THAT the United States of America, "a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," began as a slave society is a profound historical irony. The "original sin" of slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nation's soul. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in a tragic, calamitous civil war -- the price this new democracy had to pay to rid itself of that most un-democratic institution. But, of course, the end of slavery did not usher in an era of democratic equality for blacks. Another century was to pass before a national commitment to pursue that goal could be achieved. Meaningful civic inclusion even now eludes many of our fellow citizens who are recognizably of African descent. What does that say about the character of our civic culture as we move into a new century? For its proper telling this peculiarly American story in black and white requires an appreciation of irony, and a sense of the tragic.
White attitudes toward blacks today are not what they were at the end of slavery, or in the 1930s. Nor is black marginalization nearly as severe. Segregation is dead, and the open violence once used to enforce it has for all practical purposes been eradicated. We have made great progress, but we have a long way to go, and we are in deep disagreement about how further to proceed. The problem we have solved is the one Gunnar Myrdal described in his classic 1944 treatise, There he contrasted America's lofty political ideals with the seemingly permanent second-class status of Negroes. This framing of the problem shaped the conscience of a generation of American intellectuals and activists coming to maturity in the years 1945-1960. Myrdal urged whites to choose the nobility of their ideals over the comfort of long-standing social arrangements. In due course they did, and that was a great achievement.
Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom belong to that postwar generation of racial progressives who believed in Myrdal's vision and struggled to see it realized. Like a great many others of similar bent, they retained an abiding interest in the subject, but they grew ever more estranged from what the "progressive" position on racial issues came to represent.
Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University, and a pioneer in the field of quantitative social history. He earned his reputation a quarter century ago with the publication of a now-classic study of Boston's immigrant working class. Abigail Thernstrom, his wife, is a political scientist, best known for her 1987 book, That prizewinning work offered a powerful and, for many people, compelling critique of federal voting-rights law as it evolved over the two decades following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
For the past seven years this superbly qualified team has labored to produce a comprehensive assessment of changes in American race relations in the half century since the appearance of Myrdal's epic. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible is the result. It is a large, ambitious book that combines historical narrative and data-driven policy analysis with trenchant social criticism. The three-part text treats the history of blacks from Reconstruction through the 1960s; economic, political, and social progress for blacks over the past thirty years; and recent race-oriented public policies affecting education, voting, employment, and government contracting. The final two chapters survey the current racial climate and envision how American race relations might develop in the future.
is an important, learned, and searching statement on our age-old social dilemma. It unapologetically celebrates the racial reforms realized by the institutions of American democracy over the past two generations, using a before-and-after narrative to highlight how rapid and extensive the change has been. The authors' argument, buttressed by some 2,000 footnotes, rests on an impressive review of the scholarly literature in history, law, and the social sciences. Even so, the well-crafted prose conveys mastery of the subject without lapsing into jargon. Indeed, the book often moves smoothly between commentary on current affairs and scholarly exegesis. Such accessibility is a virtue, of course, but given the authors' evident objectives it is also a necessity. For, more than a survey of social trends or a critical assessment of public policy, America in Black and White is a passionately rendered manifesto preaching what can fairly be called a conservative line on the race issue.
This is no sin. Nor can it come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the authors' opinion journalism over the past decade. Still, America in Black and White is, and seems very much intended to be, a combative book. Reading it, one cannot escape the impression that the enemy is being engaged. Although conceived long before President Bill Clinton initiated his national dialogue on racial issues, the book's publication at this moment offers, in effect, an opening salvo from the right in that proposed debate.
The enemy on whom the Thernstroms have fixed their sights is the latter-day public philosophy of racial liberalism -- what the economist Thomas Sowell once called "the civil-rights vision." This is the notion that ongoing white racism is the main barrier to black progress, and that some kind of affirmative action is the appropriate remedy. Another crucial feature of the civil-rights vision as depicted here is that it fosters undue race consciousness by sustaining a sense of grievance among blacks of all classes -- encouraging them to "play the race card." Following the political scientist Donald Horowitz, the authors pithily refer to this belief in the enduring power of race as "the figment of the pigment."
