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Glenn C. Loury

COLOR Blind?

What's wrong with the conservative line on race.

That the United States of America, "a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," began as a slave society is a profound historical irony. The "original sin" of slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nation's soul. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in a tragic, calamitous civil war—the price this new democracy had to pay to rid itself of that most undemocratic institution. But, of course, the end of slavery did not usher in an era of democratic equality for blacks. Another century was to pass before a national commitment to pursue that goal could be achieved. Meaningful civic inclusion even now eludes many of our fellow citizens who are recognizably of African descent. What does that say about the character of our civic culture as we move into a new century? For its proper telling, this peculiarly American story in black and white requires an appreciation of irony and a sense of the tragic.

White attitudes toward blacks today are not what they were at the end of slavery, or in the 1930s. Nor is black marginalization nearly as severe. Segregation is dead, and the open violence once used to enforce it has for all practical purposes been eradicated. We have made great progress, but we have a long way to go, and we are in deep disagreement about how to further proceed.

The problem we have solved is the one Gunnar Myrdal described in his classic 1944 treatise, An American Dilemma. There he contrasted America's lofty political ideals with the seemingly permanent second-class status of Negroes. This framing of the problem shaped the conscience of a generation of American intellectuals and activists coming to maturity in the years 1945-60. Myrdal urged whites to choose the nobility of their ideals over the comfort of long-standing social arrangements. In due course they did, and that was a great achievement.

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom belong to that postwar generation of racial progressives who believed in Myrdal's vision and struggled to see it realized. Like a great many others of similar bent, they retained an abiding interest in the subject, but they grew ever more estranged from what the "progressive" position on racial issues came to represent.

Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University, and a pioneer in the field of quantitative social history. He earned his reputation a quarter-century ago with the publication of The Other Bostonians, a now-classic study of Boston's immigrant working class. Abigail Thernstrom, his wife, is a political scientist, best known for her 1987 book, Whose Votes Count? That prizewinning work offered a powerful and, for many people, compelling critique of federal voting-rights law as it evolved over the two decades following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

For the past seven years, this superbly qualified team has labored to produce a comprehensive assessment of changes in American race relations in the half-century since the appearance of Myrdal's epic. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible is the result. It is a large, ambitious book that combines historical narrative and data-driven policy analysis with trenchant social criticism. The three-part text treats the history of blacks from Reconstruction through the 1960s; economic, political, and social progress for blacks over the past 30 years; and recent race-oriented public policies affecting education, voting, employment, and government contracting. The final two chapters survey the current racial climate and envision how American race relations might develop in the future.

America in Black and White is an important, learned, and searching statement on our age-old social dilemma. It unapologetically celebrates the racial reforms realized by the institutions of American democracy over the past two generations, using a before-and-after narrative to highlight how rapid and extensive the change has been. The author's argument, buttressed by some 2,000 footnotes, rests on an impressive review of the scholarly literature in history, law, and the social sciences. Even so, the well-crafted prose conveys mastery of the subject without lapsing into jargon. Indeed, the book often moves smoothly between commentary on current affairs and scholarly exegesis. Such accessibility is a virtue, of course, but given the authors' evident objectives it is also a necessity. For, more than a survey of social trends or a critical assessment of public policy, America in Black and White is a passionately rendered manifesto preaching what can fairly be called a conservative line on the race issue.

America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible
by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom
Simon & Schuster
704 pp.; $32.50

This is no sin. Nor can it come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the authors' opinion journalism over the past decade. Still, America in Black and White is a combative book. Reading it, one cannot escape the impression that the enemy is being engaged. Although conceived long before President Clinton initiated his national dialogue on racial issues, the book's publication at this moment offers, in effect, an opening salvo from the Right in that proposed debate.

The enemy on whom the Thernstroms have fixed their sights is the latter-day public philosophy of racial liberalism—what the economist Thomas Sowell once called "the civil-rights vision." This is the notion that ongoing white racism is the main barrier to black progress, and that some kind of affirmative action is the appropriate remedy. Another crucial feature of the civil-rights vision as depicted here is that it fosters undue race consciousness by sustaining a sense of grievance among blacks of all classes, encouraging them to "play the race card." Following the political scientist Donald Horowitz, the authors pithily refer to this belief in the enduring power of race as "the figment of the pigment."

