u_topn picture
Roundtable
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Race in America

Round One: Opening Remarks

GLENN C. LOURY

Anyone even vaguely aware of the social conditions in contemporary America knows that all is not well between blacks and whites. Despite remarkable improvement in the legal status and economic condition of blacks, we still have a race problem. In fact, we have two distinct, though interrelated, problems.

First, in large and medium-sized cities across the country, and in rural areas of the Old South, the situations of the black underclass and, increasingly, of the black lower-working class, are bad and getting worse. No serious person denies this; the only argument is over what can and should be done about it. Note well: the crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, social isolation, and general decay in these communities constitute a blight on our society, virtually unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found elsewhere in the industrial West. Moreover, the problem here is a racial one, not rightly characterized as simply another (albeit severe) instance of class disparity. The pariah status of these black ghetto dwellers -- their susceptibility to stereotyping, their

Dinesh D'Souza responds:
"At times Loury seems to take for granted the behavioral pathologies of the underclass; at other times he suggests that whites are simply looking for an excuse to blame blacks in order to rationalize their own superior position in society. Loury's confusion can be clarified by reexamining the central issue in the debate between two black statesmen, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, in the early part of the century."

See the rest of D'Souza's response.


stigmatized cultural styles, their social and residential segregation, their low rates of intermarriage with other groups, their limited access to communal networks of mutual assistance, their internalization of a sense of their own helplessness -- these things all flow directly from the concrete historical experience of black-white race relations in the United States. This pariah status, and the deep-seated social imagery that goes along with it, makes the problems of the black urban poor qualitatively more severe than those facing poor whites, or poor non-white immigrants. All of the "glass is half-full" bean counting in the world will not obscure this fact.

Second, there is a rift between blacks and whites who are not poor -- a conflict of visions, if you will -- about the continuing importance of race in American social and political life. Most blacks see race as remaining of fundamental importance; most whites (and, also, many Asians and Hispanics) think blacks are obsessed with race. This rift impedes the attainment of commonly shared, enthusiastically expressed civic ideals that might unite us across racial lines in an effort to grapple with the first problem. The historic ideal of racial integration, which served this purpose in an earlier era, has lost its broad appeal.
From Post & Riposte:

"Instead of answering the question 'What is America's race problem today?,' the panelists illustrate it: They focus too narrowly on black-white relations and fail to consider other races."
--Robert D. Tagorda, 11/16/97


"It is easy for black intellectuals to parade the sins of the white majority and their forefathers. It is an easy task and one that should not be neglected. Nevertheless, by intellectual honesty, they should also consider critically the state of black culture, and ask: Is it all good?"
--Kevin Bowman, 11/14/97



What Do You Think?
Join the debate in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte. Throughout the coming weeks we'll highlight readers' comments in the margins of the Roundtable, and in Round Two (to be posted November 26) our panelists will respond to selected questions posted in the forum.

The black civil-rights struggle ended, victorious, a quarter of a century ago. The clear goal of that crusade was to obtain legal equality for black Americans, who had languished for a century as second-class citizens. Once that goal was achieved, however, there was a need to replace it with another: ensuring that the consequences of a century of second-class citizenship would not long endure. This need was never met. Indeed, no more than a token effort was ever made to mobilize the American public toward this latter goal -- for good and sufficient reason. We Americans see our system as guaranteeing people a fair shot, not an equal measure of success. Second-class treatment under the law for Negros was inconsistent with our ideals. But the nasty, brutish, and

Christopher Edley responds:
"Glenn Loury is certainly correct when he says that 'affirmative action is not the solution, but neither is it the problem.' I would add, however, that affirmative action is one element of the solution. And the campaign to eliminate it without effective replacement policies is symptomatic of America's great race problem."

See the rest of Edley's response.


short lives of a sizable minority of the descendants of those Negros can be rationalized as reflecting their deficiencies rather than revealing any flaw in "our way of life." This is precisely what has happened -- and nowhere is this rationalizing process more clearly revealed than in the ideological celebration of immigrant success as compared to native black failure. The former proves the openness and health of the system even as the latter, sadly, reveals the inadequacies of some to whom the system has now been fully opened.

All of this shows how hopelessly limited is the affirmative-action debate as a way of framing our current racial dilemma. Affirmative action is not the solution, but neither is it the problem. Racial preferences, however prudently employed, have never been, and can never be, anything more than a marginal instrument for addressing the unfinished business of the black civil-rights movement. And besides, in the current political environment, programs that rely on explicit racial preference face determined opposition and general

Dinesh D'Souza responds:
"Far more useful [than adopting inner-city orphans] would be for black leaders like Loury to begin the educational process of raising the cultural standards of the disadvantaged and to support community programs that would give inner-city kids better life prospects where they live."

See the rest of D'Souza's response.


public skepticism. At the same time, the "color-blind absolutists," who bill their crusade against racial preferences as the Second Coming of the civil-rights movement, display a ludicrous sense of misplaced priorities. They make a totem of color-blindness, even as the social isolation of the urban black poor reveals graphically just how important "color" continues to be in American social life. The color-blind crusaders fail the most elementary test of conceptual coherence -- the "is-ought distinction." Having convinced themselves that America ought to be a color-blind society, they would make policy as if it already is -- or would soon be, if only we could rid ourselves of "preferences." If the color-blind crusaders were to start adopting some inner-city orphans, I might be able to take their rhetoric a bit more seriously.


Roundtable Overview


Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics and the Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, is the author of One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (1995). His article "The Conservative Line on Race" appears in the November, 1997, issue of The Atlantic.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search