Black Crime, White Racism

Black Robes, White Justice

by Bruce Wright
Lyle Stuart, 214 pp., $15.95

Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations

by Howard Schuman and Charlotte Steeh and Lawrence Bobo
Harvard University Press, 260 pp., $25.00

The Afrocentric Idea

by Molefi Kete Asante
Temple University Press, 217 pp., $24.95

Plural but Equal

by Harold Cruse
William Morrow, 420 pp., $22.95

Crime in the United States

a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation
US Government Printing Office, 371 pp., $17.00

Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1985: A National Crime Survey Report

a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics
US Department of Justice, 113 pp., Free


For many whites,” Mayor Edward Koch of New York City remarked last year, “crime has a black face.” A few days later, the city’s black police commissioner added that members of his own race had a similar perception. “It’s the blacks who are victims of criminality,” he said, “and it’s the blacks who are perpetrating those crimes.”1 While black Americans make up about 12 percent of the country’s population, they account for 30 percent of the 2.4 million people currently on probation or parole for crimes they have committed; 41 percent of the 275,000 men and women awaiting trial in local jails or serving short terms there; and 45 percent of the 547,000 inmates of state and federal prisons. Overall, this means that more than a million black Americans are behind bars or could be returned there.

Of course, these figures tell only part of the story, since most crimes are not reported, and most of those that are reported do not result in arrests or convictions. Still, the most precise statistics we have are for arrests, which are collected each year by the FBI from local law enforcement agencies and released in a volume, Crime in the United States. Among the 10.3 million charges logged in 1986 were 10,495 for embezzlement, 222,615 for vandalism, and 688,815 narcotics violations. There were also 123,649 robbery arrests, 30,777 arrests for rape, and 15,953 for murder or manslaughter.

When people speak of the connection between race and crime, the offenses they usually have in mind involve personal encounters: mainly murder, robbery, and rape. To this may be added breaking into homes; even if most burglaries occur in the owners’ absence, they still have a sense of personal violation. As Table A (see next page) shows, black suspects account for 62 percent of all robbery arrests, close to half of those for rapes and deaths, and almost 30 percent of those for burglary.


Given their share of the population, black arrest rates exceed the national figures for every offense except drunken driving. The fivefold disproportion for robbery is especially disquieting, with the result that it has become referred to as the characteristic “black crime.”

It has been argued that arrest figures have a built-in bias, insofar as police are more apt to detain black suspects. One check is an annual study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, called Criminal Victimization in the United States. This survey polls some 60,000 households, asking if any of their members had been a victim of a crime during the preceding year; and, if they were, the race of the criminal. As it happens 63 percent of those who said they were robbed added that their assailant was black, which is virtually the same as Table A’s 62 percent figure for black robbery arrests. So it would seem correct to conclude that fewer whites commit robberies, not that white robbers go unapprehended. On the other hand, 35 percent of those who said they had been raped identified their assailants as black, while 47 percent of the men arrested for that offense were black, a disparity that suggests that sexual assaults by whites are less likely to be reported to the police or, if they are, to result in arrests.

Not only are there proportionately more black criminals, but there are also more black victims. The survey of victims also shows that black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be robbed or raped, and stand a four times greater chance of being murdered, mainly by other blacks. Moreover, as the figures in Table B (see next page) indicate, almost 90 percent of whites who are murdered or raped have been the victims of other whites.


With robberies, however, exactly half of the white victims said they had been accosted by blacks. Because of this, robbery has become symbolic of interracial crime.

Two related questions arise here. The first concerns why blacks commit a much greater share of crimes involving actual or threatened violence, especially robberies. The second is why whites are so much more fearful of encounters with black criminals than with white criminals. In Black Robes, White Justice, Bruce Wright, a black judge who spent ten years on New York City’s Criminal Court, and is now a New York Supreme Court justice, argues that crimes committed by blacks can only be understood in relation to politics. He argues that if black Americans violate the nation’s laws, they “break a social contract that was not of their making in the first place.” Seen his way, crime becomes—at least in part—an expression of resistance. Wright does not specifically claim, as Eldridge Cleaver once did, that robbery and rape should be seen as acts intended to subvert an oppressive society. Yet given the discrimination and humiliation blacks face in the course of their lives, Wright says, “the wonder is that it took blacks so long to express their resentment in violence.” Through crime, blacks are paying whites back, in the most ominous way they can.

