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Roundtable
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Race in America

Round One: Response

GLENN C. LOURY

Having read the opening comments of the other contributors, I think it is important to emphasize two points:

First, questions about the status of blacks, the relations between the races, and the attitudes of Americans toward various policies should be discussed in a historical context. The Thernstroms, to their credit, do precisely that. The first third of their book deals with the hundred-year period after the end of chattel slavery, when black Americans did not enjoy equal rights as citizens. This is the most persuasive part of their work. Despite my disagreements with them I share their view that this history must be the starting point for any contemporary debate.

Second, the issue of race relations as it involves blacks is a moral one, cutting to the very core of our national experience. More than half a million Americans were slaughtered in a terrible civil war because of this issue. From the very beginning, the meaning of the "American Experiment" has been tied up with the status and treatment of the African "other" in our midst. The ideals of liberty upon which the country was founded, and that emerged triumphant on the world stage in the aftermath of the Cold War, were surely compromised by the perpetuation of racial caste in American society until the mid-twentieth century. How we deal with the race issue indicates the kind of people we Americans actually are, as opposed to the kind we would like to think of ourselves as being.

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These two points have an important implication, which I can state as follows:

Societies are not amalgams of unrelated individuals creating themselves anew -- out of wholecloth, as it were -- in each generation. In reality a complex web of social connections and a long train of historical influences interact to form the opportunities and shape the outlooks of individuals. Of course, effort matters a lot, as does native talent and sheer luck, in determining how well or poorly a person does in life. But social background, cultural affinities, and communal influences are also of great importance. This is the grain of truth in Mr. D'Souza's insistence that cultural differences lie at the root of racial inequality in America. But the deeper truth is that for some three centuries now the culture-forming experiences of the slaves and their descendants have been shaped by political, social, and economic institutions that, by any measure, must be seen as oppressive. When we look at "black culture" or "underclass sub-culture" in the American cities of today we are seeing a product of that oppressive history. Simply to shrug at the despair, violence, and self-destructive folly of these people -- to say, in effect, "Well, that's the culture they have and there's nothing we can do about it" -- is to behave in a morally obtuse fashion.

It is neither self-righteous nor illogical to conclude, in the face of the "pathological" behavior of American history's losers, that while we cannot change our ignoble past we must not be indifferent to the contemporary suffering that is linked to that past. It is demonstrable beyond doubt that the patterns of behavior to which Mr. D'Souza refers are a product not of some alien cultural imposition upon a pristine Euro-American canvas but, rather, of social, economic, and political practices deeply rooted in American history.

For these historical and moral reasons I urge my fellow citizens, Mr. D'Souza included, to discuss and react to these behavior problems in the inner cities as if we were talking about our own children, sisters, cousins, and friends. Let us respond to this American tragedy as we might to an epidemic of teen suicide, adolescent drunken driving, or HIV infection among homosexual males. That is, let us stress what we have in common, let us show empathy, and let us never forget that "those people" languishing in the societal backwaters are "our people."

In the end, the problem with "culture" as an explanatory category in the hands of the morally obtuse is that it is used as an exculpatory device rather than as a starting point for discussion about mutual obligation. Frankly, I remain optimistic about the prospect that black teenagers, given greater opportunity, might respond with better behavior. What makes me pessimistic about our future is the sight of the great American middle class grasping at every argument that comes along, whether based in genetics or "culture," as reason to abandon their moral responsibilities to those who are least fortunate in our midst.


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.
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