In 1854 a perceptive Scottish bookseller, publisher, and promoter of public knowledge named William Chambers addressed the following question: did the United States “contain within itself the germs of dissolution?” Chambers was not thinking of a civil war between slaveholding and nonslaveholding states. Recording his impressions after a tour of the country in a book entitled Things As They Are in America, Chambers pointed to the “rigorous separation of the white and black races” in the North as well as the South, and noted that every white person with whom he conversed on this subject “tended to the opinion that the negro was in many respects an inferior being, and his existence in America an anomaly.”

Chambers concluded that “we see, in effect, two nations—one white and another black—growing up together within the same political circle, but never mingling on a principle of equality.” After surveying the depth and extent of racial discrimination and white hypocrisy, and observing that blacks were “condemned to infamy from birth,” Chambers would hardly have been surprised to learn that in 1992 a distinguished political scientist would conclude, in a book entitled Two Nations, that “[e]ven today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth.” For Chambers, who knew that the fate of America would profoundly affect “the whole civilized world,” the longrange question was whether the blacks, once the great majority were liberated from slavery, would “grow up a powerful alien people within the commonwealth, dangerous in their numbers, but doubly dangerous in their consciousness of wrongs, and in the passions which may incite them to acts of vengeance?”

Both a consciousness of wrongs and acts of vengeance were painfully evident in Los Angeles and other cities following the announcement on April 29 of the jury’s verdict in suburban Simi Valley. The columns of smoke, the unrestrained looting, perhaps above all the view from a helicopter of blacks savagely beating and apparently trying to kill Reginald Denny, the hapless white truck driver, seemed to confirm Chamber’s grim prophecy, which echoed earlier prophecies of racial warfare made by Jefferson, Tocqueville, and countless white leaders in the pre Civil War era, particularly those, like Jefferson, Madison, John Marshall, Henry Clay, and Lincoln, who favored plans for gradually “colonizing” the black population in Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America.

Although Andrew Hacker never mentions Chambers and provides little historical background for his discussion of contemporary racial inequality, he quotes Tocqueville’s prediction that sooner or later black Americans would “revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights,” as well as Tocqueville’s observation that “[t]he danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream.” Hacker suggests that the fundamental issues have changed little since Tocqueville’s time. Nor is Hacker more optimistic in 1992 than Tocqueville was in 1835. According to Hacker, “there are few signs that the coming century will see [the racial chasm] closed.” Even aside from the unwillingness of most white Americans to invest in redistributive programs, racial tensions, Hacker affirms, “serve too many important purposes to be easily ameliorated, let alone eliminated or replaced.”

By coincidence, Two Nations was published six weeks before the great Los Angeles riot. Advertised as “the first book since Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 classic An American Dilemma to offer an up-to-date and profound analysis of the conditions that keep blacks and whites dangerously far apart in their ability to participate fully in the American Dream,” this short book has become a kind of guide or almanac for understanding the crisis of the inner city.1 Hacker is highly skilled in presenting statistics in an interesting and readable way. His clear discussion of measurable differences, supplemented by statistical tables, has provided reporters and commentators with a wealth of information on the structure of black families and the disadvantages suffered by blacks in employment, housing, and schooling, and the high incidence of black crime, among other subjects. He has also been harshly attacked, particularly by the sociologists Orlando Patterson and Chris Winship, for confusing race with class, for ignoring some of the impressive gains that blacks have made, and for misusing statistical averages in ways that identify all African Americans with a stereotyped underclass.2

Significantly, Hacker borrowed his title not from Chambers but from Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, which was concerned with the appalling division between social classes in early Victorian Britain. 3 Hacker even quotes Disraeli on his opening page, equating the difference between Britain’s rich and poor with the gulf that still divides America’s whites and blacks: “Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thought, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Although Hacker says very little about social class, he does at one point acknowledge the existence of a “white underclass” and recalls that sociology textbooks used to dilate “at length about families like the Jukes and the Kallikaks, who remained mired in squalor from generation to generation.” Emphasis on race, Hacker suggests, has something to do with the diversion of public attention from poverty-stricken whites. By concentrating attention on a black underclass, he writes, we make white poverty seem “atypical or accidental…. At times, it almost appears as if white poverty must be covered up, lest it blemish the reputation of the dominant race.”