Wright does not explain just how he came to conclude that resentment against white society accounts for blacks’ crimes against whites; and he wholly ignores crimes committed within black communities. Murders of blacks by other blacks have become so commonplace that homicide is now the chief cause of death among black youths. Many are killed because of drug deals gone sour, or as a result of insults to manly pride and other overheated quarrels. Moreover, in the crime in which anger figures vividly, black men rape black women three times as often as they do white women.

If murders and rapes usually have a mixture of motives, the reason for robbery is money. As has been seen, robbery is also the crime in which blacks are most heavily represented, and in which they are more likely to pick whites as their victims. Some 300,000 whites are on record as being robbed by blacks each year. Not the least reason, of course, is that whites carry more cash or items of value. Wright might still want to argue that robbing someone who is white compounds the satisfaction, although he never states this explicitly. What can be said with more certainty is that the racial element is very much in the minds of whites who are accosted by black assailants, or worry over such a prospect. There is the added fear that the person confronting you will not simply take your money but may remain another moment to exact retribution for injustices done to his people. This is why, given the choice, whites would rather face a thief of their own race, even if the price were losing somewhat more money.

Such anxieties were at the center of the Bernhard Goetz case. What happened in that New York City subway car came to be seen as a symbolic skirmish in an ongoing racial war. That the four young men were black made their demand for money all the more terrifying, enabling even a jury including two blacks to accept Goetz’s plea that he feared for his life. While the shots he fired could have been lethal (one caused a permanent maiming) most New Yorkers accepted Goetz’s assessment of the threat. Newsday found that the verdict exonerating Goetz was supported by 83 percent of whites, 78 percent of Hispanics, and 45 percent of blacks.2 It is noteworthy that nearly half of the blacks polled were willing to support a white man who gunned down four black youths. While blacks generally hold no brief for ruffians of their own race, many remain reluctant to condemn fellow blacks within the hearing of whites.

Not least of blacks’ anxieties are fears about what will happen if pressure mounts for more forceful action against blacks thought to be actual or potential criminals. Black parents worry that law-abiding young men—their own sons and nephews—will be rounded up with the rest. That happens often enough even now to make black people feel more ambivalent about police interventions. Being neatly dressed and well-behaved hardly helps my own black students, who find themselves treated warily—or worse—in everyday encounters with whites. They have no confidence that white police, or white people generally, can sense the difference between a scoundrel and a college student.

Episodes in which white police shoot black citizens move Bruce Wright to muse about “the killer instinct seemingly aroused in so many white police officers by the sight of a black skin.” Compared with the homicide rate, the number of such slayings was relatively small; in 1983, the most recent year for which figures are available, 106 blacks (and 157 whites) were slain by law enforcement officers—but these killings often arouse deeply bitter reactions.3 By the same token, incidents like the one at Howard Beach in Queens are relatively rare. For blacks, that episode was as symbolic as the Goetz case was for whites. The mob of white teen-agers who attacked three black men, driving one to his death immediately thereafter and badly beating another, brought home how vulnerable blacks are in a nation where they are heavily outnumbered. In this case, only a few of the supporters of the teen-agers would say publicly what others said privately or anonymously, that the violence at Howard Beach is a pent up response to black crime. A predominantly white jury voted manslaughter convictions, which were followed by severe sentences.

Bruce Wright makes much of the fact that the nation’s prison population is disproportionately black. At issue is whether the criminal justice system shows a specifically racial bias. We know that people from lower income groups are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. Indeed, this happens every day in parts of the country that are predominantly white. The state prisons in North Dakota and New Hampshire are close to capacity, yet together they have fewer than twenty black inmates. Poorer defendants are more likely to end up in prison, regardless of their race, partly because of inadequate legal aid but largely because of the kinds of crimes they commit.

