Forgetting Race in New York

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

Samuel Farber

The Closest of Strangers:
Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York
by Jim Sleeper
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990, $21.95 hardcover.

DURING THE PAST several years, New York has witnessed outrageous white racism, manifested in numerous incidents of police brutality; the popularity among whites of Bernhard Goetz and Ed Koch; the killings in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach; and the at best indifferent attitude of the white population toward African-American and Latino communities plagued by long-term unemployment and declining living standards.

More recently, a drug epidemic and the accompanying violence of drug-trade wars over turf have significantly worsened living conditions in the ghettoes. Warring among drug dealers has led to the injury or death of many minority children hit by stray bullets. In addition, some thirty cab drivers were killed while at work in 1990 alone. Most of these drivers were ‘gypsies” who have no access to the yellow medallion cabs and are, by and large, limited to servicing their own primarily Latino and African American communities.

One can only be depressed by the truly tragic vacuum of African American leadership—’filed,’ with the considerable help of sensationalist mass media, by the likes of Reverend Al Sharpton and his (until recently) associate attorneys Alton Maddox and C Vernon Mason. This bankrupt leadership has consistently managed to extract moral and political defeat from the jaws of victory—which is especially regrettable in the case of Mason, who had previously built an honorable record of struggle and had been a supporter of multiracial coalitions.

Along comes a recent book dedicated exclusively to race in New York. It is written by Jim Sleeper, a journalist who works for Newsday and is an editor of Dissent. I know the author and have read some of his past writings in community neWs1apeiainBmoldyn. These, while interesting, nevertheless tended to be ‘colorblind’ in racial matters.

Naturally, I expected to have important disagreements but still benefit from Sleeper’s information and reflections on race in the city. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement I was infuriated by Sleeper’s book.

Sleeper scores many easy points against New York’s current African American leadership and the uncritical posture of many white liberals and Leftists. But since I last read him, Sleeper has moved considerably to the right; for the most part, his attacks are not made from the left. His book constitutes an odd combination of neoconservative, pre-1960 Northern white liberal and social-democratic politics.

I. Opportunity but not Equality

First, let me present Sleeper the neoconservative. He repeats the by now familiar litany about how racial in are entitled to demand equality of individual opportunity but not equality of group condition (159). He also demands from African Americans and particularly the most marginalized elements in the African American community moral discipline—meaning the training, sacrifice and conformity to norms, which, he argues, know no color (37, 85).

Now it is true that there are certain moral norms enjoying widespread support across racial and class lines. For example, when it was initially reported that Bernhard Goetz had been the victim of an unprovoked attack in the subway, he enjoyed widespread sympathy in the AM-can American community—even though his attackers were known to be African Americans.

But what about many other ”moral” norms, such as those involving the preservation of the traditional nuclear family? We can cite, for example, the contempt expressed by most whites for African-American single mothers, whose children and sexual partners are not sanctioned by legal marriage.

The lack of moral consensus around such issues becomes particularly important and relevant on the numerous occasions when whites are in a position to deny to African Americans such benefits as employment opportunities and discretionary social services. But for Sleeper, the content of all moral norms appears to be non-problematic.

State-Enforced Morality

It is bad enough that Sleeper engages in this sort of socially and morally insensitive preaching. Even worse is that he wants this morality to be enforced by the various wings of the state bureaucracy, as in the case of housing authorities’ moral screening of tenants.
Sleeper seems to imply that African Americans are being unfair when they suspect these authorities of racial bias. Therefore, he thinks it is alright to trust state agencies in their screening of tenants and is enraged at lawyers who go to court to stop this and other similar practices. Thus, in true neoconservative fashion, Sleeper criticizes civil rights lawyers for the latter’s’ very legitimate objection to this form of state meddling.

Sleeper seems to be angrier at liberals, radicals and African-American nationalists than at white racists. Referring to Howard Beach, he sympathetically cites an account of the events which claims that the white assailants were apparently not committing racist acts of violence, but were instead engaged in a “teenage turf battle that got out of hand” (187).

His account of whites’ firebombing of the dwelling where an African American individual, suspected of having carried out assaults, resided seems quite untroubled by the collective and disproportionate nature of the whites’ response. In reading Sleeper’s account of this incident, I was reminded of the Israeli Army’s demolition of houses where stone-throwing Palestinian youngsters reside.

