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Race in America

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?

Glenn Loury responds:
"The ideals of liberty upon which the country was founded ... 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."

See the rest of Loury's response.

In the long term a color-blind public policy is the only one consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the only workable foundation for a multiethnic society. Time and patience for the kind of "race management" advocated by liberals, and even by some conservatives like Glenn Loury, have largely run out. Most Americans are no longer willing to give their government the discretion to discriminate in the confidence that this power will be used wisely. No amount of self-righteous finger pointing or breast beating can change this political reality.
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."
--Laura, 11/15/97

"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.

Christopher Edley responds:
"Innumerable young journalists and legislative staffers came of age during the long Reagan-Bush civil-rights winter.... They exhibit not the burning impatience for racial justice common in the 1960s but a self-serving conviction that 'reverse discrimination' is the compelling civil-rights issue of their generation. Now, as they take control of our politics and civic culture, their moral compasses point fixedly toward their own navels."

See the rest of Edley's response.

But now we have discovered that merit -- just like the old racism -- produces group inequality. On virtually every measure of academic achievement and economic performance, whites and Asian-Americans do best, Hispanics fall in the middle, and African-Americans do least well. This may not be a pleasant fact, but it is a fact.

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?

Glenn Loury responds:
"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."

See the rest of Loury's response.

I am not suggesting that IQ or natural differences are the culprit here. Like the economist and columnist Thomas Sowell, I believe that cultural or behavioral differences in family structure, crime rates, study habits, rates of business formation, and so on are largely responsible for why some groups consistently do better than others. At times the Thernstroms as well as Loury seem to concede the truth of the cultural explanation; at other times, they go into spasms of denial.

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.

Nicholas Lemann responds:
"Having spent a lot of time in ghettos, I just can't accept the idea of them as naturally occurring ethnic enclaves of an especially low-performing group.... The ghettos are caste neighborhoods, not ethnic ones. Even the supposedly optimistic Thernstroms never voice any optimism about the ghettos, nor do they argue that conditions there are simply the result of people's having fallen to the bottom of a free and open society."

See the rest of Lemann's response.

The Thernstroms proclaim themselves to be optimists based upon their chronicle of black progress during the past half century. But this progress is largely the result of liberalized attitudes toward blacks and the steady elimination of legal barriers to black advancement. Now that those obstacles have been mostly removed, future progress for blacks depends on a demonstration that the group is raising its level of skills to compete more effectively for the rewards of American life.

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.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 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.
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