Prison rolls also reflect the way sentences are meted out. In Wright’s account of New York City’s courts, “black defendants often received much harsher sentences than whites convicted of identical crimes.” This happens, we are told, because white judges perceive blacks who have been found guilty—or induced to enter guilty pleas—as more dangerous or unrepentant or lacking in local ties.

In fact, there is such a double standard, although it may not be as harsh in other states as Wright claims for New York—and for New York he presents no statistical evidence, only his impressions from his years as a New York judge. A recent study of thirty-three states including New York found that whites typically served twenty-nine months for robbery, compared with the thirty-one months blacks served. For rape, the respective sentences served were forty-two and forty-seven months, while for murder whites served an average of seventy-two months and blacks eighty-five months.4 In addition, judges and juries tend to rate the “seriousness” of a crime by the race of the victim. Briefs filed in a recent Supreme Court case show on the basis of national figures that if you murder someone who is white, you will be more likely to be sentenced to death than if your victim is black.5

Since not all states publish arrest and conviction rates by race, the best comparative figures we have concern prison inmates.6 While prison populations in all states are disproportionately black—and in a third of the states blacks make up the majority—there are marked variations in racial ratios. The figures in Table C (see next page) illustrate the scope of these disparities.


For example, Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate for whites is more than three times that of Pennsylvania. Black men are two and a half times more likely to be imprisoned in Delaware than they are in Mississippi. When we compare white and black rates among the states, the ratios range from 4.5 in North Carolina to 15.4 in Nebraska.

It is hard to explain these differences. Michigan and Maryland, where black incomes come closest to whites’, have higher rates for black prisoners than states where the income gaps are greater. Similarly, the ratio of black inmates shows no evident tie to the incidence of violent crimes, for which blacks have higher arrest rates. Even though Maryland has a crime rate twice that of neighboring Pennsylvania, it has 35 percent fewer black prisoners. What the statistics do suggest is that while blacks from cities like Baltimore and Omaha are more likely to end up in prison, whites who are most likely to be in prison tend to come from states, like North Carolina and Oklahoma, with larger rural populations. To put it another way, urban whites and rural blacks appear to be more law-abiding, at least with respect to crimes that bring prison terms.

I have yet to see evidence that members of a particular race or class or nationality are more drawn to criminal activity. What we do know is that all social groups, including the very rich, contain men and women who have a propensity for larceny. These leanings prompt such people to obtain or augment their incomes by illegal means, since you can hope to net more with less effort than you can by legitimate work. Among the middle and upper classes, thieves are in less danger of getting caught, since their kinds of crimes are much harder to detect. It is a commonplace that a great deal more money is stolen through crimes committed with pencils or computers, or over expense-account lunches, than through the face-to-face robberies of businesses and citizens.7

Some poor people, probably the same proportion as others, also have tendencies toward larceny, but their opportunities for theft are much more limited. Among young black men who choose to steal, there isn’t much else they can do except lurk about the streets, where they will accost passers-by or hold up a liquor store or try to break into an apartment. In fact, as Table A noted, black rates for burglary are less than half those for robbery. Not only does their visibility make it harder for blacks to move freely in better-off neighborhoods but apartments and houses in these neighborhoods have become more and more protected. Successful burglary may require considerable skill, including the ability to transport and sell stolen goods. Holding up people for cash on the streets or in small shops is much easier. As it happens, few thieves who work the streets enjoy menacing strangers, which is of course no comfort to the people they accost or whose lives they make miserable through fear of attack. While only a fraction of all robberies are solved, the odds of a habitual thief eventually getting caught are high. The result is that one in five black men ultimately spends time behind bars, almost seven times the rate for whites.

Moreover, the proceeds of street crimes tend to be small: most who are arrested cannot even raise bail. If they had the choice, those who commit violent crimes would try other forms of theft. At the least, they know that the severity of punishment relates less to the amount you have taken than to whether you threatened your victim with physical harm. Since the chances of getting caught are high and the rewards are small, blacks who live off crime are on the whole probably no better off than, say, a young man who takes a job washing dishes or mopping floors. But they seem to live in hopes that they will beat the odds against them. Their prospects, in fact, may be worse. To begin with, many who engage in small-time crime are doing so less to feed and clothe themselves than to support drug habits. Addiction not only has debilitated many blacks, but is a cause of early death. At this point, injecting drugs is becoming the principal means of spreading AIDS, not only among addicts themselves but also their sexual partners and the children they bear. Moreover, given current employment and housing conditions, criminals released from prison stand less chance of remaking their lives than they formerly did. This is not the least reason why black men are so numerous among the homeless. For all too many blacks, then, a criminal life cannot be called a livelihood, but is part of a self-destructive spiral.