Sleeper’s mild treatment of racist whites contrasts sharply with his indignation toward public defenders, who are taken to task for their “zealotry” in defense of indigent people accused of criminal acts (95). Judge Garrity of Boston—who ordered the busing program in the mid-1970s–is also called a zealot.

Sleeper criticizes the Voting Rights Act for its efforts to create minority districts as a remedy against both the historically racist effects of at-large elections and the notorious racial gerrymandering that has diminished minorities’ chances of being represented in government.

Sleeper likens these efforts to the creation of ethnic bantustans (94, 170). He should take a closer look at the U.S. Senate, the major political body not affected by the creation of minority districts and, not surprisingly, a body without a single African-American woman or man.

Employing elaborate sophistry, Sleeper also opposes the African American demand fora special prosecutor to investigate racially motivated crimes in New York state (186). In sum, in his neoconservative binge, Sleeper has thrown out the window quite elementary civil libertarian and democratic concerns.

But this is not all. Important events in the history of New York City are altogether omitted. Thus there is no discussion in this book of the 1966 electoral defeat of the proposal for a Civilian Review Board to overlook the New York Police Department—an example of white backlash that took place long before the sort of nationalist excesses which Sleeper enjoys attacking.

II. 1950s Liberalism Revisited

Oddly enough, Sleeper as pre-1960s Northern white liberal may literally be more of a reactionary than Sleeper the neoconservative. lam referring to his implicit return to a conceptual approach to racism that has been regarded as inadequate for at least twenty-five years. (I must admit that reading Sleeper gave me a deeper appreciation of the very significant impact that the Black Revolt of the 1960s had on my understanding of the nature of racism.)

One gets the impression that for Sleeper, the only racists worthy of the name are white Southern rednecks wearing suspenders over bulging potbellies. Until the 1960s this was the rather self-satisfying picture of racism held by most Northern white liberals. In this view, redneck racists were the representatives of ugly Jim Crow Southern society. While admitting that there might be racism in the North as well, Northern white liberals saw it as limited to a minority of uneducated, prejudiced and bigoted white individuals.

Jim Sleeper cites many examples of Northern white-black sociability and even of individual cases of racial integration. We learn that the young Mario Cuomo played baseball with “Negroes,” a young Albert Vann attended white and Jewish Yeshiva University and a very young Leslie Campbell (Jito Weusi) attended Jewish Camp Kinderland (then a Communist children’s camp).

Fully consistent in this approach, Sleeper also criticizes Ed Koch, who is probably the most verbally explicit and provocatively racist New York City politician since Mario Procaccino’s heyday in the 1960s. Among other similar niceties, Koch is fond of mocking African-American pronunciation.

But anecdotes of this sort are important in determining whether racism exists in a society only if racism is conceived in purely individualistic and verbally explicit terms. Such an approach (typical of pre-1960 Northern white liberalism) fails to grasp how racism—as a force built into social and institutional arrangements in the North as well as in the South—involves something other than explicit racial terminologies and individual prejudices.

Sleeper also plays down the particular virulence of the racism practiced against African Americans: He makes no qualitative distinctions between discrimination directed toward them and discrimination against white European or Asian American ethnic groups (182 234-235). He also goes to the extreme of referring to an Italian “underclass” in Bensonhurst and even cites with approval the silly suggestion made by a Southern white journalist that Italians may also be ‘colored” (152).

How to Work Together?

As the pre-1960s Northern white liberals saw it, the majority of non-bigoted whites in the North could and should have reached across to work with “Negroes” in pursuit of programs of equal benefit to both groups. But the old-fashioned Northern liberal’s refusal to acknowledge—let alone combat—African Americans’ special oppression often led to an unsavory accommodation to Northern racism.

Thus the Industrial Areas Foundation—founded and led by Saul Alinsky and much admired by Sleeper—would wheel and deal with the Catholic hierarchy in Chicago and, as a result, wound up organizing on the basis of accepting the existing geographical racial boundaries and the established community leaderships. So long as Chicago’s African Americans stayed within “their place” in the ghettoes, whites organized in the “don’t rock the racial boat” Alinsky fashioned not need to be racist in the Southern redneck style They could abstractly favor integration—as long as it did not take place in their own neighborhoods.

