America’s Caste System: Will It Change?

America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible

by Stephan Thernstrom, by Abigail Thernstrom
Simon and Schuster, 704 pp., $32.50

A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America

by David K. Shipler
Knopf, 640 pp., $30.00

The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis

by Orlando Patterson
Civitas, distributed by Counterpoint, 240 pp., $24.50

President Clinton’s recent call for a “national conversation on race” and his appointment of a commission headed by the historian John Hope Franklin to report on the current state of race relations are strong indications that there is once again an upsurge of concern about America’s oldest and most persistent problem. Unfortunately, the conversation could easily become a debate that will further polarize rather than unify Americans.

There are several questions that have to be asked and answered honestly and objectively before a productive conversation can begin. The first is to inquire what we mean by the term “race,” so that we know what we are talking about. The word has strong historical associations with a theory of biological determinism that has been shown to have no scientific validity. But if we substitute a term such as “ethnicity,” which normally refers to culture rather than biology, we risk underestimating the historical and contemporary significance of racism as an ideology or set of beliefs and attitudes.

Sociologists have long recognized that race is a social rather than a biological phenomenon, and recently the proposition that race is “a social and cultural construction” has become an academic cliché. But social and cultural constructions can justify the enslavement, forced segregation, or even the extermination of people designated as having inferior ancestry or bad genes. When such attitudes are influential, or have been influential for extended periods in the past with effects that persist, a race problem may be said to exist. As a practical matter, therefore, it is difficult to avoid using the term.

In the history of the United States only one minority has been consistently thought of as a “race” in the full and invidious sense—African-Americans. Hostilities toward other groups, such as American Indians, Asians, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Jews, have often been intense and have led in some cases to widespread violence and deplorable injustices. But cul-tural intolerance has usually played a greater role in provoking their mistreatment than a strong belief in their natural incapacities. Most other persecuted minorities were eventually considered candidates for assimilation and were denounced and abused when they chose to remain culturally distinctive. Blacks, on the other hand, were regarded for centuries as inherently unassimilable because, as subhuman, they lacked a developed or refined human culture and were deemed incapable of having one. Consequently, every effort was made to keep them from taking a full part in American society. John Hope Franklin, therefore, has historical justification when he argues, against the multiculturalist approach of President Clinton, that his commission on race should be primarily concerned with the basic and enduring problem of black-white relations rather than with the full American mosaic that has complicated the classic race question but not eliminated it.

If race in America is still mainly a matter of black and white, then the next question that needs attention is the very contentious one of how well African-Americans are doing. Scarcely anyone denies that their situation is better in …

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Letters

America’s Caste System’: Two Exchanges November 20, 1997