Round One: Opening Remarks
Let me try to answer Nicholas Lemann's questions in reverse order.
In the 1960s many Americans supported affirmative action. They seemed to recognize that blacks in particular had been subject to terrible historical crimes -- slavery and segregation -- and that some special measures needed to be taken, at least for a time, to help this group overcome the legacy of the past.
These policies have been in place for a generation. They have done some good -- for instance, by accelerating the formation of a black middle class. Yet at the same time they have heightened race consciousness and given it the respectability of law. Moreover, other groups with much weaker historical claims -- such as women, Latinos, and homosexuals -- have climbed aboard the affirmative-action bandwagon, broadening the political coalition that sustains the regime of preferences but weakening its moral foundation. Who can explain why a nonwhite immigrant should get preference for a college seat, a job, or a government contract over a native-born white with stronger qualifications?
From Post & Riposte:
"While it is true that you cannot 'legislate morality,' we can surely do a better job of providing resources, a key and oft neglected factor. At some point, we have to hold ourselves accountable for a structure that seemingly rewards only those considered lucky, those born white and male in America."
"White America is very much like an alcoholic; there is a chance for meaningful recovery if denial can be overcome and the problem acknowledged. However, white America's denial of its own agency in the race problem is so strong that recovery is not likely any time soon."
--Tom O'Connell, 11/15/97
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 law should pursue equality of rights, not of condition. The early champions of the civil-rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., understood this. They urged that we be judged on our merits as individuals rather than on group affiliation. Merit was seen as the antidote to the old racial nepotism.
Consider one item of data first cited in my book The End of Racism and contested by no one in this debate: blacks from families earning more than $70,000 a year have lower SAT scores than whites and Asians from families earning less than $20,000 a year. This amazing statistic by itself destroys the liberal insistence that our standardized tests merely measure socioeconomic status. It is also fatal to the general liberal attribution of poor black performance to white racism, for how could racism conspire to make poor whites and Asians perform better on reading and math tests than upper-middle class blacks?
Yet the implications of the cultural argument are that black progress in the future depends on a change of attitude and behavior within the African-American community. Presumably this would also require a new outlook on the part of the civil-rights leadership, or the emergence of new leaders with a more constructive agenda. Public policy can help, of course, but its influence on the private domain of marriage rates and homework habits is limited. Consequently the main responsibility must lie with the black community.
The Thernstroms offer no evidence that these internal changes are taking place. The best reason to be optimistic about America's multiracial future is the success of the country's nonwhite immigrants, which has far outpaced that of indigenous blacks. If there is a case for feeling good about the prospects of African-Americans, the Thernstroms have not made it -- and neither has anyone else.
Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann
Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997
Dinesh D'Souza, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society (1995).
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.