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The Big R

The three books under review address black–white relations—the most urgent and intractable domestic problem the United States faces today and has suffered from throughout its existence. George M. Fredrickson’s short history conforms to the best academic tradition. Detached in tone, it carefully defines “racism,” and goes on to discuss how it originated in late medieval Europe, emerged in Iberia, took root in the New World, rose to a virulent climax in the first half of the twentieth century in Germany and in the United States, and still persists, though “it is less intense and intellectually respectable than it was a century or even a half-century ago.” The two other books under review, by Glenn C. Loury and David Brion Davis, are admirable in a different way, combining subtle analysis and argument with moral fervor. Neither, though, comes up with anything resembling a practical recipe for overcoming the racial divide in the United States—or elsewhere in the world for that matter.

Both Fredrickson and Davis are distinguished American historians whose earlier books also dealt principally with race relations. Their erudition is correspondingly impressive. The books of both are a sort of summation of their respective historical studies. Fredrickson has distilled and broadened his comparative historical work of many years. Davis, instead, has gathered twenty-six recent essays together, nineteen of which were first published in The New York Review of Books, and has written a new, autobiographical introduction to explain their cohesion. Loury, by contrast, is an economist by training, who, after a conspicuous and volatile academic and public career, concludes in The Anatomy of Racial Equality that the past shapes the present so powerfully that private choice and market behavior cannot be trusted to correct existing wrongs, as he once supposed. His knowledge of the past is far scantier than that of the two historians; but the fact that he is black gives his account of present-day conditions a poignancy and power that not even Davis quite matches.

Fredrickson’s short book deals with the rise and fall of anti-Jewish and anti-black racism in Europe and America, with a side glance at South Africa. The term “racism,” he tells us, only entered historical discourse in the 1920s. In his introduction, he writes,

I pay particular attention [in the appendix] to how investigations of anti-Semitism and white su-premacy have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. In the main body of the book I attempt an extensive comparison of the historical development over the past six centuries of these two most prominent expressions of Western racism. (To my knowledge no one has previously attempted such a study.)

In both instances, Fredrickson deftly combines intellectual with social and political history to explain the emergence of racism and its recent decline. The result is subtle and persuasive. Surveying religious prejudice and other forerunners of racism in late medieval and early modern times, he points out how the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century prepared the way for racism: “Paradoxical as it may seem, the rejection of hierarchy as the governing principle of social and political organization, and its replacement by the aspiration for equality in this world as well as in the eyes of God, had to occur before racism could come to full flower.” And again, in the 1880s, as soon as anti-Semitism became a distinct political movement in Germany, “like the Democrats in the southern United States, the German Conservatives learned that racism could be used, whenever expedient or necessary, to steal the thunder of their populist rivals and keep themselves in firm control.” The book concludes with the following observation:

Grasping for one’s identity in a world that threatens to reduce everyone who is not part of the elite to a low-paid worker or a consumer of cheap mass-produced commodities creates a hunger for meaning and a sense of self-worth that can most easily be satisfied by a consciousness of race or religion. Race offers less of a haven to the alienated and disenchanted than it once did, because of the worldwide campaign against it that was one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. But absolutist religion retains its appeal, and to the extent that it becomes militant and politicized, it has the potential to become the twenty-first century’s principal source of intergroup conflict and aggression.

So in Fredrickson’s view, human conflict, violence, and injustice persist indefinitely into the future, since even if racism may be in decline, other group identities—especially religious ones—are likely to intensify their hold on popular feeling, strengthening themselves in the age-old way by treating everyone else as dangerously different. Yet he says nothing about nationalism, the most virulent cause of human violence across the past two hundred years. Perhaps nationalism remains sacred in the United States, or very nearly so, just because in principle and to a large extent also in practice it unites privileged elites with Fredrickson’s “alienated and disenchanted” classes. Moreover, as none of these three distinguished authors is ready to recognize, the recently expanded role of blacks in the American armed forces suggests that nationalism and the armed conflicts with external enemies that it sustains might have the effect of diminishing black–white frictions within American civil society. It is worth recalling that President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces, and the experiences of integrated combat units in the Korean War, preceded the civil rights movement in the South.

In any case, it seems to me that Fredrickson’s learned and elegant essay, together with both of the other books under review, by excluding warfare from their consideration, miss the full breadth of intergroup conflict and cooperation, of which black–white relations within the United States are only a part.

