Cognitive Dissonance: Integration USA and the Future of American Democracy

The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream

by Sheryll Cashin (New York: Public Affairs, 2004)



An Essay in Review






by John L. Godwin


Has anyone heard the hissing of summer lawns,  the  sound of the closing door, or seen the traffic jam on the highway to the suburbs? The problem, we know, dates back to the early beginnings of our society. The overwhelming-majority of Americans today reject racism and say that they believe in integration. Americans say this, but their behavior is otherwise. For the reality of life in the USA is that the majority of Americans, white and black, actually live in racially separated communities. This is according to a new study of race and integration by Georgetown University law professor, Sheryll Cashin.

Cashin’s book joins the outpouring of books, articles, radio and TV commentary marking the observance of fifty years since the historic US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Racial integration, which some people thought came out of Brown and other reforms of the Civil Rights Era, has in truth been something of a failure according to Cashin. But the mass media of the post-1960s has fostered a new image of an integrated America with which we are yet comfortable. One that is at odds with the reality—even the black middle class across the USA has tended to move into separated enclaves reflecting the generally separated worlds inhabited not only by whites and blacks, but also by the growing economic cleavages of rich and poor.

According to Cashin, no matter how you define it statistically, the overwhelming majority of American cities, towns, municipalities and neighborhood are racially segregated. Only fourteen percent of whites students nationwide attended multiracial schools as of 2000.(235) The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in the abolition of de jure segregation in the South, also coincided with a mass exodus of whites out of metropolitan America in flight from the “redistributive tax burden of the cities”—in a deceptive and injurious effort to avoid black people.(250) The result has been a sharp cleavage in urban America between suburbs that are largely white, and the inner city that has become stigmatized with crime, drugs, high unemployment, family disintegration, and inadequate education and other services associated with the hyper-segregated areas of the Black ghetto. Consisting of enclaves of socially distressed African Americans, where the nation’s poorest and least educated have been wrongfully and arbitrarily concentrated, the Black ghetto has become the moral equivalent of slavery in our time: the Peculiar Institution that survives to mock the nation’s most cherished values in the twenty-first century.

But it doesn’t stop there. Within the American mind there is a cognitive dissonance on race, a fundamental disjunction between what we say and what we do, revealing everything about who we are. Consequently, most Americans seem as heedless of these trends as they are of the adverse effects on the nation’s democracy. Part of the strength of Cashin’s study is her ability to recognize that African Americans, whether of the Black middle class or the social and economic under classes of the ghettos, have and will continue to exert a profound influence on this country, even with America well on its way to becoming a majority-minority society. According to Cashin, Americans do not generally recognize that the nation’s future will be one in which Latinos, Blacks, Asians and other minorities together constitute the majority, with whites in the minority. While in the 1990s, the ghettos shrank as the economy improved, the political center nevertheless broke down, giving way to what the author calls “loggerhead politics” with both major political parties losing traction. A steep decline in voter participation indicated a growing a loss of political affiliation, with as many as forty percent of eligible voters failing to participate in recent electoral campaigns.

Although Sheryll Cashin’s study, echoing trends that have been marked by Tamara Jacoby, Gary Orfield, David Rusk, Tom Wicker and other writers, offers this somewhat bleak assessment, the tone of the book on the whole is thoughtful and the delivery is far from pessimistic. Cashin is a former US Supreme Court law clerk who served under Justice Thurgood Marshall, and is a native of Huntsville, Alabama. More recently she served in the Clinton administration as a lower echelon advisor on urban and economic policy. The book has a national focus, drawing on the research of numerous assistants, data assimilated from major urban areas across the country, and an array of public policy initiatives and institutional settings in numerous cities. Although the book has drawn favorable commentary from such notables as historian, David Garrow, Black civil rights advocate, Vernon Jordon, and New Politics’ Reginald Wilson, most publications have given it short notice. And even the NAACP seems yet to have had little if anything to say about it so far, although Cashin has generated much debate on a variety of weblogs, and was interviewed on National Public Radio in May of 2004.

Two key historical digressions provide the frame of reference for Cashin’s central argument. First, the emergence of the Black ghetto in metropolitan America—one of the sweeping events of the twentieth century—is viewed as the consequence of failed federal policy initiatives dating to the era of liberal ascendancy, from the 1930s to the 1960s. And second, the Civil Rights Movement that produced the Brown decision, along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the rest of sixties reforms, brought moderate though tangible gains for blacks. When school integration finally got under way in the late sixties it made the South the nation’s most integrated region up until the 1990s, when the pattern was reversed, resulting from a series of US Supreme Court decisions—the fruits of resurgent conservatism in American politics.

