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Demonizing the American Dilemma

The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society

by Dinesh D’Souza
Free Press, 724 pp., $30.00

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 1965.1 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 the left, however, have not produced many specific reform proposals; faced with the current mood of the country, they have been forced to devote most of their thought and energy to defending existing programs that they regard as inadequate.

What virtually everyone agrees upon is that the nature of the current racial crisis differs from the one faced forty years ago in at least one significant respect—the black community is more diverse than it was then. A population composed predominantly of workers, most of them relatively unskilled and poorly paid, with a middle class that was disproportionately small, has been transformed, partly because of affirmative action and partly because of a decline in the availability of unskilled and semiskilled jobs, into a group with a more complex and differentiated class structure. The middle class has grown considerably, and now includes nearly one third of black families, but so also has the urban “underclass” or alienated poor, composed of unemployed or underemployed people who subsist on occasional work at the minimum wage, public welfare, private charity, or illegal activities ranging from petty welfare chiseling to drug dealing and violent crime. In relative decline, although still almost a third of the black population, is the self-supporting working class—blacks with reasonably steady blue-collar or service jobs and incomes that put them above the poverty line but below the middle-class standard.

Attention has concentrated mainly on the bottom segment of this tripartite black population because this group produces most of the unwed mothers, gang members, drug users or venders, muggers, and rapists who have become the object of intense concern to whites, many of whom are worried about their personal safety and are convinced that they are paying taxes to provide undeserved benefits to unworthy people. But the working and middle classes have also created white anxiety because of a belief that beneficiaries of affirmative action have been taking jobs from better qualified whites at a time when stagnant wages and the danger of layoffs from “downsizing” have undermined the sense of security and expectations of upward mobility that whites became accustomed to during the prosperous postwar decades.

Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism is a comprehensive and densely documented statement of a conservative viewpoint on race in America. The author is a skillful writer and publicist of Asian Indian extraction who has attracted much attention as a critic of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” in American universities.2 His new book is the most thorough, intelligent, and well-informed presentation of the case against liberal race policies that has yet appeared. Proponents of government intervention on behalf of racial justice must refute D’Souza’s arguments for a laissez faire or “free market” solution to the racial crisis if they wish to be taken seriously in the future.

D’Souza’s central concern is with the concept of racism—its meaning, history, and contemporary relevance; he argues, as his title indicates, that we now live in a post-racist era and that policies based on the assumption that racial prejudice and discrimination are responsible for the current condition of the black population in the United States do more harm than good. Racism, for D’Souza, is straightforward biological determinism, an ideology that attributes the unequal achievements of people who differ in pigmentation to differences in their innate abilities as members of genetically determined groups. He acknowledges that some people still hold racist beliefs. He dissents respectfully from the conclusions of Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein in The Bell Curve that blacks are naturally less intelligent than whites and denounces the ideology of black superiority that he finds in the Nation of Islam and among Afrocentrists.3

In his survey of the historical origins of racism in the second chapter of the book, D’Souza presents a competent synthesis of the existing scholarship on the issue. He rejects the view of white supremacists and some black nationalists that racial consciousness is a primordial and inescapable basis of human identity and agrees with liberal and Marxian historians who repudiate “racial essentialism.” Such historians hold that racism was an ideological invention, or construction, resulting from the encounter of Europeans with non-Western peoples that began in the fifteenth century and led to the enslavement and imperialist domination of non-white peoples during the next four centuries.

But D’Souza differs from most recent historians of early racism in attributing the emerging ideology primarily to intellectual error rather than to a need to explain and justify forms of brutality and oppression that were reserved for non-Europeans. He correctly notes that the enslavement of Africans originally occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at a time when Europeans had no intellectual grounds for basing slavery explicitly on race. Indeed, the concept of race in the modern biological sense did not yet exist. But in his effort to show that slavery was not a racist institution, he makes too much of the fact that a few blacks and Indians owned slaves in the Old South; and he makes too little of the racial prejudices that were the early and inevitable result of the fact that hereditary lifetime servitude was a status strictly reserved for non-Europeans, especially blacks. By the early nineteenth century, when an explicit ideological racism based on allegedly scientific ethnology first came into vogue, all masters were not white, but all slaves were black, and the association of African descent with a debased social status was already deeply rooted in the white mind.

D’Souza is an unabashed believer in the tradition that the early modern West was far ahead of the rest of the world in its progress toward civilization, and that Europeans were quite justified in considering themselves culturally superior to the darker-skinned peoples they encountered in Africa, Asia, and the Americas during the era of exploration and colonization. Their mistake was to attribute this inferiority to unchangeable nature rather than to culture, which—as the missionaries at least understood—could be changed for the better. But in fact, as D’Souza acknowledges, full-blown biological racism was a late development in the history of Western domination of non-European peoples. For a long time conceptions of a cultural hierarchy in which Europeans were superior, to which D’Souza has no principled objection, sufficed to justify slavery, wars of extermination, and imperialist landgrabs. This fact has led some historians and sociologists to enlarge their definition of racism to include theories that give one culturally defined ethnic group the right to dominate another, at least until such time in the distant future when the “savages” have been completely “civilized.” (South African apartheid, it is worth noting, was instituted after theories of biological racism had lost much of their credibility and was ostensibly based on ethno-centric theories of cultural difference rather than on racism in D’Souza’s sense of the term.) But D’Souza could scarcely acknowledge the existence of such “cultural racism”; if he did he could no longer claim to be non-racist himself.

After attributing the rise of racism to misconception and misunderstanding, D’Souza turns to the history of anti-racism. Here he uncovers another fateful error, an intellectual wrong turning that was to become the principal source of our current difficulties—for in his view it is anti-racism and not racism that has led to the fix we are now in. Franz Boas and the cultural anthropologists of the early- to mid-twentieth century who led the attack on biological racism performed a valuable service, D’Souza concedes, by discrediting scientific theories of innate racial differences; but they went sadly astray in basing the claims of blacks on the theory of cultural relativism. To claim that all cultures are equally valuable, D’Souza argues, is not the same thing as maintaining that all large population groups have similar and roughly equal genetic capacities. It is the former doctrine that D’Souza believes has been responsible for the failure of liberal race policy in the United States.

D’Souza is on shaky historical ground when he says that cultural relativism has been the guiding principle of the twentieth-century struggle for black equality. It would take little effort to demonstrate that universalist conceptions of human rights and color-blind claims to American citizenship, rather than assertions of the equality of African-American and Euro-American cultures, animated the NAACP between its founding in 1909 and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Even Boas and other cultural anthropologists did not expect or desire that American society should become a loose federation of distinctive ethnic cultures, each with equal claim to a unique value. As ethnographers, they tried to look at the peoples they studied in the South Pacific or on Indian reservations without ethnocentric preconceptions. But they usually assumed that each society had a single dominant culture and that minorities within it had to conform to the essential values of the larger society in order to survive and prosper. D’Souza does not mention the liberal sociologists of the “Chicago School,” whose work in the 1920s and 1930s was instrumental in establishing an intellectual rationale for the post—World War II desegregation movement. Like D’Souza himself, they made “assimilation” the ultimate goal for all groups, including blacks.

  1. 1

    See Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993).

  2. 2

    See his Illiberal Education (Free Press, 1991).

  3. 3

    See Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994).

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