly to a reliance on race and color in housing, employment, education, and city contracting. The results—busing, minority set-asides, racial preferences in university admissions, employment quotas, and the like—are by now an old, sad story.

Indeed, as Tamar Jacoby notes in Someone Else’s House, the remarkable thing about integration is how short-lived it was as a goal not only for government but among civil-rights activists as well. Even as early as 1963, she writes, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the historic March on Washington, “the basic political obstacles to integration were already evident” Within a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, black nationalists were clearly intent on “the dethroning of integration as the movement’s goal,” and within a few more years the movement had swung definitively behind a separatist agenda.

How did a cause—integration—that had won so much praise, enjoyed so much popular support, and become the de-jure policy of the federal government, fail so completely? In answering that question, Jacoby has instructively chosen a local focus. She follows the activities of four mayors, one white and three black, whose tenures in office were consumed by racial matters: John Lindsay in New York City during the 1960’s; Coleman Young in Detroit in the 70’s; and Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in Atlanta during the 70’s and 80’s. Although there were obvious differences among the four in style and approach, each consciously put race at the forefront of virtually every aspect of municipal policy. By so doing, they collectively helped to ensure that integration would become a more distant and irrelevant goal.

In New York, the Lindsay administration, acting in the name of “empowerment,” “decentralization,” and “community control,” established mini-city halls in black neighborhoods and gave local black leaders greater authority over the running of anti-poverty programs and other social services. Then as now there was little evidence that such strategies were effective at anything but creating new forms of patronage. Within a year after its much-touted launch, Lindsay’s power-sharing program was dead. In its place, a city fearful of rising racial tensions and in thrall to an ethos of reparations simply started to give away cash. By 1967, Jacoby writes, Lindsay’s task force on urban problems “had every streetcorner speaker in Harlem on its payroll.”

Bribery and appeasement seemed the preferred tactic in Detroit as well. There, in the wake of 1967 riots, a committee formed by the city’s wealthiest business leaders had tried to pacify angry black youths by disbursing nearly $10 million to local paramilitary groups and ghetto toughs in what Jacoby describes as “thinly disguised riot insurance.”

No amount of money, however, could calm the racial pot that was set aboiling by Coleman Young in the 1970’s. When the city’s stalled economy forced extensive budget cuts, Young’s solution was to dismantle the police department; in the process, he tried to fire 800 white officers and not a single black. At the same time, a local judge named George W. Crockett, Jr. was routinely releasing black arrestees and refusing to sentence convicted black criminals. Thus encouraged, the mob elements in Detroit’s ghetto went on a rampage of looting and urban terror, prompting a new wave of propitiation by the city’s business leaders. And so the cycle continued until the inner city was all but destroyed.



Compared with New York and Detroit, Atlanta—the “city too busy to hate,” as it likes to call itself—appears to offer a racial success story. In Jacoby’s telling, however, its success has been a clouded one. Mayor Maynard Jackson knew how to make peace with the white business leaders who had run Atlanta for decades, but he also knew how and when to issue racial ultimatums. Thus, when plans were drawn up for the city’s Harts-field airport, Jackson successfully stalled the $500-million project for over a year until every white-owned construction company that had a building contract agreed to operate jointly with a minorityowned firm—whether or not that firm had any relevant experience. Thus was a construction bonanza turned into an opportunity to enforce a racial spoils system.

According to Jacoby, very few minority businesses benefited permanently from Atlanta’s policy of coerced “cooperation.” Within seven years after the airport was completed, half of the minority firms in the program found they could not make it on their own. By then, however, racial set-asides had become the hallmark of doing business in Atlanta, from banking to cable television, and so they remained under Jackson’s successor, Andrew Young.

A former Congressman and UN ambassador, Young was more adept than Jackson at invoking the old rhetoric of integration. But he, too, proved perfectly willing to play the race game whenever it suited him, including during his runoff election against a white state legislator. In office, despite many fine speeches on racial harmony, Young did nothing to reverse the city’s entrenched system of racial quotas and preferences. The Jackson-Young legacy continues today: during the Olympic games two years ago, even street-vendor licenses in Atlanta were distributed on the basis of race.



Jacoby is very effective at showing how race-conscious policies, promoted by government and the black civil-rights establishment alike, have done more to keep blacks and whites apart in America’s cities than to bring them together. In assessing responsibility for this state of affairs, she calls attention not only to the usual culprits but to a weakness, as she sees it, of the early integrationists. Apart from their manifest good will, she writes, the fathers of the civil-rights movement never thought through a positive strategy for bringing poor blacks into the American mainstream, and they thus inadvertently left the field open to radicals and opportunists.

To Jacoby, this is what is needed today: an integrationist strategy, and a positive program for carrying it out. Unfortunately, however, she is as short on solutions as were her intellectual predecessors. Although she writes eloquently of the need to “acculturate” impoverished inner-city blacks, all she can offer are vague, shopworn remedies: better prenatal care, job training, and transition programs out of welfare.

But perhaps that is just the point, and perhaps the old integrationists were right all along. In 1963, integration meant breaking down the legal and social barriers that were literally preventing blacks from participating in many aspects of American life. Today, that goal has been largely achieved. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom have demonstrated conclusively in America in Black and White, white attitudes have shifted dramatically; formal segregation does not exist in any legal sense; and even the cities that were once cauldrons of unrest seem comparatively calm. True, there are vestiges of racial thinking in America, but the most salient one is, ironically, government-enforced preferences, and there is even a healthy and growing backlash against that.

In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani does not seem to have a policy on race, or on integration. “One city, one standard” is his response to questions on racial issues, and he has successfully dismantled the corrupt local boards that were established during the rush to community empowerment in the 60’s. Jacoby commends Giuliani’s approach, but still wishes something more could be done to promote integration. What she does not seem to recognize is that the dismantling of the race-based policies established over the past three decades is, in and of itself, an ambitious step toward the creation of a color-blind society. Pursuing this agenda will do far more to erode the barriers between blacks and whites than any quixotic search for an “integrationist” solution.


About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.