Playing the Racial Card

The Urban Underclass

edited by Christopher Jencks, edited by Paul E. Peterson
The Brookings Institution, 490 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society

by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Whittle Books, 91 pp., $11.95

Being “white” in America no longer brings the deference or preferment that it did a generation ago. The reason is at least partly demographic: citizens of European origin now make up a smaller share of the population than at any time in the past. In fact, the proportion of blacks has gone up by only a few points, thanks to improved survival rates in infancy and longevity.1 The big change has come from immigration, mainly from Latin America and Asia. As the accompanying table shows, the percentage of whites in California has fallen by almost twenty points in as many years.


By the next census, they will probably be one of several minorities in the nation’s largest state.

As it happens, the principal response has not been a call to halt immigration, or to maintain a more vigorous policing of our borders. While such sentiment exists, it is less pronounced than we might expect, or was expressed during similar periods in the past. For one thing, the newcomers are not seen as usurping jobs, since they frequently take on tasks the rest of us reject. Also, many of them bring entrepreneurial and professional skills, so it isn’t easy to assert that they aren’t needed here. New Yorkers have come to rely on Korean greengrocers and Latino parking lot attendants, while Asians win well over their share of college places on academic merit.

Rather, the chief consequence of white decline has been a more open stress on differences between the nation’s two major races. When whites comprised a larger and more confident majority, race was not so vivid a division. People could feel that the United States was a “white country,” in which other races knew their place. Today, many whites feel beleaguered. Unlike in South Africa, few worry that they will become outnumbered. While ethnic minorities are growing, they have shown no inclination to form a common alliance. In the American mode, blacks and Hispanics and Asians find they must compete with one another for access to jobs and education and other advantages, while whites seem pleased to encourage this competition. Moreover, white Americans still command the citadels of power, into which they can make a place for others when they wish. (Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas are recent cases in point, as is the growing Asian enrollment at MIT.) Still, a laager mentality is evident, not least in the voortrek of families and businesses to outer suburbs, gentrifying towns, and other protected enclaves.

It has become a truism to remark that “race” has assumed a central role in politics; but few commentators have considered why this emphasis arose or its underlying meaning. This need has now been filled by Chain Reaction, Thomas and Mary Edsall’s ambitious and unsettling study. It is easily the best book on the politics of race in recent years, combining a shrewd sense of history with an uncommon understanding of how emotions can be roused. “Race,” the Edsalls remark at the start, “has become a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been the majoritarian economic interests of the poor, working, and lower-middle classes in the traditional liberal coalition.” Moreover, in the debates over race, prejudice and discrimination on the part of whites, or the advantages whites enjoy, are no longer seen as the main source of injustice. The central “social” problem is said to be the behavior of blacks themselves or demands made on their behalf; for their part, whites are more open about voicing their misgivings about that behavior and those demands.

By this time, there is no need to list the litany of concerns about black behavior, which range from drug abuse and crime to casual parenthood and chronic unemployment. In particular, one often hears that all too many black Americans are no longer part of the productive society. “In political and social terms,” the Edsalls write, “the underclass serves to reinforce the most damaging racial preconceptions about black America.” By a large margin, white Americans now refuse to accept any blame for these conditions. As they see it, black people have had more than a fair chance, thanks to the removal of barriers against political representation and to aid from special programs, such as affirmative action in college admissions and employment and promotions, as well as public contracts that have been “set-aside” for businesses owned by blacks.

Chain Reaction gives its closest attention to working-class and middle-income whites who were most directly affected by school integration, shifting neighborhood lines, and preferential hiring. It was not investment bankers but policemen and postal clerks who felt they had been bypassed because of affirmative action. It was their children who had their lunch money stolen. Among these once-loyal Democrats, the Edsalls write, “the logic of social and racial liberalism was difficult, if not impossible, to grasp.” They saw no reason why they should carry the burden of redressing social grievances.

