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Roundtable
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Race in America

Round One: Response

NICHOLAS LEMANN

Our goal for solving the dilemma of race relations should not be to have a society in which nobody notices race (that's unrealistic and possibly not even desirable), but to have a society in which being African-American is inarguably a matter of ethnicity rather than of caste. The case that it's already a matter of ethnicity, which Dinesh D'Souza seems to be making, just doesn't convince me. African-American history is substantially different from that of other ethnic groups and is still relevant, because it helps explain conditions today. The state of America's underclass is, as Glenn Loury says, almost uniquely bad in the context of the Western world. This is quite clearly the direct result of slavery, segregation, and racism.

Having spent a lot of time in ghettos, I just can't accept the idea of them as naturally occurring ethnic enclaves of an especially low-performing group. The lives of practically everybody there, and of their forebears, have been about being black. The ghettos are caste neighborhoods, not ethnic ones. Even the supposedly optimistic Thernstroms never voice any optimism about the ghettos, nor do they argue that conditions there are simply the result of people's having fallen to the bottom of a free and open society.

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I also disagree with D'Souza's assertion that the poor parts of black America can only change from within. Why? I hate the thought of our waiting around for some kind of new leadership to emerge, or spontaneous community development to take place, while kids are getting shot outside their homes. During the past decade putting more police out on the streets has reduced crime in many black neighborhoods. That's not change from within. Schools can be made better from without. Employment can come from without. Public housing can be made safe and secure via policy decisions made far away. If our whole society would evince a sense of urgency, concern, and responsibility about the underclass, the result would be both a better life for the underclass and better race relations generally.


Roundtable Overview


Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Nicholas Lemann is The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent and the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991).

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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