Unfortunately Hacker does not say much more about this crucial point. The use of racial animosity as an antidote to, and substitute for, class divisions has a long history which provides an important background to his subject. During the colonial period, when black slaves worked alongside white indentured servants in Virginia’s tobacco fields, lawmakers countered the threat of biracial rebellion by fostering a sense of white solidarity. White servants were increasingly accorded privileges and protections denied to slaves, including, upon the termination of their services, the promise of land, money, a musket, and a respectable suit of clothes. As Edmund S. Morgan has pointed out, aristocratic planters succeeded in persuading Virginia’s small farmers that “both were equal in not being slaves.” 4

The presence of millions of black slaves in the pre-Civil War decades helped sustain the illusion of equality for American whites and immigrants—the “equality of condition” that so captivated Tocqueville and other European visitors. The actual inequalities between social classes were also blurred by the visibility in most cities of a separate caste of “free” blacks, who were deprived of civil rights, excluded from white schools, and confined to menial employments. Beginning in the so-called Age of Jackson, white Americans of diverse backgrounds have anxiously tried to cast off any characteristics identifying them as members of a “lower” class, that is a class lower than the one with which they identify, precisely because they have believed in America as a land of opportunity—a land in which no fixed barriers prevent one from acquiring the skills, tastes, and demeanor, as shown in one’s behavior as a consumer, that denote success. Andrew Hacker bases much of his moral argument on the unacknowledged privileges and benefits that most Americans derive from having white skin. This point would have been reinforced if he had related it to the dialectical and historical connections between American slavery and American freedom, between the belief in an inferior, servile race and the vision of classless opportunity.

The use of race as a substitute for class has further implications that have seldom been explored. The very notion of America’s exceptionalism—the “American Dream” of a land of promise where, as Hacker affirms, there is “a greater obligation” than in other nations “to achieve amity and equity in relations between the races”—was originally made possible by the availability of cheap, coerced labor to clear and cultivate the most fertile lands and to produce export crops for which there was seemingly an unlimited demand. From the early West India trade of the northeastern colonies to the cotton exports that helped pay for northern railroads and industrialization, America’s economy depended largely on slave labor.

Yet by the time of the American Revolution, this material circumstance appeared to contradict everything the emerging nation stood for. For most of the Founding Fathers, as for numerous clergymen and journalists, slavery became the fatal defect in an otherwise boundless and perfectable social order. In 1786 petitioners to the Virginia legislature repeated the familiar argument.

That the Glorious and ever memorable Revolution can be Justified on no other Principles but what doth plead with greater Force for the emancipation of our Slaves in proportion as the oppression exercised over them exceeds the oppression formerly exercised by Great Britain over these States.

As Jefferson confessed to an audience of French rationalists, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

If slavery was seen by some as the primal curse, the only obstacle preventing Americans from fulfilling the nation’s high destiny, the prevailing ideology affirmed that it was the African Americans’ incapacity for freedom and responsible citizenship, not their indispensable role in the economy as productive field hands, that stood as the major roadblock to slave emancipation. In a remarkable example of displacement of moral responsibility, the sin, corruption, and brutality of slavery spilled over to infect the victims themselves, who were mired, according to a popular phrase, in “irremediable degradation.” Even ardent critics of slavery became attached to the image of stunted minds and withered souls, of human beings rendered incapable of moral choice or benevolent feeling. Of course the doctrine of black inferiority had many sources, including the widespread belief that Africans were the descendants of Cain or Ham, who had been condemned to perpetual servitude, according to twisted biblical interpretation, by Noah’s curse of Canaan. But paradoxically, the view of slavery as America’s original sin also contributed to the image of helpless Negroes as the embodiment of sin, in the sense that they were ruled by animal passions and deprived of the capacity for moral and intellectual improvement in a civilized society.