Because whites have often been content with an institutional reality which embodies racial separatism in practice by leaving things as they are, they do not need to be explicitly separatist White racism is based far more on a system of racial power than on extreme forms of prejudice and behavioral excess.

Consequently, when Sleeper directs to “black militants”—instead of to white practical racists—his liberal bromide that “in a complex urban environment there can be no freedom without intimate engagement across racial lines” (89-90), he applies a lower standard of responsibility to the separatism of the oppressor than to the very understandable, if not necessarily wise, separatism of the oppressed.

Sleeper’s apparent dismissal of the notion of institutional racism is closely related to the way he repeatedly obscures the role of individual whites in the maintenance of racism as a system. Rather than asking whether whites, as groups or as individuals, are directing their actions toward the removal of racist institutional arrangements through such measures as affirmative action programs, Sleeper instead concentrates on such seriously misleading irrelevancies as whether a particular individual white person “owes’ something to African Americans.

Sleeper cites Norman Podhoretz as an example, asking whether Podhoretz “owes” anything to the poor African Americans who now reside in Brownsville—currently a devastated minority area which was a Jewish working-class neighborhood when Podhoretz grew up there. By formulating the question in this way, one is necessarily bound to miss the point, regardless of whether one answers yes or no.(1)

Sleeper’s focus on the beliefs and actions of well-meaning individuals—even when they have no significant institutional social and political consequences—represents the other side of the guilty white liberal who lets himself be hustled by a con man as a way of “repaying” his debt to African Americans. This is not to imply that institutional racism eliminates the role of individuals or individual responsibility; the question is what kind of individual responsibility is involved.

Sleeper’s non-institutional method underlies his account of race relations in New York City during the last thirty years. He portrays an essentially non-racist white population transformed into racists as a backlash response to African American provocations in the form of nationalist politics, unjustified demands for affirmative action and other forms of “special treatment.”

Misunderstanding Nationalism

Sleeper has it all wrong. A marginal phenomenon through the 1950s, nationalism became a major current of thought in the African American community during the 1960s primarily as a response to the unwillingness and inability of white society to radically and promptly alter the racial status quo.(2) While this nationalism involved a positive racial and cultural affirmation, it is the defense against white racism that most often provides its special dynamic, whether during the 1960a or in the movement led by Marcus Garvey during the heavily racist period following World War I.

Does it therefore follow that affirming the centrality of white racism requires accepting the most extreme New Left notions insisting that all whites are irremediably racist? Or that the best hope is to guilt-trip some of them into giving up their “white skin privilege” by supporting the struggles of the especially oppressed groups, but not fighting for their own interests?

Not at all. In fighting to improve their own lives, white working class people can be made to see the justice of minority demands and the desirability of forging an alliance with racially oppressed groups—in a struggle for a society that would abolish their own oppression as well as that of African Americans and other racial minorities. But that does not mean that in the meantime African Americans should hold back their demands, waiting for whites to move.

And that is the crux of the problem, as long as African Americans are more militant and more politically advanced than the white working class and white population as a whole–a long-standing and undeniable fact of U.S. political life, as seen again in the recent war in the Gulf—then they will appear to be opposing the interests of white workers, since they will be fighting over a more equitable share of the existing working class pie.

While a shrewd African American movement can and should demand a larger pie for all, only a fighting radical movement incorporating the majority white section of the working class can develop the power to attain that lofty aim. In the meantime, and contrary to the views of Sleeper and the neoconservatives, African Americans are absolutely justified in attempting to obtain redress for their grievances—from the courts, if these institutions turn out to be relatively more responsive to their plight.

III.A Weak Social Democrat

At this point we must bring up Jim Sleeper the social democrat He can be read as someone disappointed at the failure of the social democratic historical blueprint—involving a labor or social democratic movement supported by a socially conscious and reformist working class undisturbed by racial or ethnic divisions—who then places the blame on the wrong people African American militants and nationalists.(3)

But while Sleeper is strongly attracted to that strain in social democratic thought which denies the relevance of race, he is also a remarkably weak social democrat when it comes to questions of political economy, even though he claims to advocate systemic solutions to the city’s problems. He ignores the changing class, ethnic and racial stratification of New York where economic develop-merit has lifted many whites out of the city and sometimes out of the working class altogether. This particular omission may help to explain Sleeper’s tendency to see no qualitative differences between African Americans and white ethnic groups.

