Defining Racial Integration for the 21st Century

Rachel Dolezal in NBC’s “Today” show studios in New York on June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

National racial controversy has erupted in the wake of allegations that Rachel Dolezal, the white president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), pretended to be black. And while Dolezal resigned her post on Monday, the debate surrounding her continues to shed an important light on contemporary race relations.

Dolezal's act of "reverse passing" stunned many contemporary observers as an act of cultural appropriation, with a white woman's questionable leadership in local civil rights struggles overshadowing the large number of black women, including the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, who struggle for social justice in relative anonymity.

But the controversy surrounding a white activist's role in racial justice struggles speaks to a larger question: How do we define racial integration for the 21st century?

The NAACP, America's most venerable civil rights group, has a deep and long-standing history of promoting racial integration dating back to its founding in 1909 by an interracial group of activists that included the eminent black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and white journalist Oswald Garrison Villard.

America's long and continuing history of institutional racism made white participation in civil rights struggles as awkward as it was necessary. White supremacy made the road toward racial enlightenment difficult, forcing even the most stalwart white allies to taste bitter truths of racial privilege and oppression that the mainstream ignored.

The Great Depression and Second World War ushered in a new wave of interracial activism and promise, with African-Americans gaining unprecedented access to Franklin Roosevelt's White House via Eleanor Roosevelt and black education activist Mary McLeod Bethune. By the 1940s, America's efforts to save democracy overseas had turned Jim Crow into a national embarrassment, one that Frank Sinatra, the most popular white singer of the era, publicly decried.

Discussion of racial integration reached its high watermark during the civil rights movement's heroic period, between the Supreme Court's May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education decision and the August 6, 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act. Brown reversed the "separate but equal" legal precedent that unfairly denied black citizenship. More important, it defined racial integration as both a national and moral good, but also a matter of law. The ruling had a cascading effect on American democracy, forcing virtually every institution—local, state and federal—to evaluate how accurately its makeup reflected the nation's racial diversity.

However, the halting pace of racial integration did little to alleviate the enormous depth and breadth of racial oppression, even as it promoted a massive white resistance to the idea of racial equality that historians have characterized as "white backlash." Black power advocates, with their focus on racial pride and self-determination, criticized integration as "tokenism" and affirmative action as piecemeal. By the 1970s and 1980s, racial integration had successfully reshaped the government workforce, municipal politics, higher education and popular culture—but not without controversy.

Racial integration, at least as defined by African-American presence and inclusion in predominantly white institutions, has lagged over the past three decades. Public schools experience higher levels of segregation now than four decades ago. Residential segregation in major cities such as Chicago continues to resemble the bad old days of Jim Crow. And the system of mass incarceration (what legal scholar Michelle Alexander has dubbed "the New Jim Crow") sparked by the war on drugs has devastated black communities and families on a scale not witnessed since antebellum slavery.

It is against this horrific and debilitating backdrop that white anti-racist activists, such as Rachel Dolezal, find themselves operating. President Barack Obama's historic presidential election did not increase white empathy toward black people, but rather reflects a more nuanced recognition of the diversity of the African-American experience.

While racial turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore has inspired a new generation of white millennials to take a deeper look at America's racial history, white anti-racism in the 21st century has been, for many, a lonely endeavor. During the civil rights era, many white participants in the movement faced antagonism from segregationists and sometimes skepticism from blacks. Yet historic demonstrations such as 1963's March on Washington and organizing drives like 1964's Freedom Summer in Mississippi created enduring bonds among black and whites who sought to transcend the history of racial inequality that persists today.

In the 21st century, the subject of racial integration remains largely ignored, having been supplanted by discussion of diversity and multiculturalism—terms that, while important, tend to obscure the tough history that continues to make African-American equality so difficult to achieve.

Sincere white allies, who have always been welcomed in civil right struggles, are left with some stark choices. They can go against the grain and boldly support black freedom by joining civil rights organizations even as our larger society continues to insist that the NAACP is a "black" organization with no place for whites. Or, as in the unfortunate case of Rachel Dolezal, they can join the long list of whites who assumed, contrary to all possible evidence, that they were best suited to lead the black revolt.

Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. He can be followed on Twitter @PenielJoseph.

Defining Racial Integration for the 21st Century | Opinion