The 1968 report of the Kerner Commission, written in the aftermath of the great urban riots, was an early statement of this brand of racial liberalism. The social critic Andrew Hacker's book which was a best seller in the wake of the Los Angeles riot of 1992, represents a more recent example of similar thinking. The Thernstroms' subtitle, "One Nation, Indivisible," reads like a defiant rejection of Hacker, whose arguments, indeed, are not as weighty as theirs. And the authors take pains to argue (persuasively) that the Kerner Commission's gloomy forecast of racial apartheid, however plausible at the time, has been nullified by subsequent developments. These turn out to be soft targets. Nevertheless, a great many adherents of the civil-rights vision remain at large among us, and the authors seem determined to ferret them out and to prove them wrong.
THE civil-rights movement as a force capable of shaping the moral and political sensibilities of the American public on questions of race was all but finished a quarter century ago. True, few who noticed were brave enough to say so at that time, but gaping holes in the intellectual positions of racial liberals have been evident, and widely discussed, for more than a decade now. It has been about twenty years since William Julius Wilson's seminal and James Q. Wilson's incomparable Sowell's appeared in 1981, Charles Murray's in 1984, Shelby Steele's in 1990. The reality of demographic transformation -- the growing importance of Asian and Hispanic ethnics in the country's political culture -- has marginalized black liberals in city after city. The prisons are stuffed to overflowing with, for the most part, young black men, and nobody is talking about letting them loose. The federal welfare entitlement, on which a third of black children depended for their subsistence, was terminated in the last session of Congress. Busing is dead as social policy, and affirmative action is tottering.
Who doubts today that blacks have made stunning economic and social progress, relative to their condition before the Second World War? Who denies that crime, drugs, poor school performance, and family instability are major barriers to upward mobility in the black lower classes? Who cannot see that racial preferences, minority-business set-asides, race-norming of employment tests, and the like are on the way out? Racial liberals, that's who; and they muster voting majorities in only a very few places. The rest of us, including a great many Democrats, now take these positions for granted, by and large. So there is a sense in which the Thernstroms are flogging a dead horse, though, admittedly, there was more life in the horse when they started this project.
Which is certainly not to say that there is nothing new in the voluminous, carefully presented evidence they have amassed. Part One of this book is an often lyrically written and subtly argued historical narrative recounting, respectfully but not uncritically, the tribulations and triumphs of American blacks from Emancipation through the 1960s. Woven through the chapters in Part Two is a wealth of evidence, unlike any I have seen elsewhere, on the progressive liberalization of racial attitudes among whites over the past half century. There is also an exhaustive and valuable exploration of changes in urban residential segregation over the past thirty years, which breaks new ground. And scattered throughout the text and notes are fresh interpretations and close readings of recent social trends (in black college attendance and concerning the racial gap in academic achievement, for example), which specialists will find provocative.
But a "black hat-white hat" approach to intellectual combat is also evident in this book. A great deal of effort is expended detailing how assorted usual suspects -- the American Civil Liberties Union, academic racial liberals, the National Education Association, black civil-rights activists, The New York Times editorial page, the loony Afrocentric left -- have with their good intentions only made things worse, or with their bad intentions threatened the integrity of our democracy. An oft-repeated theme in the presentation of data is that black failure, not white racism, is the real issue. A frequent assertion, as an article of faith, is that if the government would just get out of the business of classifying citizens on the basis of race, blacks would focus less on their racial identity, and socio-political conflicts across racial lines would probably be much less severe.
Although there is some plausibility, some truth, in these positions, they do not encompass the whole truth about our racial drama. Reading through these more than 500 pages, one hungers for some allusion to the ironic, the paradoxical, and especially the tragic elements in America's enduring dilemma. Yet the authors seem bent on refuting their opponents from the past decade's culture wars -- so much so that they often fail to display the subtlety of thought and the generosity of spirit of which they are no doubt capable, and on which an appreciation of irony and tragedy depends.
