Now no less than in the past, Americans of African ancestry remain haunting presences. They are viewed variously as a dilemma, a threat, an inconvenience, an impetus for anger, a cause for guilt and shame. America has known how to cope with immigrants, seldom welcoming them, but at least allowing that they serve a function, usually as cheap and acquiescent labor. Slaves were brought here for a not dissimilar purpose. Since Emancipation, however, the nation has never been of one mind about the place and status of their descendants.
Jared Taylor, who is white, devotes much of Paved With Good Intentions to what he regards as black misbehavior. His book reiterates a familiar litany. Citing sources in 1,339 footnotes, he decries disintegrating families, drug abuse, and violent crime, as well as youngsters who disdain school and then prey on society and one another with guns and irresponsible sex. By what right, he wants to know, do they make life difficult for themselves and the rest of us? He has, he says, taken account of the legacies of segregation and subordination, but his exasperation bursts through: surely by now, and with all the civil rights reforms, black people have had ample time and opportunities to conduct themselves like other citizens.
In Taylor’s view, all too many black leaders are “shakedown artists” who urge their followers to settle for “excuses and handouts,” thus encouraging the view that perseverance won’t pay off since the deck is stacked against them. Such self-pity, he says, generates a “denial of individual responsibility,” so not nearly enough black Americans are “taking possession of their lives.” He praises Asian immigrants as models blacks would do well to emulate.
Charles Sykes shares Taylor’s position, but in A Nation of Victims places it in a broader setting. He finds what he calls “victimism” endemic in the United States. We have become a country of complainers, inclined to picket or launch lawsuits on any provocation. He tells of a left-handed mail clerk who sued the Postal Service because its sorting cases were built to accommodate right-handed employees. A Michigan brewery worker sought compensation for the alcoholism he incurred from the free beer his company made available. These and other instances illustrate a “generalized cultural impulse to deny personal responsibility.” Some female fans took a baseball team to court for sex discrimination because it presented Father’s Day gifts only to men.
Still, one senses that these and similar stories are cited for their amusement value. Some of the harshest criticisms in A Nation of Victims are reserved for black Americans who are accused of overstating the obstacles they face. All too many continue to complain, despite what Sykes sees as a new “atmosphere of tolerance” in our economy and culture. The trouble started when black leaders moved “from seeking equality under the law to a focus on the vague and volatile concept of racism.” In Sykes’s estimate, affirmative action is based on “victimism,” since it assumes that many members of a racial group are incapable of satisfying existing standards. For this reason, Sykes adds, proponents of preferential treatment “must deal with the nagging doubt that its policies stigmatize all successful minority individuals.” He may have a point, but neither he nor anyone else should claim with such certainty that “all” successful black people suffer from the stigma of preferential treatment. Surely a good many are judged by what they have accomplished.
Given the chastising tone of these two books, it is unlikely that many black Americans will welcome their advice. While they are well aware of their race’s problems, they tend to be reluctant to align themselves with white indictments. When they are among themselves, many if not most will deplore violence, teen-age pregnancies, and some of the statements, for example, of Louis Farrakhan. But they are in no mood to cooperate with whites who seek to draw divisions between “responsible” blacks and those deemed to be demagogues.
An antidote to the charge of “victimism” can be found in Audrey Edwards and Craig Polite’s Children of the Dream. They describe the careers of forty men and women who have succeeded in business and the professions. Without exception, the people they interviewed recalled occasions when they were held back because of their race. While all are well up in the middle class, with some even higher, they still “fully understand that as blacks they will encounter obstacles, prejudices, and inequities.” A man recalls graduating as an engineer, and being the only one in his class not to get a job offer. Others tell of arranging meetings over the telephone, and then seeing faces fall when they enter the room. Or they are not so subtly asked if they could come around again accompanied by a white colleague.
Such reactions cannot help but rouse anger. How much can you laugh off? Yet for all the mistrust they meet, Edwards and Polite note, blacks who want to succeed cannot afford to “view their race as the cause of the problem.” This penetrating and often moving study makes it clear that contrary to the diatribes of such writers as Jared Taylor and Charles Sykes many blacks know they cannot build careers by demanding special dispensations. What they have to overcome are stereotypes others impose on them, which means that blacks are obliged to make extra efforts to disabuse whites of their doubts.