Social scientists still get much of their material from surveys, relying on interviewing people about their behavior and beliefs. This method has obvious pitfalls, including unrepresentative samples, bias in the questions’ wording, and lack of candor on the part of respondents. One of the most recent surveys, Racial Attitudes in America, is particularly sensitive to these issues and does not overstate its findings. Howard Schuman and his colleagues acknowledge that surveys must begin with what people are willing to admit. Their book, which first appeared in 1986 and will come out in paperback later this year, concentrates on finding out how white Americans think and feel about their fellow citizens who are black. It is a significant study, easily the best in its field, underpinning its statistical analysis with a strong sense of history.

In some aspects of race relations, the authors feel they can point to progress. Thus in one question posed in successive years, white respondents were asked how they would react if a member of their family “wanted to bring a black friend home for dinner.” In 1963, about half said they would object; but by 1982, negative responses had declined to 22 percent. White voters were also asked what they would do if the party they usually favored named a “generally well-qualified” black candidate for president. Between 1958 and 1983, those saying they would support such a black rose from 37 percent to 81 percent. The authors realize that these responses have no specific references. The emotions of fear and distrust inspired by actual blacks are probably not reflected when people respond to questionnaires. White voters react to black political figures not simply on their credentials but on the intensity of racial sentiment their campaigns seem to represent. Thus far, candidates who have attracted white voters have presented themselves as middle-class professionals, and have made a point of defining potentially divisive issues in other than racial terms. Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, has long adhered to such a style. Jesse Jackson has chosen a more ambiguous strategy.

Racial Attitudes in America also reports that between 1963 and 1982, the number of white Americans who oppose laws banning interracial marriages grew from 38 percent to 66 percent. While this should be counted as progress, fully a third would still make miscegenation a crime. We are also told that from 1942 to 1982, the number of white Americans who agree that children of both races “should go to the same schools” rose from 32 percent to 90 percent. I daresay many modern parents would like to have, say, two or three black students in their children’s classes. At the same time, the actual behavior of white parents shows that most seek schools where blacks are not enrolled in more than token numbers.

The authors have many interesting things to say concerning white “anxieties and reservations about integration.” However, they never examine how much those worries center specifically on race, or if class factors also play a role. Unfortunately, for example, none of the surveys cited in the book asked whether whites would send their children to a school with a heavy black enrollment if they were assured that those pupils came from professional families and the school was among the best in the city. Social scientists who study race have a special obligation to take account of social and economic factors. If nothing else, we know that in sections of the country that are all or almost entirely white, middle-class parents shy away from schools where too many of the pupils are not preparing to go to college.

Schuman and his co-authors conclude that racial attitudes of whites emerge as “a mixture of progress and resistance, certainty and ambivalence, striking movement and mere surface change.” In particular, “white Americans are much less enthusiastic about modes of implementation than about abstract principles.” Thus when they support governmental intervention, it tends to be in matters such as public accommodation—restaurants and hotels for example—where enforcement is no longer needed. We certainly know that the willingness of whites to send children to integrated schools diminishes as the black proportion rises, which also suggests that considerations of class are at work. Moreover, the book tells us, objections to bringing about racial balance by busing remain as ingrained as ever. That policy, even recent surveys show, “has virtually no support within the white population.” Despite voluminous research, the question of whether busing has contributed to “white flight” has yet to be resolved. What the term tends to convey to white parents is that their children will be sent into schools that are predominantly black. In fact this has hardly ever been ordered or enforced. Most of the pupils who are bused to achieve greater “racial balance” are black, and they travel to schools outside their neighborhood, sometimes at the choice of their parents.

