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. 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.

TABLE A

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 …

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Letters

Closing the Gap January 30, 1992