The Conspiracy of the Good: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Community in Two American Cities, 1875-2000
reviewed by Ronald E. Butchart - February 19, 2007
Title: The Conspiracy of the Good: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Community in Two American Cities, 1875-2000
Author(s): Michael E. James
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820457795 , Pages: 408, Year: 2005
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Pasadena, California—home of the fabled Rose Bowl Parade and Cal Tech, one of America’s wealthiest cities through much of the twentieth century, and the first city west of the Rocky Mountains to experience court-ordered desegregation. Charlottesville, Virginia—home of Thomas Jefferson and his University of Virginia, long segregated by race and still marked by racial and class divisions, yet, ironically, named a decade ago by Reader’s Digest as one of the country’s ten best places to raise a family. Except for Pasadena’s annual New Year’s Day festivities of football and marching bands, neither city has figured prominently in national affairs. Neither of them has a reputation for violent racial incidents like those associated with Little Rock or Birmingham, Detroit or Boston. At the same time, neither has made a committed effort to become communities that authentically reach across class and race lines. Reasons enough, perhaps, for a comparative history.
Michael E. James uses the social and political experiences of Pasadena and Charlottesville to explore the construction of the good society by good people; the good in the title is intended ironically. His interest, in other words, is to understand the efforts of those who controlled the levers of power for scores of years, those who considered themselves the arbiters of what was good for them and what was good for others. The two goods were never the same, of course. What was good for the poor and dark skinned—where they could live, what they should drink, what their children should study and where—contrasted sharply with what was good for the wealthy and white, whether in segregated Virginia or in equally segregated Pasadena.
The two communities share a history of segregation, one mandated by law and open, the other mandated by convention and more covert. Both systems of segregation came under attack in the 1970s; neither has been fully dismantled to this day. Beyond that, the two communities do not share many similarities. From early in its history, which dates only from the 1870s, Pasadena was fabulously wealthy, drawing the Gilded Age rich and super-rich as winter visitors and, for many, as permanent residents. It continued to attract the nation’s business elite (but spurned more suspect wealth, the entertainment elite) well into the mid-twentieth century. Charlottesville, by contrast, settled two centuries earlier, was never the center of Virginia’s wealth, though its famous university made it more cosmopolitan than other southern county seats. From its beginnings, Pasadena’s western-style self-promotion latched onto emerging Progressive-era ideals of rational planning, bureaucratization, and science to build a modern city with an economy and ethos rooted in the culture of its wealthy leisure class. Charlottesville, on the other hand, long steeped in a culture suspicious of modernism, having grown through decades of unplanned accretion, with an economy and ethos rooted in market-town relations, overlaid with the legacy of slavery and its relationships, became a city belatedly and uncertainly.
Like much of the West, Pasadena embraced the rhetoric of the dominant variant of Progressive education whole-heartedly, though its schools remained, for the most part, fortresses of teacher-centered pedagogy; its link to even the rhetoric of Progressive education ended abruptly when the city’s guardians of patriotism attacked the schools for promoting communism. Like most of the South, Charlottesville grudgingly accepted some aspects of Progressive education, at the behest of the General Education Board, the Rockefeller Foundation’s tireless champion of modernization. In both cities, Progressive education had its greatest impact in the scientific testing of their children to rationalize the unequal educations the cities intended to provide. Both cities, too, had their own home-grown eugenicists, the nearly inevitable spawn of Progressive education’s mania for testing and differentiating. Yet, in an intriguing contrast between the two cities, the black community in Charlottesville exploited the gap between the rhetoric of Progressive education and the reality of racial segregation to drive a wedge into the city’s racial practices and propel the city toward desegregation. Those marginalized by Pasadena’s segregation practices resisted the indignities imposed by the city in a variety of ways, but the eventual attack on the city’s de facto segregation came not from the black, Mexican, or white working class, but largely from a handful of middle-class liberals.
As that much-too-brief summary of this rich book may make clear, this is not so much a comparative history—the cities share too few similarities to profitably compare them. It is, rather, a parallel history of two American cities. And they are not equal histories; James, a native Californian, devotes roughly twice as much space to Pasadena as to Charlottesville. Still, there is much to be admired and learned from here, including deftly drawn portraits of individuals and groups engaged in the genteel business of defining, segregating, and limiting darker and poorer people, or in the unpopular business of redefinition and resistance. There are authentic heroes, along with genuine practitioners of evil.
The volume’s real heroes and villains, however, point to the volume’s principle problem, its curious title and underlying premise. James is concerned with exposing the hypocrisy of self-described good people and the contradictions in the good society they constructed; hence the conspiracy of the good. But how, then, do we deal with the authentic heroes of these stories, those who sought the genuine good, who were genuinely good people, who, in many cases, put the good of others above their own well-being and class interest? They, too, sought to construct a good society. What James gives us is not a conspiracy of the good—manifestly, what he focuses on was neither a conspiracy nor the actions of the good. What he gives us is the normal operation of class, race, and the market in this Dark Age. Such conspiracies as may have existed were the truly good and selfless conspiring to build a true community and to cast a ray of light to relieve the darkness.
This is history of education at its finest—outstanding research, a strong grasp of social history, and constant attention to schools in their context, indeed, more attention to context than to schools, as it should be. If there is a weakness in the volume, it is in its odd silence regarding the white working class; it seems not to have existed in either city. That aside, Michael James has contributed a fine study, one of the few that takes the American West seriously as a site of historical investigation.