Toward the end of Racial Attitudes in America, the authors say that while white people talk with considerable tolerance about blacks, this is a “veneer that conceals continued profound racism on the part of most or all white Americans.”Unfortunately, they do not enlarge on this statement. This is one of those places where the difference between “most” and “all” can be critical. For to contend that all white Americans are “profoundly racist” would mean that even those who see themselves as fairminded still show subtle signs of bias. I suspect this is true: that something we can and should call racism—and without quotation marks—reveals itself in the attitudes and conduct of virtually all white Americans.


While the term racism has been used in many ways, two senses of it have practical significance. First, racism reveals itself on occasions when the only thing we know about a person is his race, and on that basis presume that he will have certain traits we suppose are common to members of that race. Such racism can seem to be rational. Many taxicab drivers who refuse to stop for blacks do so because they accurately believe the odds to be higher that a black passenger may rob them. At the same time, such assumptions about individuals are usually inaccurate and all too frequently unfair. Even if a tendency such as a higher crime rate exists among people identified with a race, the person in question may not happen to share it. Here racism is similar to prejudiced judgments based on gender or religion or national origin, or even height or weight. Perhaps this kind of unfairness is inevitable in a world in which we cannot come to know each person in an intimate way. However, the racially based characteristics whites ascribe to blacks cut more deeply and cause more harm than other presumptions Americans may make about one another.

In addition, racism as applied to blacks has a second and more specific meaning. Here, the basis of white perceptions is well illustrated in The Afrocentric Idea. Molefi Kete Asante, who teaches African American studies at Temple University, believes that most attempts to understand black Americans are distorted or incomplete, since they start from a “Eurocentric” standpoint. He argues that blacks in the United States are truly Afro-Americans, since many of their traits can be traced to their continent of origin. Extending the work of such scholars as Melville Herskovits and Carter Woodson, Asante stresses the significance of rhetoric and rhythm in black life, and the continuing emphasis on “the generative and productive power of the spoken word.” Asante finds analogies to African behavior in the use of “sound periodicity” and “symbolic mannerisms,” and he believes these are illustrated by the pauses in Malcolm X’s speeches and Martin Luther King’s “touching the small upper pocket on his coat.” He notes “the heavy insistence of the incessant African rhythms that came to the vocabulary of music with the concept of beat.” Of all team sports, he writes, basketball most closely approaches artistic expression, because among black players “rhythm is a principal path to transcendence.”

Not the least purpose of The Afrocentric Idea is to show blacks they have an African heritage and history that have persisted through, and helped blacks to survive, slavery and subsequent discrimination. Certainly no one will dispute the achievements of black Americans in sports and music; and Asante’s attempts to show that their talents derive from African culture are certainly suggestive. The problem is that this African emphasis supports a more insidious aspect of white racism, which shows itself not simply in generalizations about particular habits or traits but in the belief that members of the black race represent an inferior strain of the human species. In this view, Africans—and Americans who trace their origins to that continent—are seen as subsisting at a lower evolutionary level than those of members of other races.

Of course, this is never said in public. Surveys used to ask white respondents, “Do you think Negroes are as intelligent as white people?” But according to Racial Attitudes in America, this question was last posed about twenty years ago. Yet only by asking for candor of this kind can we discover the extent of racist sentiment. For the conviction persists that human beings of African ancestry carry primitive traits in their genes, and hence lack the intellectual and organizational capacities that the modern world requires. This position was articulated by the Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen, who said special training for blacks would be of no avail, since the potential is not there.8 Many white conservatives believe this to be so, and say so when they are sure of their company.

Most liberals and those further to the left deny that existing disparities are based directly on genetic inheritance; or if they have any doubts, they keep them to themselves. Their intellectual forebears were not so constrained. Thomas Jefferson, for example. “Nobody wishes more than I do,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “to see proofs that nature has given to our black brothers talents equal to those of the other colors of men.” This is the Jefferson who had earlier affirmed, as a self-evident proposition, that all human beings are conceived with equal potential to pursue the fullest life. Why then did he go on to ask for “proofs” that blacks had faculties equivalent to those of other races? Indeed, we may wonder what order of evidence would have been persuasive to Jefferson or his heirs to undo doubts that have proved so durable.