The 1968 report of the Kerner Commission, written in the aftermath of the great urban riots, was an early statement of this brand of racial liberalism. The social critic Andrew Hacker's book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, which was a bestseller in the wake of the Los Angeles riot of 1992, represents a more recent example of similar thinking. The Thernstroms' subtitle, "One Nation, Indivisible," reads like a defiant rejection of Hacker, whose arguments, indeed, are not as weighty as theirs. And the authors take pains to argue (persuasively) that the Kerner Commission's gloomy forecast of racial apartheid, however plausible at the time, has been nullified by subsequent developments. These turn out to be soft targets. Nevertheless, a great many adherents of the civil-rights vision remain at large among us, and the authors seem determined to ferret them out and to prove them wrong.

The civil-rights movement as a force capable of shaping the moral and political sensibilities of the American public on questions of race was all but finished a quarter-century ago. True, few who noticed were brave enough to say so at that time, but gaping holes in the intellectual positions of racial liberals have been evident, and widely discussed, for more than a decade now. It has been about 20 years since William Julius Wilson's seminal The Declining Significance of Race and James Q. Wilson's incomparable Thinking About Crime. Sowell's Ethnic America appeared in 1981, Charles Murray's Losing Ground in 1984, Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character in 1990. The reality of demographic transformation—the growing importance of Asian and Hispanic ethnics in the country's political culture—has marginalized black liberals in city after city. The prisons are stuffed to overflowing with young black men. The federal welfare entitlement, on which a third of black children depended for their subsistence, was terminated in the last session of Congress. Busing is dead as social policy, and affirmative action is tottering.

Who doubts today that blacks have made stunning economic and social progress, relative to their condition before World War II? Who denies that crime, drugs, poor school performance, and family instability are major barriers to upward mobility in the black lower classes? Who cannot see that racial preferences, minority-business set-asides, race-norming of employment tests, and the like are on the way out? Racial liberals, that's who; and they muster voting majorities in very few places. The rest of us, including a great many Democrats, now take these positions for granted, by and large, So there is a sense in which the Thernstroms are flogging a dead horse, though, admittedly, there was more life in the horse when they started this project.

Which is certainly not to say that there is nothing new in the voluminous, carefully presented evidence they have amassed. Part 1 of this book is an often lyrically written and subtly argued historical narrative recounting, respectfully but not uncritically, the tribulations and triumphs of American blacks from Emancipation through the 1960s. Woven through the chapters in part 2 is a wealth of evidence, unlike any I have seen elsewhere, on the progressive liberalization of racial attitudes among whites over the past half-century. There is also an exhaustive and valuable exploration of changes in urban residential segregation over the past 30 years, which breaks new ground. And scattered throughout the text and notes are fresh interpretations and close readings of recent social trends (in black college attendance and concerning the racial gap in academic achievement, for example), which specialists will find provocative.

But a "black hat/white hat" approach to intellectual combat is also evident in this book. A great deal of effort is expended detailing how assorted usual suspects—the American Civil Liberties Union, academic racial liberals, the National Education Association, black civil-rights activists, the New York Times editorial page, the loony Afrocentric Left—have with their good intentions only made things worse, or with their bad intentions threatened the integrity of our democracy. An oft-repeated theme in the presentation of data is that black failure, not white racism, is the real issue. A frequent assertion, as an article of faith, is that if the government would just get out of the business of classifying citizens on the basis of race, blacks would focus less on their racial identity, and socio-political conflicts across racial lines would probably be much less severe.

Although there is some plausibility in these positions, they do not encompass the whole truth about our racial drama. Reading through these more than 500 pages, one hungers for some allusion to the ironic, the paradoxical, and especially the tragic elements in America's enduring dilemma. Yet the authors seem bent on refuting their opponents from the past decade's culture wars—so much so that they often fail to display the subtlety of thought and the generosity of spirit of which they are no doubt capable, and on which an appreciation of irony and tragedy depends.

America in Black and White takes a very strong line in favor of what might be called "racelessness" for blacks (and whites). The authors castigate a black high school student for speaking of "my people" in reference to people of African descent. "His people" should be simply the American people, they suggest. Would that it were so. Public expressions of racial solidarity by blacks worry them. They call "racially divisive" a slogan one used to see on T-shirts: "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." They go this far: The police in Boston, believing the story of one Charles Stuart, a white man who alleged that his wife had been killed by a black, laid down an invasive dragnet seeking the killer in a largely black community. Later it was learned that Stuart himself had slain his wife. The Thernstroms argue in this context that the credulity of the police was understandable, in part because rap-music lyrics declare all whites to be the enemy, and worthy objects of black violence.