THERE are, of course, some real enemies with responsibilities in real institutions, whose heads are filled with wrong ideas, and whose hands touch the lives of millions. Their erroneous beliefs richly deserve refutation. Moreover, it is true that some among the power elite -- in the federal courts, the national press, the universities, and the Democratic Party -- continue to credit a simpleminded version of the civil-rights vision as described above. They, too, warrant criticism. But the larger truth is that a populist backlash against black claims was already evident in the 1970s. And an intellectual backlash running through the 1980s has now gathered such force that black welfare mothers, juvenile felons, and poorly performing students have increasingly few people in academic and policy circles who are concerned with promoting their well-being.
relies on the creative survey work of the political scientist Paul Sniderman, of Stanford University, and his colleagues to argue that this defection of the white majority from racially liberal policy positions does not constitute evidence of defection from a normative commitment to the ideal of racial equality of opportunity. This is relevant if the question is "Are whites really as big a bunch of racists as the liberals say?" But it is much less relevant when the question becomes, as it should, "What, then, must we do with and for the one third or so of black America that seems to be permanently alienated from the structures of opportunity in this society?" It may be true, as the Thernstroms imply, that if blacks were more like Asians, we would have less of a problem. But how is such a counterfactual observation supposed to help?
Being right about liberals' having been wrong is an accomplishment, to be sure, but it is no longer good enough. Many among the black intellectual and political elites are confused, angry, and scared. They lash out unreasonably, they play the race card with abandon, and they long for the moral simplicity of an earlier time. This may be deplorable, but under the circumstances it is understandable. Harder to understand is why so many serious students of the race problem in this country are content to start and end their discussion with a demonstration of the fact that racial liberals are confused, angry, and scared. Fixation on this point distorts one's ethical and scientific judgment. It is bad for the soul. It is a sin -- one that is committed over and over again in this book. As a result, despite the many fine qualities the authors bring to the execution of their task, they have in my view failed to produce a work worthy of Myrdal's mantle, to guide our public discourse on racial matters into the twenty-first century.
A projects a view of the woeful American calamity now playing itself out in the black underclass which can be paraphrased, I think not unfairly, as follows: If many blacks languish, that is their own fault, raising no policy-relevant issue of racial unfairness. Work is available in the inner cities; immigrants can find it, why not blacks? If blacks would marry, if they would cut out their disruptive behavior inside school buildings, if they would just stop their lawbreaking, their prospects would brighten. If whites appear not to want to live near blacks, well, who can blame them? Certainly not a black middle class that has no interest in seeing its property values fall either, making all the fuss about a "black community" dubious indeed. If blacks could only let go of their racial fixations, abandon the "figment of the pigment," and take the risks of failure associated with unaided competition in American society, America's long struggle with the demon of race might finally come to an end.
Although I do not agree with this view, I am not without sympathy for it. But I believe it is too narrow, too inflexible, and too ideological a way of thinking ever to produce genuine wisdom about our racial dilemma. This difference of opinion is, in the end, a matter of taste, or judgment; it does not rest on scientific evidence. But one's outlook can powerfully influence which evidence one chooses to examine and how one looks at it. There are times when I believe that the Thernstroms' outlook distorts their analysis. Thus it may be useful to review critically some of the ways in which the authors use their data to bolster their broader, thematic argument. Necessarily, I can touch on only a few of the many topics taken up in America in Black and White. I hope not to distort the book's intended argument in so doing.
In their chapter on poverty the authors describe the relationship between "black crime" (a "loaded phrase," they say, but one that is "hard to avoid") and black poverty as follows: Racial liberals think poverty causes crime. It is more probable that the opposite is true -- that "the appallingly high level of black crime" causes poverty, because it discourages business activity in black communities and leads employers to treat black males with suspicion, thereby increasing black unemployment. So liberals, who need to believe a simple morality tale about the causes of crime because they find the self-destructive reality of "black crime" too painful to face, get the story exactly backwards.
Now, the claim that poverty causes crime is questionable. But the speculation offered in this book that crime is an important cause of poverty among blacks is empirically weak, and what is more, the authors' argument for it is logically inconsistent. They (rightly, in my view) dispute the "spatial mismatch" theory (that black unemployment is due to jobs' moving from city to suburbs) but then, literally on the next page, assert that by driving business from the inner cities, "black crime" contributes to black unemployment. These claims cannot both be true. Moreover, their hypothesis has been directly investigated, and rejected, in a recent econometric study by the economist Steven Rivkin. Using the High School and Beyond Longitudinal Survey to investigate whether, if the test scores and family backgrounds of a sample of young adults in the 1980s are controlled for, the crime level in a person's community affected his or her chances of being unemployed, the study concluded, "There is little or no evidence ... that community crime ... rates affected the probability of employment for Blacks." In the end the Thernstroms' account of black joblessness as being largely determined by crime rates (and low test scores) strikes this reader as rhetorically effective but intellectually unpersuasive.
