More than thirty years have passed since the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 freed African Americans from legalized segregation, denial of voting rights through the biased enforcement of registration laws, and blatant discrimination in the labor market. These were great and lasting achievements. Jim Crow laws are as dead in 1995 as slavery was in 1895. Blacks now vote without hindrance, and the African-American representation in the House is approaching their proportion of the total population. Although as a group they are far from economic parity with whites, blacks have attained high positions in government, the military, business, and education that would have been unimaginable forty or fifty years ago.
Nevertheless, almost everyone agrees that something has gone wrong and that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., for an integrated society in which people will be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin has not been realized. Although no longer enforced by law, residential and educational segregation has actually increased since 1965.1 More than a third of the black population is below the poverty line, and the proportion has been increasing.
Black disillusionment with the hopes for equality aroused in the 1960s has been growing. It is more vocal in the 1990s than at any time since the “black power” movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s reacted to the immediate failure of the civil rights movement to fulfill the expectations it had aroused (especially among northern urban blacks whose disadvantages did not derive from disfranchisement and legalized segregation). These complaints have not persuaded a majority of whites that discrimination has persisted. On the contrary, whites have increasingly embraced the view that African Americans have had more than a fair chance, that in fact they have received preferential treatment in employment and political representation.
According to what has become conventional wisdom on race relations, the failure of blacks to make steady progress toward economic and social parity with whites is due more to their own moral and cultural shortcomings than to racial discrimination. Influential white and black conservatives—Dinesh D’Souza agrees with them—go on to argue that government affirmative action and welfare policies have contributed significantly to these failures by undermining black character and initiative. Main-stream liberal or moderate white leaders, such as President Bill Clinton, accept much of the case against race-specific remedies for black disadvantage but see some justification for an affirmative action policy that avoids rigid quotas and for minimal programs for the black poor, enough welfare to prevent mass homelessness and malnutrition without making life on the dole so comfortable and certain that it discourages working for a living.
From the black civil-rights leadership and from the diminishing and dispirited left wing of white opinion comes a radically different perspective, one that views the problem as the failure of government to do enough to overcome black disadvantages and counter the racial discrimination that allegedly still exists. The politicians and advocacy groups on the left, however, have not produced many specific reform proposals; faced with the current mood of the country, they have been forced to devote most of their thought and energy to defending existing programs that they regard as inadequate.
What virtually everyone agrees upon is that the nature of the current racial crisis differs from the one faced forty years ago in at least one significant respect—the black community is more diverse than it was then. A population composed predominantly of workers, most of them relatively unskilled and poorly paid, with a middle class that was disproportionately small, has been transformed, partly because of affirmative action and partly because of a decline in the availability of unskilled and semiskilled jobs, into a group with a more complex and differentiated class structure. The middle class has grown considerably, and now includes nearly one third of black families, but so also has the urban “underclass” or alienated poor, composed of unemployed or underemployed people who subsist on occasional work at the minimum wage, public welfare, private charity, or illegal activities ranging from petty welfare chiseling to drug dealing and violent crime. In relative decline, although still almost a third of the black population, is the self-supporting working class—blacks with reasonably steady blue-collar or service jobs and incomes that put them above the poverty line but below the middle-class standard.
Attention has concentrated mainly on the bottom segment of this tripartite black population because this group produces most of the unwed mothers, gang members, drug users or venders, muggers, and rapists who have become the object of intense concern to whites, many of whom are worried about their personal safety and are convinced that they are paying taxes to provide undeserved benefits to unworthy people. But the working and middle classes have also created white anxiety because of a belief that beneficiaries of affirmative action have been taking jobs from better qualified whites at a time when stagnant wages and the danger of layoffs from “downsizing” have undermined the sense of security and expectations of upward mobility that whites became accustomed to during the prosperous postwar decades.
Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism is a comprehensive and densely documented statement of a conservative viewpoint on race in America. The author is a skillful writer and publicist of Asian Indian extraction who has attracted much attention as a critic of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” in American universities.2 His new book is the most thorough, intelligent, and well-informed presentation of the case against liberal race policies that has yet appeared. Proponents of government intervention on behalf of racial justice must refute D’Souza’s arguments for a laissez faire or “free market” solution to the racial crisis if they wish to be taken seriously in the future.