Thus the bias blacks face goes deeper than judgments about culture. From the premise of inferiority follows the corollary that members of a lesser race should be content to perform tasks inappropriate for other strains. This was the rationale for slavery, and it has by no means disappeared. Nor is the racism applied to blacks found only among persons of European ancestry. Inhabitants of every other continent seem to feel they have evolved further than those who trace their origins to south of the Sahara.

Indeed, just as Jefferson believed that blacks were inferior not only to whites but to all “the other colors of man,” so there is less feeling today among whites that theirs is mankind’s preeminent race. In the United States, certainly, parity is being extended to Asians who are showing proficiency in standard English and the kinds of literal and mathematical reasoning that education and employment now require. More and more middle-class Hispanics are also being accepted, as they pass the same tests. Perhaps the best measure of this integration are scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. These multiple-choice examinations, where answers must be given at a one-a-minute rate, do not pretend to measure substantive knowledge, let alone intellectual or aesthetic gifts, or reasoned judgment. However, they gauge certain kinds of mental facility, particularly a knack for taking tests, that many colleges and employers have come to expect. Table D shows the scores of students whose family incomes are in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.


What is striking, and disconcerting, is that blacks from middle-class backgrounds fall so far behind the other groups. Even students from homes in which the principal language may be other than English are becoming sufficiently bilingual—and bicultural—to do well on this “American” test.

These and similar tests certainly reveal a “disparate racial impact,” a phrase used in a Supreme Court decision concerning a power company’s employment test.9 As has been noted, they expect familiarity with a language and modes of reasoning that, until recently, could be considered “white.” This is no longer the case. As Table D makes clear, Asians do even better than whites at the same income level, with Hispanics occupying a firm middle ground.

It would seem that lower scores have a strong correlation with segregated living. As I noted in my earlier article,10 Asians and Hispanics have greater freedom to choose where they will live, and many select mixed residential neighborhoods. Fewer blacks have this option, even when their incomes rise. As a matter of fact, a dominantly black neighborhood is not the best place to perfect standard English, which is the first step toward doing decently on tests. In adolescence or even earlier, such speech can be seen as an attempt to emulate whites, and bring down derision or worse. Identify and pride are certainly involved here. But the question is whether a segregated language is the only one you know, or whether an effort can be made to master the dominant tongue as well.


Blacks are expected to adhere to the dominant standards not only in passing tests but in adapting to the attitudes of white employers and administrators. (That’s what “doing well at school” really means.) Yet from choice or frustration, many have rejected these expectations, or are advised to eschew them. Visions of autonomy and self-sufficiency have recurred from Marcus Garvey to Father Divine, and later the Black Muslims. They are reiterated by Harold Cruse in Plural but Equal. Cruse, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, strongly attacked liberal illusions over integration in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, published in 1967. He begins his new study by calling on blacks to acknowledge that the era of civil rights is over. Constitutional challenges will not “mandate any further privileges or egalitarian promises.” At best, there will be redress for individual injustices, but no sweeping remedies based solely on race.

Hence the need for a new politics, beginning with an exodus from the Democratic party, which has shown itself unwilling to give serious attention to the needs of blacks. Cruse proposes “the organization of blacks into an independent political party.” If I follow his analysis, the immediate aim would be not national office or legislation but a bloc holding a balance of power. Even supposing that such a disciplined party could be organized, a major risk remains. Republicans, or conservatives generally, could conclude—as senators such as Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond apparently have—that they can win even more strongly without appealing for black votes. That has already begun in Florida, where Republicans aim for Hispanic support, with the result that programs helpful to blacks are seen as even less important.

However, Cruse has a broader set of concerns. His worry is that, if current tendencies continue, blacks “might become, racially and ethnically, an endangered species.” The problem is not that blacks are being assimilated into a white America. Quite the reverse, they are being turned into a subordinate and dependent caste by “a paternalistically racist, economically predatory, and culturally irresponsible society.” Here Cruse argues that whites should be held accountable for failings often attributed to blacks. One result of enforced segregation and inferior education has been the “encouragement of the kind of black ‘value system’ that is generally detrimental to coping successfully.”