In the same chapter the authors cite studies finding that children living in single-parent homes are more likely to fail in school or end up with juvenile criminal records. Most social scientists are rightly skeptical of such findings when the studies in question do not control for family income. It may be the absence of money, not of a father, that causes the bad outcome for the child. But the Thernstroms say it "makes no sense" to control for income, because the connections between single parenthood and poverty are so strong that holding income constant is "artificial." Why do they say this when there are enough poor families with two parents, and enough nonpoor families with one, that controlling for income is a routine, sensible statistical practice? The findings they cite actually survive such controls. But their argumentative tone persists.
It is possible that a careful study would show that college athletes perform as well in the classroom as nonathletes if you control for the number of hours a week they devote to studying. But if most of them don't study nearly as much as other students, their GPA controlled for hours of study is not of great interest. What matters is how well they perform. Likewise, median income in 1995 was only $15,004 for female-headed black families, little more than a third of what it was in black married-couple families. This is not a fact that should be obscured by controlling for other related factors.
This seems wrongheaded; nobody is trying to "obscure" anything. Surely it does matter whether it is primarily less studying, rather than some intrinsic aspect of athletic participation, that depresses a football player's grades. If it is, the problem can be solved by mandating an increase in his study time; if it is not, the only solution is for him to stop playing ball. Similarly, it would be worth knowing whether a shortage of funds available to single mothers in and of itself leads to poor outcomes for their children. If it does, then more money for those mothers, with or without husbands, would help those kids.
I mean to do more here than quibble about methodology. The Thernstroms' fixation on refuting liberals can lead them astray on important matters of policy as well. Consider the discussion in the chapter on crime of the impact that a national war on drugs has had on black imprisonment. The number of black males in this country's prisons and jails has more than tripled since 1980. Many observers (including this one) are convinced that the anti-drug effort had only a minor impact on the price and availability of cocaine but has been of major importance in increasing black incarceration. The authors deny this. Although they "offer no brief for or against" the drug policy, they nevertheless claim that
critics who depict the War on Drugs as an unmitigated disaster for young blacks typically exaggerate its impact on black incarceration rates. As Table 2 demonstrated, African Americans are a bit less likely to be arrested for drug offenses than they are for most other crimes.
In fact Table 2 shows no such thing. It provides the per capita arrest rates of blacks relative to the population as a whole for various offenses, allowing one to see, for example, that in 1995 a randomly chosen black person was 2.9 times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense and 4.3 times as likely to be arrested for murder as a randomly chosen person from the general population. But this does not mean that in absolute terms fewer blacks were arrested for drug offenses than for murder. Indeed, just the opposite was true. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1993 only three percent of people newly admitted to state prisons had been sentenced for murder, but nearly 30 percent had been sentenced for drug offenses. What the authors assert about the relative significance of drug arrests is simply wrong.
Moreover, the direct evidence is overwhelming that the war on drugs, which intensified in the late 1980s, played a major role in the sharp rise in black incarceration that occurred during the same period. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that from 1985 to 1990 the number of people in state prison whose most serious offense was drug-related (more relevant than arrest figures) skyrocketed from 38,900 to 148,600. And the number of black male adults held in prisons or jails rose from 309,800 to 508,800 over the same period. Furthermore, more than two thirds of people committed to state prisons in 1992 for drug offenses were black. If this same proportion held during the late 1980s, then the growth of drug imprisonment accounted for more than a third of the increase in black incarceration from 1985 to 1990, making it in all likelihood the single most important factor. We can, it would seem, safely dismiss the Thernstroms' dismissal of the "critics."
