By Michael Cromartie
Race Doesn't Matter
"The End of Racism: Principles for a Multicultural Society," by Dinesh D'Souza. Free Press, 724 pp.: $30
Born in Bombay, India, in 1961, Dinesh D'Souza is a first-generation immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1991. D'Souza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the widely debated bestseller "Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus" (1991), in which he documented the sometimes bizarre manifestations of the academy's commitment to political correctness. In August of this year, Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., talked with D'Souza about his new book, "The End of Racism: Principles for a Multicultural Society," which promises to be even more controversial than its predecessor.
Dust-jacket blurbs are rarely worth quoting, but the startling tribute from political scientist Andrew Hacker that graces "The End of Racism" is an exception to the rule: "The End of Racism is wrong, dead wrong, on almost every topic it discusses and the explanations it offers. Yet it is an entrancing book, and I could not put it down. If I found myself arguing with every sentence, that shows how Dinesh D'Souza compels his readers to reassess their own assumptions."
WHAT DOES YOUR TITLE THE END OF RACISM MEAN?
I am not saying that racism has come to an end. I am saying that racial discrimination has abated considerably from what it used to be. I am saying that racism is not the main problem faced by blacks today. I am saying that racism does not explain black failure. I am prescribing the end of racism--what we should do to get there--and I'm arguing that, in contrast, the liberal enterprise has been devoted to giving us 175 reasons for black failure: Why do blacks fail in college? It's because the curriculum is Eurocentric. Why don't they do as well on tests? The tests are biased. Why don't they do as well in high school? Because the teachers have low expectations. This goes on and on. Ultimately, this edifice becomes increasingly implausible, and liberals themselves begin to suspect that Charles Murray may be right and maybe the reason that blacks are failing on so many levels is because they can't succeed.
I'm saying that it's not genetic, it's cultural. The end of racism comes when blacks can show through experience that they are competitive, which discredits racism at its foundation. Black achievement dispels what some African American scholars have called "rumors of inferiority." I began writing this book as a discussion of America as a multiracial society, and I came to realize that racism remains a problem focusing on blacks because, while people may not like Hispanics or Asians, they don't think they are inferior. It is this suspicion of inferiority that is the heart of our problem.
The campaign for the end of racism is a political enterprise, but it's also a moral enterprise. Ultimately, it is an attempt to realize the Christian principle of brotherhood, which transcends particularistic or polarizing affiliations based on race or ethnicity.
WHY DO YOU SAY THAT ANTIRACISM TODAY IS A MORE FORMIDABLE BARRIER FACING BLACKS THAN RACISM?
Antiracism is a problem for two reasons. The first is that it has begotten the increased racialization of American life. Even after enacting Martin Luther King's entire public-policy agenda as far as race neutrality is concerned, Americans more than ever are encouraged to think of themselves in racial terms--and people who try to live without thinking of themselves in those terms are finding it increasingly difficult to do so. Our laws and policies are imbedded with racial categories and racial classification and racial discrimination. Race is the basis for hiring, for scholarships, for promotion, for government contracts, for voting districts. This is the legacy of the civil-rights movement having embraced the categories of the oppressors. The merchants of race have become the mirror image of the racists whose views they deplore.
Antiracism responds to black problems, whatever they may be, with one all-purpose slogan: "just say racism." As a result, you have ever-more coercive campaigns against white racism and for sensitivity classes, sociologists who write papers on well-intentioned racism and unconscious racism, speech codes, hate-crime laws. Racism is the windmill in this quixotic crusade; tilting against it yields no dividends, except to those with a vested interest in perpetuating the antiracism industry. Blacks become more and more frustrated thinking that they haven't toppled this adversary, and real problems become worse. We need a tremendous refocusing of attention on the basic problem, which is the uncompetitiveness of blacks in American society.
I don't want to live in a society where equality of rights leads to scandalous inequality of results. That is a racial caste society. If colleges like Berkeley were to admit based solely on merit, almost the whole campus would be white and Asian. Of the remaining seats, Hispanics would have the majority, and blacks would have very few seats at all. One solution to this is to fool around with the rules, using racial preferences and so on to camouflage the embarrassing reality of black failure. The other approach, which I think is better, is to raise the competitive standards of blacks.