Although history is not Cashin’s strong point, in these assertions there is an absence of polemic that is truly the hallmark of her discerning, cultured approach. Her reasoning combines a utilitarian appeal to national self-interest with an analysis that stresses the “cycle of racism” and the positive reckoning of an “integrationist ethos” in which diversity is embraced as a source of strength. These arguments have been asserted among liberals at least since the time of Gunnar Myrdal’s famous, An American Dilemma (1946) and in some respects, long before. Cashin’s study moves in a balanced prose that cuts through the rhetoric of black and white separatism with an analysis that ponders its fantasies and realities, but ultimately rejects its most cherished assumptions, thereby laying aside the negativism and defeatism that has dogged the tracks of liberals, black integrationists and intellectuals since the mid-1960s. She has returned to the wellsprings of a black advocacy that echoes the standards set by Frederick Douglass, the youthful W.E.B. Dubois, and the compelling universal vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Cashin seems to build on these within a contemporary context by stressing the role of socioeconomic classes, and the more cosmopolitan social consciousness that develops in communities that are genuinely multicultural as a result of the immigrant influence. For the black and the white separatist her argument is much the same— ultimately neither can leave behind the Black ghetto and all its attendant social evils. The threat that it poses to America is so fundamental and so corrosive to the fabric of our national existence that in the end no escape from it is final.

Perhaps the central weakness in Cashin’s approach is its lack of historical perspective particularly in the realm of politics. She acknowledges the separatist urge among black middle classes, but overlooks the fact that the separatist urge in the mid-1960s became a revolutionary movement painfully expressed in the impassioned pronouncements of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Albert Cleague and others. And the polemics of these separatists stressed the perfidious character of white liberalism almost as an inherent feature of whiteness—The White Man, being inherently sinful by nature, made promises, noble gestures, and idealistic pronouncements, then acted in a manner inconsistent with these. Liberalism in this sense was a part of the White Man’s game, the rhetorical icing on the cake that nourished the self-interested hypocrisy of America’s Cold War elite and their pretensions to world leadership. And while riots in the cities gave the Black revolutionary fringe a seriously anti-white complexion, the US Supreme Court busing decrees seemed blithely to compel white parents to send their children off into the ghetto to receive an education—at the precise moment of the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history—the Vietnam War. What Cashin overlooks is the fact that when all was said and done, the real issues were lost while the South and America moved decisively into the political realignment that brought the end of liberal consensus and the beginning of a conservative Republican Party resurgence in American government—an event that occurred long before the 1990s.

Although Cashin’s study does not pause for deeper rumination on the failure of liberal policy or the white conservative backlash that grew out of the CRM, Black revolution and federal court ordered busing decrees, the strength of her argument lies in the fact that it moves beyond history to the human condition itself. The dead hand of the past should not hold back the dynamic energy of a country that has always renewed its commitment to democracy and pluralism. When Cashin observes that government by conservative backlash comes with a social and economic cost, with our democracy mired in its white allegiance to the “psychology of the bulwark”—and the pervasive attitude of fear toward the ghetto—she thereby enables us to see through the pettifoggery and denial that have served the purposes of entrenched conservatism in the US. The persistence of slavery in Antebellum America and Jim Crow segregation in the twentieth century South were both indicative of a wholesale repudiation of reality by Southern whites. Good Negroes would remain content within their circumscribed realm and life would go on as if injustice had no existential meaning. The continued existence of the American ghetto reminds us that the rest of America is not immune to this malady, and that the power of entrenched wealth and the moral evasion it engenders holds as great a destructive potential today as ever in American history.

If America’s moral compass today is broken, The Failures of Integration, by Sheryll Cashin, can help us to get our bearings, since here we get a fix on reality along with practical concepts that can guide us toward reform. By focusing on neighborhoods and communities first, and only upon schools, transportation, jobs, culture and urban policy insofar as they define communities, Cashin seems to take a leap forward in her comprehension of a social problem that has waylaid a generation. Her conception of socioeconomic integration—breaking up the concentrated poverty of the ghetto through zoning laws, grassroots coalitions, low income housing incentives and etc., makes perfect sense though it is doubtful that such solutions could work the same in every setting. And she cites Wake County, North Carolina as an area moving forward in this regard.

While she calls for a return to school integration through increased choice and a renewed frontal assault on “separated America” as forceful and impassioned as anything in our history, she states flatly, that “meaningful integration will not come about by any command-and-control forcing of race and class mixing.”(318) It seems that Cashin’s approach to integration has profited from some of the mistakes of the notorious sixties as well as the decades that followed. But it is easier by far to make such a statement than to make real integration become a reality. And Cashin also shows that real integration is also a reflection of how we live and how we think—not just a matter of mixing the races by decree. The “integrationist ethos” that she urges must be ardently worked for by all Americans out of the collective wisdom of our national understanding if it is to be achieved.

This book may be too analytic and critical to have the readership it deserves, and some may be put off by its iconoclasm. Nevertheless, we should celebrate a book that recognizes so clearly that racial inequality as it exists in America today is as much a national disgrace as in the bygone ages of the South. The belief that African Americans could be permanently relegated to the status of an underclass has been rejected by Americans time and again throughout our nation’s history. Yet Cashin has likewise recognized that the destiny of the USA is to become one nation—no matter how multicultural, sectional, fragmented, tribal, or parochial it may be in the meantime. With superb detachment and calm reasoning, Cashin has informed us that the American dilemma is as much with us today as ever. If we fail to consider her arguments and attempt her solutions we may miss yet another opportunity to fulfill what most Americans already envision as our national destiny.


John L. Godwin is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham: MD. University Press of America, 2000).

From the Carolina Civil Voice

a news & issues alternative magazine

Winter 2005-06 Vol.5, No. 4


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