Insofar as, say, violence and drugs figure in the “value system” of some blacks, Cruse makes an important point. If one denies a fair chance to a whole segment of society, a high incidence of failure should not cause surprise. At the same time, Cruse seems to be saying that special qualities of language and style should be preserved. He is far from clear just what these are, but he nevertheless believes they will be lost or perverted so long as blacks remain subject to white domination. Hence the conclusion of Plural but Equal that self-chosen separation is the only way to ensure black “cultural survival.” To this end, Cruse proposes that blacks create their own economic base: “Collective enterprises among blacks…to engage in cooperative economic efforts on both corporate-business and commodity-distribution levels.”11

Cruse wants America to make good on its promise of being “a pluralistic society.”It is possible for groups to disclaim the dominant social pattern and have successful and satisfying lives. However, Cruse realizes, such separation needs a firm economic underpinning. The United States still has a vigorous small business sector, which is based more on idiosyncratic talents than on college credentials or elegant English. If you have something people want, they will overlook any misgivings they may have about your dress or demeanor. Thus the Amish and Hasidic Jews have not found adherence to their ways a barrier to success. Moreover, as Table E shows, many recently arriving groups have done quite well, and largely by running their own small businesses. (Insofar as their children are adapting to the SAT tests and the styles of thinking that go with them, it also suggests that subsequent generations may prefer integration.)


Still, in America those who want to maintain a separate mode cannot expect to be subsidized. The independence of the Amish and Hasidim—and the Cubans in Miami and Koreans in California—has derived from building enterprises that generate capital without relying heavily on sources outside their own communities.

The other groups I have cited, however, were all voluntary immigrants to this country. Slavery was hardly a preparation for entrepreneurial pursuits. Yet it may be noted that West Indian blacks also were slaves, but still managed to develop admirable business skills. (It will be interesting to see what comes of the Senegalese sidewalk vendors, who have become a New York fixture.) At this point, though, self-sufficient economic activity does not seem a feasible path for large numbers of American blacks. The historical groundwork and atmosphere of encouragement, without which management seminars and government seeding will not go very far, are not there. Nor is this a racial matter. Much the same may be said of Irish immigrants, who had little chance to organize enterprises of their own under British rule. Once here, they tended to choose political and civil service careers, or jobs in corporate businesses such as utilities and insurance.

Apart from the economic aspect, I wish Cruse had told us more about his conception of black cultural survival. Molefi Kete Asante, in The Afrocentric Idea, emphasizes that Afro-American culture stresses oral discourse over the written word. To the degree that this is so, it may help to explain the scores of blacks on standardized tests.12 It should be said that Asante himself (born Arthur L. Smith, in Valdosta, Georgia) writes in standard English and conforms to the canons of academic research. Notwithstanding their emphasis on the contradictions between a black cultural identity and white standards, both he and Cruse have been successful in meeting the expectations set by the wider society. On a much larger scale the same could be said of Bill Cosby and Alice Walker, whose audiences cut across racial lines.13

Insofar as this country has encouraged cultural diversity, the accompanying premise has been that unless a group is fully self-supporting, and makes no special demands on public institutions, its members will also master the language and much of the demeanor that are part of the standard model. Do Asante and Cruse want blacks to be exempted from these expectations? They don’t say, but they obviously believe that in seeking acceptance by the dominant culture you can end up undermining your original character. But that is the American way. This country has diluted, if not destroyed, hundreds of ethnic identities, ranging from the Germans and Scotch-Irish to Sephardic Jews and Swedes. Just how much of their original languages and cultures they really would have wanted to preserve in the face of the dominant Anglo-American culture, even if they had the opportunity to do so, is by no means clear.

Even when blacks follow the expected rules, they are less likely to receive the rewards that others have come to expect. Thus black men who complete college end up making $792 for every $1,000 earned by comparable whites. And black men who finish law school reach only $547 of the white figure. Nor will it do to argue that blacks may go to inferior colleges or law schools. For it turns out that black women college graduates average $916 for each $1,000 made by their white counterparts, and as lawyers they get $986 of that sum. These and other findings suggest that employers find black women more acceptable than men.

