IN the ideological warfare between liberals and conservatives, African-Americans exist as a kind of Rorschach test, an enigma to be solved in the context of their disturbing exceptionalism in a country obsessed with its own exceptionalism. Blacks have been in this country as long as its earliest European settlers. Why haven't they, well, for lack of a better phrase, quite measured up? Why do they lag behind whites and seemingly behind all the other immigrant groups to have come here? To white liberals like Tom Wicker and Benjamin DeMott, African-Americans are incorruptible victims, sanctified by their long history of suffering at the hands of whites, and stigmatized by the legacy of slavery and a virulent, unending white racism. As many conservatives see it, all the problems of blacks are essentially caused by an inability to fit in to the culture in which they live and an inability to stop seeing themselves as victims -- an attitude that white liberals encourage them to maintain.
In short, the liberal believes that whites are the problem, the conservative that blacks are the problem. Any thinking black person must sit between these contesting categorizations, which have existed since antebellum days, feeling something between bemusement and contempt. Although blacks at various times, under various circumstances, may prefer one explanation to the other (usually, though certainly not always, the liberal's to the conservative's), the truth about blacks is to be found not in the middle ground but, paradoxically, in both views simultaneously, and in neither of them. The race problem is not really understood if it is seen as a white problem or a black problem. It is an American conundrum.
Americans do not like protracted problems or problems that suggest a limit to their power. Part of this is bound up with the belief of both blacks and whites in American exceptionalism -- the idea of this country as a redeemer nation, a New Jerusalem. Americans also do not like to face the liberating possibilities of the profound historical tragedy within themselves; hence white neo-conservatism on the one hand, Afrocentrism on the other -- ideologies of tragedy avoidance or sheer escapism.
Tom Wicker, a southerner and thus more believable as a sincere white liberal because he was reared amid the worst kind of racism, has in essence written a defense of the moral and political superiority of the welfare state, apparently the only kind of state in which blacks can thrive. (Conservatives assert that the welfare state has been the utter ruination of blacks.) His book argues that white America has reneged on its promise of integration and full justice and economic parity for black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s -- a promise implicit in the Brown school-desegregation decision of 1954 and explicit in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- as it reneged on full citizenship and political parity for black Americans during Reconstruction. What has happened, Wicker asserts, from the time of Richard Nixon through the time of Ronald Reagan, has been a steady retreat on the question of civil rights and black advancement, for reasons of expediency on the part of white politicians at best, or of wretched cowardice on the part of white civic leadership at worst. The country is as racist as it ever was, and the white population is still selfishly, even pathologically, venting its anger at and fashioning its scapegoats from the least among us -- African-Americans. Now, this thesis is hardly new. Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell are among the latest to sell a great number of books having anguish and outrage about the black condition as a theme. Of course, no one is very happy with race relations in the United States, the sorry state of which was supposedly revealed, according to Wicker, by the public response to the O. J. Simpson verdict. In fact, Wicker's indictment has a measure of merit and truth in it. Nonetheless, there are a great number of problems with this book.
"If racial integration is to be revived as essential to a secure future for America, an effective new political party forthrightly working for economic justice will be necessary," Wicker writes in Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. "African-Americans," he says explicitly, "must build a new political party." (Who could be more expert on the issue of economic justice or a better advocate for it than the very group that has suffered the greatest economic injustice? is, I think, Wicker's reasoning.) Then we would have the usual populist assemblage of poor whites, other racial minorities (after all, Wicker reminds us, whites themselves will be a minority come 2050), and the like -- that is, people who are "likely to encounter some degree of economic and racial disadvantage."
Frankly, it is incomprehensible to me how black people could solve the problems of isolation and alienation they face in the political realm (Republicans and Democrats are chary about a black political agenda and even, to some degree, about the black vote itself) by forming their own political party, which would seem to do nothing more than institutionalize their isolation and alienation as a disaffected minority.
wishes to be an accusatory book (against whites), but it is in essence a lazy book. For instance, Wicker says that "the growth of the black middle class was largely lost to view [of whites] in the lurid new visibility of the underclass remaining in the ghetto." Yet how does one explain the impact of people like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan, and of the barrage of images on television and in advertising of a seemingly happy and broad black middle class -- images that have encouraged whites to believe that some blacks have indeed made it?
Blacks strike the white imagination in largely contradictory ways: as huge success stories and as the underclass of criminals and welfare cheats. An analysis of this contradiction is needed, but the book does not provide one. Wicker states, "It's plain now that those inner-city blacks noticed mostly when they appear on the nightly television news as perpetrators or victims of crime will be with us for years to come." But since most nightly news shows, both local and national, have black reporters and even black news anchors, why won't their images stay with "us" just as long? And if inner-city blacks are seen largely as criminal, how much have they participated in their own degradation through the marketing and commercialization of their cultural expressions, hip-hop and rap? These exploit the image of the black male as outlaw and deviant to titillate the white suburban mind and to give black culture, for the black consumers of this product, some supposedly subversive, radical edge. Changing crime into political resistance, marginalization into a broad expression of humanity and liberation, has been a romantic preoccupation of the bourgeois intellectual since long before Foucault and the postmodern sensibility. In other words, blacks have historically been far too willing to accept distortions of themselves, because they see themselves culturally as whites see them: in intensely romantic terms.
In speaking of the connection between the black image and criminality Wicker does not mention that Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Jim Brown, Sidney Poitier, Paul Winfield, Yaphet Kotto, and Will Smith have all played cops or government agents in movies or on television. What impact has this had on the image of the black as criminal? If it has had none, why?
The book suffers greatly from this lack of consideration of the difficult contradictions in American culture. There is no serious thinking here. In a footnote Wicker suggests that although Lincoln thought that blacks should be sent back to Africa, he never suggested that whites go back to Europe. But Lincoln would have thought that sending blacks back to Africa was humane, because they had been brought here against their will (unlike whites) and may very well have wanted to go back. (Of course they did not.) Also, Lincoln believed that as a recently freed people with no education and what appeared to him to be servile habits, they stood little chance of surviving in direct competition with whites.
There are a number of other questionable assertions in this book. Wicker makes much, for example, of the following double standard: black leaders are forced by the white media and the white establishment to repudiate the oddball, racist, and crackpot speakers among them (which is true), whereas white leaders are not required to do so. This does not seem quite true. One has only to consider the response to Al Campanis's notorious remarks about blacks' "lacking the necessities" to be baseball managers and executives; the suspension of the Cincinnati Reds' owner, Marge Schott, for racist remarks; or the overwhelming mainstream disapproval of The Bell Curve to know that blacks and their sympathizers can exercise power in this realm of repudiation as well. Once again, what is needed is an examination of how the complicated business of group repudiation of racist ideas works in our country.