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America’s Caste System’: Two Exchanges

In response to:

America's Caste System: Will It Change? from the October 23, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Liberal Racism is not a book about affirmative action. Like Orlando Patterson’s fine (and highly polemical) The Ordeal of Integration, it is about how liberals think about race. I mention “affirmative action” seven times, usually to mark its coincidences with a broader, “diversity”-driven color coding of American life which Patterson and I oppose. Conscripting me into what he calls “a sterile debate between fixed positions” on affirmative action, George M. Fredrickson denies readers a credible thumbnail sketch of Liberal Racism in his “America’s Caste System: Will It Change?” [NYR, October 23].

Writing in an American civic idiom rendered with what I think is warranted passion, I argue that it is this country’s destiny to eliminate all racial differences. Liberal Racism is an evocation of that destiny as well as a critique of a liberal mindset that, shrinking from it, carries racial policies beyond the point of diminishing returns. Yet Fredrickson doesn’t report that half of my book engages black writers in meditations on the fate of racial identity and affinity in our rapidly mutating civic life.

I explore how Roots, Alex Haley’s docu-dramatic tale of black dispossession, “subtly reinforced the moral neutrality of classical liberalism, where markets are stronger than myths and history’s tragic truths are not so much falsified as tamed.” Writing of W.E.B. Du Bois’s youth in Great Barrington, I explore the Protestant ethic’s capacity to trump racism even as it drove capitalism, producing abolitionism and piloting slave ships. Mary Lefkowitz, C. Eric Lincoln, and non-academic black writers (N. Don Wycliff, William Raspberry, Clarence Page) credit these chapters warmly. Why doesn’t Fredrickson even acknowledge them?

I do write that liberal racial condescension and neo-essentialism thwart constructive approaches to crime, voting rights, and news reporting, turning liberals into laggards in a country that is transcending race. I defend colorblindness against conservative distortions, presenting so vivid an account of Glenn Loury’s break with conservatism that no serious critic would write, “Sleeper is giving credence to misleading right-wing propaganda.”

Fredrickson insists that I want “a leap to colorblindness” in public policy. I write that Justice Harry Blackmun’s “wise dictum” in the Bakke case (“In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race…”) “should make us ask whether and when it is still useful to racialize civic interactions. Sometimes it is; often it is not. Liberals’ refusal or inability to draw the distinction has cost them political credibility….” That accords with Patterson’s proposal—which opens and ends his book, but which Fredrickson never reports—to phase out race-based affirmative action in fifteen years, using sector-by-sector analyses of its effects. On pp. 86-88, I do contemplate the consequences of leaps to colorblindness in universities and newspapers, emphasizing their obligation to spend and do more to address real black deficits instead of fudging standards and numbers.

Fredrickson insists that “multicultural higher education, as it works at my own university and most others I know of, does not, as Sleeper claims, intentionally condone or encourage racial and ethnic separatism….” Surely his quarrel is with Patterson, who writes that college “affirmative action seems to have been distorted by its beneficiaries into the goal of balkanizing America…. One has only to walk for a few minutes on any of the nation’s great campuses to witness the extent of ethnic separatism…. The thought that repeatedly haunts me as I travel the nation’s campuses is that…no group of people now seem more committed to segregation than Afro-American students and young professionals….”

Fredrickson never engages this but claims that my book “wastes much of its heavy artillery on straw targets.” Are The New York Times‘s Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Howell Raines and the voting-rights activists, legislators, and defense attorneys whom I criticize at length “straw targets”? What, then, of Patterson’s repeated, worthy bombardments of liberals, e.g.: “So committed are they to the ‘two nations’ and ‘racism forever’ view of America—the media because it…increases ratings,…the misguided liberal academics because they are intellectually terrorized by the fear that any report of a decline in racism exposes them to the charge of racism or being a ‘Tom’—that they have all either dismissed the very polls on which, in other contexts, they slavishly rely, or dismiss the nation’s respondents as a sample of liars”?

Ignoring Patterson’s use of the phrase “racist liberal,” Fredrickson asks, with a touch of exasperation, “Who exactly are the ‘racist liberals’ whom Sleeper is attacking? Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell are…virtually his only examples of pessimistic liberals who argue seriously that white supremacy is…central to American values and institutions….” But Bell appears only briefly, and the white liberals I “attack,” already mentioned, not only bemoan white supremacy’s presumptions but exhibit them in treating non-whites as exotics and victims.

