Magazine | September 16, 2013, Issue

The Status of the Dream

Racial integration 50 years after MLK’s speech

Black voices of gloom are a staple in reporting on race. “Dreams unfulfilled” is how the Washington Post describes the racial landscape as the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s electrifying address delivered from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. The reporter found blacks who had witnessed the speech half a century ago. “I had hoped when I was a young man that we’d see a lot of progress by now,” said Donald Cash, a D.C. resident who is now 68. “But I think we’re going backwards,” he declared.

There will be commemorative weeklong events, as there should be. A march on Saturday, August 31, is billed as “National Action to Reclaim the Dream.” In retrospect, was Dr. King’s dream just wishful thinking, bound to disappoint? “We cannot walk alone,” he said. The destiny of blacks and whites is inextricably intertwined. But how to walk together? Sobering numbers from a recent Pew Research Center survey suggest an enduring racial chasm. Seventy percent of blacks believe they are treated less fairly than whites in dealings with the police. Almost as many (68 percent) distrust courts. Fifty-four percent perceive inequality in places of work, and 51 percent in the public schools. Forty-eight percent doubt the fairness of the electoral system, and 44 percent think the stores and restaurants they patronize are unfair to them because of their race.

Racial optimists that we have long been, we find these numbers staggering. Evidently, blacks believe they don’t get a fair break anywhere — a conviction hard to understand for those of us old enough to remember the days of brutal subjugation of blacks in the South and of a North where de facto segregation was everywhere apparent.

Actually, the claim that harmful segregation is still pervasive today is the conventional civil-rights wisdom and has been strongly endorsed by the Obama administration. In July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a new plan to monitor the racial composition of every American community and to make more strenuous efforts to engineer neighborhood “integration.” A newly issued rule commits HUD to a program of “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” Affirmative action has now become an obligation not only in employment, education, and contracting but also when local governments design housing policies.

HUD’s directive betrays historical ignorance. Northern segregation 50 years ago was the product of a massive influx of blacks into northern cities. But over the past half-century, millions of African Americans have moved out of central-city ghettos into more racially mixed suburban neighborhoods, where today a majority of blacks reside. The famous 1968 Kerner Commission report, which aimed to explain the black riots that had begun in Watts in 1965, described the United States as “moving toward two societies, one black, one white  — separate and unequal.” This ominous division, the commission wrote, was rooted in a growing gulf between “white” suburbs and “black” inner cities.

It was not a prescient prediction. The urban areas that were once overwhelmingly black now include significant numbers of whites, Asians, and Hispanics. They have become what one sociologist has called “global neighborhoods,” and the booming cities of the South are now much less residentially segregated than the urban areas of the North and Midwest.

Ongoing residential segregation is an important charge in the indictment of today’s America as a deeply racist society. But, as one scholar has noted, most adults spend much of their waking life not in their neighborhoods but at their places of employment, where members of all racial and ethnic groups are working together. That contact surely affects interracial friendship patterns. Surveys asking people to name their close friends reveal that a high proportion of friendships in general were initially formed through contact on the job.

Friendships are also formed in churches. Dr. King famously said that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.” Separate churches for African Americans had been the norm for most of American history, and the black church continues to play a central role in the black community. But today more than 60 percent of blacks worship in racially mixed congregations, a remarkable development that has attracted virtually no comment.

It is, of course, true that whites might have substantial numbers of black neighbors, work alongside black people, even belong to congregations that have black members, and still keep their distance in more intimate settings. Tolerating the presence of people habitually regarded as different is not the same thing as forming close personal connections.

#page#The earliest available direct evidence about the relationship between friendship patterns and race is from a survey taken in 1964, the year that the first of the two great Civil Rights Acts dealt a fatal blow to legally mandated segregation. At that time, a mere 18 percent of whites reported having any black friends. By now, 95 percent of whites tell the pollsters that they have black “close friends,” and 91 percent of blacks say they have close friends who are white. This is another stunning change, and one that calls into question facile claims that the American people are still deeply divided into mutually hostile racial camps.

If we narrow the definition of a “friend,” the numbers are lower but perhaps even more impressive. A 2006 survey asked about “people that you trust, for example, good friends, people you discuss important matters with, or trust for advice, or trust with money.” It found that a slight majority of whites (52 percent) did have at least one “trusted” friend who was black, and that over two-thirds of blacks considered at least one white person to fall into the “trusted” category.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a future America in which it would no longer be taboo for people of different races to sit down “together at the table of brotherhood.” We don’t know precisely how common interracial dining was in 1963, but the figure was surely close to zero in the South and very low elsewhere. Today, 63 percent of blacks report having entertained whites in their home for dinner. The corresponding figure for whites is 48 percent. What was unthinkable in the southern states half a century ago, and relatively uncommon even in the North, is now perfectly commonplace.

But entertaining guests of a different race in one’s home does not necessarily mean that parents will be comfortable when their son or daughter chooses to date someone of another race or even marry across racial lines. The March on Washington 50 years ago coincided with the first public-opinion survey of attitudes about dating someone of another race. The question had never been asked before because pollsters assumed that it was not an issue about which opinion was divided. They were apparently right, because in 1963 a mere 10 percent of Americans found it acceptable. Today, 83 percent of whites and 92 percent of blacks have no problem with it. A remarkable 97 percent of people of prime dating age (18–29) approve of it.

