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Playing the Racial Card

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. 2

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

  2. 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.

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