• Print

The New Civil War

Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass

by Christopher Jencks
Harvard University Press, 280 pp., $27.95

Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action

by Gertrude Ezorsky
Cornell University Press, 140 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession

by Studs Terkel
The New Press, 403 pp., $24.95


—One of every four young black men is currently behind bars, or could be returned there for violating his probation or parole.

—Among those not in prison, the most common cause of death has become homicide, a fate usually inflicted by a member of their own race.

—Black deaths from HIV infections, largely related to drug abuse, now stand at 3.3 times the rate for whites.

—In 1970, unemployment among black workers exceeded that for whites by a ratio of 186 to 100, hardly a happy situation. By 1990, the ratio of black to white workers lacking jobs had risen to 276 to 100. One reason is that more firms are choosing to hire immigrants rather than native-born blacks.

—Nor do black infants get an auspicious start in life. They are three times more likely to have late pre-natal care or none at all. And they are twice as apt to have low birth-weights, which in many cases leads to permanent impairments. One reason is that most black children now begin their lives in households below the poverty line.

The great majority of black Americans lead responsible lives, often despite daunting obstacles. They do not take drugs while pregnant; fire pistols in busy streets; or if out of a job, give up the search for work even in the toughest times. Yet the unprecedented incidence of violence, self-destruction, and the neglect of children described in the statistics I have cited show a despair about the very value of life among many members of America’s largest minority race. Even if freely chosen, these acts must also be seen as responses to intolerable pressures exerted by the rest of society.

Africans were brought here as chattels because their labor was wanted; soon much of the economy would depend on their services and skills. And for almost a century following Emancipation, from 1865 until about 1955, black workers had a firm place in the nation’s employment force. True, most were poorly paid, last hired and first fired. Or, as Gertrude Ezorsky puts it in her original and provocative essay, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, they continued to “predominate in those occupations that in a slave society would be reserved for slaves.” Since the mid-1950s, however, the economy and the nation as a whole have been sending a new message: the country has little if any need for its residents of African ancestry. It is bad enough to suffer slavery, segregation, and discrimination. It is even worse to know that most of your fellow citizens would feel a lot happier if you simply disappeared.

For their part, many white Americans can be heard calling for larger prisons and longer sentences, along with demands that black women stop having so many children and do some kind of work. Concurrently most white citizens have arranged to live far away from their nearest black neighbors. As a result, the nation’s two major races live largely in different worlds, ill at ease with each other when not outwardly inimical. That this social segregation has created separate racial cultures is a central theme of Christopher Jencks’s Rethinking Social Policy. His is the most perceptive discussion I have seen of the connections between race and class, the drive for success and fear of failure, and the way that recurrent crises defy durable solutions.

Jencks makes clear at the outset that his book “does not propose a coherent alternative to traditional liberalism or conservatism. If it has a single consistent message, it is that all such ideologies lead to bad social policy.” In this vein, he argues that “conservatives will have to abandon the pretense that single mothers could get along without government help if only they had jobs.” Some might, but others would end up on the streets; and even now we don’t truly know who needs what kinds of assistance, or how it can best be delivered. He also challenges liberals to transform the federal welfare program “so that it reinforces rather than subverts American ideals about work and marriage.” Rethinking Social Policy has few concrete proposals; but that is not its intention. Much of it critically reviews the ideas of commentators, like Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell, who offer sweeping prescriptions. For his own part, Jencks asks us to abandon the “generalities” we often make about class and race and poverty, and “look at the diverse effects of particular social programs.”

America has always been a “multicultural” nation, although events elsewhere should remind us that we are not the only such society. Where we differ from most other countries is the degree to which we impose an apartheid on our major minority race. Even successful middle-class black Americans find they have a narrow choice of neighborhoods and few social contacts with members of other races. When all is said and done, black children and adults spend more of their lives among themselves than almost any other group, including recent immigrants. To be sure, this isolation is to some degree voluntary; yet the central reality is that white America wants black America kept apart. So sharp a segregation, Jencks suggests, explains “the persistence of a distinctive black culture.” And the basis of American racism is that “most whites think white culture is superior to black culture.”

