George Walford: Reform the Reformers

The Americans seem to have halted the deterioration of their inner cities; New York had been a particularly troublesome case. But whether they have managed to cure the trouble, or only to suppress the symptoms, remains to be seen. They still have tension between white and black (as we have in Britain also). Previous waves of immigrants were successfully digested into the main stream of American life; it may not be universally agreed that this was wholly a good thing, but at least it avoided the difficulties from which American cities have suffered in recent years. This incorporation of the newcomers (the blacks rank as relative newcomers to the Northern cities) is no longer going on as smoothly as once it did. Why not?

Hugh Brogan has suggested a possible answer:

[…] because of stiff entry standards which the reformers in their zeal imposed, the blacks and hispanics are unable to use the police force (of for that matter the other municipal trades) as a means of entry to the middle class, as the Irish and Italians did before them. So they continue in the dangerous classes, unhelped and unable to help themselves, and New York burns. – TLS 20 Jan 1978

Help has now been provided and the danger averted. But the safety now achieved depends upon the conscious maintenance of special conditions, it is no longer automatic, and it is at least possible that this is a result of the efforts of the reformers. It does not of course follow that reform is a bad thing; reform is as much a part of society as the conditions to which it is applied. What does seem to follow is the conclusion that reform does not get rid of problems; what it does is to change them, offering a choice between the original problems and those resulting from reform.

from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.