In their chapter on residential segregation, citing the sociologist David Armor, the authors dispute the relevance of a number of careful empirical studies of housing discrimination that used "testers" -- black couples and white couples who visited real-estate agents to test whether they received equal treatment. Such studies on the whole find evidence for a nontrivial degree of anti-black discrimination. The authors hold that these findings overstate the true extent of housing discrimination as experienced by blacks, because the testers distribute themselves randomly across the housing market, whereas black home buyers tend to seek housing only in certain geographic areas. Their conclusion, despite the testers' findings, is that housing discrimination is not an important factor in accounting for residential segregation.
There appears to be an obvious conceptual flaw in this argument. Since black home buyers choose where to seek housing in part according to the treatment they expect in different locales, their nonrandom spatial distribution is itself a reflection of the discriminatory practices that the randomly distributed testers have uncovered. For this reason the testers' findings of discrimination ought not to be minimized. To illustrate: Suppose a survey of supermarkets finds that blacks are overcharged for groceries at certain stores. Is it not likely that fewer black shoppers will visit those establishments? Who would then say that the finding of discrimination against black shoppers is of limited interest? Of course, our society has little at stake in where people shop; but segregated suburban residential patterns are, or should be, a much more serious matter.
The authors' review of trends in the academic achievement of black students serves well as a final example. This chapter is a microcosm of the many strengths and the great weaknesses of this book. It tells hard truths unsparingly, but it also dwells too long on yesterday's battles. It contains insights deserving a wide reading, along with unfounded speculations that, in my opinion, are best ignored. Its selection and presentation of evidence is at times searching and at other times tendentious and misleading.
The argument of the chapter runs as follows: The racial performance gap, as measured by a national test of students' knowledge, is huge. This gap had been closing until the late 1980s; it has now begun to widen sharply. Among the chief reasons that black students do poorly relative to whites is that teachers and administrators do not challenge them to perform to the same standards as whites, perhaps out of fear that they are incapable of so performing. In addition, the desire to achieve racial diversity in the teaching force has resulted in affirmative-action hiring of underqualified black teachers ("Can they teach what they don't know?" the authors wonder), a trend abetted by powerful union opposition to teacher testing on the grounds that it adversely affects blacks. Possible reasons that in the 1980s the gap between black and white students' performance stopped shrinking and began growing include what the authors call "Afrocentric delusions," said to influence the curriculum offered black youngsters; a black youth culture in which the "price of popularity" for black students is "to embrace the values celebrated in rap music"; and a growing level of violence in the schools that black youngsters attend. There is "no great mystery about how to get better academic results," the Thernstroms conclude: emulate the Catholic schools, with their emphasis on safety, discipline, and a no-frills curriculum.
Here are some problems with this argument. The complaint about opposition to competency testing is correct in principle but of limited relevance to the problem at hand. Legal challenges to these tests have been roundly defeated. Teacher-competency testing is now widespread (in forty-three states as of last year), and it significantly limits the entry of blacks into teaching. Black pass rates are often under 50 percent, and according to results surveyed by Ronald Ferguson, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, most of those who fail the exam on the first taking never become teachers. It is highly improbable that the intellectual inadequacies of black teachers can account for the academic performance of black students. After all, teacher testing swept the nation, keeping low-scoring blacks out of the profession, during the mid-to-late 1980s, just about when the racial achievement gap among students began to widen. Moreover, black students are taught overwhelmingly by white teachers. Even in central cities, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, of Columbia University, three quarters of public school teachers are white.
Though this may not be the authors' intention, America in Black and White casts aspersions on the abilities of black teachers as a group that are unfounded. Consider its treatment of affirmative action in the teaching profession.
In the 1993-1994 academic year ... 7.4 percent of the teachers in the nation's public schools were African American.... African Americans constituted 6.2 percent of those [ages forty to forty-four] with a bachelor's degree or more, so they were actually slightly overrepresented as classroom teachers. Moreover, they were more than a little overrepresented in the ranks of school principals. In 1993, 10.1 percent of all public school principals in the United States were African American, a figure one-third larger than the 7.4 percent share of teaching posts that they held. Since principals are drawn from the ranks of teachers, this substantial disparity suggests that school authorities in a great many American communities in recent years have given fairly strong preferences to black candidates seeking to pursue administrative careers. Black teachers and principals thus have an edge in the competition.