Too close a concentration on the “problems of blacks” can obscure the fact that most black Americans continue to play by the same rules as everyone else. The great majority stay in school and seek the most demanding jobs they can get. Even when we allow for those who are in prison, unemployed, and on public assistance, black men and women account for close to their numerical share of the employed work force. Yet for all the advantages from affirmative action and a growing middle class, black workers are still disproportionately represented in jobs whites no longer seek or take. Moreover, as Table A on the opposite page shows, it is not only professions like law and architecture that remain relatively closed to them; similar percentages are found for dental hygienists and bartenders.
More than we like to admit, the prevailing attitude among white educators and employers is that blacks should accept starting at the bottom, and settle for at best a modest climb during their careers. It is not easy to convey the frustrations felt by black youths who grow up in neighborhoods far removed from the white world. They are asked to display a patience and a perseverance whites do not have to show; they are exhorted to take subminimum wages like the most recent wave of immigrants. That some young black men turn in other directions should not be surprising.
In a Senate speech last March after the Los Angeles riots, Bill Bradley of New Jersey talked about these young men and the reactions they arouse. He said he was simply voicing the fears of most Americans, who shudder when they “see young black men, traveling in groups, cruising the city, looking for trouble.” What whites dread, he went on, is that these youths seem ready to “snatch a purse, crash a concert, break open a telephone box,” if not “rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist.”
Although black youths aged fifteen to twenty-four make up only one percent of the national population, no other group so unsettles the larger society. What people find disconcerting is that many of these young men seem impervious to social controls or public punishment. Unlike the rest of us, many of them seem unfazed by the prospect of arrest, let alone a term in prison. In Cool Pose, Richard Majors and Janet Billson do much to demystify what they call “the dilemmas of black manhood.” They observe that even in recessionary times most white men are able to fulfill the minimal expectation that they hold a job and have a family. But all too often “being black and male has meant being…rendered impotent in the economic, political, and social arenas.” By way of a response, “black males have learned to use posing and posturing to communicate power, toughness, detachment, and style…as a way of surviving in a restrictive society.” Even before reaching their teens, they find “the cool front of black masculinity is crucial for preservation of pride, dignity, and respect.” Not least, they add, a “cool pose works to keep whites off balance and puzzled about the black man’s true feelings.”
Majors and Billson do not romanticize the young men. They note that if one aspect of “coolness means poise under pressure,” it can also “express bitterness, anger, and distrust toward the dominant society.” Some of this rage has an outlet in rap music, for which the authors find antecedents in slavery and older street cultures. Being black and male has never been an easy condition, so acting cool means maintaining a brave face. In the words of a young man they interviewed, “if you give the impression that you’re confident, you give the air that you can’t be touched, you can’t be damaged.” But no one really believes that. If Senator Bradley’s young men rouse tremors in others, they see themselves as no less under siege.
Homicide is now the most common cause of death among black teenagers, who are killed by gunfire and other forms of violence at rates nine to ten times greater than for whites their age. Some are innocent victims, slain by random shots or in fatal crossfires. But most are active combatants, gunned down during disputes over drugs, battles over turf, or as revenge for disrespect. We have urban war zones, whose young residents do not know if they will live until the end of the year, with many barely caring whether they do or not. (This is no doubt why so few are deterred by threats of the death penalty.) While the growth of the black middle class is an encouraging development, we are also witnessing something not far from genocide among those left behind.
Deborah Prothrow-Stith perceptively suggests in Deadly Consequences that within inner cities only a thin line separates homicide from suicide. If youths feel they are near the edge of death, they may act in ways that seem to invite death. Thus, she reports, they often “trigger the fights in which they die, in order to die.” (This fatalism may be one reason why so many have children at an early age.)
But how much of this carnage is confined to blacks? It is here that Deadly Consequences provides a broader perspective, by bringing in other causes of youthful deaths. Death by guns or knives is much less common among white youths. In contrast to the days of Hell’s Kitchen, few very poor neighborhoods consisting primarily of whites remain, and even fewer of these have the aspect of a racial battleground. White homicides are low enough to suggest that they mainly result from personal confrontations, and not from shared responses in a violent street life. Yet official statistics show that white teen-agers are also dying at a dismayingly high rate, which leads Prothrow-Stith to analyze other causes of deaths. She concludes that “suicides, accidents, and homicides have much in common,” since “many or even most of these deaths are ‘intentional”‘ in that those involved may actually “seek out their own victimization.”