The Thernstroms know that race relations are not at a happy juncture in America these days. They discuss the O. J. Simpson trial, a source of much recent racial disharmony, at length. (All they can find to say about that enormous expression of race consciousness, the 1995 Million Man March, is that Minister Louis Farrakhan, who called the march, gave a bizarre speech.) Their diagnosis of the problem places great weight on a thesis, proposed originally by Shelby Steele, that now may be outmoded: Blacks and whites are supposedly locked into a relationship of mutual psychological dependence and reciprocal cognitive dissonance. Blacks fear they may be inferior. Whites fear they may be racist. Blacks want status achievement while avoiding true competition, which might reveal their inferiority. Whites want to avoid a confrontation with black claimants over the basis of black status, so as not to appear to be racist. Blacks convey approval to whites, certifying them as morally fit; and whites provide status to blacks, protecting them from the reality of their competitive inadequacies.

This purported symbiosis accounts for blacks' aggressive displays of their sense of grievances:

Thus the relentless pretense that almost all whites are enemies, that white racism remains a constant, serves a purpose. It invites whites who are nervous about their racial rectitude to remain supplicants. The result is an unending game (black anger, white guilt) in which the white score is always zero, and the illusion of power is bestowed upon a group whose members seem to live in constant fear that their hard-earned status is not quite real—that they remain the "invisible" men and women they once so clearly were.

This was a new insight a decade ago. It has not worn well over time, however. Events like the publication of The Bell Curve, the 1994 elections, and the passage in California of Proposition 209 raise questions about the power of white guilt to drive political culture in this country. Is it not enough to cast an eye over the scene unfolding in inner-city America in order to grasp that blacks have real reasons to be angry, and that the white score in the game that counts is positive after all?

The authors of America in Black and White blame the existence of affirmative action for an excess of race consiousness among blacks. This, they say, gives blacks an incentive to sustain their belief in "the figment of the pigment." The authors consider recommending that official government bodies do away entirely with the use of racial categories in economic and social statistics, but they ultimately reject the idea. They note that in 1993 a group of big-city mayors asked the U.S. attorney general to cease collecting crime data by race, because this information was of no use to policy and fostered harmful stereotypes. These officials reasoned, not without some basis in experience, that if people are constantly told that most criminals are black, they may come to think that most blacks are criminal. The Thernstroms chide these mayors for inconsistency: the mayors want the bad racial news suppressed, but welcome the collection of employment or education data showing that blacks are underrepresented in some desirable pursuit.

There is a great deal wrong with the Thernstroms' stance, more than I can detail here. The fundamental problem is the absence of a sense of tragic irony concerning the role that racial stigma plays in our society and culture. Perhaps I could put it this way: It's not the figment of the pigment but the enigma of the stigma that underlies our drama in black and white. Why can't the authors see the difference between the collection of data that may identify racial differences in opportunity and the collection of data that call greater public attention to "black pathology"? Is their "color-blind" principle so brittle that it cannot accommodate a concern about high black poverty rates while at the same time avoiding the racial stereotypes evoked by a phrase like "black crime"? That a successful middle-class black man in this country cannot buy or sell a home, raise and educate his children, or pursue his life's work without having constantly to deal with the stigma of race surely has something to do with the survival in that man's mind of fealty to "his people." If you want him to abandon the figment of the pigment, why not lend a hand at dispelling the enigma of the stigma?

The case made in this book for racelessness is abstract, divorced from the texture of social life in this country, made mainly in the service of a color-blind policy argument, and, ironically, ahistorical. The authors think well of Colin Powell—and so do I. He is, for them, the black-who-doesn't-harp-on-being-black presidential candidate, whose promising electoral prospects in 1995 showed that the country was ready to move beyond race. Yet if one reads Powell's autobiography and his revealing interview in the New Yorker, or if one spends time talking to him, as I have done, one discovers that consciousness of race is at the very core of his being. He knows, and freely says, that but for his being black, he would never have risen to his position, and having so risen, would never have commanded the political interest that he did. That he is not a race-monger is to his credit, I believe. But his life story is no brief for racelessness—quite the contrary. Indeed, just about every effective strategy of which I am aware that is being carried out in poor black communities to combat the scourges of violence, low academic achievement, and family instability builds positively on the kind of ethnic consciousness that Powell's biography exemplifies. There is remarkably little in America in Black and White about such positive race consciousness.