Hacker briefly summarizes James Baldwin’s theory that white people “need the nigger” because “the nigger” signifies the precise traits—“lust and laziness, stupidity and squalor”—that whites cannot tolerate within themselves:

By creating such a creature, whites are able to say that because only members of the black race can carry that taint, it follows that none of its attributes will be found in white people.

One should add that most abolitionists, who were acutely attuned to the sins of white people, struggled to end their own complicity with evil by demanding the emancipation and uplift of all blacks. Still, the abolitionists faced a dilemma that has continued to perplex other reformers: the more they highlighted the injurious effects of oppression, the more dehumanized and incapable the victims appeared to be.

For a time evangelical abolitionists could rely on visions of an imminent millennium or a moment of transfiguring change. Reformers also resorted to the device of romantic racialism, idealizing the “childlike, affectionate, docile, and patient” traits that allegedly characterized the African race and that were needed to humanize an overly competitive and rationalistic white society.5 But by 1864 Samuel Gridley Howe, a radical abolitionist, supporter of John Brown, and president of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, took comfort in the thought that most of the black population, the “blameless” victims of slavery, “was doomed to disappear because of inherited weaknesses that would put them at a disadvantage in the inevitable competition.”6

Howe’s prediction that African Americans would gradually become extinct in the racial struggle for survival fulfilled the wish that had always been embodied in the Great White Dream of black colonization, a dream that President Lincoln continued to endorse well into the Civil War. The United States, a chosen nation, E pluribus unum, signaling a new order to the ages, could carry out its godlike mission and potentialities—if only… Had the curse of slavery and a black population been foisted upon innocent colonists by perfidious Albion, as Jefferson and numerous other Founders maintained? Or had the nation begun with a Faustian bargain, obligating all future generations to pay the debt? However conceived, “the Negro problem” meant that blacks were associated metaphysically with everything that compromised or stood in the way of the American Dream—with finitude, failure, poverty, fate, the sins of our fathers, nemesis. In short, with dark reality.

While this analysis points to a complex pathology regarding race at the core of American culture, I would argue that race in the genetic sense of color is not an ultimate reality; nor can I agree with Hacker that the “idea of race is primeval.” Class and race are both products of contingent social and historical forces. There was nothing inevitable or “natural,” for example, about attaching the label “Negro” to a man or woman whose ancestors were half or even seven-eighths European and whose other forebears were divided among highly diverse nations and tribes in the vast continent of Africa. For many generations light-skinned and straight-haired “Negroes” took on the identity of whites, and some southern courts even validated such “crossing” for people of visible color who had acquired reputations of “respectable” character. Class, in other words, could take precedence over race.

If Hacker’s claims were correct concerning the overwhelming value of whiteness and the insurmountable liabilities of blackness in contemporary America, our college classes would not contain so many young people who could easily pass for white but who make it clear that they are proud to be African Americans. Still, no one can doubt that the pathology of race has become a pervasive and deeply threatening American reality. After stressing that one million black males are now confined in prisons and jails, or could be returned to prison from parole or probation, Hacker writes that “blacks do not consider it paranoid to wonder whether they might someday find themselves behind barbed-wire enclosures, as happened to Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War.”

Hacker is exceptionally good at unmasking white pretenses and excuses, at exposing the anxieties, hypocrisies, and contradictions of white liberals in particular. For example, in discussing the reactions of a typical white liberal to black criticism in a racially mixed group, Hacker writes that the white liberal is apt “to stammer plaintively, either retracting what he said or protesting that he had been misunderstood. Here, as elsewhere, liberals stand in dread of black disfavor, which must be mollified by admitting to oversight or error.”