D’Souza’s central concern is with the concept of racism—its meaning, history, and contemporary relevance; he argues, as his title indicates, that we now live in a post-racist era and that policies based on the assumption that racial prejudice and discrimination are responsible for the current condition of the black population in the United States do more harm than good. Racism, for D’Souza, is straightforward biological determinism, an ideology that attributes the unequal achievements of people who differ in pigmentation to differences in their innate abilities as members of genetically determined groups. He acknowledges that some people still hold racist beliefs. He dissents respectfully from the conclusions of Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein in The Bell Curve that blacks are naturally less intelligent than whites and denounces the ideology of black superiority that he finds in the Nation of Islam and among Afrocentrists.3
In his survey of the historical origins of racism in the second chapter of the book, D’Souza presents a competent synthesis of the existing scholarship on the issue. He rejects the view of white supremacists and some black nationalists that racial consciousness is a primordial and inescapable basis of human identity and agrees with liberal and Marxian historians who repudiate “racial essentialism.” Such historians hold that racism was an ideological invention, or construction, resulting from the encounter of Europeans with non-Western peoples that began in the fifteenth century and led to the enslavement and imperialist domination of non-white peoples during the next four centuries.
But D’Souza differs from most recent historians of early racism in attributing the emerging ideology primarily to intellectual error rather than to a need to explain and justify forms of brutality and oppression that were reserved for non-Europeans. He correctly notes that the enslavement of Africans originally occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at a time when Europeans had no intellectual grounds for basing slavery explicitly on race. Indeed, the concept of race in the modern biological sense did not yet exist. But in his effort to show that slavery was not a racist institution, he makes too much of the fact that a few blacks and Indians owned slaves in the Old South; and he makes too little of the racial prejudices that were the early and inevitable result of the fact that hereditary lifetime servitude was a status strictly reserved for non-Europeans, especially blacks. By the early nineteenth century, when an explicit ideological racism based on allegedly scientific ethnology first came into vogue, all masters were not white, but all slaves were black, and the association of African descent with a debased social status was already deeply rooted in the white mind.
D’Souza is an unabashed believer in the tradition that the early modern West was far ahead of the rest of the world in its progress toward civilization, and that Europeans were quite justified in considering themselves culturally superior to the darker-skinned peoples they encountered in Africa, Asia, and the Americas during the era of exploration and colonization. Their mistake was to attribute this inferiority to unchangeable nature rather than to culture, which—as the missionaries at least understood—could be changed for the better. But in fact, as D’Souza acknowledges, full-blown biological racism was a late development in the history of Western domination of non-European peoples. For a long time conceptions of a cultural hierarchy in which Europeans were superior, to which D’Souza has no principled objection, sufficed to justify slavery, wars of extermination, and imperialist landgrabs. This fact has led some historians and sociologists to enlarge their definition of racism to include theories that give one culturally defined ethnic group the right to dominate another, at least until such time in the distant future when the “savages” have been completely “civilized.” (South African apartheid, it is worth noting, was instituted after theories of biological racism had lost much of their credibility and was ostensibly based on ethno-centric theories of cultural difference rather than on racism in D’Souza’s sense of the term.) But D’Souza could scarcely acknowledge the existence of such “cultural racism”; if he did he could no longer claim to be non-racist himself.
After attributing the rise of racism to misconception and misunderstanding, D’Souza turns to the history of anti-racism. Here he uncovers another fateful error, an intellectual wrong turning that was to become the principal source of our current difficulties—for in his view it is anti-racism and not racism that has led to the fix we are now in. Franz Boas and the cultural anthropologists of the early- to mid-twentieth century who led the attack on biological racism performed a valuable service, D’Souza concedes, by discrediting scientific theories of innate racial differences; but they went sadly astray in basing the claims of blacks on the theory of cultural relativism. To claim that all cultures are equally valuable, D’Souza argues, is not the same thing as maintaining that all large population groups have similar and roughly equal genetic capacities. It is the former doctrine that D’Souza believes has been responsible for the failure of liberal race policy in the United States.
