Andrews reaches the civil-rights movement, in many ways the epicenter of the boomer experience, later in her book, in a chapter on Sharpton. Her view of integration seems to be that it was rushed and hasty, and created a predictable and unnecessary backlash. She is with the teachers whose newly integrated schools had “tenth graders who couldn’t write their own names and sixth graders who couldn’t find Washington on a map.” She wishes that political leaders had “met white parents’ concerns about school discipline with enforcement measures that would have ensured their children could use playgrounds without getting their heads kicked in.” Her portrait of Jesse Jackson, a major figure in this chapter, describes him as holding businesses hostage and using members of the “the South Side’s most notorious gang to intimidate grocery store owners into cooperating with him,” to push for racial change that couldn’t yet be achieved at the ballot box: “Jesse Jackson’s career—indeed, the whole civil rights movement after 1970—has been dedicated to circumventing that democratic system.” In her case study of Chicago, she suggests that the real path to political fulfillment for Black Americans lay through the political machine of William Daley: “The Chicago Freedom Movement has gone down in history as a failure for the civil rights movement, but the real lesson was for the average black citizen of Chicago, Daley’s method of politics simply had more to offer.”
It is hard not to see some prejudice in this. I also see misapprehension. The many hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated for civil rights were not conjured by Sharpton or Jackson—their demands for change were real. Liberation, here, wasn’t an entitled fantasy but a popular demand. Andrews believes in the strength of traditional institutions—the church, the nuclear family, the big-city political machine—and argues that American decline tracks with our abandonment of them. But if the traditional family could not accommodate the desire of some women to have fewer babies and a professional life, and the traditional church could not tolerate the range of human sexuality, then these were not really very strong institutions, after all. You don’t need to have an uncomplicated view of Al Sharpton to realize that the desire of Black people for equality and self-determination was just not going to be satisfied by Daley’s Chicago machine.
I'm trying to figure out how to get at this because: damn! But is it so important it deserves special mention, or is it just another reflection of Life In These United States? And yeah, the reference to Reader's Digest is intentional because you can't really understand (or explain, or complain about) Boomers without taking into account influences which were deep and strong (and more long-lasting than LIFE and LOOK, which faded away early in my youth) and, for the most part, no longer exist.
But I digress.
The topic is Boomers, and the author (not of the New Yorker essay) is "a young conservative writer named Helen Andrews" whose editor at First Things ("America's Most Influential of Religion and Public Life" I just know I'd never heard of it; and it's article on "Wonder Woman 1984" had nothing to do with religion or public life. It was just a brief recap of the story, with something of a critique in the final paragraph. I require my students to do better when I teach the concept of a review) decided Ms. Andrews:
should write a book of biographical sketches of significant boomers, and through them define the generation’s responsibility for the decline of liberal culture. In the preface to “Boomers,” the book that this project produced, Andrews writes, “I forgave my editor for elaborating on my suitability for the project by saying, ‘You’re like Strachey; you’re an essayist, and you’re mean.’ ”
And racist, though Mr. Wallace-Wells declines to use the term, preferring the more anodyne term "prejudice," and even then almost afraid to attribute that vice to Ms. Andrews. But this is why I write; at least on this minor topic about a writer I've never heard of (and pretty much don't need to hear from again). And here it is, as described by Mr. Wallace-Wells:
Her view of integration seems to be that it was rushed and hasty, and created a predictable and unnecessary backlash. She is with the teachers whose newly integrated schools had “tenth graders who couldn’t write their own names and sixth graders who couldn’t find Washington on a map.” She wishes that political leaders had “met white parents’ concerns about school discipline with enforcement measures that would have ensured their children could use playgrounds without getting their heads kicked in.”
I'm guessing Ms. Andrews is too young to remember the world before school integration, or to have heard the words of Dr. King (beyond the phrase "I have a dream!"), and too poorly educated to have read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which addresses her first concern with integration:
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Brown v. Board was handed down in 1954; Dr. King wrote that letter from jail in 1963; the schools I attended weren't integrated until 1971, schools in "liberal' Austin were still fighting issues of integration and equal access when I moved there in 1978, and when I left in 1993. And yet Ms. Andrews still thinks we should "Wait!"
But that's a minor pecadillo compared with the next sentence, which explains the problem Brown v. Board was trying to correct in stark terms. Alas, it is a reality Ms. Andrews is blind to:
She is with the teachers whose newly integrated schools had “tenth graders who couldn’t write their own names and sixth graders who couldn’t find Washington on a map.”
It's pretty obvious, though, that those students she is concerned about are white; because:
She wishes that political leaders had “met white parents’ concerns about school discipline with enforcement measures that would have ensured their children could use playgrounds without getting their heads kicked in.”
Those "white parents" aren't worried about their white children being kicked by other white children, are they? Otherwise this concern wouldn't have any place in a discussion of school integration which should have been delayed because of feared violence like this. Didn't the nation just have an eruption of people on the streets because of this kind of sanctioned police violence, a violence that continues despite those demonstrations? Do we still not dare call that kind of violence "racist"? Do we still not dare call the fear of that violence from blacks against whites (which justifies the suppression of blacks in every way possible) racism?
Everything old is new again. Except it's not; new, I mean. It's old; very, very old. 4 centuries old, at least. It's embedded so deeply in what America is, I'm not sure we'll ever root it out.