Fredrickson’s straw citations and tonal rebukes obscure in my book insights he rightly lauds in Patterson’s, whose polemics he ignores. Why so stark a contrasting of two worthy and compatible authors, one white, one black? Perhaps the answer was anticipated in two of Fredrickson’s own book titles: White Supremacy and Black Liberalism. Perhaps it is better comprehended in mine: The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

Jim Sleeper
New York City

George M Fredrickson replies:

Although he does not discuss affirmative action at length, few readers will doubt that Jim Sleeper’s aim is to discredit most, if not all, the policies to which this term is usually applied. If his attacks on “race-conscious” efforts to increase diversity do not include affirmative action, his charges against “liberal racists” become virtually meaningless. Notwithstanding what he says in his letter, Mr. Sleeper is in plain disagreement with Orlando Patterson on this issue. I did not comment on Patterson’s proposal to phase out affirmative action over fifteen years. I was puzzled by the precise timetable of his suggestion. While I would agree that affirmative action should not last forever, Patterson’s own case for it in the years ahead suggests that we may have to be more flexible about its future. In any event, Patterson does not want to abolish it at the present time. Sleeper, for his part, makes his attitude toward affirmative action clear when he describes the rejection of such policies by California voters as a decision to “defy liberal racism” (p. 87). This can only mean that liberals who support affirmative action are racists.

There is no contradiction between what I wrote about the intentions of affirmative action and Orlando Patterson’s report of what the results have sometimes been. Black students, finding themselves in an alien environment on traditionally white campuses, do often band together. Acknowledging freedom of association for all students, university administrators have been powerless to prevent this unfortunate but understandable tendency. My own observations, however, suggest to me that the separatist impulse is currently declining on many campuses and that we may be moving toward a point where black self-segregation is no greater than that of some white ethnic or religious groups.

I leave it to readers to determine what Sleeper is implying in his last paragraph. If he means what I think he means, he is impugning my intellectual integrity in a way that anyone familiar with the four scholarly books I have written about the history of race relations will find absurd.

To the Editors:

We are pleased that George Frederickson found some favorable things to say about our volume, America in Black and White, despite his profound disagreement with us over the issue of racial preferences [NYR, October 23]. However, his essay provides further evidence of the difficulties in the way of reasoned discourse on racial matters.

Professor Frederickson opens his review by praising President Clinton’s call for a “national conversation on race” but then goes on to express concern that the conversation could degenerate into a “debate that will further polarize rather than unify Americans.” The President, of course, did his best to avoid awkward “debate” by naming a commission that included not a single critic of race-based public policies, despite the fact that more Americans agree with Ward Connerly than with his administration on this issue.

Clinton’s model is perhaps the way such issues are handled in our elite universities today, as described admiringly by Professor Frederickson. In a quite amazing footnote, he expresses pride that the Stanford Faculty Senate in 1996 “voted unanimously to continue affirmative action.” That is indeed telling, but it may not indicate quite what he thinks it does. The Stanford Faculty Senate, we may be sure, did not agree unanimously on the desirability of American intervention in Europe before Pearl Harbor. It did not agree unanimously on the Marshall Plan or the Truman Doctrine. It surely does not agree unanimously on welfare reform, tax policy, or what is to be done about Bosnia. It does not even agree unanimously on whether all Stanford students should be required to enroll in a science course or be familiar with Plato or Shakespeare. These are all important and complicated matters on which disagreement is regarded as legitimate. But evidently racial preferences in admission and faculty hiring are something altogether different—a matter of religious faith. There may be agnostics on the faculty, even a few atheists, but they are obviously well-advised to maintain silence. Those who march behind the banner of diversity regard diversity of opinion on this subject as heretical.

His religious commitment to racial preferences may explain why a usually careful and scrupulous scholar makes erroneous or distorted assertions about our book. Thus his completely unfounded claim that we offer a “dated and generally distorted picture” of Stanford “derived from the exaggerated accounts of right-wing ideologues about the controversy over multicultural curriculum reform at Stanford almost a decade ago.” He must be thinking of some other volume. As our notes make plain, our very brief sketch of the racial scene at Stanford derives from a 1995 article in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and a 1992 monograph by John H. Bunzel, published by the Stanford Alumni Association. Does Professor Frederickson regard Dr. Bunzel, who was on the same side of the Proposition 209 debate as he was, as a “right-wing ideologue”?