The Edsalls criticize as self-indulgent and ineffectual the liberalism that combines an enthusiasm for social experiment with the need to atone for middle-class guilt, and that had its institutional expression in the Democratic party. In 1972, for example, the convention that nominated George McGovern included in its platform a call for “recognition of the constitutional and human rights of prisoners.” Also included were counseling programs for prisoners, as well as released time so that inmates could adjust to the outside society. While these are laudable causes, one could wonder to which part of the electorate they were meant to appeal, and one could easily imagine some of the groups who could be estranged by the emphasis on such concerns. A dozen years later, Jesse Jackson told the delegates that he came to speak for “the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised”—few of whom, unfortunately, vote. When George McGovern lost the presidency, one of the two states he carried was Massachusetts, which adopted a furlough program for prisoners. In 1988, one inmate used such a furlough to flee to Maryland, where he broke into a house and raped a woman in front of her tied-up fiancé. Faced by reporters, a spokesman for Michael Dukakis responded: “Don’t forget that Mr. Horton had nine previous successful furloughs.”

In fact, defections from the Democrats had been going on for at least two decades. Lyndon Johnson’s strong victory over Goldwater in 1964 was the last time the party mustered a majority of white voters. Since that sweep, the Republicans have used race to chip away at this white majority. One of their first tactics was to try to recruit the group commonly called “white ethnics.” At times, this phrase has nothing to do with European ancestors and is simply used as a shorthand for working-class householders who wish to remain in the neighborhoods where they have long had ties. As has often been noted, they frequently live adjacent to districts that are undergoing change. But to talk of “ethnic” suggests something more than local attachments or economic status. The Edsalls could have done more to explain the effect of, say, Irish or Italian or Polish ancestry on racial animosities among whites.

In fact, “ethnic” Americans are keenly aware of where they rank within the white population. Whether one is judged by diction or demeanor, education or sophistication, to be “Irish” or “Italian-American” suggests a crudeness out of keeping with modern times. Members of such ethnic groups see how readily they are made into figures of fun in movies and television comedies, with no one bothering to object to such insults and humiliations. Indeed, as Spike Lee has suggested in his recent films, they realize how small a gap separates them from black Americans. Hence their reliance on their one differentiating characteristic: the color of their skin.

Still, “white ethnics” make up a dwindling share of the electorate. For this reason, the Edsalls say, the Republicans’ campaign for a majority “conservative coalition” has been based on a more encompassing “politics of suburban hegemony.” The 1990 census showed that more Americans now live in suburbs than in rural or urban areas. Moreover, suburbanites have long understood the importance of voting, since taxes and property values have a large place in their lives. Not only are they overwhelmingly white; most want to dissociate themselves from the problems of cities. For the Republican strategy to be successful, ways must be found to stir resentments among voters who do not face direct racial threats. Republicans, the Edsalls suggest, may choose to cast themselves as a “white party,” calculating that they will gain more than they will lose by showing that they have no wish to ask for black votes.

Conservatives have always known that they can win only if they raise issues that will divert attention from their solicitude for the rich. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, the Edsalls point out, the real income of American workers fell by 8 percent, while the compensation of corporate chairmen grew by 76 percent. In this situation, they argue, it was useful to find a target for the anger that workers felt at their failure to do better economically. Similarly, affirmative action programs could be exploited to make whites blame their own sense of economic insecurity on blacks who purportedly get preference. The “white hands” commercial used by Jesse Helms in his reelection campaign last year, showing a white job applicant holding a rejection letter which said that the position had to be given to “a minority,” roused the fear that blacks would get the few available jobs in a tight market.

Of course, race is not the only issue that has played into the hands of the Republicans. Curiously, the Edsalls say little about the Republicans’ exploitation of the abortion issue, although it complements their thesis. Encouraging the “right to life” coalition has much in common with encouraging an entitled sense of “whiteness.” To mobilize Roman Catholics, Fundamentalist Protestants, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews to protest family planning clinics is no small political feat, as had been inducing them to vote for Republicans. What unites these activists is a belief in their moral superiority, a belief that both Reagan and Bush have tried to confirm. Nor is it surprising that those most actively opposing abortion are almost entirely white. They cannot be unaware that black women have abortions at twice the rate that white women do.

In 1982, the Congress passed what looked like a straightforward amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It empowered the Justice Department to take action if it suspected that members of any racial group

have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.

