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The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York
by jim sleeper
w. w. norton, 345 pages, $21.95

Most Americans have the sense that something went terribly wrong in the nation’s big cities sometime in the middle of the 1960s. Since then, urban areas have been perceived essentially as centers of social problems, even social pathologies. Urban affairs have become a continuing tale of rising crime and welfarism, neighborhood decay, and financial crisis. Nowhere is that more true than in New York, the nation’s greatest metropolis. 

Most people have little precise sense of what went wrong. City politics is an arcane mystery that only insiders comprehend. Existing accounts of New York—for example, Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved With Gold, Charles R. Morris’ The Cost of Good Intentions, and Martin Shefter’s Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisisconcentrate on the city’s financial difficulties. In The Closest of Strangers, Jim Sleeper, an editorial writer for New York Newsday, leads us toward a more political diagnosis that may get closer to the nub of the problem. He says, in essence, that claim-making rooted in race has destroyed the civic culture that once made cities like New York governable. 

At the simplest level, the book is an engrossing chronicle of past and present racial politics in New York. Recent episodes include several highly-publicized violent crimes (with blacks as both perpetrators and victims), the Tawana Brawley affair (in which a black girl claimed fraudulently to have been raped by whites), and, at a more edifying level, David Dinkins’ election as the city’s first black mayor. Sleeper writes with unusual authority, as he is both a longtime city journalist and an expert on the past racial history of New York. He also writes well. Hardly a page of the book fails to strike off some memorable phrase. In addition to its shrewd analysis. The Closest of Strangers is a joy to read. 

Sleeper’s argument is subtler than it seems on the surface. At first glance, the book is primarily an attack on a huckstering type of black leader recently personified by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the lawyers C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox, Jr. They have, in defending Brawley and other dubious black causes, elbowed aside more dignified black leaders in the mold of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their style is to blame every problem on white racism; in the process, they alienate whites who might otherwise be their allies. Their overreaching is mainly responsible. Sleeper believes, for the racial polarization that now dogs the city, and his prose expresses the outrage he feels over their excesses. 

Sleeper would thus appear to fit Irving Kristol’s definition of a conservative—a liberal mugged by reality. But he is no friend of the right. He blames the economic establishment for much of the city’s travail. He argues that real estate developers promoted the destruction of ethnic neighborhoods and that the benefits of the economic boom of the 1980s went disproportionately to Wall Street. These economic interests, along with the vast public bureaucracy, constitute a “permanent government” that politicians—even liberal politicians like David Dinkins—must accommodate. Sleeper even contends that urban racial problems are but one face of a “system of economic injustice” that afflicts blacks and white alike. 

Yet Sleeper is not a conventional leftist either. His real preference is for a sort of civic liberalism that has more to do with the manner of politics than its substance. In his view, the main engine of black progress has not been black pressure from outside the system, but rather the city’s own “civic culture.” Traditionally, New Yorkers had an “admiration” for “excellence,” and they would let people of any race fulfill it. They were certainly not color blind, yet they showed a “rough but ready tolerance” for blacks along with the other groups of their multi-ethnic city. As a result, blacks knew real advancement in New York even before the civil rights era. 

This tolerant culture depended vitally, however, on the observance of what Sleeper calls “race-transcendent standards of public truth and civil order.” Beginning in the late sixties, racial militants flouted those norms. The problem was not what they demanded, but how. They suggested in effect that conventional expectations of honesty and personal responsibility did not apply to them, that the very attempt to invoke them was nothing but a cover for white racism. Meanwhile, liberal sympathizers among journalists and intellectuals took to explaining away black crime, welfarism, and school failure as the products of a hostile society. It was this rhetoric of irresponsibility, more than any specific black demand, that alienated whites from the black cause. 

This damage was compounded by economic changes. It was in the 1970s, Sleeper claims, that the business community cut back its commitment to New York. Firms fled the city, triggering the fiscal crisis of 1975. Affluent whites withdrew from the public schools and the subway system in favor of private education and transportation. These private forms of consumption undermined the shared public institutions that had been New York’s pride. The yuppie waves who came to New York in recent years continued that pattern. The races and classes thus experienced the boom of the 1980s separately, not together. It was. Sleeper concludes, the combination of black extremism and white secession that “broke the spine of New York’s civic culture.” 

Sleeper’s point is that there must be a political basis for black progress, not only a moral or legal one. Claimants for civic benefits who behave badly will be rebuffed, even if their cause is just. The trouble with recent black leadership is that it speaks only the “tribal truth” of black injury at the hands of whites, neglecting the injuries that whites today feel they suffer at the hands of blacks. Liberal lawyers go to court to force affirmative action, busing, or housing desegregation upon unwilling whites, dismissing all opposition as racist. But, Sleeper notes, white resistance today is mostly rooted in a well-founded fear of black disorder, not race per se. 

