Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America
A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character
Children of the Dream: The Psychology of Black Success
Deadly Consequences: How Violence Is Destroying Our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
Putting People First: How We Can All Change America
Now no less than in the past, Americans of African ancestry remain haunting presences. They are viewed variously as a dilemma, a threat, an inconvenience, an impetus for anger, a cause for guilt and shame. America has known how to cope with immigrants, seldom welcoming them, but at least allowing that they serve a function, usually as cheap and acquiescent labor. Slaves were brought here for a not dissimilar purpose. Since Emancipation, however, the nation has never been of one mind about the place and status of their descendants.
Jared Taylor, who is white, devotes much of Paved With Good Intentions to what he regards as black misbehavior. His book reiterates a familiar litany. Citing sources in 1,339 footnotes, he decries disintegrating families, drug abuse, and violent crime, as well as youngsters who disdain school and then prey on society and one another with guns and irresponsible sex. By what right, he wants to know, do they make life difficult for themselves and the rest of us? He has, he says, taken account of the legacies of segregation and subordination, but his exasperation bursts through: surely by now, and with all the civil rights reforms, black people have had ample time and opportunities to conduct themselves like other citizens.
In Taylor’s view, all too many black leaders are “shakedown artists” who urge their followers to settle for “excuses and handouts,” thus encouraging the view that perseverance won’t pay off since the deck is stacked against them. Such self-pity, he says, generates a “denial of individual responsibility,” so not nearly enough black Americans are “taking possession of their lives.” He praises Asian immigrants as models blacks would do well to emulate.
Charles Sykes shares Taylor’s position, but in A Nation of Victims places it in a broader setting. He finds what he calls “victimism” endemic in the United States. We have become a country of complainers, inclined to picket or launch lawsuits on any provocation. He tells of a left-handed mail clerk who sued the Postal Service because its sorting cases were built to accommodate right-handed employees. A Michigan brewery worker sought compensation for the alcoholism he incurred from the free beer his company made available. These and other instances illustrate a “generalized cultural impulse to deny personal responsibility.” Some female fans took a baseball team to court for sex discrimination because it presented Father’s Day gifts only to men.
Still, one senses that these and similar stories are cited for their amusement value. Some of the harshest criticisms in A Nation of Victims are reserved for black Americans who are accused of overstating the obstacles they face. All too many continue to complain, despite what Sykes sees as a new “atmosphere of tolerance” in our economy and culture. The trouble started when black leaders moved “from seeking equality under the law to a focus on the vague and volatile concept of racism.” In Sykes’s estimate, affirmative action is based on “victimism,” since it assumes that many members of a racial group are incapable of satisfying existing standards. For this reason, Sykes adds, proponents of preferential treatment “must deal with the nagging doubt that its policies stigmatize all successful minority individuals.” He may have a point, but neither he nor anyone else should claim with such certainty that “all” successful black people suffer from the stigma of preferential treatment. Surely a good many are judged by what they have accomplished.
Given the chastising tone of these two books, it is unlikely that many black Americans will welcome their advice. While they are well aware of their race’s problems, they tend to be reluctant to align themselves with white indictments. When they are among themselves, many if not most will deplore violence, teen-age pregnancies, and some of the statements, for example, of Louis Farrakhan. But they are in no mood to cooperate with whites who seek to draw divisions between “responsible” blacks and those deemed to be demagogues.
An antidote to the charge of “victimism” can be found in Audrey Edwards and Craig Polite’s Children of the Dream. They describe the careers of forty men and women who have succeeded in business and the professions. Without exception, the people they interviewed recalled occasions when they were held back because of their race. While all are well up in the middle class, with some even higher, they still “fully understand that as blacks they will encounter obstacles, prejudices, and inequities.” A man recalls graduating as an engineer, and being the only one in his class not to get a job offer. Others tell of arranging meetings over the telephone, and then seeing faces fall when they enter the room. Or they are not so subtly asked if they could come around again accompanied by a white colleague.
Such reactions cannot help but rouse anger. How much can you laugh off? Yet for all the mistrust they meet, Edwards and Polite note, blacks who want to succeed cannot afford to “view their race as the cause of the problem.” This penetrating and often moving study makes it clear that contrary to the diatribes of such writers as Jared Taylor and Charles Sykes many blacks know they cannot build careers by demanding special dispensations. What they have to overcome are stereotypes others impose on them, which means that blacks are obliged to make extra efforts to disabuse whites of their doubts.
