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Race in America

Round One: Opening Remarks


Nicholas Lemann poses three big questions in search of sound bites. How to answer such questions is a familiar dilemma for those of us trying to wrestle honestly with the problem of race. Dealing with race is not rocket science; it's harder than rocket science. Short and simple sound bites don't help.

1. How good or bad are things? One measure is our many sharp differences in perceptions and values, symptomatic of the distance between our communities. Reconsider the problem of Mark Fuhrman, the L.A. cop least likely to be O. J.

Dinesh D'Souza responds:
"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?... Since Edley's own perspective is well represented he seems unconcerned about the lack of philosophical or intellectual diversity."

See the rest of D'Souza's response.

Simpson's pen pal. Opinion polls showed that strong majorities of America's Latino and black communities believed that this racist cop was the tip of the iceberg, while a majority of whites believed he was an isolated example -- two different pictures of reality, that reflect different experiences and lead to different political and policy views (and perhaps juror views of police credibility).

President Clinton is wise to press his race initiative on two fronts simultaneously: the search for public policies and private measures that will bridge the opportunity gap, and the search for promising practices that can build bridges to connect communities across lines of color and class. Termed the "national conversation," this is more than closing the chat gap and singing kumbayah. The very hard challenge of new leadership on racial justice is to create a richer sense of community so that we care more about people who are not like us.
From Post & Riposte:

"The overwhelming number of Americans, people of all races, want to get along and see racial equality become a fact of life in America. Does it not make more sense to focus on these people ... rather than to concentrate on that thin minority of black and white Americans who seem forever bent on keeping the racial ramparts manned?"
--Tom Keller, 11/13/97

"The seed of equal opportunity has been planted. Let it grow. Let's vigorously enforce equal access/equal opportunity laws while at the same time promoting the idea that individuals succeed or fail on their own merits."
--Bill Welch, 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.

Glenn Loury responds:
"In reality a complex web of social connections and a long train of historical influences interact to form the opportunities and shape the outlooks of individuals. Of course, effort matters a lot, as do native talent and sheer luck, in determining how well or poorly a person does in life. But social background, cultural affinities, and communal influences are also of great importance."

See the rest of Loury's response.

If we fail we will not have the moral and political foundation for bold policy measures, because in America, still, when the political face of a problem is black, brown, yellow, or red, the color seems to get in the way of caring. So we don't worry about their schools. Or their housing. Or their jobs. President Clinton's theory is that addressing this problem of difference will be as important a foundation of America's strength in the next century as will be trade policy, a balanced budget, K-12 education excellence, and so forth. These are all building blocks for security and prosperity -- and, in this case, justice.

2. "Equality of condition" is not an appropriate goal for public policy within our dominant traditions, but neither is a laissez-faire law of the jungle. America has struggled to find a middle course between radical individual autonomy and overbearing claims of community. Comparative conditions are, however, a barometer of justice. The philosopher John Rawls might ask, If you had to pick your race, just before the moment of birth, what would it be? I would ask, Can we reduce the social and economic significance of color to that of, say, being a Presbyterian versus a Methodist?

Dinesh D'Souza responds:
"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."

See the rest of D'Souza's response.

3. Finally, Lemann asks, "Will the American public accept race-based policies of any kind?" Sure. We have. We still do. The policy of "Mend it, don't end it" commands strong support and reflects our moral center, a vision of how justly to repair American's opportunity machinery. That policy acknowledges that race- and gender-conscious measures do have moral and practical costs, but stresses that those costs are worth bearing in some contexts. First, because we need effective measures to remedy and prevent today's discrimination, and second, because there are settings in which excellence demands inclusion -- such as my classroom, Chicago's police department, or a newsroom. Generalissimos of the civil-rights rollback sound the death knell of affirmative action so often that they sound like Johnny One Note. Or Tokyo Rose, trying to persuade GIs to give up fighting because the battle is lost. It is not -- we should fight harder, and smarter.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Christopher Edley Jr., a professor of law and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, served as special counsel to President Clinton for the White House review of affirmative action and is currently a special advisor to the President for the White House Initiative on Race. He is the author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values (1996).

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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