As Table B shows on page 14, white teen-agers are twice as likely to commit straightforward suicide, ending their lives in private instead of on the streets.
And with the most common cause of death among them listed as road accidents, Prothrow-Stith reminds us how much of youthful driving is “deliberately reckless.” Many if not most of these “accidents” arise from courting risks the driver knows can be fatal. He may well be heady with alcohol and trying to affirm his manhood. It is not entirely an exaggeration to say that some white youths drive their cars as carelessly as their black peers brandish guns. When the rates for these three causes are combined, the black multiple falls to 1.4 times the white figure. So while despair remains more widespread among black youths—which is to be expected—a not dissimilar despondency may be found among whites as well. Too much emphasis on guns in our ghettoes can deflect attention from the anxieties the country is inflicting on a great many of its teenagers.
In his new book Derrick Bell has other concerns than black violence. He wants to call attention to the pervasiveness of racism in even the most enlightened American circles. Two years ago, he went on leave from Harvard Law School—he later called it a “strike”—announcing that he would not return until the law school hired a black woman in a tenured position. Thus far Harvard has not obliged, saying it cannot find someone of suitable quality who is willing to come to Cambridge. It has also taken steps to remove Bell from its faculty, on the ground that the university limits professors to two years of leave. (The same policy was applied to Henry Kissinger when he stayed for a third year with the Nixon administration.)
However, after reading Faces at the Bottom of the Well, one suspects that Bell’s argument is not simply with Harvard. He attacks legal education generally, as well as many of the premises and practices of American law, which he sees as insuring the superior status of whites. In fact, the greater part of the book consists on fictional parables and allegories that ironically comment on the liberal rhetoric about progress in race relations. When a land mass called “Afrolantica” emerges from the sea millions of black Americans start considering emigration. Bell also conceives of a “Racial Preference Licensing Act” that would allow organizations to remain segregated so long as they paid blacks very high fees. In “The Rules of Racial Standing,” black women are asked to consider the consequences of voicing complaints about black men as part of Bell’s more general thesis that blacks should forbear from criticizing one another within the hearing of whites.
A sense of despair suffuses Bell’s book, made vivid by musings on the need for a new underground railroad, in the event of “a black holocaust.” Nor is the issue simply one of physical coloration or far-flung origins. Many black Americans are lighter than immigrants from India and Pakistan, growing numbers of whom are being accepted in a variety of jobs and neighborhoods. What has always blocked blacks is more specific: the fact of African ancestry. As Bell puts it, “The racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead in the last decade of twentieth-century America.” Bondage could only be justified by defining Africans as a lower species, allowing them to be bought and sold and punished like agricultural livestock. Nor did this perception end with Emancipation, despite the grant of legal citizenship.
The poorest European immigrants were encouraged to see themselves as a higher strain. Or, as Bell quotes Toni Morrison, “every immigrant knew he would not come at the very bottom…. When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was ‘nigger’.” Whether or not white people use that word, Bell makes a convincing case that most of them continue to believe in black inferiority. No serious change can take place, he argues, unless Americans generally confront this belief.
For at least thirty years after the Brown decision of 1954, the idea gained ground that government could do something to improve racial equity in America. As hardly needs remarking, the government rejected this possibility during the past dozen years, since the Republicans were mainly concerned to assure white voters that their favored status would not be jeopardized and that blacks would get less public support than in the past. The Democrats’ dilemma was best described by Thomas and Mary Edsall, whose Chain Reaction showed that the party’s losses were to a large extent caused by what seemed to white voters an excessive attention to its black constituency.1
Taking account of this analysis, the Clinton campaign strategists sought to show that theirs was a party in which white voters would not feel that black claims were competing with their own. Accordingly, Clinton kept his black advisers under wraps and made few appearances before black groups. Jesse Jackson, after his convention speech, agreed to accept a modest role, including an itinerary that kept him at a distance from the candidates. The campaign avoided making any promises aimed specifically at black citizens. For the first time in almost half a century, the party’s platform made no mention of redressing racial injustice. As a result, race never became an issue in 1992. (To their chagrin, the Republicans were unable to find or use an equivalent of Willie Horton.)