D’Souza is on shaky historical ground when he says that cultural relativism has been the guiding principle of the twentieth-century struggle for black equality. It would take little effort to demonstrate that universalist conceptions of human rights and color-blind claims to American citizenship, rather than assertions of the equality of African-American and Euro-American cultures, animated the NAACP between its founding in 1909 and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Even Boas and other cultural anthropologists did not expect or desire that American society should become a loose federation of distinctive ethnic cultures, each with equal claim to a unique value. As ethnographers, they tried to look at the peoples they studied in the South Pacific or on Indian reservations without ethnocentric preconceptions. But they usually assumed that each society had a single dominant culture and that minorities within it had to conform to the essential values of the larger society in order to survive and prosper. D’Souza does not mention the liberal sociologists of the “Chicago School,” whose work in the 1920s and 1930s was instrumental in establishing an intellectual rationale for the post—World War II desegregation movement. Like D’Souza himself, they made “assimilation” the ultimate goal for all groups, including blacks.
D’Souza praises Martin Luther King, Jr., for his support of integration, but he finds that even King was guilty of the cardinal sin of cultural relativism. “King’s views,” he writes, “…represented an odd combination: he was a cultural relativist and a moral univeralist.” Properly understood, King’s position was not at all odd. He valued some aspects of what he took to be the predominant black culture and he deplored others. He venerated the black religious tradition but frequently criticized black people for moral shortcomings that he believed were the legacy of slavery and oppression. His attitude toward the dominant white culture was similarly nuanced; it deserved respect for its ideals of liberty and equality but censure for the self-seeking materialism and racial prejudice that prevented those ideals from being realized.
D’Souza’s oddly skewed interpretation of the anti-racist tradition is an attempt to read back into the past the radical relativism of some contemporary multiculturalists. Historically speaking, the main emphasis of liberal thought about race has not been on cultural relativism but on the influence of social environment. D’Souza regards relativism and environmentalism as synonymous, but in fact they are not. Explaining self-destructive or anti-social behavior among some blacks as the product of a discriminatory environment does not mean tolerating or glorifying that behavior as the product of a separate-but-equal ethnic culture. Quite the contrary. The people who say that sharecroppers or inner-city blacks are victims of their environment normally invoke standards that are common to the larger society or believed to be of universal validity. Criticism of the dominant culture for a failure to live up to its own ideals is not evidence of cultural relativism; it may well, on the contrary, reflect moral convictions that transcend culture, such as those that King derived from Christianity and the Declaration of Independence.
From D’Souza’s perspective one is either a cultural relativist or a cultural absolutist. His own implicit view is that the dominant Euro-American culture, or more precisely the culture of market capitalism, is virtually without fault, and he consigns anyone who does not believe this to the nether world of cultural relativism. A perspective that measures existing patterns of thought and behavior by standards of human rights and social justice that transcend ethnic cultures—and is likely to find all of them falling short—seems to be as alien to his way of thinking as it is to that of radical postmodernists.
D’Souza is not a historian of either society or ideas; his account of the history of racism and anti-racism is scaffolding for a polemic about the current state of black-white relations in the United States. His argument, to summarize it briefly, is that blacks are doing very badly (he presents the usual statistics about unemployment, poverty, unwed mothers, crime, etc.) and that this “failure” is owing to their own moral and cultural failings rather than to the persistence of racism. He concedes that there is some discrimination against African Americans but argues that most of it does not reflect irrational prejudice but is in fact justified. As an example of “rational discrimination,” he points to the cab driver who refuses to pick up a young black male. He does so, D’Souza contends, because of his prudential calculation of the likelihood that he will be robbed or killed; and D’Souza notes that black as well as white cabdrivers sometimes adopt this policy. Similarly, the difficulty that blacks have in getting mortgage loans from banks reflects the real risks that lenders face.
Apparently drawing on a version of “rational choice” theory, D’Souza attributes most of what some have called “institutional racism” to normal human prudence on the “safety first” principle. Racial stereotypes, he asserts, contain much truth, and people cannot be condemned for acting on them. He admits that “rational discrimination” causes injustice to blacks who do not possess the traits popularly associated with the group; but he offers them no redress except to raise the standards of their own community so that the stereotypes change for the better.