In any ordinary reading, these words seem unexceptionable. For years, Southern politicians rigged electoral systems to keep blacks from voting or to dilute their ballots. For example, districts were so designed that even when blacks got to vote, the candidates they supported would be less likely to win. Or, in the language of the amendment, they were not given as much chance as whites to “elect representatives of their choice.” Still, that phrase can have several meanings. Being able to elect someone you want may simply refer to candidates whose views you prefer. Or it can mean being able to have as your representative someone of your own race.

In fact, the ethnic interpretation is one that many people support. More than a few voters feel they are better represented by a person of their own race or religion or nationality. In this reasoning, inherited attributes can count as much as political views. For years, big city machines maintained control by dividing some of the spoils among “ethnic wards.” And now the Reagan and Bush administrations have shown similar sympathy for black voters who wish to “elect representatives of their choice.”

Indeed, the Edsalls tell us, the Republican National Committee has set up a foundation to pay for computerized maps showing how to carve out districts with enough black voters to ensure electing a black to office. At the same time, the Justice Department is using the 1982 amendment to require counties and cities to make ethnic composition the chief criterion in designing voting districts. For the recent elections to its new City Council, each of New York’s election districts had its ethnic ratios monitored down to the decimal point by the Justice Department.

The Republicans have several reasons for favoring districts with strong black majorities. For one thing, the people these majorities elect may take stronger racial positions since they have no need to cater to white voters. It serves Republican interests to have black lawmakers act as a group, since that makes racial divisions all the more visible. It is true that blacks still vote overwhelmingly Democratic; indeed, they have traditionally given strong support to white Democratic candidates. But since the Republican strategy concentrates black voters in separate districts, rather than dispersing them among multiracial constituencies, the result will be to reduce the votes for Democrats running elsewhere. And since more districts will be almost exclusively white, it will be easier for more Republicans to win.

A longer-term strategy is to project onto the Democrats an appearance of becoming a “black party”—a phrase used by at least one party official the Edsalls interviewed. This is already taking place in the South. “In heavily black states,” they write, “blacks have recently been moving steadily toward majority status among those who identify themselves as Democrats.” Just as whites leave racially changing neighborhoods, so they tend to drop their political associations where they no longer feel at ease with them. The success of Douglas Wilder against a Republican candidate in Virginia notwithstanding, Republicans are far from downcast when a black wins a Democratic primary, because that means whites will shift to the Republican side in the general election.

Some generalizations are possible about how race impinges on voting. On occasion, certainly, white voters have shown they are willing to support black candidates. In Massachusetts, during the 1960s and 1970s, they gave Edward Brooke strong support when he ran for the Senate, and Tom Bradley’s base in Los Angeles has been very largely white. More recently, in such cities as Seattle and Kansas City, blacks running for mayor have won at least half of the white votes. This has also happened in southern cities like Charlotte and Roanoke. In these instances, whites seemed ready to judge black candidates on their past records and personal abilities, including their abilities to take account of the claims of white interest groups, rather than as spokesmen for a racial bloc. Douglas Wilder’s bid for the presidency rests on the premise that this can happen in a national contest.

However, such outcomes are not always in a candidate’s hands. When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City, which is traditionally a Democratic stronghold, over 70 percent of the white voters supported his Republican opponent, producing an unprecedented percentage for that party. One reason is suggested by the Edsalls, when they quote Jesse Jackson’s frequent declaration: “Our time has come.” Among whites who want to be frightened, those words can have an ominous ring. David Dinkins happened to be a mild-mannered, middle-aged gentleman, who had refrained from stressing racial issues throughout his career. Yet that did not dispel fears that his victory would bring in a “black administration,” or generally turn over power to blacks in the city. This may have happened because race has more strident overtones in New York than in Seattle or Charlotte. In short, the prospects for black candidates will depend largely on how whites choose to perceive them.