Giving an approving answer when surveyed, of course, need not correspond closely with actual behavior. But recent surveys show that dating across racial lines is very common. A 2011 study found that 68 percent of black males had dated someone who was not black, and 50 percent of black females. For white males, the crossover figure was 51 percent; for white females, 40 percent. (These figures, it should be noted, are not confined to black-white pairings.)

Dating is one thing, of course, marriage quite another. Fifty years ago, “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” was not a sick joke. But attitudes about interracial marriage have changed just as dramatically as those about interracial dating. When the first question about this matter was included in a poll in 1958, just 4 percent of the public approved. A decade later, a small majority of blacks (56 percent) but barely a sixth of whites had come to find it acceptable. By 2011, 84 percent of whites and 96 percent of blacks approved.

This transformation in racial attitudes has been accompanied by profound changes in behavior. The number of blacks and whites who actually marry outside their respective racial groups has risen spectacularly. When Barack Obama was born to a black-and-white couple in 1961, interracial marriages were the rarest of exceptions. A mere 0.3 percent of all married couples counted in the 1960 census involved people of different races. By contrast, 15 percent of the Americans who married in 2008 wed across racial lines. (These numbers are not exactly comparable to the 1960 figures, which refer to all married persons, whatever their age. Marriages within a recent, brief time period are more illuminating of current marital patterns.)

The surge in marriages across racial lines has produced even more social mixing than might be thought — a lot more. That is because marriages link two individuals and also two sets of relatives — parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, even cousins. A recent survey asked Americans a broad question: Was “an immediate family member or close relative” married to someone of a different race? More than a third (35 percent) of all respondents reported that they belonged to racially mixed kin networks. Half of all nonwhites and 29 percent of whites were in such networks.

#page#Precisely how much of a departure this is from the pattern of decades earlier cannot be determined; questions about this matter were not included in any earlier surveys. But an ingenious estimate by a demographer for the period 1960–2000 suggests striking change. The fraction of whites belonging to mixed-race kinship networks, it estimates, rose from a mere 2 percent in 1960 to 22 percent four decades later. The figures were remarkably high for Asian Americans and American Indians as early as 1960 — 81 and 90 percent, respectively. These groups were not profoundly isolated from white America even before the civil-rights revolution. By 2000, the extent of mixing with kin of another race was even higher — 84 percent for Asians, and a figure that rounds off to 100 percent for American Indians.

The vast majority of blacks in 1960 had few such kinship connections. By 2000, the figure had risen from just 9.2 percent to 49.8 percent, and it is undoubtedly higher today, although still below the levels for Asians or American Indians.

These “mixed-race kinship” estimates do not include marriages in which one partner was Hispanic and one was not. Official federal statistics classify Hispanics not as a nonwhite race but as a quasi-racial “ethnic group,” the only ethnic group considered to be “race-like.” When Hispanics were considered as a separate group, a further study by the same demographer found that in 2000 nearly half of all non-Hispanic whites had kinship bonds with someone who was either Hispanic or nonwhite. Since the rate of interracial marriage has continued to climb in the 21st century, it is highly probable that we have by now reached a remarkable point in our social development: A substantial majority of non-Hispanic white family networks include nonwhites, Hispanics, or both.

Mixed-race kinship networks, of course, are not surefire solvents of long-held prejudices. It is certainly possible to feel racial aversion toward someone who has just become your relative through a marriage that you opposed. But interracial marriage has surely done more to reduce skin-color prejudices than to inflame them. If it had produced powerful backlash sentiments and a heightened desire to guard the boundaries dividing one race from another, the recent trend toward interracial marriages could be expected to grind to a halt or even reverse. So far, at least, there are no signs of backlash.

Despite these powerful trends suggesting the declining significance of race in social interactions, we can see plenty of what many call “segregation” in the national landscape. But defining segregation as any deviation from the norm of random distribution, as is common in social science, is deeply misguided. Some racial and ethnic clustering is a normal feature of any healthy multicultural society. How can those who celebrate “diversity” call for a nation in which every identifiable ethnic group is proportionally represented in every neighborhood, every occupation, every church? Or in which all groups have spent an equal number of years in school, and in which people show no tendency to have more than a statistically correct proportion of close friends of the same cultural background? That naïve expectation is what prompts some writers to raise such foolish questions as why very few black athletes are professional hockey players or why, as a Washington Post reporter asked, black ballerinas are rare. “Diversity” is an empty platitude if it is not embodied in distinctive subcultures, with functioning institutions and social patterns. Although we are unaccustomed to cite the views of Malcolm X in support of any conclusions we draw, we think he was on the mark when he distinguished segregation from separation. “Segregation,” he said, “is when your life and liberty are controlled, regulated by someone else.” Segregation is forced on people, but separation is the result of choices made by free and equal individuals.

Is the clustering of African Americans that is still evident in many spheres of life a sign that they are being “excluded” from full membership in our society? It once was, and could then properly be called “segregation.” But today, such clustering is largely the result of black people’s choices, driven by the same impulses that lead Koreans, Jews, Dominicans, and dozens of other groups to choose to concentrate in certain social niches and avoid others. The last thing we need is more social engineering to eradicate every racial disparity.

– Stephan Thernstrom, the Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University, and Abigail Thernstrom, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, are the authors of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible.

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