What is odd here is that should the numbers have shown a modest under representation of blacks, the Thernstroms would surely have rejected an argument of this form in behalf of the claim that blacks were victims of discrimination. That discrimination cannot be proved on the basis of aggregate statistics is one of the first lessons of labor economics. The authors proceed to cite anecdotal evidence to the effect that black education professionals are highly sought after, but this, too, proves little. Indeed, evidence of any systematic bias in favor of blacks in the labor market is quite weak. Elsewhere in the book the authors indirectly endorse this point by citing econometric studies that compare the earnings of blacks and whites. These studies have uniformly found that once test scores are controlled for, racial differences in the rewards of work are quite small but usually favor whites. The authors fail to note that these studies provide evidence against the claim that because of affirmative action, blacks are widely favored in the labor market. I am not saying that no blacks benefit from preferential treatment. I am saying that scholars should be cautious about claiming that many blacks do, and modest in the extent to which they impute large-scale social developments to this particular cause.
So the numbers cited here do not demonstrate that "fairly strong preference" has been given to black teachers and administrators. It is entirely possible that a greater predilection for (or ability at!) administrative work among black teachers could account for their 2.7 percent "overrepresentation" in principals' jobs. Consider that the age distribution of black teachers is dramatically different from that of whites. According to the Patterson Research Institute of the United Negro College Fund, among female public school teachers in the 1993-1994 academic year blacks were only 4.4 percent of those under thirty, and fully 10.8 percent of those fifty or older. In fact, the growth of teacher-competency testing and the opening up of employment opportunities outside teaching have probably left blacks underrepresented in the ranks of new teachers. (The number of black women earning bachelors' degrees grew by more than half from 1977 to 1994.) Moreover, the strong possibility is that the absence in the past of alternative career paths for college-educated blacks has something to do with their prominence among more senior teachers and school administrators. Frankly, I believe that the authors are chasing an affirmative-action phantom here.
There are other problems. I carry no brief for Afrocentric education, particularly of the extreme variety cited in the book. But it is hard to believe that this fringe development among black educators could play anything other than a very minor role in explaining broad trends in black students' test scores. A large racial gap in academic performance is evident even among young children in the earliest years of school. Moreover, a recent scholarly investigation of this question by Larry Hedges and Amy Nowell, of the University of Chicago, concluded that the racial test-score gap among twelfth graders has narrowed over time, primarily because of changes in the socioeconomic status of black parents. Holding parental status constant, the gap has not changed much for a quarter century. This leaves little room for black "delusions" as a causal factor.
In America in Black and White the entire discussion of the relevance of racial identity for the teaching of black students reads more like a venting of spleen than a serious analysis. How many kids are actually taught by Afrocentrists? The authors have no idea. Does the trend in black test scores look any different in states that have high concentrations of black students in urban settings from the way it looks where the black population is smaller and more dispersed? They don't say. They just have a feeling that Afrocentrism must be damaging the education of black youngsters -- and it may be. But in the context of a discussion of national trends the claim is a real stretch. In a resounding declaration against their Afrocentric enemies, the Thernstroms announce that "black children do not need therapeutic strategies" to boost their self-esteem. Perhaps. But how, one wonders, would they know?
THAT brings me to the issue of race consciousness. America in Black and White takes a very strong line in favor of what might be called "racelessness" for blacks (and whites). The authors castigate a black high school student for speaking of "my people" in reference to people of African descent. "His people" should be simply the American people, they suggest. Would that it were so. Public expressions of racial solidarity by blacks worry them. They call "racially divisive" a slogan one used to see on T-shirts -- "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." They go this far: The police in Boston, believing the story of one Charles Stuart, a white man who alleged that his wife had been killed by a black, laid down an invasive dragnet seeking the killer in a largely black community. Later it was learned that Stuart himself had slain his wife. The Thernstroms argue in this context that the credulity of the police was understandable, in part because rap-music lyrics declare all whites to be the enemy, and worthy objects of black violence.