Similarly, whether the Democrats will turn into “a black party” will be a question settled less by statistics than by white perceptions. At its 1988 convention, 20 percent of the Democratic delegates (as compared with 12.5 percent of the population) were black, a fact made all the more apparent as cameras swept around the hall. (Indeed, television coverage made black attendance seem even greater than it actually was.) The attention commanded by Jesse Jackson deepened that impression, as did the choice of Ronald Brown as national chairman. To many white voters, the Democrats now look “black enough” to make them think twice about supporting its candidates. As has been noted, the Republicans have been happy to make the most of these beliefs.

Chain Reaction has an angry edge. The Edsalls suggest that Ronald Reagan and George Bush have broken a social compact generally honored by Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon. Even with appeals to “white ethnics” and the “southern strategy,” most conservative politicians took fairly careful positions on race, seeking to keep a fragile peace rather than stir animosities. Ronald Reagan and his advisers felt no such compunctions. “Reagan had found an ostensibly neutral language,” they write, “that…polarized voters on race-freighted issues,” using “coded symbols” like “welfare cheats” and “forced busing.” This is a serious charge. Nor will it do to reply that race has always figured strongly in most American’s minds, so Bush and Reagan have simply given expression to sentiments that were already there. To bring into the open racial animosities that people have hitherto kept under restraint hardly befits a major American party.

How are the Democrats dealing with the Reagan-Bush strategy? Almost every chapter of Chain Reaction contains severe criticism of the Democratic party, largely for its failure to offer an alternative to Republican racism. In fact, Democratic politicians hold most of the seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as over half the governors’ chairs and legislative seats throughout the states. For state and local offices, many Americans still favor Democrats when they go to the polls. So it could be argued that the party still commands loyalty and has a powerful base.

The problem is that while these candidates and office holders wear the Democratic label, they are not committed to national policies with a consistent set of principles. Practically all of them are independent entrepreneurs, who win and keep their positions by financing their own campaigns and creating a personal following.2 They tend to do well because they manage their own political careers, get the support of the appropriate local interests, and are not constrained by ideological arguments. Indeed, surprisingly few have national ambitions. They are content with the baronies they have built. As a result, the nation no longer has a Democratic party which can be expected to take coherent positions on matters of policy. So it is futile to lecture an amorphous group called “the Democrats” for their failure to grasp opportunities or to shoulder obligations. (In fact, the Republicans have a firmer consensus, and have been more willing to present a common front.) A further obstacle is that even liberals hold themselves aloof from the Democratic party, waiting for “it” to come up with suitable candidates or ideas. Indeed, when perceptive and engaged political observers like Mary and Thomas Edsall dissociate themselves from a historic movement, their decision to do so sends a message to the liberal electorate.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the collection The Urban Underclass is its title, which does not make it clear that all of the nineteen essays in the book give their major attention to race. On the other hand, it might be equally misleading to say its theme is “The Black Underclass,” since almost half of all black Americans still live in the South, where rural poverty rates exceed those for city dwellers. Still, the emphasis on blacks who live in the cities is understandable. As Christopher Jencks points out in the book’s longest and most closely documented essay, “black poverty has become more urban, which makes it more visible to opinion leaders.” Since the rural poor are more quiescent, they are not viewed by politicians and sociologists as a pressing problem.

In fact, in much of the country it is not altogether unfair to describe the urban poor as almost entirely black (in some regions, Hispanic as well). As Table B (above) shows, poor white families are more likely to live in rural districts or less affluent suburbs, often along back roads or in decaying trailer parks.


Those of the white poor who do live in cities are less visible, since they are not concentrated in segregated slums. Many are older people, trying to get by on their minute pensions. There are whites among the homeless, especially those with mental problems, but not enough to count as a statistical category.

Insofar as “underclass” refers to the more troubling forms of behavior associated with urban poverty—crime, drug taking, dropping out of school—the answer is that fewer whites display these traits today compared with those in the past. Some white school districts have high dropout rates, and white out-of-wedlock births are on the rise. But white criminal activity tends to steer clear of violence, and thus seems less threatening. American cities once had a white underclass, and until the 1920s, it was common for “respectable” citizens to speak of some of their fellow whites in terms now reserved for blacks. However in today’s “ethnic” neighborhoods there are few white toughs comparable to the ones who terrorized Hell’s Kitchen and filled the cells at Sing Sing. The urban underclass is essentially black. What remains of white violence is more likely to be found outside rural roadhouses on steamy Saturday nights.

