The Conservative Line on Race

In a book uniting social science with ideological argument, the authors contend that African-Americans should rejoice in the progress they have made since the 1960s, stop playing "the race card," and renounce the other articles of racial liberalism

IN BLACK AND WHITE: One Nation, Indivisible

THAT the United States of America, "a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," began as a slave society is a profound historical irony. The "original sin" of slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nation's soul. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in a tragic, calamitous civil war -- the price this new democracy had to pay to rid itself of that most un-democratic institution. But, of course, the end of slavery did not usher in an era of democratic equality for blacks. Another century was to pass before a national commitment to pursue that goal could be achieved. Meaningful civic inclusion even now eludes many of our fellow citizens who are recognizably of African descent. What does that say about the character of our civic culture as we move into a new century? For its proper telling this peculiarly American story in black and white requires an appreciation of irony, and a sense of the tragic.

Behind the facade

White attitudes toward blacks today are not what they were at the end of slavery, or in the 1930s. Nor is black marginalization nearly as severe. Segregation is dead, and the open violence once used to enforce it has for all practical purposes been eradicated. We have made great progress, but we have a long way to go, and we are in deep disagreement about how further to proceed. The problem we have solved is the one Gunnar Myrdal described in his classic 1944 treatise, There he contrasted America's lofty political ideals with the seemingly permanent second-class status of Negroes. This framing of the problem shaped the conscience of a generation of American intellectuals and activists coming to maturity in the years 1945-1960. Myrdal urged whites to choose the nobility of their ideals over the comfort of long-standing social arrangements. In due course they did, and that was a great achievement.

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom belong to that postwar generation of racial progressives who believed in Myrdal's vision and struggled to see it realized. Like a great many others of similar bent, they retained an abiding interest in the subject, but they grew ever more estranged from what the "progressive" position on racial issues came to represent.

Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University, and a pioneer in the field of quantitative social history. He earned his reputation a quarter century ago with the publication of a now-classic study of Boston's immigrant working class. Abigail Thernstrom, his wife, is a political scientist, best known for her 1987 book, That prizewinning work offered a powerful and, for many people, compelling critique of federal voting-rights law as it evolved over the two decades following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

For the past seven years this superbly qualified team has labored to produce a comprehensive assessment of changes in American race relations in the half century since the appearance of Myrdal's epic. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible is the result. It is a large, ambitious book that combines historical narrative and data-driven policy analysis with trenchant social criticism. The three-part text treats the history of blacks from Reconstruction through the 1960s; economic, political, and social progress for blacks over the past thirty years; and recent race-oriented public policies affecting education, voting, employment, and government contracting. The final two chapters survey the current racial climate and envision how American race relations might develop in the future.

is an important, learned, and searching statement on our age-old social dilemma. It unapologetically celebrates the racial reforms realized by the institutions of American democracy over the past two generations, using a before-and-after narrative to highlight how rapid and extensive the change has been. The authors' argument, buttressed by some 2,000 footnotes, rests on an impressive review of the scholarly literature in history, law, and the social sciences. Even so, the well-crafted prose conveys mastery of the subject without lapsing into jargon. Indeed, the book often moves smoothly between commentary on current affairs and scholarly exegesis. Such accessibility is a virtue, of course, but given the authors' evident objectives it is also a necessity. For, more than a survey of social trends or a critical assessment of public policy, America in Black and White is a passionately rendered manifesto preaching what can fairly be called a conservative line on the race issue.

This is no sin. Nor can it come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the authors' opinion journalism over the past decade. Still, America in Black and White is, and seems very much intended to be, a combative book. Reading it, one cannot escape the impression that the enemy is being engaged. Although conceived long before President Bill Clinton initiated his national dialogue on racial issues, the book's publication at this moment offers, in effect, an opening salvo from the right in that proposed debate.

The enemy on whom the Thernstroms have fixed their sights is the latter-day public philosophy of racial liberalism -- what the economist Thomas Sowell once called "the civil-rights vision." This is the notion that ongoing white racism is the main barrier to black progress, and that some kind of affirmative action is the appropriate remedy. Another crucial feature of the civil-rights vision as depicted here is that it fosters undue race consciousness by sustaining a sense of grievance among blacks of all classes -- encouraging them to "play the race card." Following the political scientist Donald Horowitz, the authors pithily refer to this belief in the enduring power of race as "the figment of the pigment."

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