Even if we put aside the question of how rational these racial stereotypes really are—and the extent to which they are based on exaggeration fed by emotion and false information—it is still curious that D’Souza has so little concern for the individual rights of black victims of “rational discrimination” and so much sympathy for whites, whose rights are allegedly violated by affirmative action. One of the most damaging forms of “rational discrimination,” for example, is the often hypothetical calculation of some employers that blacks are less likely than whites to fit in well with the rest of their work force or with the clientele that they serve, and so hiring them is bad for business. An advocate of racial justice could take D’Souza’s admission that “rational discrimination” is widespread and then show how it effectively denies blacks equality of opportunity. The resulting analysis would be a good argument for affirmative action if one were simply willing to give higher priority to black opportunity than to white fears, self-interest, and feelings of comfort.
D’Souza, of course, calls for an end to affirmative action. Defining its goal as “proportional representation,” he calls for “social outcomes produced by merit alone” and foresees with equanimity a time when “the number of blacks at MIT might well fall to around 2 per cent” and “blacks would be scarce in some professions, and virtually absent from others.” But should “merit” be determined entirely by test scores and other supposedly objective criteria? There is an ongoing debate about how well standardized tests measure potential achievement, as well as strong indications that blacks do badly on these tests because of a lack of self-confidence rather than as a result of cognitive deficiencies.4
An estimate of potential service to the community or to a particular field of work might be a better way to evaluate candidates for admission or employment. Qualified blacks who benefit from affirmative action may contribute more to the public good than whites who may be slightly better qualified on the basis of tests or grades. Overcoming racial segregation and encouraging higher ambitions in upwardly aspiring members of minority groups might be considered desirable goals for this society, to say nothing of the need under existing circumstances to provide essential services and educated leadership to minority communities. The small amount of “discrimination” that may be required in the process strikes me as more “rational” than the kind of “rational” calculation D’Souza defends, which often amounts to no more than a fearful prediction for which there is no solid basis.
The full extent of D’Souza’s extremism becomes evident when he calls not merely for the abolition of affirmative action but also for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This extraordinary proposal is based on little more than dogmatic assertions about the virtues of private libertarianism. D’Souza believes that the government should be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race but that private employers should be able to do so without penalty. In the end, he argues, the free market will create fair employment practices without governmental intervention.
Why this is not likely to be the case can be demonstrated by enlarging upon an historical example that D’Souza uses to support his argument. He contends that the Jim Crow laws that were passed in the South around the turn of the century were resisted by private businesses, usually on the grounds that separate facilities were more expensive than integrated ones. Segregation therefore “represented a triumph of government regulation over the free market.” There is some truth in this, but it fails to acknowledge what historians have found to be a pervasive pattern of de facto or customary segregation or discrimination during the period that preceded the Jim Crow laws. No law required cotton mill owners to hire only white machine operators and relegate blacks to janitorial work; and no law forced white unions to exclude blacks from membership. Even if they are not prejudiced themselves, owners of businesses are likely to adjust their employment practices to the prejudices of their communities, as well as to those prevailing among their work force. This was the reality in the “unregulated” white South before the era of Jim Crow and would to some extent be the case today if affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws were dispensed with.
I am perpetually mystified by the belief of right-wing libertarians that an unfettered free market will solve virtually all social and economic problems. The free market that they venerate is an imaginary Utopia that has never existed and probably never could exist in a capitalist society with a political system based on representation. Persons or groups with political power will inevitably try to use the state to distribute wealth in a way that is advantageous to them. Normally those who are already well-to-do are able to use the political influence that money can buy to manipulate legislation and public policy so that they can become richer than before; but occasionally relatively disadvantaged groups can vote themselves a larger share of the pie, as occurred during the New Deal era.
During the nineteenth century, protective tariffs and land grants distributed wealth in ways that favored some Americans over others. In contemporary America, most subsidies in fact go to the middle and upper classes rather than to the poor. What is the tax deduction for mortgage interest on luxury estates and second homes—which costs the treasury billions of dollars every year—if not a subsidy for the relatively affluent? Defense contracts for unnecessary weapons have become a system of welfare for corporations and communities that are well-represented in Congress. Some principled libertarian theorists would go all the way and eliminate such subsidies. But they are rarely found among those on the political right who call for the end of affirmative action and drastic cuts in welfare payments targeted at the poor children of single mothers. A free market for the poor and a welfare state for the rich seems the likely result of the Contract with America.