Generalizations about cultures are always risky, especially when we are dealing with aggregations as large as the black and white races. Black Americans generally agree that they have styles and traditions of their own. At the same time, their views may vary on what to emphasize, and how to speak when whites may be listening. There is the culture of the isolated young and poor, emblazoned in recent movies and rap music. Quite different ideas and attitudes can be found among the ambitious black professionals and managers described in Lois Benjamin’s The Black Elite. Yet even those on the executive ladder can still see something of themselves in a film like Boyz N the Hood. Some will also claim that black culture is beyond the comprehension of whites, often adding that whites’ portrayals end up as condescending or caricatured. Acknowledging this, Jencks is still willing to cite traits and tendencies common within racial groups. He counts on our understanding that generalizations need not be universal; that we must look for subtleties, exceptions, reservations.

Both Jencks and Ezorsky believe that cultural divisions are inherent in the debate over affirmative action, certainly where race is involved. Here it is worth recalling that affirmative action differs from efforts to ensure “equal opportunity,” which seek to correct cases where able applicants are denied positions because of social prejudice. In the past, employers and colleges turned down well-qualified Catholics and Jews, denying them an equal opportunity to enter the competition. Today, many Asians and women are claiming that while they possess the desired credentials, they are still not awarded their fair share of places and promotions. Affirmative action differs from equal opportunity in an important respect: it usually calls for hiring or promoting persons who either have not met the customary criteria, or are lower down on the list of those deemed to be qualified.

Jencks and Ezorsky accept the assumption that for most occupations, many black candidates will be less likely to satisfy prevailing standards. Ezorsky writes that a typical affirmative action case is one in which “a basically qualified black is selected over a more qualified white.” One would like more discussion of how the clear distinction in her choice of adjectives should be applied in specific situations. I wonder if she would ask her colleagues at Brooklyn College to turn away a “more qualified” person in order to hire someone who was simply “basically qualified.” Perhaps the difference would not be crucial for teaching undergraduates. But what about the choice of cardiac surgeons on a hospital’s staff?

Still, she makes plain her position that redressing past injustices justifies giving preference to candidates who can show a “basic” competence, since it is “an instrument for ending occupational segregation of blacks, a legacy of this enslavement.” Jencks adds that the best case for racial preferences is “that we need formal discrimination in favor of blacks to offset the effects of persistent informal discrimination against them.” George Bush, despite his claim that Clarence Thomas was the best qualified candidate for the Supreme Court, implicitly took a similar position in nominating Thomas, although he was less concerned with righting past wrongs than with changing the balance of the Court.

However, courts and colleges do not give as much attention to efficiency as businessmen do. Jencks confronts this question directly. Not even white supporters of affirmative action, he says, “really believe that American firms could hire more black workers without incurring significant costs.” These outlays would be needed for special training and counseling, since among black employees who would benefit from affirmative action many do not measure up to other groups when it comes to work habits and skills. The employers Jencks has in mind are basically saying that too many black applicants bring too much of their own culture to the workplace. In a different study he cites a study of owners and executives in the Chicago area, which was conducted by Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn Neckerman and entitled, ” ‘We’d Love to Hire Them, But…’: The Meaning of Race to Employers.”1 Black workers were described in terms like these:

They’re not dependable. They don’t show up. When they do show up, they don’t do a good job.

They’ve got an attitude problem.

You do not talk street talk to the buying public.

There’s a certain type of repartee that goes on between black guys…. I’m really uncomfortable with it.

My clientele is 95 percent white. I simply wouldn’t last very long if I had some black waitresses out there.

Some of these remarks have to do with sales, quality of work, and overall productivity. But there is also a cultural unease, exemplified by the comment on “repartee.” Moreover, it would be interesting to know if customers do in fact stop patronizing a restaurant that hires black waitresses.

Reactions like these will probably be branded as racist, as in some senses they are. As Lois Benjamin makes clear in The Black Elite, middle-class blacks who want to get ahead feel they are subject to peculiarly hostile scrutiny, and this inevitably affects the way they are assessed. At the same time, we must be careful about characterizing the kinds of competence employers expect as “white.” After all, American firms are satisfied with the work done for them in São Paulo and Seoul, much of it highly skilled; or for that matter in Port-au-Prince. Yet here at home, there is little reason to believe that firms will accommodate to black cultural styles. Or, as Jencks says, he “cannot imagine employers making the kind of effort they would have to make to become truly bicultural.” If anything, they prefer to hire recent immigrants, notably Asians and Hispanics, who have shown themselves willing to adapt to the existing system. So there is little likelihood that employers will become more “multicultural.” In physical complexion, the work force of the future will be darker, as will the population as a whole. But if a new workplace culture evolves, it will not have a particular racial tone, but will rather rely on the kinds of business organization and technology, and analysis of efficient work habits, that have already become international, and are on view in America in such places as the Nissan plant near Nashville.