We also need to know much more than this book allows about the impact on racial minorities of sectoral changes in New York City’s employment—where a dramatic reduction in manufacturing jobs has accompanied growth in the service sector and construction. Moreover, only the most remarkable ignorance or omission of the place of African Americans in the political economy of New York City and similar urban areas can lead Sleeper to ignore the structural reasons, beyond the legal and political efforts of the welfare rights movement, why large numbers of African Americans obtained welfare in the late 1960s, when ‘unemployment in New York City was [officially’] running at five percent for blacks and even lower for whites—in other words, when there were plenty of jobs” (92).

Similarly, we must incorporate into our understanding of race in New York City an analysis of how capitalist political economy produces periodic fiscal crises, with a devastating impact on public employment and education, and their greatly disproportionate effects on minority communities.

IV. Some Thoughts on Program

The African American community has been changing for the last twenty-five years. A significant “middle class” (I place the term in quotation marks to underline the spongy and sloppy nature of this category) has developed, although it is far more precarious and proportionally smaller than the white “middle class.” Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that the ghettoes are becoming more homogeneously poor as they lose a good part of this new “middle class.”

The communities that the African American ‘middle class’ is abandoning are increasingly devastated by poverty, which is itself exacerbated by the serious decline of transfer payments and other welfare-state institutions, long-term unemployment and a vicious and owing drug trade. It is hardly surprising that these conditions, developing side by side with an elaborate consumer society beyond the ghetto boundaries, have helped to brutalize a significant section of the community—especially the young, who then prey on the rest.

There have been a variety of responses to this deteriorating situation. On the one hand, Jim Sleeper, oblivious to the blatant racism of police departments (as recently documented in the famous Los Angeles video), calls for more cops and other forms of increased state control over African-American communities. This is also what Mayor David Dinkins’ liberal administration, and some white Leftists such as Mark Naison—a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University—have called for (248-249).

On the other hand, important parts of the Left—apparently still affected by an incurable romanticism—tend to look away from or minimize the currently disastrous situation in which African-American communities find themselves; they may, for example, approach the drug epidemic with fashionable detachment, Still other Leftists look forward to the development of new anti-racist mass movements, which will politically and morally rearm the minority communities and then diminish—if not eliminate—the drug trade and similar evils.

This last position is much more reasonable Nevertheless, it may miss a more promising organizational possibility. Given the incredible urgency of the safety and drug problems in the minority communities, it may well be necessary first to organize around these issues in order to help bring about the more general anti-racist movement—rather than expecting that events will take place in the opposite order.

I am specifically referring to the possibility of a self-policing community patrol movement that would oppose more cops and other forms of state control of the community, while fully supporting and actively organizing the legitimate aspirations of community residents to live in a safe environment While there is nothing new about community patrols—hundreds of them already function in New York’s minority communities and white neighborhoods—I’m proposing that this type of activity be joined with explicitly anti-racist, left politics.

Typically, community patrolling is conducted in a politically conservative or at best apolitical spirit. But there is no reason why the work of community patrols should be limited to protecting residents against drug traffickers and other criminal elements. Thanks to the video cam, these patrols could also monitor and prevent racial abuses by the city police forces. Moreover, they could engage in a variety of other anti-racist and anti-capitalist activities, such as spotting vacant “warehoused’ buildings and then taking them over on behalf of both the homeless and the thousands of people who are currently doubling and even tripling up in public housing.

In this way, otherwise empty celebrity appeals to ‘say no to drugs” could be placed in the context of a broad political movement of social, economic and moral reconstruction; and this time, with a democratic rather than conservative and authoritarian content. Similarly, such a movement could offer an alternative to the leadership choices that are currently available to New York’s African-American community.