Still, the greatest obstacle to black advancement is the unspoken presumption that people of African origin can never be fully accepted in America. It is at this point that racism becomes institutional. While never stating so explicitly, most organizations have expectations about physical appearance that come down to being “white” or a near approximation. (Asians are increasingly seen as meeting this standard.) When blacks are admitted or promoted, they tend to be counted as exceptions. And even if admitted, they may not be fully accepted as colleagues, not to mention the ostracism or harassment they often face.

To be sure, racial bias is not wholly blind, nor need it be immutable. Thus blacks of West Indian origin, whose demeanor suggests an “English” background, tend to be seen as “less African” by employers and others. Most whites who declare that doors are open to blacks expect white standards to be met. This is why Arthur Ashe and Leontyne Price are held up as models. The broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, the lawyer William Coleman, the NSC chief Colin Powell, and Frank Thomas of the Ford Foundation have not only conformed to established standards but shown themselves superior to them. What is troubling is that not many more such people can be cited.

Being black in America is hardly an enviable condition: you are, as has been often remarked, an alien in your own land. Or, as Toni Morrison put it, “At no moment in my life have I ever felt as though I were an American.”14 The sheer strain of such an existence takes its toll in many ways. The high incidence of drug addiction and crime, of broken families and out-of-wedlock births, of unfinished education and sporadic employment—all seem to me connected with the tensions of living surrounded by a largely hostile culture. Blacks are from six to seven times more likely to end up serving prison terms; they also enter mental institutions at twice the white rate. Their incidence of diabetes, nephritis, and hypertension is double that for whites; and the odds of a black becoming a homicide victim are four times the national figure. However much blacks are held accountable for these conditions, who can doubt that white society is deeply culpable in not addressing them? White Americans have still to ask themselves one decisive question: How would they have fared in their own country had they been born black?


A Question of Racism June 29, 1989

White Racism, Black Crime December 22, 1988

White Racism, Black Crime December 22, 1988

  1. 1

    The New York Times, May 22 and July 17, 1987.

  2. 2

    Newsday, June 28, 1987.

  3. 3

    National Center for Health Statistics, Mortality, Vol. II, Pt. A (US Public Health Service, 1987), p. 242. See also Garry A. Mendez, The Role of Race and Ethnicity in the Incidence of Police Use of Deadly Force (National Urban League, 1983), which shows a marked decline in the number of blacks killed by police since 1970.

  4. 4

    Bureau of Justice Statistics, Time Served in Prison and on Parole (US Department of Justice, 1987), p. 4.

  5. 5

    McCleskey v. Kemp, 107 S.Ct. 1756 (1987). A defendant who murdered a white person was shown to have an eleven times greater chance of receiving a death sentence than if the victim was black. When all accompanying circumstances were held constant, the prospect for the death penalty was still four times higher when the victim was white.

  6. 6

    Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions (US Department of Justice, 1987), pp. 17–18.

  7. 7

    On this point, see my “The Lower Depths,” The New York Review, August 12, 1982.

  8. 8

    How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review (February, 1969), pp. 1–123.

  9. 9

    Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 401 US 424 (1971). The court also ruled that a test may not be used “if it cannot be shown to be related to job performance.” Whether the Scholastic Aptitude Tests are more than marginally related to college performance is a much-debated question. Several liberal arts schools think not, and no longer require their applicants to take it.

  10. 10

    American Apartheid,” The New York Review, December 3, 1987.

  11. 11

    This position differs considerably from the one Cruse took a number of years ago in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (Morrow, 1967), p. 421. There he held little hope for separate development, describing the movement toward this goal as “so fragmented into sects, factions, and cliques that it is a morass of self-inflicted immobility and frustration.”

  12. 12

    See Janice Hale-Benson, Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) for a candid treatment of this subject.

  13. 13

    As seen by Mark Crispin Miller, the character Cosby plays “represents a threat contained,…a sign that blacks won’t hurt whites.” In Todd Gitlin, ed., Watching Television (Pantheon, 1986), pp. 213–214.

  14. 14

    The New York Times, January 15, 1986.