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Race in America

Round Two: Concluding Remarks


M. David Martin is right: Christopher Edley's continuing effort to impugn the motives of those who oppose racial preferences illustrates the bankruptcy of his position. Supporters of preferences have lost so much intellectual ground in recent years that the best they can do now is to point to the low enrollments of blacks and Hispanics at Berkeley and the University of Texas, for example, and say: we need affirmative action because we should not be willing to live with these outcomes.

But that view will only command broad support if it can be shown that racial discrimination is responsible for producing the low enrollments. In fact there is no evidence that this is the case. No one has revealed the existence of bigots in the Berkeley or Texas admissions office working to keep blacks and Hispanics out.

The problem, rather, is that white and Asian-American applicants are on average outperforming their black and Hispanic counterparts. Even poor Asians do better on math tests than upper-middle-class blacks. There is no mystery why this is so. Studies show that Asian-Americans score higher because they study a lot harder. And one reason for this may be that two-parent families are in a better position to discipline their children and supervise their study habits than single-parent households. I hope that I will not be considered churlish for pointing out that the illegitimacy rate in the Asian-American community is 2-3 percent, while in the African-American community it is 70 percent!

So, to answer Robert Tagorda's question about the role of the other nonwhite minorities in America's race debate, the success of these groups (including Asians and also black immigrants, such as West Indians and Nigerians) exposes a myth that the civil-rights establishment has been peddling for a generation -- namely, that in this country you have to be white in order to succeed, because if you are not then racism will stifle your aspirations.
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Myths don't die easily. When I first argued in The End of Racism that racism was no longer the main obstacle to black progress, and that cultural pathologies such as racial paranoia, excessive dependency on government, and high crime and illegitimacy rates were preventing blacks from achieving their full potential, Glenn Loury joined the civil-rights leadership in responding with an indignant shriek.

Now we discover that Loury is reluctantly willing to concede the merits of my position, and has shifted the focus of his complaint. These cultural pathologies, he alleges, are themselves the product of oppression. He writes that the causal relationship between historical injustice and black cultural pathology is "demonstrable beyond doubt." Nick Lemann seconds this point, insisting that the disorders of the ghetto are "quite clearly" the "direct result of slavery, segregation, and racism." The sociologist William Julius Wilson has been making this argument for some time. Loury and Lemann draw the conclusion that all Americans, but especially the white middle class, owe a continuing obligation to the black underclass that goes beyond an assurance of equal rights under the law.

Unfortunately the premise of this argument is wrong. Consider the breakdown of the black family. Many people, including some scholars and pundits, routinely allege that this problem was caused by slavery, because marriage was nowhere legal in the slave states. But in fact the illegitimacy rate for blacks between 1900 and 1960 remained roughly constant at around 20 percent. That's less than one third the current rate. Scholars are in agreement that the steep increase in black illegitimacy has occurred during the past generation, so slavery and segregation are not the main sources of the problem, after all.

Similarly, black crime rates were much lower during the first half of this century -- even during the Great Depression, even in the Deep South -- than during the past three decades. Those who automatically assume -- like Loury, Lemann, and their apparent mentor Wilson -- that black cultural pathology is due to historical oppression have offered no explanation for why many of these pathologies were much less serious when the discrimination and hardship facing the African-American community were vastly more intense.

None of this to deny that Americans must work together as a nation to address the country's problems, including its race problem. But the best way to do this is to appeal to the goodwill of whites and other citizens. Human nature dictates that we who are not black are more likely to want to help if we see that blacks acknowledge the nature of the problem, and are taking concrete actions to do something about it.

Americans are unlikely to respond favorably to Loury's strategy of moral intimidation. Already it is a bit comical to see this economist put on his preacher's robes and subject middle-class whites and the rest of us to tiresome lectures on our supposed moral duties. If Loury is so concerned about the underclass why doesn't he give up his prestige-press punditry, get off the lecture circuit, and devote his energies full-time to teaching disadvantaged kids in an inner-city school?

The point is not that Loury should put his resources where his mouth is. It is that as a black man, Loury is more likely to influence the thinking and cultural practices of other African-Americans than a non-black would be. If Nick Lemann or I showed up in a predominantly black neighborhood to talk about skills and responsibility, we would be viewed with suspicion and even hostility. Although it has been repeatedly denied in this symposium, my point is an obvious one: as a practical matter, African-American preachers, teachers, and parents are often in the best position to reform the mores of the black 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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