Too close a concentration on the “problems of blacks” can obscure the fact that most black Americans continue to play by the same rules as everyone else. The great majority stay in school and seek the most demanding jobs they can get. Even when we allow for those who are in prison, unemployed, and on public assistance, black men and women account for close to their numerical share of the employed work force. Yet for all the advantages from affirmative action and a growing middle class, black workers are still disproportionately represented in jobs whites no longer seek or take. Moreover, as Table A on the opposite page shows, it is not only professions like law and architecture that remain relatively closed to them; similar percentages are found for dental hygienists and bartenders.
More than we like to admit, the prevailing attitude among white educators and employers is that blacks should accept starting at the bottom, and settle for at best a modest climb during their careers. It is not easy to convey the frustrations felt by black youths who grow up in neighborhoods far removed from the white world. They are asked to display a patience and a perseverance whites do not have to show; they are exhorted to take subminimum wages like the most recent wave of immigrants. That some young black men turn in other directions should not be surprising.
In a Senate speech last March after the Los Angeles riots, Bill Bradley of New Jersey talked about these young men and the reactions they arouse. He said he was simply voicing the fears of most Americans, who shudder when they “see young black men, traveling in groups, cruising the city, looking for trouble.” What whites dread, he went on, is that these youths seem ready to “snatch a purse, crash a concert, break open a telephone box,” if not “rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist.”
Although black youths aged fifteen to twenty-four make up only one percent of the national population, no other group so unsettles the larger society. What people find disconcerting is that many of these young men seem impervious to social controls or public punishment. Unlike the rest of us, many of them seem unfazed by the prospect of arrest, let alone a term in prison. In Cool Pose, Richard Majors and Janet Billson do much to demystify what they call “the dilemmas of black manhood.” They observe that even in recessionary times most white men are able to fulfill the minimal expectation that they hold a job and have a family. But all too often “being black and male has meant beingâ€Śrendered impotent in the economic, political, and social arenas.” By way of a response, “black males have learned to use posing and posturing to communicate power, toughness, detachment, and styleâ€Śas a way of surviving in a restrictive society.” Even before reaching their teens, they find “the cool front of black masculinity is crucial for preservation of pride, dignity, and respect.” Not least, they add, a “cool pose works to keep whites off balance and puzzled about the black man’s true feelings.”
Majors and Billson do not romanticize the young men. They note that if one aspect of “coolness means poise under pressure,” it can also “express bitterness, anger, and distrust toward the dominant society.” Some of this rage has an outlet in rap music, for which the authors find antecedents in slavery and older street cultures. Being black and male has never been an easy condition, so acting cool means maintaining a brave face. In the words of a young man they interviewed, “if you give the impression that you’re confident, you give the air that you can’t be touched, you can’t be damaged.” But no one really believes that. If Senator Bradley’s young men rouse tremors in others, they see themselves as no less under siege.
Homicide is now the most common cause of death among black teenagers, who are killed by gunfire and other forms of violence at rates nine to ten times greater than for whites their age. Some are innocent victims, slain by random shots or in fatal crossfires. But most are active combatants, gunned down during disputes over drugs, battles over turf, or as revenge for disrespect. We have urban war zones, whose young residents do not know if they will live until the end of the year, with many barely caring whether they do or not. (This is no doubt why so few are deterred by threats of the death penalty.) While the growth of the black middle class is an encouraging development, we are also witnessing something not far from genocide among those left behind.
Deborah Prothrow-Stith perceptively suggests in Deadly Consequences that within inner cities only a thin line separates homicide from suicide. If youths feel they are near the edge of death, they may act in ways that seem to invite death. Thus, she reports, they often “trigger the fights in which they die, in order to die.” (This fatalism may be one reason why so many have children at an early age.)
But how much of this carnage is confined to blacks? It is here that Deadly Consequences provides a broader perspective, by bringing in other causes of youthful deaths. Death by guns or knives is much less common among white youths. In contrast to the days of Hell’s Kitchen, few very poor neighborhoods consisting primarily of whites remain, and even fewer of these have the aspect of a racial battleground. White homicides are low enough to suggest that they mainly result from personal confrontations, and not from shared responses in a violent street life. Yet official statistics show that white teen-agers are also dying at a dismayingly high rate, which leads Prothrow-Stith to analyze other causes of deaths. She concludes that “suicides, accidents, and homicides have much in common,” since “many or even most of these deaths are ‘intentional”’ in that those involved may actually “seek out their own victimization.”