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Glenn C. Loury
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 ...