Grand Illusion

Reaching Beyond Race

by Paul M. Sniderman, by Edward G. Carmines
Harvard University Press, 191 pp., $22.95

Alan Wolfe’s One Nation, After All summarizes a study he calls “The Middle Class Morality Project.” This phrase is engaging and raises hopes it will provide a commentary akin to Tocqueville’s, on how middle-class Americans are conducting their lives. And it does, even if inadvertently. The book records the responses of 200 suburban householders to varied questions posed by a research assistant, whom Wolfe sent to suburbs outside Boston, Atlanta, Tulsa, and San Diego. In what may be a sign of our times, only a quarter of those she approached agreed to be interviewed. The ones who did were asked to react to statements much like the following:

Middle-class people who live in the suburbs can do an awful lot more to help people in the inner city who live in poverty.

Of the 192 who voiced opinions on this question, three quarters said they agreed that suburban Americans, presumably including themselves, could be doing much more for the inner-city poor than is now being done. As Wolfe sees it, these avowals are evidence of a laudable “middle-class morality.” Thus his survey showed that “in every part of the country, middle-class Americans wanted it on record that they recognize that sometimes people need help and that they are prepared to pay for the help they need.” Hence too, his conclusion that “the history of America is a history of generosity and caring.”

Curiously, the 200 people were only asked whether they thought that more “can” be done, in the sense of being possible or feasible, and not if they personally wanted such steps to be taken. Neither were they asked how much more in taxes they would be willing to pay for such programs. Nor was it ascertained whether the “help” they had in mind might be akin to the recent measures taken to slash welfare rolls and require single mothers to take full-time jobs.

Needless to say, simply saying “inner city” rouses feelings about race. Wolfe begins with the premise that almost all “white Americans have accepted ideals of justice and integration.” Well, what did his survey show? Regardless of the obligations his suburbanites claim to feel toward the inner-city poor, they also make it clear that they want them to remain at a distance. Further along in the survey, the two hundred were asked if they agreed with this statement:

My suburb ought to work much harder at becoming more racially integrated than it is at present.

Here, of 170 who had an opinion, almost three quarters disagreed, conveying that they felt neither a desire nor a duty to have any more black neighbors than they currently do. While Wolfe does not provide figures, the Census Bureau has racial information for two of the suburbs in his study, Boston’s Brookline and Tulsa’s Sand Springs, where black families make up, respectively, a not exactly threatening 3.1 percent and 0.7 percent of the population. And since the question did not specify the economic …

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