The Thernstroms know that race relations are not at a happy juncture in America these days. They discuss the O. J. Simpson trial, a source of much recent racial disharmony, at length. (All they can find to say about that enormous expression of race consciousness, the 1995 Million Man March, is that Minister Louis Farrakhan, who called the march, gave a bizarre speech.) Their diagnosis of the problem places great weight on a syllogism that may now be outmoded, proposed originally by Shelby Steele: Blacks and whites are supposedly locked into a relationship of mutual psychological dependence and reciprocal cognitive dissonance. Blacks fear they may be inferior. Whites fear they may be racist. Blacks want status achievement while avoiding true competition, which might reveal their inferiority. Whites want to avoid a confrontation with black claimants over the basis of black status, so as not to appear to be racist. Blacks convey approval to whites, certifying them as morally fit; and whites provide status to blacks, protecting them from the reality of their competitive inadequacies.
This purported symbiosis accounts for blacks' aggressive displays of their sense of grievance. Thus
The relentless pretense that almost all whites are an enemy, that white racism remains a constant, serves a purpose. It invites whites who are nervous about their racial rectitude to remain supplicants. The result is an unending game (black anger, white guilt) in which the white score is always zero, and the illusion of power is bestowed upon a group whose members seem to live in constant fear that their hard-earned status is not quite real -- that they remain the "invisible" men and women they once so clearly were.
This was a new insight a decade ago. It has not worn well over time, however. Events like the publication of the 1994 elections, and the passage in California of Proposition 209 raise questions about the power of white guilt to drive political culture in this country. Is it not enough to cast an eye over the scene unfolding in inner-city America in order to grasp that blacks have real reasons to be angry, and that the white score in the game that counts is positive after all?
The authors of America in Black and White blame the existence of affirmative action -- in college admissions, in the drawing of voting districts, in employment -- for an excess of race consciousness among blacks. This, they say, gives blacks an incentive to sustain their belief in "the figment of the pigment." The authors consider recommending that official government bodies do away entirely with the use of racial categories in economic and social statistics, but ultimately reject the idea. They note that in 1993 a group of big-city mayors asked the U.S. Attorney General to cease collecting crime data by race, because this information was of no use to policy and fostered harmful stereotypes. These officials reasoned, not without some basis in experience, that if people are constantly told that most criminals are black, they may come to think that most blacks are criminal. The Thernstroms chide these mayors for inconsistency -- the mayors want the bad racial news suppressed, but welcome the collection of employment or education data showing that blacks are underrepresented in some desirable pursuit.
The crime statistics had wonderfully concentrated the mayors' minds. Momentarily, at least, they recalled what liberals had always believed until the late 1960s but had chosen to forget when they were converted to affirmative action: racial classifications perpetuate racism. The mayors did not object to racial body counts on principle, as liberals once had. They were simply troubled by the publication of statistics that made African Americans look bad.
There is a great deal wrong with this posture, more than I can detail here. The fundamental problem is the absence of a sense of tragic irony concerning the role that racial stigma plays in our society and culture. Perhaps I could put it this way: It's not the figment of the pigment but the enigma of the stigma that underlies our drama in black and white. Why can't the authors see the difference between the collection of data that may identify racial differences in opportunity and the collection of data that call greater public attention to "black pathology"? Is their "color-blind" principle so brittle that it cannot accommodate a concern about high black poverty rates while at the same time avoiding the racial stereotypes evoked by a phrase like "black crime"? That a successful middle-class black man in this country cannot buy or sell a home, raise and educate his children, or pursue his life's work without having constantly, and in innumerable ways, to deal with the stigma of race surely has something to do with the survival in that man's mind of a fealty to "his people." If you want him to abandon the figment of the pigment, why not lend a hand at dispelling the enigma of the stigma?
The case made in this book for racelessness is abstract, divorced from the texture of social life in this country, made mainly in the service of a color-blind policy argument, and, ironically, ahistorical. The authors like Colin Powell -- and so do I. He is, for them, the black-who-doesn't-harp-on-being-black presidential candidate, whose promising electoral prospects in 1995 showed that the country was ready to move beyond race. Yet if one reads Powell's autobiography and his revealing interview in The New Yorker, or if one spends time talking to him, as I have done, one discovers that consciousness of race is at the very core of his being. He knows, and freely says, that but for being black he would never have risen to his position, and having so risen, would never have commanded the political interest that he did. That he is not a race-monger is to his credit, I believe. But his life story is no brief for racelessness -- quite the contrary. Indeed, just about every effective strategy of which I am aware that is being carried out in poor black communities to combat the scourges of violence, low academic achievement, and family instability builds positively on the kind of ethnic consciousness that Powell's biography exemplifies. There is remarkably little in America in Black and White about such positive race consciousness.