Until the mid-1960s, black leaders showed more respect for consensus. That attitude of respect made them more, not less, effective than the more militant figures of today, and Sleeper concludes that black politics must return to that tradition. Leaders must demonstrate the same “internal discipline and social reciprocity” shown by the early civil rights leadership and the more recent feminist movement. These personal virtues were tokens for the claimants’ loyalty to the larger society. It was largely because of them that just claims were honored. There still are black leaders in this style. Sleeper’s heroes are David Dinkins and Congressman Major Owens, both of whom used “race-transcendent” appeals to reassemble the biracial coalition that once undergirded racial progress in New York and the nation. 

The author is even more attracted to local self-help organizations that, in the Saul Alinsky style, create change through their own organization and effort, rather than grandstanding in the press. He has discovered several such groups doing good work amid the rubble of the ghetto, most notably the East Brooklyn churches that sponsored the “Nehemiah” program to build low-income housing. Whereas the radicals find it “more satisfying to hurt than to hope,” the community organizers have set aside private wounds for a practical style that can unite blacks and whites for progressive change. 

The radicals are doomed to disappointment because their demands are essentially unlimited. There is no black problem for which they do not expect white society, in some way, to take responsibility. One can understand where the demand comes from. Blacks seek a solace as limitless as the demands whites made on blacks in the era of slavery and Jim Crow. But that is not something in the power of white society to grant, even assuming the best of intentions. In any case, that would perpetuate a heritage where whites, rather than blacks themselves, controlled black advancement. It would violate norms of fairness just as the earlier servitude did. A society that would exempt the downtrodden from normal civilities on grounds of disadvantage would not be one that they, or anybody else, would want to join. 

Sleeper’s account offers a probing analysis of urban politics today. But for a full explanation of our social dilemma, one needs to look further. Sleeper suggests that racial radicalism and exploitive business reactions were jointly responsible for urban decline, as if a more moderate political style and a more trustworthy elite could somehow have solved the social and economic problems of the city. 

It is more likely the case that the social problems came first and the destructive political responses followed. Black neighborhoods were overwhelmed by welfare, crime, drugs, and school failure from the 1960s on. One reason was large-scale immigration of poor blacks from the South, another the departure of better-functioning, middleclass blacks to the suburbs in pursuit of newly opened opportunities. Finally, there was the atrophy of public authority, as schools, welfare programs, and law enforcement failed to uphold norms of learning, work, and obedience to the law in ghetto areas. 

These problems, in turn, spawned the radicalism and economic abandonment Sleeper speaks of. The new black poverty overwhelmed public and private institutions in turn. On Sleeper’s showing, housing and school administrators failed in their efforts to integrate poor blacks even before black radicalism became vocal in the 1960s, partly because that officialdom was dominated by liberal Jews, whose authority many blacks rejected. Business, for its part, was repelled by crime and the unreliability of a disadvantaged workforce even more than by the high costs of the city. 

Although Sleeper is brutally frank, he is in a sense too optimistic. He writes as if the issues of probity raised by recent black leaders were mere distractions from the serious business of politics, which should still be the pursuit of practical social reform. If insurgent leaders would only behave better, he suggests, we could get back to the high-minded progressive political style that made the old New York work. But the city’s political woes go well beyond personalities or behavioral styles; they are rooted in unprecedented social problems. 

In traditional reform politics, the central question was how to advance the economic prospects of ordinary citizens. Liberals thought larger government could promote equality, while conservatives looked to the free market. But if the two sides disputed the organization of society, they both believed that the beneficiaries of reform were self-reliant. People were presumed to work hard and obey the law. It certainly is true that most minority Americans still meet that description. Sleeper movingly describes, for example, thousands of earnest blacks lining up to apply for temporary jobs at a local department store. 

Racial politics, however, is today dominated by the “undeserving”—criminals, school dropouts, the homeless, and welfare recipients who do not work. These people are far fewer than the deserving, yet due to the breakdown of the public order, they dominate urban hopes and fears. It is much tougher today to attribute their problems to some impersonal source of absence of opportunity, such as racism or lack of jobs, than it was a generation ago. Today’s urban controversy, therefore, cannot be about redistribution of resources among working families. It is inevitably about the issues of personal probity Sleeper regards as superficial—the upsets raised among citizens by the behavior of the dysfunctional poor and the radical street advocates who speak for them. 

