Round One: Opening Remarks
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
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
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
Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann
Round One -- posted on November 13, 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.