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Roundtable
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Race in America

Round Two: Concluding Remarks

NICHOLAS LEMANN

This discussion has served to remind us that there are two race problems in America: the problem of the severely isolated poorest of the black poor, and the problem of relations between the rest of black America and the country as a whole. Let's take them one by one.

I'm frustrated by Dinesh D'Souza's triumphantly declaring that the problems of the ghettos are largely cultural. And therefore what? Even D'Souza ends by hesitatingly suggesting government intervention; I just don't see that there need be any link between cultural causation and inaction by the larger society. Culture and history interact. The culture of the ghettos is a clear product of African-American history -- of government policies denying blacks full citizenship rights. As Glenn Loury says, the problems of the ghettos are both their residents' and the country's responsibility. Reducing crime, improving schools, and getting people to jobs would all clearly help in the ghettos, and it does seem to signify a moral blindness if we don't undertake these tasks. (By the way, W.E.B. Du Bois wasn't at all blind to these issues -- take a look at The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk and you'll see detailed first-hand descriptions of the terrible conditions in poor black areas. The big difference between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington was that Du Bois wasn't willing to accept publicly the Jim Crow system. Washington's self-help efforts were admirable, but let's not forget that he explicitly tied them to a set of political views that gained him a measure of acceptance from whites. I don't think those political views are ones that Dinesh D'Souza would endorse.)
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On the second problem: the liberals aren't doing a good enough job of presentation. I was disappointed by Christopher Edley's so heavily resting his last post on the argument that the opponents of affirmative action are operating out of bad faith. I was also disappointed that the presidential commission on race relations wouldn't meet with any of the opponents of affirmative action. Most whites, I'd guess, don't think that working-class and middle-class blacks really have a legitimate call on public policy anymore. We're in a kind of gridlock of mistrust and lack of empathy. Blacks think whites just don't care deeply about any problem anywhere in African-American life; they feel that when whites voice a passion for racial justice it's usually either only temporary or in service of a political agenda that entails undoing black gains. Whites think blacks automatically defend racial preferences and other markers of special status without having demonstrated that these things are justified or necessary. The fierce debate about affirmative action has become a synecdoche for these larger concerns.

Affirmative action was born in the executive and judicial branches of government, not the legislative, and it shows: it has a carefully worked out set of principles but hardly any public rhetoric. The black middle class, whose emergence everyone applauds, has been greatly helped by government in general and affirmative action in particular. Affirmative action is substantially responsible for the integration of the leadership ranks in American society, in fields ranging from police work to high-end medicine. Its abolition would deal a real blow to integration, to interracial understanding, and to the economic health of black America. But its supporters aren't nearly as good at making their case as its opponents have become in the past few years.


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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