Ultimately, I'm making a statement of confidence in black ability, because if you believe that blacks can't do it or are inherently deficient, then you are led to affirmative action. If someone has a natural handicap, then you have them run in the Special Olympics. I don't think that kind of paternalism is necessary. What I'm trying to do is move the argument beyond affirmative action (which is merely the tip of the iceberg) to a comprehensive rethinking of our views of racism.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF RACISM, AND HOW DOES YOUR ANALYSIS DIFFER FROM THE CONSENSUS?
The term racism is so promiscuously used today that very few people know what it really means, but the historical definition of racism is very clear. It is a belief in intrinsic group superiority or inferiority. To be a racist, you must believe (a) in race, believe that human beings can be distinguished into races; (b) that these races can be ranked hierarchically in terms of superior and inferior; and (c) that these rankings are biological or intrinsic. Typically, racism is accompanied by a desire to discriminate or segregate, to deprive people of rights.
In this book I challenge almost every received opinion about racism. I argue that racism is not universal, has not always existed; rather, it's a product of the modern West. In contrast, ethnocentrism--which is simply tribalism, a preference for one's own--is universal. People all over the world, all through time, have preferred their own families to their neighbors and their neighbors to strangers. That is a universal impulse, and its origins can't be traced.
Racism, on the other hand, is a historical phenomenon that began in a particular culture at a particular time. It grew out of the Western enterprise to understand the world. To view racism solely in psychological terms as an irrational prejudice, a form of ignorance or fear or hate, misses the point that it developed in the West as an explanation--plausible at the time--for enormous observable differences between cultures. If you lived in the nineteenth century and looked around, you would see that one civilization had mapped the heavens and the globe, had invented the telescope and the microscope, had built the cathedral of Notre Dame and of Chartres. Other cultures by comparison appeared to be hopelessly primitive, rowing around in little boats and shooting blowpipes.
The origins of racism lie in comparativism--in the comparative study of culture, which became the science of anthropology. To most of the leading Western thinkers of the eighteenth century, it appeared transparently obvious that the races were not equal in endowment. (Eugene Genovese points out that Thomas Jefferson was in some ways more of a racist than the average Southern slaveholder precisely because he kept current with the latest scientific discoveries.) That outlook was reinforced in the nineteenth century by Darwinian thought: the races were seen as representing different stages on the evolutionary scale.
YOU WOULDN'T DENY THAT THERE IS AN ELEMENT OF IGNORANCE AND FEAR IN RACISM? YOUR AVERAGE KLANSMAN IN ALABAMA IS A PERSON WHO IS AFRAID OF ANOTHER RACE. ISN'T THAT ELEMENT THERE?
Absolutely. Racism began at the top, but it quickly migrated to the bottom, where it developed into a bogus aristocracy of color. Simply by virtue of the color of your skin you gained a certain degree of social prestige. Racism appealed to whites at the bottom of the totem pole because they could say: "Look, I may be an ignoramus, I've never been to school, but because I'm white I belong to this exclusive club, and therefore I'm better than W. E. B. Du Bois or Martin Luther King."
YOU ARE QUITE CRITICAL OF THE CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT. WHY?
I argue that the problems of the civil-rights establishment today are rooted in the mistakes of the civil-rights movement from the beginning. This goes back to the debate in the early part of the century between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois, two great black leaders. Basically, Du Bois said that blacks face one problem, white racism, and we should fight it. Washington said, No, blacks face two problems: white racism and black cultural deficiency. Washington agreed with Du Bois that the reason for this cultural deficiency is the history of oppression--the legacy of slavery and the emerging culture of segregation. But he thought that despite that, blacks should work on both fronts, because it is black cultural pathologies that give a commonsensical support to white racism. White racists can say: "Look, obviously they are inferior, look at the way they behave."
Du Bois was the founder of the NAACP, and from the very beginning the organization was shaped in his image. Its members fought a valiant and largely successful battle to overturn the legal structure of segregation and to outlaw racial discrimination. However, they paid little or no attention to the other side of the equation, which was to raise the cultural standards of blacks so that when blacks were given equal rights they would be equally competitive with other groups. The dilemma we face today is that equality of rights for individuals does not lead to equality of results for groups.
Competition based on merit, just like the old racism, produces inequality, and because it produces inequality, it is merit itself that is now suspected of being a racist concept. We hear the argument that racism has gone underground, it's become more subtle, it operates through institutional structures, and so on. There's a ferocious attack on the very idea of merit.
HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE PERSISTENCE OF THESE "CULTURAL PATHOLOGIES," AS YOU DESCRIBE THEM, THAT UNDERMINE BLACK ACHIEVEMENT?
What we see today among African Americans is the perpetuation of patterns of behavior that developed as an adaptation to historical oppression but are dysfunctional now. The anthropologist Elijah Anderson talks about two rival cultures in the inner city. There is a small, besieged culture of decency, made up of blacks who try to play by the rules, keep their families together, hold steady jobs, study hard, and so on. We don't hear enough about this segment of the African American community, which tends to be ignored by the media. But there is also a rival culture characterized by incivility, promiscuity, and violence. And this is the culture that dominates the inner city.
Scholars have shown how many of the distinctive features of this culture can be traced to the archetypal "Bad Negro," a figure celebrated in various guises throughout African American history. Under slavery, if you were a runaway or a rebel or if you burned the master's barn down, you could be admired because you didn't allow your spirit to be crushed. Similarly, under segregation the outlaw figure was revered--take, for example, the bluesman Robert Johnson, with his womanizing and his pact with the Devil.
In a system where you have little or no chance to succeed, even though you play by the rules, this defiant "oppositional culture" makes sense as a response to oppression. But in the America of the 1990s, it is profoundly dysfunctional. "Bad Negroes" end up in the hospital or in jail or in the morgue, and they are taking whole neighborhoods down with them. And yet there is a paralyzing inability on the part of leading black intellectuals and political pundits to proclaim one of the two cultures in the inner city as better than the other.
WHAT IS YOUR VIEW OF SIN AND EVIL AND THE SHEER PERVERSITY OF THE HUMAN HEART? IT SEEMS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND RACISM WITHOUT LOOKING AT SOME OF THESE ISSUES.
Much of the public-policy dilemma that we face seems at first glance to be a betrayal of the classical liberal notion that we should be judged as individuals, and that all of us have the same rights. That is my premise in the beginning of the book, and it was Martin Luther King's premise. But as I began to work on this book, I came to realize that the color-blind society cannot work if it's not accompanied by a deeper project of cultural reformation. And the reformation of the culture begins with the reformation of the individuals within it. The classical liberal solution is not enough. It has to be complemented with an embrace of more conservative or traditional understandings that make the old distinction between civilization and barbarism.
Tocqueville was right when he said that American society is held strong by the reciprocal tension between liberal institutions (free markets, free discussion, religious freedom, separation of church and state), on the one hand, and on the other hand, a Christian ethic. While capitalism and freedom lead to self-expression and a focus on the self, Christianity leads to a focus on the other and the otherworldly. We need that balance. No solution is possible that simply says, Let's go back to the liberal society. We should do that, but we also need a complementary project of raising personal and social standards. The beginning of that is to abandon relativism and recognize that standards do exist; only then can we begin to aspire to them. We need to aspire to truth in our educational system and to virtue in our personal and social lives.
YOU DON'T DENY THAT A LOT OF THESE PROBLEMS ARE ROOTED IN OUR HUMAN NATURE?
I agree they are. I would argue that the universal tribalism of human nature, by which I mean selfishness, can never be eradicated, only moderated. Racism can be transcended. It had a beginning in time, and it can have an end. I am fairly optimistic about the younger generation, which I think is less race-conscious than any earlier generation in American history. Born after the civil-rights movement, young people today find it inconceivable to put people in the back of the bus or make them drink out of a separate fountain. And at the same time, they are more opposed to racial preferences than any other age bracket; having gone to the same schools and listened to the same music, they find it rather odd when groups are singled out for arbitrary preferences.
That is why my book, although a very tough book, is ultimately a hopeful book. If your problems lie in your genes, there is nothing you can do about them, but if your problems are a function of culture, there is a basis for hope, because culture can be changed. My book is based upon a certain degree of confidence in black cultural autonomy and the ability of blacks to transform their culture.
YOU HIGHLIGHT IN THE BOOK MANY NEW AFRICAN AMERICAN REFORMERS. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE, AND WHAT ARE THE THEMES THAT THEY EMPHASIZE?
The black reformers are united by their rejection of racism as the sole explanation for the problems faced by blacks and other minorities. They are united by emphasizing the need to acknowledge black cultural deficiency and black cultural pathologies. They are not euphemistic. They are willing to confront the problem, which is the prerequisite to solving it. They do not accept the notion that identifying one's own problems is simply blaming the victim. The reformers tend to believe that the victim is not to blame for his victimization, but he may be partly responsible for dealing with it.