A drop in black support was a risk the Democrats were willing to take, trusting they could attract more than enough Reagan Democrats and other white voters to overcome that deficit. In fact, blacks voted overwhelmingly for Clinton but more blacks than usual stayed at home, feeling they had been ignored or that their loyalty was being taken for granted. When Dukakis ran, they made up ten percent of the total turnout; in 1992, their share fell to eight percent. Blacks accounted for 20 percent of Dukakis’s vote and for 15 percent of Clinton’s. Some have feared that in a Clinton administration claims for racial justice would once again be treated with “benign neglect.”
Despite his silence about race in the platform and in his speeches, Clinton has not been unmindful of claims of black Americans. It is no secret that his thinking has been influenced by one of the nation’s best-known sociologists—William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago, who is black—and one can see evidence of Wilson’s views in the Democratic platform and in Clinton’s statements. Wilson was one of the first liberal scholars to acknowledge that, despite claims based on the historic facts of slavery, segregation, and subordination, programs confined to a “race-specific” solution would, as he put it in his book The Truly Disadvantaged, “have difficulty sustaining widespread public support.” In that book, published in 1987, he presented evidence showing that granting blacks a special status not only heightened “racial antagonisms between the different racial groups in central cities” but also deepened the divide between cities and suburbs.2 He therefore concluded by “recommending a fundamental shift from the traditional race-specific approach…to emphasizing programs to which the more advantaged groups of all races and class backgrounds can positively relate.” At the recent economic summit meeting in Little Rock, in which Wilson took part, Clinton said of Wilson’s book that it is “the best brief description of why the urban areas of this country are in the shape they’re in that I have ever read. And it gives us some guidance about what we ought to do about it.”
According to this approach, the “truly disadvantaged” (within which Wilson included “the ghetto underclass”) would continue to have high priority under “economic and social reforms that benefit all groups.” This priority would not be specifically applied to blacks but in view of their greater needs, they would, Wilson wrote, still “benefit disproportionately” from “universal programs.” By the 1992 election, laid-off workers with dwindling unemployment benefits—most of whom are white—were also looking for a helping hand from government and were more willing to support broad programs under which, for example, the government would provide jobs for people as an alternative to welfare. There seems no doubt that Clinton chose the general strategy endorsed by Wilson, a strategy that had also been put forward as politically advantageous by the Democratic Leadership Council of which Clinton was one of the principal leaders; his winning plurality came from creating a “reform coalition” (Wilson’s phrase) which had not been seen for a quarter of a century and which included black and Hispanic groups without identifying them as such.
Against this background Putting People First, the expanded version of the Clinton-Gore platform, is a revealing document. As has been noted, it hardly ever mentions race, even obliquely. A chapter entitled “Cities” neither uses the term “inner city” nor mentions residential and school segregation. In the same vein, a chapter on “Civil Rights” devotes more space to biases based on physical disabilities and sexual preference than it does to race. Indeed, its single allusion to race is made in a pledge to “oppose racial quotas”—an attempt to offset George Bush’s persistent use of that phrase, which had put Democrats on the defensive.3
At the same time, the social and economic programs advanced in Putting People First are much more ambitious than has been generally recognized. For example, the platform commits the new administration to “fully funding” the Head Start Program, which has been demonstrably successful in improving the learning abilities of poor children between the ages of three and five. Although Republicans have also supported Head Start, only some 600,000 of the two million eligible children are now enrolled, and most of them spend only a single year in the program.4 If Head Start were to be expanded to include the other 1.4 million, as Clinton promises, we could expect that blacks would “benefit disproportionately,” since 46 percent of black youngsters live below the poverty line, compared with only 13 percent of white children. The Clinton program goes even further with a new “Home Instruction Program,” intended to “help disadvantaged parents work with their children.” This idea builds on the work of James P. Comer, a black psychiatrist at the Yale Medical School, who has shown that if schools undertake to tutor poor parents, they can give effective assistance with homework and other school assignments. While Comer’s methods have been used mainly in black neighborhoods, this is a case where what began as a “race specific” project can have a much broader appeal.
