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Race in America

Round One: Response


Unlike Christopher Edley, I am not very optimistic about President Clinton's race-relations panel. Yes, perhaps the panel "looks like America" in its cosmetic inclusion of every ethnic group. But does the panel think like America? The group apparently contains no conservative point of view, no critics of affirmative action. Since Edley's own perspective is well represented he seems unconcerned about the lack of philosophical or intellectual diversity. Yet a diversity of ideas would seem to be a necessary prerequisite for a real debate aimed at resolving the dilemma Edley points out -- that of a clash of polar perspectives between Americans. I don't expect the race panel to achieve much, and I certainly don't think it will secure Clinton a place on Mount Rushmore.

I share Edley's goal of a society in which the significance of race is reduced, if not to irrelevance then at least to the comparatively unimportant distinction between a Presbyterian and a Methodist. Edley is also right that color-conscious laws make sense in a few cases. But color-blind law is necessary because we don't trust the state with the power to discriminate.

By analogy consider the fifty-five m.p.h speed limit. The limit is arbitrary: some people drive safely at seventy m.p.h., others are unsafe at forty. But we don't allow cops the discretion to pull people over based on a subjective determination of who is driving too fast. Color-blind laws, like speed limits, are sometimes over-inclusive or under-inclusive. But they have the merit of compelling every citizen to play by the same rules.
From Post & Riposte:

"'It is black failure,' says one side. 'No, it is white racism,' says the other. Why not a bit of both? Why not suspend judgment when conclusive evidence is lacking?"
--Joe Klimberg, 11/14/97

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.

I cannot figure out whether Glenn Loury is finally willing to concede the cultural dysfunctionality that is the main obstacle preventing blacks, especially the black underclass, from competing effectively for the rewards of American life. At times Loury seems to take for granted the behavioral pathologies of the underclass; at other times he suggests that whites are simply looking for an excuse to blame blacks in order to rationalize their own superior position in society.

Loury's confusion can be clarified by reexamining the central issue in the debate that took place between two black statesmen, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, in the early part of the century. For Du Bois, the main problem faced by blacks was white racism. Washington insisted that blacks faced two problems: white racism and a cultural deficit that prevented blacks from achieving their full potential.

Washington acknowledged that the cultural weaknesses of blacks were in large part the legacy of slavery and oppression. For Washington, however, the more significant fact was that these deficiencies -- high crime rates, low savings rates, broken families -- were real, and the main task facing the black leadership was to devise a strategy for remedying them.

For the better part of a century the civil-rights movement ignored Washington's ideas and instead stuck to Du Bois's agenda of securing equal rights under the law. But now that this has been mostly achieved, as Loury freely concedes, the new imperative for the movement is to pursue Washington's agenda of preparing blacks to take advantage of the opportunities currently available.

After insisting that "the only argument" in the civil-rights debate is over what should be done to remedy the plight of the black underclass, Loury offers no solutions of his own. The best he can do is to assume his familiar self-righteous stance, instructing us to stop stigmatizing the "cultural styles" of the underclass and to start adopting inner-city orphans. Far more useful, I believe, would be for black leaders like Loury to begin the educational process of raising the cultural standards of the disadvantaged and to support community programs that would give inner-city kids better life prospects where they live.

The government can help, through policies like welfare reform that are aimed at discouraging births out of wedlock, through tax incentives for businesses to invest in inner cities, or through school vouchers that allow poor parents to choose a better education for their children. There is also a reservoir of white good will that can be tapped. But people are more likely to help those who help themselves. Thus, by tragic necessity, the main responsibility for reforming the cultural deficiencies of the black underclass falls to the African-American community.

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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