In this politics the central issue is not how to advance economic equality, but whether disadvantaged people can be held responsible for their behavior. The dispute extends even to matters such as crime or illegitimacy over which people would appear to exercise control. This issue in turn hinges on whether the downtrodden are competent to manage their lives, something never doubted in the old politics. Conservatives tend to hold the poor responsible for misbehavior because they believe in competence. Liberals are more permissive, in part because they doubt that the poor can cope. For the right, dependent adults are lazy exploiters who can and should shape up. For the left, they are innocent victims who deserve redress, but from whom little can be expected. 

Liberals have paid a heavy political price for their views on these issues. The public decidedly takes conservative positions on responsibility and competence, and this is the main reason Republicans have controlled the White House and the national agenda for most of a generation. To recover control, liberals would have to be much tougher on crime and welfare. But that is a price most are unwilling to pay, whatever the political damage, so strong is their conviction that the poor are victims. 

Sleeper also thinks that the recent emphasis on race in urban politics is excessive. Race, he believes, is a red herring that only disrupts the “transracial” coalition that poor blacks and whites might together form to wrest power from “irresponsible” elites. His is the message of the New Deal, the tradition of class politics. But in the new politics, it is race rather than class that is central. For if the key issues are responsibility and competence, race speaks to those questions as mere economic inequality does not. While few believe today that minorities suffer inherent inferiorities, a great many believe that race can explain why poor members of these groups fail to get ahead in an apparently open society. Liberals say that subtle forms of bias still hold such people back, while conservatives blame white guilt that holds nonwhites to lesser standards than others. The real differences here are about competence, not social structure. Claims to “disadvantage” today generate the passions that appeals to working-class unity did earlier. 

The most depressing lesson from The Closest of Strangers is how little both left and right have expected from blacks in New York. Each in its own way took the appearance of nonwhite poverty as a signal to give up on the city. The radicals said, in effect, that their followers could not be expected to behave well in a racist society, a message of permissiveness that leaders of the old labor and civil rights movements would never have tolerated. Business, while it did not overtly abandon social standards, did lose faith that a nonwhite workforce could benefit from education and handle jobs as ably as white ethnic workers had in earlier generations. This race-rooted pessimism about competence has replaced the specter of class conflict as the pall that overshadows American politics. 

Sleeper believes firmly in mainstream mores, yet his argument for them is curiously cautious and it appeals mainly to prudence. A more “responsible” style, he tells blacks, is the price they must pay for an effective political alliance with whites. But can such reasoning compete with the raw conviction of injustice that propels racial radicalism? Civility must be defended in more absolute terms, as something good and right in itself. Today, admittedly, that is difficult to do. It is far from enough to show, as Sleeper does, that conventional moral norms are popular and salutary for blacks. He would have to exorcise the great modern demon of relativism, the tendency of contemporary thought to treat moral laws not as true but as value judgments that are essentially arbitrary. 

One might, to accomplish that, appeal to religion. Both the Old and New Testaments justify Sleeper’s “race-transcendent standards” on principled, not prudential, grounds. As a Jew, the author may be loath to invoke his own tradition to blacks who, if they profess any faith, are largely Christian or Muslim. It is more surprising that black politicians show the same hesitation. Many of them, after all, have been clergymen (even the notorious Sharpton is a man of the cloth). 

Yet black clergy seldom hold black public officials to biblical standards of conduct. They may privately deplore ghetto disorders and the hucksters who feed on them, but they seldom judge in public. They may inveigh against social ills, but they lay most of the blame for them at the feet of white society, not their own community. Some of this reflects, no doubt, another kind of prudence—fear of attack from the radicals. It also reflects, however, the same doubt about the poor’s own fortitude that infects all of liberal thinking. 

It is racial claims rather than religious norms that constitute the supreme source of moral authority in today’s urban politics. Among those who press for change, black or white, the myth of racial martyrdom generates more solace and hope for change than any traditional faith. One is “saved” from sin by racial innocence more surely than by grace, and the demand for reparations is weightier than the call to follow Jesus or the Ten Commandments. Liberal churchmen have bought into this rhetoric of disadvantage, rather than defending the “transracial” message of their creeds. Their message is no longer to forgive the poor, but to exempt them from normal expectations. They forget that the Bible, though solicitous of the needy, is hardly indulgent toward dysfunctional (i.e., sinful) behavior. Typically, Jesus heals the stricken, but he also commands them to get up and walk. 

It is a tribute to Jim Sleeper that, though he writes as a journalist, he raises these deeper issues. The political problem of New York is rooted in our beliefs about race, competence, and the sources of salvation. These set the background for the failures of leadership Sleeper writes of. Where shall we find the confidence and the authority to demand of poor blacks and their leaders what we expect of other people? Of all the questions facing American urban politics, this is among the greatest—and for its solution we shall have to look finally not to politics, the master science, but to theology, the queen of the sciences.

Lawrence M. Mead is Associate Professor of Politics at New York University and author of Beyond Entitlement.

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