Loury introduces his book as “a meditation on the problem of racial inequality in the United States.” His meditation takes off with rigorous logic from three axioms: (1) race is a social convention; (2) racial disparity is a social artifact; (3) the historical fact of slavery embedded racial “otherness” in American consciousness. He then argues that racial stereotypes are often self-confirming so that “durable racial inequality” arises from “vicious circles of cumulative causation.” Ordinary human beings “‘create facts’ about race, even as they remain blind to their ability to unmake those facts and oblivious to the moral implications of their handiwork.”

The result is what Loury calls social stigma:

As we encounter one another in social space, we perceive the physical markings on one another’s bodies and go on to play our respective parts, enacting scripts written long before we were born…. For when that “other” being encountered in American society is black, and when there is a question of her fitness for intimacy, taboos and suspicions—long in the making and difficult to acknowledge or confront—come quickly to the fore…. Here we enter the territory of racial stigma, of dishonorable meanings socially inscribed on arbitrary bodily marks, of “spoiled collective identities.”

Racial dishonor, he later explains, means “an entrenched if inchoate presumption of inferiority, of moral inadequacy, of unfitness for intimacy, of intellectual incapacity.” In short, “withholding of the presumption of equal humanity is the ultimate mechanism of racism in American public life.”

It follows that we should react to what he calls “behavioral problems” of the “so-called black underclass…as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. This is an American tragedy. It is a national, not merely a communal disgrace.” He concludes: “In truth, the moral failing here lies with those who would wash their hands of the poor, declaring ‘we’ve done all we can.’”

I find Loury thoroughly convincing about the social construction of racial stereotypes and their devastating human consequences. My own experiences of living for forty years in the racially mixed neighborhood of Hyde Park in the midst of Chicago’s black ghetto confirm everything he has to say about how stereotypes are generated, transmitted across generations, and sustain racial inequality and injustice. Loury himself grew up on Chicago’s South Side, so we share that awkward experience. But when he gets to his final chapter I find his prescription for betterment patently inadequate.

He declares that racial justice ought to take precedence over race blindness, so paradoxically “the ultimate moral irrelevance of race in our society may require functional attention by administrative personnel to the racial composition of the learning environment. Whether, and to what extent, this may be so is a prudential, not a principled, question. It cannot be resolved a priori.” This amounts to a mealy-mouthed endorsement of affirmative action—a measure he had formerly opposed—to bring more blacks into managerial roles in our society until such time as the American public begins actually to believe that we are one nation, indivisible. But, he thinks, more is needed:

On this view, achieving the elusive goal of racial justice requires that we undertake, as a conscious goal of policy, to eliminate the objective disparity in economic and social capacity between the race-segregated networks of affiliation that continue to characterize the social structure of American public life, and that constitute the most morally disturbing remnant of the nation’s tortured racial past.

But Loury simply does not say how conscious policy can ever expect to disrupt the “race-segregated networks” that now entrap innumerable youths in self-destructive behavior in the black ghettoes of our cities. What we used to call “urban renewal” in Hyde Park, if undertaken on an unprecedentedly widespread scale, might indeed redistribute the black underclass across urban landscapes and break it up into scattered fragments. But would that heal the gap between black and white? I doubt it. Many poor blacks would resist official efforts to change their accustomed ways of life; and whites would most certainly nullify the intended effect of such extensive social engineering until or unless some miracle persuaded them to welcome lower-class blacks into their own distinctive social networks.

The convincing arguments Loury makes concerning the historical transmission of prejudice and the vicious circle of self-confirming stereotypes surely contradict his assertion that deliberate policy must somehow crucially build on moral exhortation—“What manner of people are WE who accept such degradation in our midst?”—to alter prevailing beliefs and behavior on both sides of the racial divide.

Yet I must also confess that what Loury has to say challenges my own behavior when I lived on Chicago’s South Side. My policy was to try to treat blacks and whites evenhandedly and as I would wish to be treated myself. This meant leaving other people alone unless I had particular business with them; and as a professor, my business was almost wholly with students and colleagues. A few of them were black and I did not go out of my way to cultivate them. Letting each person, black or white, sink or swim in pursuit of personal goals seemed to me the right thing to do, allowing everyone full autonomy and scope for personal idiosyncrasy. It also safeguarded time and energy for my own intellectual and professional pursuits. This worked pretty well in my relations with members of the black elite on our campus, but it had the effect of insulating me almost entirely from the many lower- class blacks living around us.

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