Even in the unlikely event that a consistent policy of laissez faire were to be put into effect, it is hard to see how it would lead to equality for blacks. The inequalities resulting from past discrimination—inequalities in wealth, education, and the customs or habits associated with successful entrepreneurship—would mean that many African Americans would limp on to the level playing field with disabling injuries. As Lyndon Johnson put it in his Howard University address of 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled in chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line and then say that ‘you are free to compete with the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”5
The results of competition among large population groups in a truly free market would presumably depend to a great extent on the resources that each group brought to the market in the first place. On average, and allowing for the luck and special talents of individuals, those who had more to start with would end up the same way, and the position of the initially disadvantaged would also be relatively unchanged. D’Souza argues that equal opportunity does not mean equal results. But if, as he professes to believe, there are no significant innate differences in the talents of whites and blacks, the long-term goal of anti-discrimination policies should be, to quote President Johnson again, “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.”
D’Souza devotes a substantial portion of his book to criticizing black leaders and intellectuals for exaggerating the significance of racism and condoning or excusing, on the basis of “cultural relativism,” the real source of the problem—the dysfunctional culture of many blacks. He not only indicts lower-class black culture for the usual reasons, but he also takes to task the black middle class for its “racial paranoia,” blind dependence on government rather than their own initiative, and what he calls “post-affirmative action angst, the frustration of pursuing unearned privileges.” He excoriates the more successful blacks for clinging to failed policies of government intervention out of narrow self-interest. The civil rights establishment, he argues, depends for its power and livelihood on claims that racism persists and is the sole source of black disadvantage. Were it to admit the truth, it would lack a raison d’être.
Although D’Souza unfairly impugns the motives of many dedicated defenders of racial equality, there is some truth in his criticism of black leadership for its defensive insularity. In their remarkably clear-sighted book, American Apartheid, the sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton; after showing the high costs of residential segregation to blacks, go on to lament the failure of influential black leaders to address the issue. Housing discrimination is the primary reason that many blacks are confined to separate and disadvantaged neighborhoods. But a contributing factor is
the self-interested stake that black politicians and, to a lesser extent, black business owners have in the perpetuation of the ghetto. Segregation concentrates black dollars to produce a relatively closed market for black entrepreneurs who espouse an ideology of economic independence and self-help. More important, segregation concentrates black votes to create safe legislative seats for black politicians and a ready gallery for community activists.6
Paradoxically, the pursuit of “community control” and “black power” during the past quarter century may have contributed to black powerlessness. The emphasis on black ethnic solidarity and the disavowal of integration as a primary goal of African Americans that have, since the late 1960s, characterized much black political thought and leadership have made it more difficult to find allies in the white community. Most recently, it has inhibited efforts to defend affirmative action in a politically effective way.
The common argument that affirmative action and other race-targeted policies are needed to overcome the statistical disparities between black and white attainments is not likely to win many white converts so long as the belief persists that existing discrimination is not the cause of those disparities. White Americans are not prepared to pay for the sins of their ancestors or to sacrifice their own job prospects to people they believe are less qualified. D’Souza is correct when he argues that entitlement to proportional representation based on group membership is simply too contrary to basic American beliefs to be a workable policy.
But racial discrimination is also alien to the nation’s professed value system, and many whites would feel guilty, or at least uneasy, about palpable unfairness in the treatment of blacks. If they could be persuaded that it really existed, they might even be willing to do something about it. But such persuasion has not been a central goal for most black spokesmen. Instead there has been a shift in black strategy away from redress of specific forms of discrimination against individuals and away from nonviolent protest against them, in favor of campaigns for what looks like group rights. This strategy has been self-defeating politically, whatever abstract or theoretical justification it may have.