Jencks asks whether it is worthwhile to put forward general propositions about a black underclass. Relatively few individuals display all the symptoms associated with the underclass. One example will suffice. We know that over half of all black children live only with their mothers. Yet this by itself is not enough to assign them to an underclass. In fact, a majority of these mothers do not collect welfare. Their wages may keep them below the poverty line, but they have chosen to work.

In Jencks’s view, “to understand what is happening to those at the bottom of American society, we need to examine their problems one at a time.” Indeed, he concludes by suggesting that there is no single underclass, especially if it is confined to one race or a particular region. For this reason, he warns against visualizing a vast “metaproblem” that can only be remedied by “metasolutions.” Rather, he asks for “piecemeal” reforms, using such knowledge as we have about birth control, drug prevention, and vocational training, among other remedies.

Even so, images of black underclass behavior remain vivid in white minds. For this reason, concerns over the nihilism of black youths who gun down one another will not be calmed by statistics showing that this conduct is not typical. White Americans see enough desolation and despair to cause an inner voice to insist: that can never happen to me. In this vein, James Baldwin once wrote that white people “need the nigger” to reassure them because they know there lurks a “nigger” within themselves that they cannot bear to face. Ours may well be the most Darwinian of societies, in which all of us know how far we can fall. So it is easier to believe that certain traits can only be found in persons of African ancestry. This was the rationale employed to ease people’s minds about slavery. Intimations that it is somehow “normal” for blacks to be poor build on similar presumptions. Indeed, one of the underlying objections to affirmative action programs is that they are in fact a form of welfare program for people who cannot meet prevailing standards.

After reading Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, I am still trying to see how Stephen Carter may have profited from preferential policies. As he acknowledges, he grew up with the encouragement and advantages of a professional family. His father was an administrator at Cornell University and later became a college president. Given that background, it should not be surprising that he was accepted at Stanford. (Having come from an academic family myself, I can testify that we tend to look after our own.) Moreover, applications from Stanford seniors get sympathetic attention at Yale Law School, which is where Mr. Carter went next. And now he is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, indeed the youngest person to be promoted to that rank in the history of the school.

He begins his first chapter by saying, “I got into law school because I am black,” but at no point does he show that his grades or scores were below those expected of white applicants to Stanford or Yale. Indeed, at a high school filled with faculty children, he ranked second on the National Merit Scholarship test. Nor can I believe that Yale Law School gave him an endowed chair to fill some kind of quota.

What concerns Carter is that people question whether he got where he did on his merits. In fact, he has published highly original articles on the separation of powers. But, he tells us, when professional colleagues meet him personally, they find it difficult to accept that he could be “the Carter” who did that work. Still, I am not persuaded that this has left deep psychological scars. Stephen Carter’s record as a scholar speaks for itself.

Along with Shelby Steele, Carter believes that settling for lower standards can perpetuate the myth that blacks will always be victims in need of special favors. He denies that being black in America will always be a disability that needs special compensation in the form of preferential policies. At best, he argues, affirmative action should be limited to giving people a chance “to show what they can do,” after which they should be judged by conventional criteria. He also agrees with the Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson that in most current applications, “the benefits of affirmative action fall to those least in need of them.” For example, preferential programs have been applied largely to college admissions and middle-class employment, or better-paid blue-collar jobs like firefighting and electrician. Affirmative action has done virtually nothing to enlarge opportunities for very poor young people. At the same time, Carter acknowledges that white Americans have lost whatever enthusiasm they may once have had for giving blacks easier access to jobs and education. So if white support is to be sustained, programs must be broadened to aid “the truly disadvantaged” of every race.

What might in fact happen if, as Carter recommends, college scholarships were awarded on a race-blind basis to those who really need such assistance? It is certainly true that insofar as black students as a group come from less-well-off families, more of them would be eligible strictly on the basis of financial need. However, students are not supposed to be given places at colleges simply because they are poor, and admission and awards will always depend to some degree on academic merit.