In order to move beyond race, we must first take race into account. This is the sentiment made famous by Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke, which permitted the practice of affirmative action in public higher education. An opposing idea is the notion that our Constitution is color-blind, making no distinctions among people on the basis of race. So Justice John Marshall Harlan claimed, in his lone dissent in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which found Jim Crow segregation to be consistent with the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Constitutional lawyers Left and Right think that this debate is about reading the text and finding legal truth. The Thernstroms do a fair amount of that, on the conservative side, of course, and the "truth" that emerges is what one would expect. But argument about the legality of government's use of race only scratches the surface. It fails to deal with the manifest significance of race in the private lives of Americans, black and white. I agree with the Thernstroms that the institutionalization of racial preference over the past generation has done harm to blacks and to the country, and that it needs reform. But I find simplistic in the extreme what amounts to their invitation to blacks to "just get over it."

It is ironic that a statue named Liberty oversaw the arrival in New York's harbor of millions of foreigners, "tempest-tossed" and "yearning to breathe free," even as southern black peasants—not alien, just profoundly alienated—anguished unfree at the social margins. It is surely ironic that a racist ideology openly questioning the Negro's human worth, shaping whites' views of blacks and blacks' views of themselves, survived our defeat of the Nazis and abated only when Cold War rivalry made it intolerable that the "leader of the free world" should be seen to preside over a regime of racial subordination. And now, surely in part because of this ignoble history, some black districts in the middle of our great cities vie for the dubious distinction of being the most despairing places in the industrial world. Meanwhile, political and intellectual elites respond by giving increasing voice to their weariness with the race issue, pointing to the comparative success of recent nonwhite immigrants, and long for the coming of a postracial America. This has the makings of national tragedy.

In the brave new dispensation, "color" is supposed to be irrelevant, yet everywhere we look in America, people are attending assiduously to race. The most recent U.S. Census revealed that among married people 25 to 34 years old in 1990, 70 percent of Asian women and 39 percent of Hispanic women but only 2 percent of black women had white husbands. Talk about the threat of "black crime" is a staple in suburbia. Racially mixed church congregations are so rare that they make front-page news. So culturally isolated are black ghetto teens that linguists find their speech patterns to be converging across great geographic distances, even as this emergent dialect grows increasingly dissimilar to the speech of poor whites living but a few miles away. Conservative advocates of school vouchers—ever opponents of affirmative action, but aware that the persuasiveness of the demonstration can be enhanced by the race of its beneficiaries—select impoverished black communities in which to showcase the virtues of choice. Childless white couples travel to China in search of infants to adopt, while ghetto-born orphans go parentless. True enough, some blacks have tried to impede transracial adoptions. But more pertinent is the fact that social pitfalls facing adoptive parents are greater for black-white than for mixed-race families, and this discourages white adoption of black babies.

This litany is not a brief for color-conscious public policies, nor is it an indictment of American society for being irredeemably racist. What these examples illustrate is how deeply imbedded in the social consciousness of our nation is the racial "otherness" of blacks, and how important this inherited stigma can be in determining the extent of black opportunity. Astute external observers have always stressed this. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked about early nineteenth-century America that "the prejudice rejecting the Negroes … [causes] inequality [to cut] deep into mores as it is effaced from the laws." A century later, observing southern society in the 1930s, Gunnar Myrdal stressed the importance of a "vicious circle" in which black failure justified for whites the very prejudicial attitudes that, when reflected in social and political action, led to black marginalization, and thereby helped to cause black failure. It is my conviction that subtle and complex social processes of this kind are at work among us even today, and that we desperately need intellectuals capable of analyzing such tragic, self-perpetuating processes while keeping their moral balance and avoiding the ideological cant of either Left or Right.

Glenn C. Loury is University Professor of Economics and director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University. This review first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in a longer version with a more extensive critical evaluation of the social science arguments of the Thernstroms' book. Reprinted with permission.

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