Should be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind?" and seven responses.
A Task Unfinished
Owen Fiss Responds
The issue is not housing, nor even segregation. It is the
underclass. The ghetto is not just another neighborhood that happens to
be poor and black, but rather a social structure that created the black
underclass and threatens to perpetuate it across generations.
Since this nations founding, we have struggled with the issue of
racial justice. The Civil War was a turning point, but even those who
emerged victorious from that calamitous experience knew full well that
true equality could not be achieved by simply declaring an end to slavery.
Uncorrected, the vestiges of that institution would live on, and a new
caste structure would emerge, making a mockery of freedom.
The arduous process of reconstruction began in the years immediately
following the War. By 1875, that effort had collapsed and by the end of
the nineteenth century the nation had embarked on a very different course.
Jim Crow, a state-supported system of separation, exclusion, and disenfranchisement,
spread like wildfire, and turned the newly freed slaves into second-class
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century we were frequently
reminded of the constitutional commitment to equality and how far we have
departed from it. Then, on that fateful day in 1954, the High Court issued
an edict condemning Jim Crow, and called on us to renew the process of
reconstruction. Many resisted, and some even took up arms. But through
the determined but diplomatic use of judicial power, the support of the
coordinate branches of the federal government, and the mobilization of
multitudes of citizens, largely spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr.,
the most blatant forces of resistance were overcome.
My essay begins with a recognition of
the fact that the Second Reconstruction--as the period begun by Brown
v. Board of Education is known--has come to an end, if not in the
mid-1970s, then certainly in August 1996, when Congress enacted and President
Clinton signed into law the welfare reform bill. My aim was to reflect
on the achievements of that extraordinary era of reform and define the
challenge ahead. Though we must, of course, remain ever vigilant against
the continuation and resurgence of Jim Crow-type discrimination, and press
for the full enforcement of 1960s civil rights laws, we must also recognize
that the issues of racial justice have changed, in part due to the specific
policies of the Second Reconstruction.
At the time of Brown,the caste structure had a decidedly racial
character. Most blacks were poor, and although their poverty posed significant
obstacles to their upward mobility, we understood their subjugation principally
in racial terms--first, because racial discrimination acted as an independent
constraint on their lives and, second, because the enormous economic disadvantages
blacks suffered could be traced directly to their race.
Today, however, the hierarchical structure initially engendered by slavery
and perpetuated by Jim Crow is no longer simply racial. Blacks as a class
are not the worst-off group. Many blacks now enjoy so-called middle-class
status and participate in almost all walks of American public life, including
some of the most prestigious. Rather, the most disadvantaged group is
the black underclass, a group that is defined by both race and class and
that now shoulders the legacy of centuries of racial oppression.
To see the black underclass, as I do, as a manifestation of the caste
structure set in motion by slavery and continued by Jim Crow is not only
to acknowledge the utterly deplorable conditions that individual members
of this group must endure, but also to underscore the structural constraints
on their upward mobility. This form of stratification is an affront to
the egalitarian ideals that animated the Second Reconstruction and that
so define this nation. It represents a moral and constitutional betrayal
that demands swift and effective remedial action, not as a matter of public
policy, but as a requirement of justice.
None of the participants in this debate--for whose responses I am grateful--deny
the conflict between our egalitarian ideals and the maintenance of the
black underclass. Nor do they deny that the ghetto is an institution that
isolates and concentrates the worst off, thus magnifying their disadvantage.
Indeed, James Rosenbaum, a pioneer in this field, once again provides
detailed documentation of the relationship between the underclass and
the inner-city ghetto of today.
Basing his argument on studies of the Gautreaux program, Rosenbaum
points to improvements--he here describes them as "amazing"--in the lives
of ghetto residents of Chicago who were given an opportunity to move to
better neighborhoods. He concludes, "Housing policy can do more than provide
shelter, it can radically improve peoples lives." To this, I add
that even more than improving lives, housing policy aimed at dispersal
or deconcentration can, if adopted on a broad enough scale, help eradicate
caste, and thus deepen and extend the process of reconstruction begun
more than a century ago.
No matter how stark the evidence, Robert Coles and Phillip Thompson are
reluctant to embrace deconcentration. They want to begin with all that
is good and decent in the ghetto, and build from there. Thompson favors
what he calls "in-place" remedies such as job creation. Coles is silent
on the remedial issue, but like Thompson expresses a faith in the capacity
of ghetto residents to shelter themselves from the many destructive forces
that engulf their neighborhoods. In the closing passages of his essay,
Robert Coles shares with us the testimony of an African American father
of four in Roxbury who admits, "I wish I could get us out of here," but
finally concludes: "Its nice to cut and run, but its nice
to dig in hard and long--to keep remembering that you stood up for who
you are, and for what you think really matters in this life that the good
Lord has leant you to keep."
I was deeply moved by this mans evident courage and determination.
Yet on further reflection, I wondered whether he would make it, even with
the help of the local churches, community organizations, and clubs Phillip
Thompson celebrates. Even if he beats the odds, it is doubtful most others
will. Wouldnt it make more sense, indeed, wouldnt it be more
just, given that society put him in his predicament, for the state to
provide him the resources to move if he so chooses? The decision to stay
put requires courage, but we cannot read the dictates of justice out of
every act of courage.
Other respondents, most notably Jennifer Hochschild, Alexander Polikoff,
Richard Ford, and Gary Orfield, endorse the idea of providing those trapped
within the ghetto with the resources they need to move to a better neighborhood.