But this may take too rosy a view of American management. As we are constantly hearing, all too few executives—almost all of them white—have been willing to rethink their approaches to investing in productivity and long-term profits. Indeed, in a few respects, the gap between black and white cultures may be narrowing. The Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of white students have been falling for upward of twenty years. (The recent rises come from a greater use of coaching courses.)

A partial explanation of my own, based on my own observations of students, is that the mental processes of white youths have been affected less by watching television than by the music they listen to. Since much of that music’s beat and sensuality has origins in black culture, I sometimes wonder if we are witnessing some kind of convergence between America’s two major races. After all, the complaints of Chicago employers quoted earlier about black workers are increasingly being applied as well to whites they have hired. At the same time, Asians in the United States and across the Pacific have been meeting the kinds of educational and organizational standards once associated with white culture. In a similar way, even Hispanics new to this country tend to outperform blacks on tests like the SAT. And where Hispanic applicants are available, many employers prefer them to blacks for entry-level jobs on grounds of work attitudes and reliability.


Earlier this year, The New York Times carried an obituary notice for James E. Hair, who had been one of several black seamen in World War II whom the US Navy finally allowed to become officer candidates. Still, these candidates were put into a separate segregated class and given a shorter period of instruction. So they studied overtime on their own, and ended up with the highest scores ever recorded at the Great Lakes Training Station. They showed, to put it simply, that they could excel by “white” standards; indeed, under restrictions which were very much the opposite of preferential treatment.

Now, almost half a century later, the major successes of black Americans are still found in athletics and entertaining, careers which many whites regard as calling more for “expressive” talents than for intellectual or organizational skills. In fact, John Thompson of Georgetown is not only a superb basketball coach but also presides over a complex administrative organization that, among other things, sees to it that his players apply themselves to their studies. Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and Keenan Ivory Wayans all run production companies in which they have trained highly competent black executives and technicians. (The military may be a special case, since it is sensitive to politics and does not have to turn a profit. Yet more than a few black officers have out-performed their white colleagues.)

Lois Benjamin’s The Black Elite offers many insights—especially for white readers—into the obstacles black Americans face if they seek careers in what are essentially white organizations. Benjamin is a sociologist at Hampton University in Virginia. Her book is based on intensive interviews with one hundred men and women in professional and executive positions, who saw her as someone to whom they could speak openly, not least because she understood their nuances and allusions. Benjamin’s chapter headings capture much of the book’s contents: “Being Black Is to Be on Perennial Probation,” “Self-Advancement versus Group-Advancement,” “Being Black Is to Wear the Mask,” “Using Biculturality as a Weapon Against Racism,” “Being a Race Ambassador,” “The Token Black Elite.” In addition to doing their jobs well, they must endure the extra tension of wondering how and when—not whether—their race figures in how they are assessed. When they say they must do even better than whites, they mean not simply technical competence, but the daily burden of representing an entire race. They talk of the strain of always having to appear cheerful and grateful to be there, all the while repressing any resentments that might be associated with race. In her cool and quiet account, Benjamin illuminates realities of race that most whites never have to think about.

One reality is that many blacks with good jobs feel they must find time to relax with other blacks, where one can “hang loose” without having to worry whether they are doing “the white thing.” Or, as a black city manager put it to Lois Benjamin, “We have luncheon meetings every couple of weeks, where we just shoot the shit and talk the stuff.” Yet white colleagues tend to construe such commingling—or simply being seen chatting with a black friend—as resistance to fitting in. Benjamin is especially good at showing how well-intentioned overtures by whites can be almost as unsettling as overt hostility. She also quotes responses from men and women who have benefited from affirmative action. They seem untouched by the concerns of Stephen Carter and Shelby Steele that blacks who receive preference wonder how they rate on merit. None, at least in the interviews, saw himself as undeserving, nor had any of them shown hesitations about accepting appointments or promotions. If anything, they felt they had worked harder and had to surmount more obstacles than had their white colleagues.