Affirmative action can be persuasively defended and justified as a measure against racial discrimination. This was its original rationale. It was conceived as an instrument to further the civil rights movement’s goal of equal rights and opportunities for individuals. The assumption was that the normal tendency of businesses, unions, and educational institutions would be to favor whites unless there were special efforts to make them include qualified blacks. This logic, which was once effective in making affirmative action politically acceptable, might still be persuasive if it were dissociated from the logically contradictory emphasis on group entitlements. Paradoxically, the best way for blacks to achieve group parity in the long run might be to disavow such parity as a short-term goal. We have all heard of particular abuses of affirmative action, whether in hiring or in awarding contracts. But in fact affirmative action, as I have seen it work in my own experience, seldom advances blacks to positions for which they are unqualified; it does no more than give them preference over similarly qualified whites, and it sometimes acknowledges that there are certain functions within a business organization or institution that blacks might perform especially well because of their ties to the larger African-American community. It is, for example, only reasonable for companies to hire black salesmen who can work in both black and white districts.
If D’Souza had made a persuasive case that racism is an insignificant obstacle to black progress, affirmative action and other race-specific policies could not be defended before American public opinion, however advantageous they might be for blacks as an interest group. But he has not made such a case. He ignores the housing discrimination and forced ghettoization described by Massey and Denton, which exact a devastating toll on blacks’ opportunities. A recently published study reveals for the first time the full economic damage caused by the special difficulties that blacks face in obtaining home mortgages and shows that they are likely to pay higher interest rates than whites with similar income and assets when they do—a situation that perpetuates an enormous gap between the average net worth of blacks and whites of similar incomes.7 There is much evidence—also ignored by D’Souza—showing that discrimination in employment persists despite affirmative action policies.8 These facts need to be publicized so that white Americans can be made aware of the extent to which the civil rights movement of the 1960s failed to achieve its goal of fairness for blacks. Racism certainly persists, but many white Americans, if they were better informed, might still be responsive to movements that would seek to fulfill the American ideal of equal rights and opportunities for individuals rather than rejecting it in the name of racial or ethnic federalism.
D’Souza attributes existing inequalities to black culture, especially the underclass culture of the ghetto, rather than to racial discrimination. Here he reflects current public sentiment, and there is no denying the frequently unfortunate consequences of teen-age motherhood for children and the social harm caused by drugs, gang warfare, and crime. The traditional liberal response has been that such behavior is the result of an impoverished environment. If this were true, D’Souza argues, all poor blacks would exhibit such behavior, but in fact many do not, which shows that properly motivated individuals can rise above their circumstances.
Here he makes the error of assuming that environment is either all or nothing. It can scarcely be denied that poor people are more likely to be tempted by crime or illegal activities than those who are well-off, and that children who go to inferior ghetto schools cannot be expected to achieve the academic success of those who go to much better schools in the suburbs. That some people do succeed despite the obstacles they face is a credit to the human spirit. That others do not should not lead us to indict them for deeply rooted cultural deficiencies; for it is easy to imagine that if conditions had been more favorable, many of them would have made it.
Unfortunately, however, it is hard to see how even the most aggressive anti-discrimination policies will solve the problems of the underclass. The argument of the sociologist William Julius Wilson that class rather than race is at the root of black disadvantages may understate the amount of racial discrimination still experienced by blacks, including those in the middle class; but Wilson convincingly argues that the poorest African Americans can only be helped effectively if policies aimed at the elimination of poverty through full employment are also enacted.9 But of course nothing of the sort can be expected so long as the myth of the free market promoted by D’Souza and other conservative ideologues maintains its hold on more than half of that dwindling minority of Americans who actually vote in our elections.
D’Souza’s denial of the persistence of racism will undoubtedly lead to charges that he is a racist himself. Such an accusation would not be true in any traditional or generally accepted sense of the term. But perhaps we need a new word to describe the position that he does represent. I am tempted to call it “culturism” or “cultural essentialism.” Racists assumed that there was a fixed entity called “race” that could predict the behavior and attainments of human groups on the basis of their physical appearance or ancestry. D’Souza explicitly disavows any such notion, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But he has done something quite similar with the concept of culture. For him there is a determinate entity called “black culture” and another called “white culture,” and the latter is clearly superior to the former. A similar assumption is made by black cultural nationalists, except they claim to deny or reverse the hierarchy.