We are especially distressed that Professor Frederickson failed to grasp or chose not to report the argument of our chapter on higher education, though he comments on the subject at some length. The racial gap in cognitive skills is appallingly large at present; the average black student aged 17 is 3.9 years behind whites of the same age in reading, and 3.5 years in math. Advocates of preferences make the comfortable assumption that these differences will magically erode if institutions of higher learning simply lower their admissions standards, but we present powerful evidence that it doesn’t work that way. Breathing the air on an elite campus does not have bracing remedial effects. The chief result of putting students into schools for which they are not competitive is that many of them drop out. The rate of college attendance by African-Americans today is only 19 percent below that of whites—surprisingly close, given how far behind they are in academic skills, on the average. But the black rate of college graduation is 41 percent below that of whites. Frederickson is scornful of basing decisions on SAT scores, but fails to explain why only 58 percent of the members of Berkeley’s 1988 freshman class who had combined SATs in the 700s managed to graduate, compared with 72 percent of those with scores in the 900s and 88 percent of those with scores in the 1300s. Likewise he ignores our intriguing finding that the racial gap in graduation rates is tiny at Ole Miss, of all places, and huge in elite liberal institutions like Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan. And our report of a study by Linda Datcher Loury and David Garman that found that black college students with SATs well below the overall mean for the college they attended had higher dropout rates and lower estimated lifetime earnings than those who went to less selective schools without having received preferences in admissions.

Instead of grappling with such factual evidence, set forth in our book’s seventy-six tables, Frederickson is content to opine that tests like the SATs fail to measure “ambition, perseverance, and energy,” and that these are important qualities. True enough, but we reject his implicit assumption that students from minority backgrounds are more likely to possess them than anyone else. This racist assumption mirrors the old defense of the Jewish quotas that were in place throughout the Ivy League—although Jewish applicants had high test scores, they lacked “character.”

We could be wrong on this issue. Perhaps there is hard evidence about the benefits of preferential policies that we have somehow missed. But Frederickson hasn’t supplied it, and clearly cannot imagine why anyone would require empirical data to support an article of faith. No wonder that both he and the President want a “national conversation on race” that involves no real debate. They would like the rest of us to recognize the superior wisdom of the Stanford Faculty Senate and not raise awkward questions about what effects racially preferential policies actually have.

Stephan Thernstrom
Winthrop Professor of History
Harvard University
Abigail Thernstrom
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

George M Fredrickson replies:

If Jim Sleeper questions my intellectual integrity by suggesting that I would praise a black writer for opinions I condemn in a white author (thus ignoring the fact that the two authors are on opposite sides of the issue that I focused on in my review), Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom charge that the entire faculty senate of Stanford University checks its principles at the door and succumbs to “political correctness” when it votes on affirmative action. In fact the policies that have emerged at Stanford have been debated vigorously over the years, and the consensus that has emerged is the result of rational deliberation and much practical experience of what it takes to create a better educational environment. Problems remain, but they are being addressed in a spirit of good will and tolerance, rather than from the kind of rigid ideological position that the Thernstroms spin their data in an effort to justify. Those who freely question the intellectual integrity of others should be sure of their own. On the specific question of whether the form of affirmative action that admits minorities with lower test scores and grade-point averages produces failing students and short-circuited careers, there is important new evidence that supports my intuition rather than that of the Thernstroms. The October 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports exhaustively on the results of affirmative action at the medical school of the University of California at Davis and comes to the following conclusion: “Criteria other than undergraduate grade point average and Medical College Admission Test Scores can be used in predicting success in medical school. An admission process that allows for race and ethnicity and other special characteristics to be used heavily in admissions decisions yields powerful effects on the diversity of the student population and shows no evidence of diluting the quality of its graduates.”

It is true that a substantial proportion of African-American students at some large state universities, such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, have failed to graduate. As my distinguished colleague, the psychologist Claude Steele has shown, much of this can be explained by lack of self-confidence, or, more specifically, the “stereotype vulnerability” that besets black students when they are put in special programs that convey doubts about their ability. An experiment he conducted at the University of Michigan placed a randomly selected group of black students in what was advertised as an elite program for high achievers regardless of race. They did substantially better than their peers who remained in the separate racially targeted program. Steele has also found that “stereotype vulnerability” makes African-Americans (as well as women being tested on their mathematical ability) perform well below their actual ability on standardized tests. He has proved this by giving them the same tests under circumstances that allayed their anxieties that they were being evaluated or ranked.

It seems that the new tactic of those who believe that blacks need no special consideration to become fully equal and participating members of American society is to accuse proponents of affirmative action of racism, thus deflecting the charge that some of their critics direct at them. (I do not make any such accusation myself, as Imade clear in my review.) It is regrettable that the Thernstroms resort to Jim Sleeper’s tactic of playing the race card in this new and perverse way when they allege that Imake the “racist assumption” that minority students are more likely to have good character traits than whites. Any unbiased reader can see that I mean nothing of the kind. What I do mean is that those who have grown up under circumstances that have discouraged academic achievement but have nevertheless done relatively well, in grades or class standing, if not on standardized tests, are likely to turn out to be high achievers if given a chance. And, as I made clear, considerations of this sort should be applied to white applicants as well, although the demoralizing impact of racial stereotyping still needs to be given some special consideration.

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