The reformers look to concrete strategies that can be spearheaded within the black community to address its problems. There is a certain irony to the refrain of the civil-rights movement: "America is a racist society; whites are to blame for black problems; we expect the whites (the oppressors) to solve these problems." The reformers are more realistic. They don't deny the existence of racism, but they don't pursue it with Captain Ahablike obsessiveness, either. They believe that every group ultimately advances on its own strength, and that what is really missing for blacks in American society is the freely given respect of their peers. Much of what is called "middle-class black rage" is a response to the failure to earn that respect. This cannot be conferred by affirmative action, which gives it patronizingly but not genuinely. The black reformers are a small movement, but they are a movement that I am trying to encourage. In their success is our hope.
AREN'T YOU FINDING THAT THESE BLACK REFORMERS ARE NOT ONLY CONSERVATIVES--THAT THEY INCLUDE LIBERALS AS WELL?
I think that there are a number of moderates and neoliberals among the reformers. I would name from the academic world Randall Kennedy at Harvard Law School, Stephen Carter at Yale, and William Julius Wilson at the University of Chicago. In the political sphere, Clarence Page, William Raspberry, Juan Williams. Many of these reformers realize how lethal it is to be viewed as dissenting from the civil-rights orthodoxy. They realize that they are likely to be called "Oreos" and "Uncle Toms." As a result, they sometimes have to engage in an elaborate balancing act in which their criticisms are tempered so as not to be viewed as dissent.
TOWARD THE END OF THE BOOK YOU SAY THAT WE NEED A NEW PUBLIC ETHIC OF RESPONSIBILITY. WHAT WOULD THAT PUBLIC ETHIC LOOK LIKE?
Conservatives should respect the liberal doctrine of rights, and liberals should respect the conservative emphasis on accountability and responsibility. Rights acquire their moral significance when they are exercised responsibly. The voluntary embrace of Christ's saving message acquires a greater significance because it is voluntary and is not coerced; I do it out of my free will. On the other hand, the value of my freedom is that it permits me to make that choice. The freedom exists, not for its own sake, but to allow me to choose wisely. Relativism has introduced the deification of choice, choice for its own sake.
A public ethic of responsibility would work at several levels. When we look at public policies over the last generation, we have basically been looking at their distributive impact, redistributing money progressively from the rich to the poor with little attention to the behavioral consequences of those incentives and disincentives. We need to rethink our public policy. Every public policy should be measured not solely by its redistributive impact, but also by its impact on the behavior and, indeed, the character of citizens. We are our brother's keeper, and we do owe each other filial responsibilities.
One of the tragedies of the welfare state is that it has removed the moral fiber from the transaction between the giver and the receiver. So essentially, the government becomes an intermediary, the giver becomes an angry taxpayer, and the receiver becomes someone who feels entitled and thus not obligated in any way.
I am not of the view that we are spending too much money on welfare. I do think, however, that our welfare policy is asking us to act toward strangers in a way that we would not act toward our own relatives. If my cousin came to me and said that she had made a terrible mistake, that she had been deceived by this man and was pregnant and needed $300 a month to help her out, I would say yes. If she showed up a year later and said that she was pregnant again and wanted an additional $300 a month, this would make me angry, and at the very least I would want to impose some stern restrictions. Something that we would do unhesitatingly in our daily lives the government does not do.
Not only that, there is a tremendous uproar when even the least onerous of responsibilities are suggested for welfare recipients. For example, Congress is debating welfare legislation that would ask people to get off welfare in five years! This seems to me to be plenty of time to overcome a change in the weather of one's fortunes. The Democrats have introduced proposed exceptions to this rule, so that if you live in an area that has 7.5 percent unemployment or more, even the five-year rule goes out the window. That basically applies to every single inner city in the country. In effect, the reform would be meaningless.
So we need to pay more attention to the effect of policies on behavior. I also agree with Gertrude Himmelfarb that we need to have a public debate that is conducted in the lexicon of right and wrong--right and wrong not necessarily oriented toward the salvation of one's soul, but right and wrong in the sense of one's civic responsibilities, one's duties to fellow citizens. That language, which was at one time second nature, now seems quaint and outdated, but I think people are beginning to feel the need for it, and so there might be a movement for its recovery.
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review