On one hand, these include a pathetic David Dinkins, who is treated rather well by Jim Sleeper, preaching against hate and for compassion to a liberal white and minority audience at an upper-west side Manhattan cathedral—it would have been, if not more useful, at least less morally obnoxious had he done so at parishes in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach—and shortly thereafter practicing fiscal austerity with savage budget cuts at the expense of the heavily minority public sector. Meanwhile, the existing African American alternative leadership to Dinkins moves from one moral and political disaster to the next.(4)

Democratic Discipline and Structure

For reasons that may be worthy of careful historical investigation, it is the sometimes politically militant, but socially conservative, groups in the African American community (e.g. the Nation of Islam in the l960s and, more recently, smaller local Muslim groups) that have usually addressed one particular social M–the chaos, disorganization and brutalization of personal and communal relations—which racism has produced in minority communities.

In opposition to this destruction and disintegration, goals of structure and discipline have typically been presented in a conservative and authoritarian fashion—for example, the idealization of the role of the father in the traditional nuclear family, or the cult of undemocratic leadership. Yet structure and discipline can also be democratic, self-established and indeed liberating.

Is it possible that recent New Left politics obliterated from the Left’s memory other working class and Left traditions—ranging from the British workers’ movement’s opposition to alcoholism; through the self-governing colonies for street urchins and former juvenile delinquents during the Russian Revolution; to the moral cleansing in the Casbah carried out by the Algerian revolutionaries? Aren’t current conditions in African-American communities suited for drawing on these older traditions?(5)

The Left is often unnecessarily paralyzed when confronted with certain phenomena—such as crime and drug addiction—to which it does not seem to have solutions. But while it is one thing not to have an immediate and total solution to these problems, it is quite a different matter to say that nothing can be done ‘until the revolution.’ Such a response constitutes a sure invitation for people to ignore the Left and instead turn to conservative groups or to the state for assistance—the very response the Left would like to avoid.

When wearing his neoconservative clothes, Jim Sleeper wants housing bureaucrats and police -departments to impose mainstream morality on the African-American community. This should be rejected out of hand. Yet we must take seriously “our” own morality even as we reject the imposition of “their” morality.

The “masses” do not think and act on the basis of material interests, conceived only on the narrowest and meanest basis. People do have a sense of fairness, justice and honor, and it is surely an unintelligent and callous Left that fails to appeal to them on that basis, as well as through the more usual activity of defending their standard of living.


  1. If Podhoretz “owes nothing,” then this may be taken to imply not only that whites have no obligations as indebted individuals, but also that they do not have obligations as citizens responsible for helping to eliminate unjust institutions in their society. If, on the other hand, Podhoretz does owe something as an individual white person, then the way the question has been cast leaves wide open the appropriate method of “repayment.” Thus President Bush, for example, may be “repaying” his individual white debt through his outspoken support for the United Negro College Fund, while at the same time he is helping to perpetuate institutional  racism with his veto of the 1990 civil rights bill.
    back to text
  2. At that time nationalism had much less influence in the South, where the Civil Rights Movement could claim some impressive legal and political victories with major impact on peoples’ daily lives. On the other hand, it was much harder to obtain antiracist victories outside the South, given the relatively de facto rather than de jure structures of racism.
    back to text
  3. Sleeper retrospectively admires many of the features of the Popular Front of the 1930s, and supports the Harlem campaigns of that period demanding that African American workers be hired in the neighborhood stores. But he never bothers to explain how this campaign actually differed in approach from what today is called affirmative action, which he opposes.
    back to text
  4. Among other infamous incidents we can cite the Tawana Brawley fiasco, anti-Korean agitation (the nationalism of fools, to paraphrase August Bebel’s description of antisemitism), the character assassination of the Central Park jogger rape victim (the woman could have been left in peace and there would have still been plenty to be said about the stench of racism emanating from the disgusting press coverage of the trial), and attorney C. Vernon Mason’s declaration that the problem with Dinkins is that he has surrounded himself with too many yarmulkes!
    back to text
  5. Is it also possible that the “do your own thing” traditions of the white New Left have fed into and reinforced similar tendencies in the African-American community emanating from quite different class forces? In the mid-1970s I spent a year teaching at an “experimental” college where the New Leftist faculty influenced by U.S.-style Maoism was teaching and the values of “structurelessness” to ghetto young people who had known very little structure in their own lives. Predictably, the results were disastrous.
    back to text

September-October 1991, ATC 34