If blacks find race-based constraints in almost every sphere of employment, they are most evident in profit-seeking businesses. As a result most who have middle-class aspirations end up in public or nonprofit employment, with an emphasis on work in education and social service. Of the sixty-three men and thirty-seven women Benjamin talked with, only nine held positions in private firms. (Another four own businesses of their own.) Of course, white executives take the position that they are oblivious to color, in policy and practice, and seek only the best talent they can find. If they are reminded that they have hired few blacks, they will insist it is because hardly any have applied, or live close enough to their facilities, or have the necessary qualifications. What is seldom addressed is how far race might figure as one of those qualifications.

If business executives tend to be ideologically conservative and personally awkward when it comes to racial relations, at least equally important is their fear that black employees will not command the confidence of subordinates, customers, or colleagues. As one sales manager told Benjamin, his company’s top managers feel “their client base will not accept a Black expert on any topic.” Or they worry whether blacks can simulate the socializing felt to be necessary for clinching a deal. As a result, Benjamin says, blacks are seldom considered “for upward mobility or the fast-track positions.” Those who become vice-presidents are usually assigned amorphous duties like “corporate affairs” or “corporate programs” or “social responsibility,” where they work on “special projects” and “community liaison.” Pepsi-Cola even has a black vice-presidency for corporate diversity.”

Business Week’s most recent list of the top executives in America’s one thousand largest corporations lists only one black chairman: Erroll Davis, the head of a Wisconsin utility company, which ranked 720th in sales and 603rd in assets, and who received a comparatively modest salary of $269,000.2 In all, about a dozen of the leading firms—among them Xerox, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Chrysler, United Airlines, and American Express—have black vice-presidents in key positions in which they supervise white subordinates. While they are not “token,” it is instructive that all the companies have limited themselves to a single black at that level. That any of them will ever rise to their company’s top job is highly unlikely. Still, the barriers are not entirely racial. No more than a handful of the firms cited by Business Week have Jewish chairmen; indeed, there are relatively few Irish or Italian names on the list.


A recurring theme in Christopher Jencks’s Rethinking Social Policy is the subordination American society imposes on descendants of slaves. “Blacks did not volunteer to become Americans,” he reminds us. Yet, in a cruel irony, they remain consigned to a lower stratum because they were brought here against their will. From the early days of Reconstruction, and persisting into the present, “they had good reason to doubt that they would be accepted as Americans even if they did learn to mimic” white ways. Why is it that a nation that in all its official rhetoric prides itself on its fairness and opportunity has never opened its doors sufficiently so black men and women might attain full citizenship? One answer, as was intimated earlier, is that being “black” in America still bears the mark of slavery. True, textbooks now celebrate the strength and stamina it took to survive centuries of bondage. At the same time, contempt for people who were subjected to slavery remains implanted in white minds: only a distinctly inferior species could be bought and sold and punished like so much livestock. While they may hate themselves for holding the idea, white Americans continue to see blacks as an inferior strain. Even now, as in the past, immigrants only hours ashore feel they are allowed—indeed encouraged—to assert their superiority to black Americans.3

On occasion, Jencks extends what he said about white employers to the white population as a whole. “Many whites,” he says, “are prepared to treat blacks as equals if they ‘act white.’ ” This view helps to explain the general approval of Colin Powell, who gives few outward signs of his racial patrimony. Thus the onus lies on black Americans to set aside their own culture so that they can be absorbed into the dominant stream. Yet even if they do, the odds against acceptance are high. Most of those who were asked by Lois Benjamin whether they were willing to adapt to white cultural standards would only shake their heads and reply that they have been doing just that for many years, with very little to show for it.

Jencks’s observations recall those of an earlier commentator. When Alexis de Tocqueville made his visit to the United States in 1831 and 1832, most black Americans—between 85 and 90 percent—were still held in slavery. Since he saw that so blatant a servitude could not last, he mainly speculated on the future relations of the races. Tocqueville’s predictions were so powerful that most of them can stand on their own today. He forecast, for example, that the ending of slavery would “increase the repugnance of the white population for the blacks.” While in bondage, blacks were—in white eyes—in their natural place. With Emancipation would come claims of constitutional equality, although they were soon thwarted by Jim Crow laws.