The time has perhaps come to subject the concept of group cultures to the same kind of critical scrutiny that has been applied to the concept of race. Boas and the anti-racists of the early twentieth century pointed out that variations of physical traits within groups designated as races were as great or greater than those between average or typical members of different racial groups and that many features thought to be fixed by heredity, such as height and head shape, were significantly affected by environment. A similar critique could be made of the concept of culture as it is currently used. The cultural variations that can be found within the groups that are designated as black and white are in fact enormous and they deserve close attention; and yet if one considered the qualities of a black person and a white person of similar socio-economic status, one might find that they had more values and attitudes in common than either had with members of their own group who differed significantly in educational attainment and income.
Regional differences are also significant. Black and white southerners may share tastes and habits that would distinguish them from longtime northern residents of both races. Religion is another major source of cultural variation that does not coincide neatly with racial and ethnic divisions. White and black fundamentalists, for example, share values that are different from those of religious liberals and humanists of any color or ancestry. The prevailing notion that race automatically overwhelms class, education, region, or religion as a determinant of culture strikes me as untenable.
Culture is also unstable and constantly changing. The subcultures found in the contemporary ghetto or the white suburb are different in some respects from those that would have been found in either kind of place a few decades ago. While some continuities undoubtedly exist, what we call culture is much more fluid, porous, and inchoate than we normally suppose. The cultural styles that have been stereotypically attributed to whites and blacks have been interacting throughout American history, an exchange that has led to considerable hybridization—just think about the kinds of popular music that are regarded by the rest of the world as quintessentially American.
Ethnic diversity in the United States has been more a matter of politics, especially involving struggles over the rights of American citizens and who can claim them, than of group differences in basic cultural values. Because they have been discriminated against as a group, blacks have come together politically to advance their shared interests and secure the rights that have been denied them—just as the Irish did in the nineteenth century and Mexican Americans are doing in the Southwest. But group consciousness of this kind may be more suggestive of a shared national culture than of a deeply divided one. The ghetto drug dealer whom D’Souza would consider a prime exemplar of cultural deviation is following a distorted version of the American dream of material success; he may have as plausible an excuse for taking a short cut to affluence as some of the white-collar malefactors who do not need to break a law in order to become rich by such respectable activities as, for example, promoting addiction to tobacco or alcohol. On the basis of thoughts such as these, I have begun to wonder about the validity or usefulness of explanations of group differences that rely on nothing more than the conception that sharply distinguishable and incompatible cultures can be associated with those groups that have historically been defined as races.
D’Souza’s cultural absolutism, which is based on an idealization of a dominant culture that he associates with white people and a virtual demonization of a black culture that serves as its antithesis, is not technically racist, but it comes close to being its functional equivalent. If whites believe, as he would have them believe, that most blacks are bearers of an inferior culture, then they will feel that it is perfectly proper and “rational” to discriminate against African Americans. Of course D’Souza does offer blacks an escape hatch. All they have to do to be competitive is decide to “act white.” Readers can make up their own minds about whether there is any hope for racial justice in a prescription that explicitly identifies what is virtuous and commendable with the possession of white pigmentation. And what if African Americans did “act white”? Would that free them from the presumption, held by many of those who regard themselves as white by birth (and some like D’Souza who do not), that beneath the surface, ready to break out at any time, is the cultural pathology that The End of Racism attributes to blacks in general?
October 19, 1995
See Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993). ↩
See his Illiberal Education (Free Press, 1991). ↩
See Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994). ↩
The psychologist Claude M. Steele of Stanford University has been doing remarkable work showing the effects of “stereotype vulnerability” on African-American test performance, the results of which were presented in August at the convention of the American Psychological Association. (See the paper that he coauthored with Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Vulnerability and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans.”) Steele has conducted controlled experiments showing that the usual differences in results between whites and blacks of similar educational attainments disappear when test-takers are informed that the exam is not being used to evaluate ability or qualifications. ↩
Quoted in Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Beacon Press, 1995), p. 113. ↩
Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, p. 213. ↩
Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (Routledge, 1995). ↩
The case is made by the economist Steven Shulman and other contributors to Shulman and William Darity, Jr., editors, The Question of Discrimination: Racial Inequality in the US Labor Market (Wesleyan University Press, 1989). ↩
William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (University of Chicago Press, 1978), and The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1987). ↩