Far from the Promised Land

Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics

by Manning Marable
Verso, 236 pp., $24.95

Killing Rage: Ending Racism

by bell hooks
Holt, 277 pp., $20.00

Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy

by Stephen Steinberg
Beacon, 276 pp., $25.00

The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race

by Benjamin DeMott
Atlantic Monthly Press, 214 pp., $22.00

A growing conviction that the United States faces a crisis in black-white relations has inspired several writers to revisit the race question in search of new perspectives and solutions. One of these, the Princeton political scientist Jennifer Hochschild, has written a major study of current public opinion that offers some grounds for hoping that racial equality and harmony can be achieved on the basis of a shared commitment to a set of traditional American values. In her well-documented study Facing Up to the American Dream, she argues that most blacks and whites agree in principle that everyone in this society should have a fair chance to get ahead—in the words of President Clinton, “If you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.”

But blacks are beginning to lose faith in the American dream, some in the ideal itself but a larger number in the hope that it can ever apply to them. Disillusionment with the prospect for equal opportunity, Hochschild’s data show, is more advanced among the relatively successful members of the black middle class, who believe that they still face day-to-day discrimination, than among the poor, who—to a surprising extent—blame their lack of success on their own shortcomings. Unless the dream can be shown to work for blacks, she warns, the nation is in danger of losing its soul and disintegrating. Despite the dream’s limitations—especially its invitation to self-seeking and callous attitudes toward those who fail to get ahead—it offers in her view the only conceivable basis for a just and harmonious America. Without it, she believes, whites will revert to racism and blacks will embrace a divisive ethnic separatism. But she remains hopeful that the egalitarian implications of the dream can be reemphasized to inspire an effective assault on racial inequality and disunity.

Two recent collections of essays by prominent black intellectuals repudiate Hochschild’s view of the American dream as a basis for the overthrow of white supremacy and do so without embracing the black separatism that she sees as the only alternative. Bell hooks is a professor of English and prolific essayist who has emerged as the most prominent exponent of black feminism. Manning Marable is a historian and commentator on current affairs whose inspiration comes in large part from the black Marxist tradition established by Paul Robeson and by W. E. B. Du Bois in his later years. Both hooks and Marable seem to be writing primarily for a black audience and hope to steer African-American opinion away from both of the ideologies that Hochschild’s surveys found to be the only ones that blacks in general are likely to find attractive—conformity to the liberal individualism of the American dream or a go-it-alone black nationalism. The essays are eloquent and well-argued expressions of opinion that present relatively little evidence or concrete examples, other than personal anecdotes, to support their …

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