They too see the ghetto as an institution that perpetuates the underclass
and acknowledge the rightness of deconcentration, but take this strategy
in new directions. I welcome their proposals. Fashioning appropriate remedies
will require all the imagination we can muster. Still, two aspects of
their recommendations concern me.
One arises from the fact that much of what they offer are half-measures.
Hochschild, for example, recommends cutting the amount allocated for relocation
in half and using the remainder for improving life within the ghetto or
for transportation systems that might get ghetto residents to jobs in
the suburbs. Polikoff proposes to tie deconcentration to the process of
demolishing obsolete public housing projects. Both of these ideas have
great appeal, yet I fear that if we limit deconcentration in the ways
they recommend, we may make even more miserable the lives of those who
will inevitably be left behind--for example, those living in privately
owned tenements or those who remain on the waiting list because there
are not enough funds to go around.
The ghetto of today is not just a product of the containment policies
of Jim Crow; it also takes its character in part from the fact that in
recent decades those most able to move out have in fact done so. This
exodus improved the life chances of those who moved, but also enhanced
the concentration and isolation of the most disadvantaged. Richard Ford
rightly points out that my proposal might intensify this very same dynamic
of isolation. Some of the most disadvantaged may not take the subsidy
I would offer and choose to stay behind, thereby threatening to create
what he calls a "super-underclass." Aside from providing information to
enable residents to weigh adequately the advantages of a move, I see no
way of eliminating altogether the danger Ford describes--at most, it can
be minimized. I fear, however, that the risk of creating a "super-underclass"
would be magnified considerably by the proposed half-measures.
My second concern stems from the acknowledged motivation underlying some
of the proposed alternatives--"political feasibility." Phillip Thompson,
for instance, rejects deconcentration on the ground that it will not be
acceptable to what he calls "white suburbia"and throws his support behind
Wilsons job-creation proposal because it is "a lot more politically
realistic."Speaking more generally, I was struck by the spirit of defeatism
that so pervades all the responses. So many of my interlocutors hesitate
to embrace deconcentration in all its fullness because they fear it is
not politically feasible.
Buckminster Fuller once said that it is a virtue to be naive. I second
that sentiment, but I also believe it is a virtue to be realistic. Our
task is to describe what justice requires, but we must be aware of the
forces that resist the delivery of justice, regardless of whether they
arise from incompetence, from a narrow regard for self interest, or from
a difference of opinion about the requirements of justice. We need to
take account of the mood of Congress, the interests served by the containment,
and the hostility deconcentration is likely to engender in the so-called
At the same time, we must never confuse feasibility with rightness. Moreover,
we must take care not to exaggerate, in the name of realism, the forces
of resistance or the barriers to implementation, which vary city to city.
The pockets of goodwill that exist in this country--and that hopefully
may soon be enlarged by the prosperity and sense of triumphalism America
is now experiencing--must be nourished and developed to the utmost.
We must also be aware that sometimes self-interest can be put to service
for justice. Throughout the debates surrounding the Civil Rights Act of
1964, the advocates of reform often explained how opening public accommodations
and jobs to blacks would be good for business, and I imagine that the
eventual passage of that law could be seen as a triumph of both justice
and economic interest. Polikoffs strategy of linking deconcentration
to the demolition of obsolete public housing projects is in this same
tradition, though with an odd twist.
As Polikoff explains, the maintenance of a number of public housing projects
would at this point require additional investment, but such an investment
would not make economic sense. As he put it, it would only be throwing
good money after bad. He reports that in the end Congress required that
some of the worst public housing projects in fact be closed. Polikoff
celebrates the result, calling it "a tiny gleam of hope," and then adds,
somewhat gratuitously, "let us acknowledge that it emanates not from a
willingness to do justice but from a reluctance to throw good money after
bad." Why? What is the point of such an acknowledgment? What is to be
gained by disavowing justice? The experience with the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 leads me to imagine the possibility of reform motivated by a confluence
of justice and economic interest.
Finally, no matter how fierce the resistance, we should not regard it
as fixed nor the opponents of reform intractable. Housing integration
has always been intensely difficult. Even after the enactment of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964, opening to blacks places of public accommodation and
jobs in the private sector, Congress refused to heed the voices demanding
a fair housing law. It took as horrendous an event as the assassination
of Dr. King, and perhaps a week of riots, but ultimately Congress came
to its senses, and did what simple justice required.
Residents of upscale neighborhoods, whether they be white or black, may
well try to fence out poor blacks from the ghetto. Some might fear a diminution
of property values, or a re-emergence of the very problems they sought
to avoid by moving to a better neighborhood. We should not ignore these
concerns, but neither should we capitulate to them. So we must choose
the receiving communities carefully, and support the changes that inevitably
will take place in them. As Gary Orfield wisely counsels, we must not
only set changes in motion, but also shepherd communities through these
changes. We must not create new ghettos.
We must also be clear about our purposes. Deconcentration is not just
based on a desire to secure for ghetto residents a right to choose ones
residence, which would only pit the associational liberty of one group
against another, but derives from a desire to eliminate a horrible inequality.
In attempting to tear down the walls of the ghetto, we are trying to dismantle
an institution that continues, in a different and more calibrated form,
the caste structure that has disfigured our nation from the very beginning.
"We must come to see," King once said, after the long march from Selma
to Montgomery, "that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself,
a society that can live with its conscience."
Originally published in the Summer 2000
issue of Boston Review
for other New Democracy Forum articles.