Black people would also benefit disproportionately from Clinton’s pledge to insure a minimum income for all working households, by adjusting tax rates to “make up the difference between a family’s earnings and the poverty level.” It is well to remember that the current poverty line is close to subsistence, amounting to $10,860 for a family of three and $13,924 for a family of four. So bringing incomes up to those levels would not seem to take extremely poor families very far. However, such households are also eligible for food stamps and Medicaid, which means two major expenses are heavily subsidized. Putting People First, moreover, implicitly recognizes a central fact: that many employed people, especially women who are the main support of their families bring home wages below the poverty line. Among working mothers, more than a third fall in that group; and for those who are black, the proportion is over half.5 Here, too, blacks will be the first to benefit, but the income guarantee cuts across racial categories.
Similarly, the platform promises to “create a child-care network as complete as the public school network.” In view of the number of public schools, putting such a system into effect would mean setting up child care centers in thousands of neighborhoods. With so many parents now working, the need for day care also transcends race, since many families will not be eligible even for a “fully funded” Head Start program. Black women have always held jobs out of necessity. But in promising child care, the Democrats have taken account of the fact that white women now work at a rate approaching that for black women. For example, when we consider the married women who have a three-year-old child, we find that among the white mothers 62 percent are in the labor force, not far from the 73 percent figure for mothers who are black.6
The Clinton-Gore program does not set a goal of “full employment” or guarantee a job to everyone who wants one. Few expected that either party would do so in the current climate of economic uncertainty. Still, the platform came close to such a commitment in its proposals concerning public assistance. On first reading, the plan itself sounds punitive in tone. Under it, women now on welfare would get two years of job training, after which “those who can work will have to go to work, either by taking a job in the private sector or through community service.” Requiring that single mothers on welfare go to work after two years puts them in a special category, since many women who have wage-earning husbands can choose to remain at home. If Clinton makes good on his promises, the situation of the preschool children of welfare mothers will be helped by full funding of Head Start and the new system of child care centers; but many women on welfare with very young children will still feel they are being singled out unfairly.
Yet there are no longer many Americans who feel sympathy for ablebodied adults living on public funds, and the fact that most of the people living on welfare are black or Hispanic has no doubt made welfare for people capable of working even more unpopular with whites. As it happens, moreover, black voters are almost as critical as whites of people who stay on welfare when they could work. In any case, almost half of all welfare recipients—black as well as white—move on voluntarily after two years on the rolls,7 and more would do so if jobs were available. The most striking commitment in Putting People First is to create public jobs if private employment is not available.
We can well ask, “What kind of jobs?” just as we should ask what kind of child care will be provided. It will be impossible to assess the Clinton programs until we know more about the detailed legislative proposals intended to carry them out and the quality of the programs that will be put into effect. Still, Clinton has gone on record with a series of proposals for largescale interventions to deal with some of the gravest problems hitherto associated with race. For at least a generation, black Americans have been seen as requiring separate treatment because of their continued exclusion from larger society. In a sense, the Clinton proposals seek to replace separate treatment with equal treatment based on need. It is a new approach for the Democrats, and one that should have close scrutiny in the months to come.
January 28, 1993
See my “Playing the Racial Card,” The New York Review, October 24, 1991. ↩
See my review in The New York Review, December 3, 1987. ↩
In fact, no one any longer asks for “quotas” in the literal sense of ordering that of the next one hundred firefighters to be hired, exactly thirtyseven must be Hispanic. Even so, colleges and employers still have policies intended to achieve “diversity” and they make considerable efforts to increase the proportions of minorities. Affirmative action, therefore, remains a live issue, and here public opinion is sharply divided. The latest New York Times-CBS survey on this subject found that 71 percent of the black respondents continued to favor some form of preference for their race, while only 17 percent of whites agreed with that position. ↩
See Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow, Head Start: The Inside Story of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment (Basic Books, 1992). ↩
Poverty in the United States, Bureau of the Census, Series P–60, No. 181 (August 1992), Table 19. ↩
Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1992, Bureau of the Census, Table 644. ↩
Characteristics and Financial Circumstances of AFDC Recipients, Department of Health and Human Services, 1992, Table 13. ↩