In order to move beyond race, we must first take race into account. This is the sentiment made famous by Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke, which permitted the practice of affirmative action in public higher education. An opposing idea is the notion that our Constitution is color-blind, making no distinctions among people on the basis of race. So Justice John Marshall Harlan claimed, in his lone dissent in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which found Jim Crow segregation to be consistent with the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Constitutional lawyers left and right think that this debate is about reading the text and finding legal truth. The Thernstroms do a fair amount of that, on the conservative side of course, and the "truth" that emerges is what one would expect. But argument about the legality of government's use of race only scratches the surface. It fails to deal with the manifest significance of race in the private lives of Americans, black and white. I agree with the Thernstroms that the institutionalization of racial preference over the past generation has done harm, to blacks and to the country, and that it needs reform. But I find simplistic in the extreme what amounts to their invitation to blacks to "just get over it."
IT is ironic that a statue named Liberty oversaw the arrival in New York's harbor of millions of foreigners, "tempest tossed" and "yearning to breathe free," even as southern black peasants -- not alien, just profoundly alienated -- languished unfree at the social margins. It is surely ironic that a racist ideology openly questioning the Negro's human worth, shaping whites' views of blacks and blacks' views of themselves, survived our defeat of the Nazis and abated only when Cold War rivalry made it intolerable that the "leader of the free world" should be seen to preside over a regime of racial subordination. And now, surely in part because of this ignoble history, some black districts in the middle of our great cities vie for the dubious distinction of being the most despairing places in the industrial world. Meanwhile, political and intellectual elites respond by giving increasing voice to their weariness with the race issue, pointing to the comparative success of recent nonwhite immigrants, and longing for the coming of a postracial America. This has the makings of national tragedy.
In the brave new dispensation "color" is supposed to be irrelevant, yet everywhere we look in America, people are attending assiduously to race. The most recent U.S. Census revealed that among married people twenty-five to thirty-four years old in 1990, 70 percent of Asian women and 39 percent of Hispanic women but only two percent of black women had white husbands. Talk about the threat of "black crime" is a staple in suburbia. Racially mixed church congregations are so rare that they make front-page news. So culturally isolated are black ghetto teens that linguists find their speech patterns to be converging across great geographic distances, even as this emergent dialect grows increasingly dissimilar to the speech of poor whites living but a few miles away. Conservative advocates of school vouchers -- ever opponents of affirmative action, but aware that the persuasiveness of their demonstration can be enhanced by the race of its beneficiaries -- select impoverished black communities in which to showcase the virtues of choice. Childless white couples travel to Colombia and Vietnam in search of infants to adopt while ghetto-born orphans go parentless. True enough, some blacks have tried to impede transracial adoptions. But more pertinent is the fact that the social pitfalls facing adoptive parents are greater for black-white than for other mixed-race families, and this discourages white adoption of black babies.
This litany is not a brief for color-conscious public policies, nor is it an indictment of American society for being irredeemably racist. What these examples illustrate is how deeply imbedded in the social consciousness of our nation is the racial "otherness" of blacks, and how important this inherited stigma can be in determining the extent of black opportunity. Astute external observers have always stressed this. In Alexis de Tocqueville remarked about early-nineteenth-century America that "the prejudice rejecting the Negroes ... [causes] inequality [to cut] deep into mores as it is effaced from the laws." A century later, observing southern society in the 1930s, Gunnar Myrdal stressed the importance of a "vicious circle" in which black failure justified for whites the very prejudicial attitudes that, when reflected in social and political action, led to black marginalization, and thereby helped to cause black failure. It is my conviction that subtle and complex social processes of this kind are at work among us even today, and that we desperately need intellectuals capable of analyzing such tragic, self-perpetuating processes while keeping their moral balance and avoiding the ideological cant of either left or right.
Glenn C. Loury is a professor of economics and the director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University. His most recent book, (1995), received an American Book Award.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; The Conservative Line on Race; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 144-154.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.