The most widely used gauge of academic potential is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is taken by more than a million high school seniors each year. While it can be argued that the SAT puts excessive emphasis on technical skills, it provides a measure of how well prepared students are to take college tests. Of the 1,025,523 candidates who took the SAT last year, 138,357, representing four major ethnic groups, came from families with incomes under $20,000. Table C below gives the average scores of these students.


Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the nation’s most selective colleges set aside a total of 75,000 scholarships for low-income students, to be bestowed on a race-blind basis, according to academic merit. If SAT scores were used to assess that capacity, virtually all of these awards would have to go to whites and Asians. 3

Indeed, within all income ranges, black candidates have relatively lower scores. Even in the $60,000 to $70,000 bracket, the typical score for white students was 961, while black students averaged 807. The reasons for this are still to be fully explored, but in my view they are largely historical and cultural. Even middle-class black children spend much of their lives in segregated communities in which they are not as exposed as other children to the kinds of logic that are central to tests like the SAT. And, as Table C shows, poorer black youngsters rank even further behind their white counterparts. The conclusion seems inescapable that under race-blind admissions and awards, far fewer blacks would find places on competitive campuses. That is why proponents of affirmative action have insisted that blacks have to be considered in a separate category, with all the controversy that this kind of segregation is bound to arouse.

In today’s academic world, affirmative action not only concerns individuals but also affects ideas. As no one needs reminding, the past decade has witnessed campaigns to change the curriculums at school and college levels, on the ground that the knowledge now being taught serves “white” interests and enhances that race’s domination. This charge is not as easily answered as many assume. Even free and open societies devise something akin to an “official” knowledge. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., admits as much in The Disuniting of America. What is important, he argues, is not so much to attempt to dictate the contents of learning as to encourage a continuing debate about the validity of the information being taught and its assumptions; and in such a debate the critical traditions of scholarship based on diversity, dissent, and close scrutiny of broad claims must not be abandoned.

Schlesinger’s concern is with the rise of a new “cult of ethnicity,” based on “a denial of the idea of a common culture and a single society.” He is appalled at the tendency to turn over decisions on the curriculum to ethnic advocates, allowing them to teach whatever they feel will raise the self-esteem of their students. His harshest attack is on “Afrocentric” courses which, in his judgment, replace history with fantasy. In a set of lesson plans prepared for a group of urban school systems, students will be taught that Africans crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus, and transported elephants to China. They also invented carbon steel and Caesarean sections, as well as creating mathematical theorems ascribed to Pythagoras. Similar claims are being made in some courses in city colleges. Schlesinger realizes he is treading a fine line, since he is prepared to grant that “the invocation of history is indispensable to nations and groups in the making of themselves.” Yet he is no less adamant that schools and colleges must not “degrade history by allowing its contents to be dictated by pressure groups, whether political, economic, religious, or ethnic.”

What needs stressing is that the proposals he criticizes would not have gotten very far without considerable white support. On more than a few college campuses, and within many school administrations, whites seem to feel they must gain black approval if they are both to live with themselves and keep the peace. They fail to see how condescending they are when they encourage blacks and other ethnic groups to promote fantasy as history or as science. Whether such self-indulgent attitudes will be outgrown is a large question for the decade ahead.

It may be that whatever future this country has will depend less on satisfying the feelings of guilty whites or opportunistic blacks and more on the offspring of immigrants who are choosing difficult disciplines that other groups avoid. Most Asians and many Hispanics have shown no need for affirmative action; and if they wish to study their heritages, they generally do so on their own. We live in a demanding age that requires—and rewards—technical and organizational skills. It is simply irresponsible to tell children of an underclass that their salvation lies in flights of rhetoric.


Closing the Gap January 30, 1992

  1. 1

    While black fertility rates are higher, the relation of black to white rates has been remarkably constant. Each year, there are about 135 black births for every 100 among whites.

  2. 2

    See Alan Ehrenhalt, The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office (Random House, 1991).

  3. 3

    In fact, Asians score below whites only at the lowest economic levels. In their case, low incomes suggest that they are recent immigrants with limited English. Once Asian families move above $20,000, their children outperform white children on the SAT.