But Hacker sometimes tends to emphasize the physical fact of race, and not the perceptions of it, and to exaggerate the actual polarization between blacks and whites—as opposed to the ways a racist culture has traditionally attempted to polarize the two groups. In other words, Hacker is still partially trapped by the tendency I have been discussing to make racial differences displace all other explanations of behavior, a tendency reinforced, as we shall see, by a comparison of statistical averages without sufficient reference to the progress made in the past fifty or one hundred years. It is not “race,” as Hacker writes, that “has made America its prisoner since the first chattels were landed on these shores,” but rather the ideological purposes that the idea of race has served.

Given Hacker’s account, one could hardly imagine the scene, which I observed just days ago, of black and white house painters working and joking together and singing along with the same pop music on the radio; or black students with high SAT scores winning top academic awards at an Ivy League university and a mostly white public high school; or equal numbers of blacks and whites working together to build an elegant Jehovah’s Witness church in a white Connecticut suburb; or interracial couples whose marriages are as successful as those of other people; or hard-working, aspiring black families who live in the inner city and who are determined to see their children move into the middle class. The reader of Two Nations might have assumed that the violence in Los Angeles was essentially a conflict between blacks and whites and not “the nation’s first multi-ethnic urban riot,” to use Tim Rutten’s phrase, a complex battle between classes and ethnic groups in which some of the shops and businesses of blacks were destroyed along with those of Koreans, Chicanos, and Iranian Jews.7

When we overlook the ways in which race and class overlap and interact, explanations tend to shift toward characteristics that are supposedly distinctive to each race. This can be hazardous because such characteristics tend to derive from personal impressions that may well be contradicted by people who have quite different experiences. Thus Hacker writes that teachers of black children “should be tolerant of more casual approaches to syntax, time, and measurement,” and that “it has been found that black pupils are more apt to work to full potential if their teachers identify with them in a caring and solicitous way.” He cannot mean that white pupils do better when their teachers are aloof and uncaring, but there is an unfortunate looseness about such views. Hacker writes that “black children are also more attuned to their bodies and physical needs,” which makes it harder for them to sit still in class, and he appears sympathetic to claims that they have different “learning styles” from those of whites. Each of these statements calls to mind contradictory cases; they remind one of the romantic racialism of the past.

While Hacker explicitly rejects all theories of hereditary inferiority, believers in such doctrines may derive ammunition from this approach—especially from his argument that colleges should drop the requirement of a Ph.D. degree for blacks who are able to “communicate” in other ways and that medical schools should make special accommodation for blacks “who have an intuitive flair for diagnosing maladies” or “personalities that put patients at ease.” These recommendations seem to be based on Hacker’s disturbing conclusion that “racial bias remains latent not only in the multiple-choice method, but in the broader expectations set by the modern world,” including “the European structure of technology and science” and “administrative systems based on linear modes of reasoning.” Nothing will betray the cause of equal rights more decisively, I fear, than the idea that mathematics or linear thought is “white.” Indeed, in some of his other writings Hacker has explicitly rejected such views, for example when he raised the question whether standards should be lowered for black cardiac surgeons or in his recent statement in these pages that:

On more than a few college campuses, and within many school administrations, whites seem to feel they must gain black approval if they are both to live with themselves and keep the peace. They fail to see how condescending they are when they encourage blacks and other ethnic groups to promote fantasy as history or as science. Whether such self-indulgent attitudes will be outgrown is a large question for the decade ahead….