Even so, blacks were still seen as threatening: as possible economic and sexual competitors but more ominously as a primitive presence, haunting white sensibilities and undermining the security believed to be the birthright of a superior stock. Blacks literally represent a part of Africa transported to America, brought here to be used but never to be absorbed. In contrast, successive waves of Europeans, and now Hispanics and Asians, have been seen as having sufficiently developed cultures to make them assimilable. However, Africa was and is regarded as the primal continent, from which other races only emerged after they had journeyed outward and away from their place of origin. This is why, Tocqueville observed, other Americans “scarcely acknowledge the common features of humanity in this stranger.”

For this reason, persons of African ancestry have been seen as incapable of becoming “Americans.” (Other industrial countries have been equally guarded about integrating blacks and whites; but then none of them imported several million slaves to become permanent residents.) Anxieties over “racial mixing” go well beyond citizenship and residence. They turn most vivid with fears about the designs that black men are thought to have on white women: in the form of rape, or by revealing an allure white men cannot match. The more recent fears that white teenagers are being lured from their families by black manners and music are in the same vein.


Many if not most whites would be greatly relieved if blacks took it upon themselves to emigrate. Or, short of that, if they would decide to remain in designated neighborhoods of their own, where they would teach their own children and take responsibility for local order. In other words, voluntary self-segregation, out of white sight and mind.

Tocqueville also foresaw what would have to wait until more than a century after he wrote: that black citizens would come to “revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights.” Until the great migrations northward during and after World War II, most of the black population lived in the South, where even modest protests could bring Draconian responses. While legal advances were to come later in the form of civil rights—voting, public facilities, suits against job discrimination—they have brought only marginal changes in the lives that most black Americans lead. So, as Tocqueville wrote, when blacks realize that “they cannot become the equals of whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies.” While whites worry about vengeful acts of violence, childbearing, and public expense, and an underclass that seems impervious to constitutional controls, they know that race has locked the nation in an ongoing civil war.

If Tocqueville felt free to generalize about the Americans he met, he transcribed few actual quotations. In Race: How Black and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, as with his other books, Studs Terkel encourages people to talk for themselves. He has a talent—one I have always envied—for underplaying his presence while the tape recorder runs. His current selection of about eighty men and women is equally divided racially, with most living in or near Chicago, which Terkel calls “America’s metaphor.” He opens with a pained remark from John Hope Franklin, lamenting “this crude and barbaric outburst of racism that we’ve seen in the last several years…. The feelings that once were covert because people were ashamed of them are now expressed overtly.”

However, overt racism seldom surfaces in Terkel’s interviews. Almost all of his white respondents have lived or worked alongside blacks; most of them come across as tolerant and sensitive to signs of prejudice. We hear from fair-minded nurses and ministers, even police officers; but not from householders who fled to the suburbs or citydwellers who have dug in their heels. Even the frankest admissions contain a measure of self-blame. Thus a federal employee:

My feelings are really mixed today and I don’t know why…. We’re talking here about the race of black pople. I have to be honest with you. Twenty-five years ago I was very sympathetic. Today I’m still sympathetic but I’m not a hundred percent sympathetic. That sounds terrible.

A young carpenter may not mince words, but he cannot be said to lack self-awareness:

I hate to admit it, but I wouldn’t write off a white guy, who gets away with things, as quick as I’d write off a black guy…. I realize some of the bigotries I have. But no one can tell me there aren’t people who act like niggers.

If these and the rest of Terkel’s whites are a representative sample, there should be hope for better race relations. Perhaps this is the message Terkel wants to convey. So it is something of a shock to find Kenneth Clark’s summing-up toward the end of the book: “I look upon my life as a series of glorious defeats…. I am not sanguine about any kind of solid decency and justice in the area of race in America. The best we can settle for is appearance.” Which is to say that the state of the races rests less with what whites say than with how blacks assess the treatment they receive.


Importing Slaves July 16, 1992

  1. 1

    In Christopher jencks and Paul E.Peterson, The Urban Underclass(Brookings Institution, 1991), pp. 203–232). 

  2. 2

    “The Corporate Elite,” Business Week, November 25, 1991. 

  3. 3

    David Roediger shows how the Irish in particular discovered that blacks could be “despised with impunity.” The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1991), p. 148.