The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society
More than thirty years have passed since the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 freed African Americans from legalized segregation, denial of voting rights through the biased enforcement of registration laws, and blatant discrimination in the labor market. These were great and lasting achievements. Jim Crow laws are as dead in 1995 as slavery was in 1895. Blacks now vote without hindrance, and the African-American representation in the House is approaching their proportion of the total population. Although as a group they are far from economic parity with whites, blacks have attained high positions in government, the military, business, and education that would have been unimaginable forty or fifty years ago.
Nevertheless, almost everyone agrees that something has gone wrong and that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., for an integrated society in which people will be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin has not been realized. Although no longer enforced by law, residential and educational segregation has actually increased since 1965. More than a third of the black population is below the poverty line, and the proportion has been increasing.
Black disillusionment with the hopes for equality aroused in the 1960s has been growing. It is more vocal in the 1990s than at any time since the “black power” movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s reacted to the immediate failure of the civil rights movement to fulfill the expectations it had aroused (especially among northern urban blacks whose disadvantages did not derive from disfranchisement and legalized segregation). These complaints have not persuaded a majority of whites that discrimination has persisted. On the contrary, whites have increasingly embraced the view that African Americans have had more than a fair chance, that in fact they have received preferential treatment in employment and political representation.
According to what has become conventional wisdom on race relations, the failure of blacks to make steady progress toward economic and social parity with whites is due more to their own moral and cultural shortcomings than to racial discrimination. Influential white and black conservatives—Dinesh D’Souza agrees with them—go on to argue that government affirmative action and welfare policies have contributed significantly to these failures by undermining black character and initiative. Main-stream liberal or moderate white leaders, such as President Bill Clinton, accept much of the case against race-specific remedies for black disadvantage but see some justification for an affirmative action policy that avoids rigid quotas and for minimal programs for the black poor, enough welfare to prevent mass homelessness and malnutrition without making life on the dole so comfortable and certain that it discourages working for a living.
From the black civil-rights leadership and from the diminishing and dispirited left wing of white opinion comes a radically different perspective, one that views the problem as the failure of government to do enough to overcome black disadvantages and counter the racial discrimination that allegedly still exists. The politicians and advocacy groups on …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.