Race in America


Atlantic Unbound has invited The Atlantic's Nicholas Lemann and a panel of distinguished commentators to take up this question -- one of the central, most divisive of our time
November 26, 1997 -- Round Two: Concluding Remarks

November 13, 1997

Race -- meaning, mostly, the relationship between Caucasians and African-American descendants of slaves -- is commonly described as the most difficult, troubling issue in American life. This is nothing new: the race issue was even more troubling in the nineteenth century, when it was the cause of our bloodiest war. The century that is now ending began with a proclamation by W.E.B. Du Bois -- "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line" -- the prescience of which not many people would dispute.

Throughout American history, policies that were supposed to solve the race problem have been put into place -- and have failed. The Constitution's three-fifths rule, the ban on the slave trade, the limits put on the expansion of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil-rights revolution -- all, in the minds of their proponents, were supposed to get American race relations to a point of equipoise. But they did not.

The Conservative Line on Race The most disturbing thought about all this is that the real problem is simply deep, abiding, insoluble ethnocentrism: that the state of nature is for races not to get along and that there's nothing American policymakers can do about it. Most of us, however, probably take the more optimistic view that the United States has the ability to create a culture that can triumph over ethnic hostilities -- even if we are still a long step away from having done so. At the other end of the spectrum of opinion is the view that animates Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's new book, America in Black and White, which Glenn C. Loury reviews in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The Thernstroms say that the American race problem is in fact well on its way to being solved, and they imply that most public commentators are unwilling to acknowledge how much progress has been made.

If there is a race problem today, what, precisely, is it? Our participants in this discussion will have their own answers, but I would say that ever since African-Americans got full legal equality in the 1960s, the main problem has been the same: the deep inequality of condition that remains. This problem can be divided into two parts. First, the dramatically worst-off places in the country are all-black, all-poor neighborhoods -- mostly in big cities, with bad schools, few two-parent families, and high rates of poverty, crime, and unemployment. Second, there is still a substantial, though narrowing, gap in economic status between blacks and whites overall. I suspect that at least one of our panelists will say that inequality of condition is not a problem as long as we have equality of opportunity; nonetheless, racial inequality does exist and everyone notices it. Additionally there is the overarching problem of race relations in the literal sense: a persistent hostility between blacks and whites at least some of the time that they come into contact, or even discuss each other from a distance.

This year President Clinton appointed a commission on race relations, with a not-very-specific mandate to look broadly at the issue. It is now at work, with the help of one of our panelists, Christopher Edley Jr. Affirmative action is a bigger public issue than it has ever been, mainly because it has been intensely under attack for the past several years. A major Supreme Court case involving a New Jersey school district's laying off a white teacher instead of a black one, an executive-branch review of all federal affirmative-action policies, and several state initiatives and Congressional legislation that would ban affirmative action entirely -- are all pending. There is more high-level official attention being paid to race relations than at any time since the 1960s.

As for what is going on in race relations itself, let us turn to our distinguished panelists for their views. I'll start the discussion by asking a couple of questions:

  • Where do you stand on the question of how good or bad things are right now?
  • Should equality of condition between the races be a public-policy goal?
  • Will the American public accept explicitly race-based policies of any kind?

November 26, 1997

Round Two: Concluding Remarks


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See what other readers have had to say about "Race in America" in Post & Riposte's Community & Society forum -- and share your views.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997


Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997


Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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