We live in a demanding age that requires—and rewards—technical and organizational skills. It is simply irresponsible to tell children of an underclass that their salvation lies in flights of rhetoric.8


An exclusive concentration on race not only diverts attention from the white and Latino underclasses but also obscures the economic and political causes of black poverty, which is then almost inevitably associated with racial traits. Jacqueline Jones, a historian at Brandeis University and the author of the prize-winning book Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, is one of the few scholars who have succeeded in clarifying, in specific historical discussions, the extremely complex relationships between race and class. Her new history of America’s various underclasses therefore provides a valuable antidote to the current obsession with race. By the late 1980s, Jones explains,

the grip of the black “underclass” on the American imagination served to obscure the historical and economic processes that by this time had created a multitude of “underclasses,” people who were neither black nor the residents of Northern cities. By the late twentieth century a growing population of immigrants from Latin America, the Philippines, China, India, and Southeast Asia, combined with structural transformations in the American economy that affected the previously secure white working class, revealed the political—and moral—limitations of a continuing focus on race and urban residence as the defining characteristics of the poor.

To accept such an analysis is not to denigrate Hacker’s book, which is filled with important insights as well as significant and often surprising information. But Jones’s Dispossessed enables one to read Hacker with greater care and profit, and to recognize that in some ways his book has already become a “primary source,” more valuable perhaps as evidence of the way that pessimistic white liberals who are appalled by endemic racism are now responding to racial inequality than as a guide for understanding what policies might be helpful. When Hacker acutely describes liberal white behavior, including the desire to be liked by blacks and to be cleared of all taint of racism, he will, I suspect, make many readers squirm and instantly confess, “that’s me.”

Although Jones stresses the oppressive economic forces that have subjected various groups to poverty regardless of race, she in no way neglects the unique vulnerability of African Americans to exploitation, from the time they were denied land and transformed into a dependent, sharecropping labor force following their emancipation from slavery. But she shows that the end of slavery narrowed the gap between southern blacks and landless whites. Both groups were subject to the will of planters determined to find a substitute for slave labor by restricting the mobility of workers and their options for employment. Restoring a staple-crop plantation system in the South, along with lumber camps, sawmills, coal mines, and phosphate pits, depended on preserving a vast supply of subservient, low-skilled labor that could be counted on for intensive work at certain times of the year. Jones describes how, between the late 1860s and the 1930s, southern blacks and whites often worked under similar conditions. As sharecroppers they sometimes signed the same kind of annual labor contracts; occasionally, as in the Populist movement of the 1890s and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s, blacks and whites joined forces in a common cause. But racism, like human sin, was always there to be reasserted. The lowliest white could easily be reminded that the most accomplished black was a disfranchised nigger, a frightening example of what human nature could become, a man who deserved contempt, caricature, dishonor, and violence.9

Jones has little to say about the psychological and cultural effects of such prolonged oppression of both whites and blacks. She is surely right when she argues that “the desire among men and women for a stable job and a settled home place has transcended class, cultural, and racial lines; the white middle class has had no monopoly on the virtues of hard work, love of family, and a commitment to schooling for their children.” Still, the aspirations of blacks were inevitably withered in a society that confined African Americans to the heaviest, dirtiest, or most servile kinds of work and that demanded their obsequious respect for all whites. Locked in a system of unending debt, paying interest charges as high as 71 percent to plantation stores, black sharecroppers had little experience with money and found it difficult to save for the future. A tenant farmer might seek opportunity during the slack season by “shifting” to a sawmill or phosphate mine, a kind of migration that inevitably weakened some families. But southern society denied blacks virtually any opportunity for developing managerial skills or even, in rural districts, for establishing their own businesses to serve a black clientele. Nor were states that had made it a crime to teach slaves to read enthusiastic about black education. As late as 1940, when the two decades of greatest migration to the North had just begun, five years was the median for years of school completed by blacks in the South; a bare 5 percent of the black population had graduated from high school.

An understanding of poverty in late-twentieth-century America requires some knowledge of the gradual collapse—or modernization—of the old southern plantation economy, the migration northward and westward, between 1910 and 1960, of some nine million white and black workers, and the subsequent decline of the kind of heavy industry that once furnished jobs for such unskilled or semiskilled labor. This is the main subject of Jones’s book, which is especially successful in showing the continuity between the southern plantation regime and postindustrial poverty. She gives a vivid account of the most arduous, dangerous, and degrading kinds of work as she follows migratory men and women from job to job as they worked in turpentine stills, coal mines, coastal canneries, and seafood processing plants. It is startling to read that in this unprecedented emigration from the South, whites outnumbered blacks (even though the proportion of blacks in the South fell from 90 percent to 50 percent). Jones also points out that most of the poor in the US today are white and live well outside the central cities.

In a particularly striking passage, Jones finds that one group of southern migrants encountered an especially hostile reception in midwestern towns and cities:

Municipal officials considered them lazy, promiscuous, rapidly proliferating welfare-seekers, a drain on the public treasury, a stain on the city’s image. Educational officials tracked their children for failure in the public schools, and medical authorities decried their persistent superstitions in all manner of ailments, such as rinsing out a child’s mouth with urine to cure a rash called thrush. Employers expressed mixed feelings; the migrants provided cheap labor, but they were unreliable, inept at any kind of machine work, slow on the job, and unambitious. Landlords told them that they need not apply, citing their large families, allegedly deplorable housekeeping practices, and presumed violent proclivities (with the knife as the weapon of choice). Their neighbors native to the North soon developed a repertoire of jokes that focused on the migrants’ ignorance of city ways, their primitive Southern origins, their slovenly appearance and demeanor…. Shiftless, evasive, and untrustworthy, they supposedly lived for the moment and squandered their weekly paychecks on trinkets and drink. Once in their new homes, they apparently remained willing and able to tolerate the most degrading living and working conditions, “immune to discomforts that sorely try other Americans.”

This portrait of “native-born, Protestant, English-speaking whites… from the southern Appalachian Mountains” underscores the consequences of class prejudice and suggests that the “Negro traits” that whites found most repellent had more to do with class than with race—though as I have argued here, the rhetoric of race has long been used as an antidote to, or substitute for, class divisions. According to Jones, some northern employers and realtors expressed a preference for “a good clean colored person” over the heavy-drinking Appalachian white who was incapable of saving money and who would suddenly disappear from his job if he decided to visit relatives back home in the South. Like the stereotyped “Negro,” the southern poor white, who emerged from the same backward region that had long been dominated by a slave economy, seemed to lack the essential inner faculty required for self-discipline and for intellectual and moral improvement.

Yet as Jones goes on to show, during World War II “countless Southern black migrants watched poorly educated whites from Kentucky or Tennessee take advantage of skin color and kin ties to secure jobs” in the defense industries of the Midwest. Although one third of the Appalachian whites were illiterate, they were repeatedly hired in preference to better-qualified blacks and had a much easier time obtaining on-the-job training. It is true that blacks working in the steel, automobile, railroad, and meatpacking industries earned wages that would have been unthinkable in the South. Between 1940 and 1944 the percentage of black men employed in industry nearly doubled; the proportion who worked as farmers fell from over 41 percent to 28 percent. But unlike most blacks, the white Appalachians often owned cars that allowed them to move around urban regions in search of better jobs. Unlike blacks, they were not excluded from segregated working-class and middle-class suburbs. Although white and black migrants entered the northern urban labor market at the same time, the whites, according to Jones, tended to lose their accents within a generation and to scatter and blend into the middle-American landscape.

To be sure, not all of the Appalachian whites became suburbanites. In examining white slums and pockets of rural poverty, Jones demonstrates that whiteness is not always a benefit and points to social evils that have too often been associated with the inner city alone: malnourished and lead-poisoned children, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, teen-age pregnancy, a high proportion of households headed by women, and estranged youths who drop out of school as soon as possible. Jones questions the traditional belief “that poverty [in] the countryside was somehow cleaner, healthier, more wholesome, and less degrading than its inner-city counterpart.” But she also traces the history of the modern black ghetto—including what Hacker terms its “self-destructive spiral” and “self-inflicted genocide.” Jones emphasizes the continuing disruptive influence of federal government policies that encouraged the virtual eviction of farmers and agricultural workers from the South, created wartime job opportunities in the North, opened the way for the flight from the city of both the white and black middle classes, and then, in the Reagan years, cut back on a large number of human services and shifted responsibility to already over-burdened state and city governments.

Since the federal government has had a large part in producing the malaise of today’s inner cities—including the raising of expectations of racial justice which have then been repeatedly dashed by lack of public support—the government clearly seems to have a responsibility to rectify evils that continue to perpetuate, as William Chambers put it, the “rigorous separation of the white and black races.” Even apart from justice, we may well be confronting what he called the nation’s “germs of dissolution” at a time when no nation will be able to afford the luxury of underclasses—of dependent, hostile, unproductive, alienated populations. It should now be clear that market forces and moral exhortations are insufficient to improve the quality of urban life and of the potential urban labor force. Only a huge, coordinated program, guided by unprecedented imagination and sensitivity, can provide the jobs, the skills, and ultimately the incentives that are needed to overcome America’s historical “curse,” including its pathology of race, and make full use of the nation’s human resources.

No doubt such words will sound naive and dated in 1992, as Hacker’s own caution about solutions makes clear. Even apart from the widespread disenchantment with governmental power, racial attitudes are being reshaped by what might be termed a loopback effect, in which the self-destructive behavior of a relatively small number of black men accentuates the symbolic menace of race. Contrary to much popular writing, the gains made by most African Americans in the past forty years are little short of miraculous when judged by standards of the preceding century. Between 1947 and the late 1960s, a period that witnessed the collapse of the entire structure of legal segregation in the South, black household income more than doubled and the percentage of households earning less than $10,000 (in 1987 dollars) dropped from 68 percent to 31 percent.10 Although the slowing of economic growth soon brought a reversal of these trends except for the most prosperous blacks, the 1964 Civil Rights Act contributed to impressive gains for black workers in obtaining both better-paid work and jobs that had previously been denied to blacks.

Yet the erosion of racism soon gave a new emphasis to considerations of class at a time when school credentials and character references were becoming required conditions for success. Many blacks who were successful in school, who scored well on tests, who exhibited the “right” traits of character, became social workers, firemen, policemen, insurance adjusters, schoolteachers, military officers, government clerks and administrators, lawyers, mayors. Those who were left behind, particularly young men, included a high proportion of people who were estranged from the system and who often behaved in ways that clashed with the norms of a market and technology-driven society. This outcome was aggravated by the government’s withdrawal from social service programs, by the decline of urban industrial employment, by the narrowing of choice to lowly service-related jobs, and by the cumulative effects of the sexual revolution, Black Power, the heavy use of drugs, especially crack, and the growing obsession with violence on the part of the television networks and the press generally.

Just when the rise of a substantial black middle class was beginning to create more positive racial stereotypes for whites, the aimless rebellion of black ghetto gangs and the callous cutbacks in federal social and economic programs had the combined effect of restoring racial fears to the center of attention. As muggings became commonplace and black crime soared, young black physicians and professional athletes were more frequently stopped by police and searched. Black college students watched scared whites flee before them on the street. Many blacks who have made a relative success in life have expressed deep resentment over this confusion of identities, especially when they are mistaken for rapists or thugs. Keenly aware that most of the victims of black crime are black, they may also have relatives in the inner city and know that, by a slight shift of fate, they might have dropped out of school and joined a gang. While successful blacks often resent white exhortations to discipline “their own people,” the plight of the black underclass may also strengthen their sense of racial solidarity and weaken their ties with white liberals, some of whom might welcome black neighbors of their own social class.

We seem, in other words, to have entered another period when race has preempted class. Perhaps Americans will never overcome their endemic pathology of race until they are finally able to confront both the underlying reality of class divisions in America and the destructive myth of a classless society.

This Issue

July 16, 1992