President Clinton’s recent call for a “national conversation on race” and his appointment of a commission headed by the historian John Hope Franklin to report on the current state of race relations are strong indications that there is once again an upsurge of concern about America’s oldest and most persistent problem. Unfortunately, the conversation could easily become a debate that will further polarize rather than unify Americans.
There are several questions that have to be asked and answered honestly and objectively before a productive conversation can begin. The first is to inquire what we mean by the term “race,” so that we know what we are talking about. The word has strong historical associations with a theory of biological determinism that has been shown to have no scientific validity. But if we substitute a term such as “ethnicity,” which normally refers to culture rather than biology, we risk underestimating the historical and contemporary significance of racism as an ideology or set of beliefs and attitudes.
Sociologists have long recognized that race is a social rather than a biological phenomenon, and recently the proposition that race is “a social and cultural construction” has become an academic cliché. But social and cultural constructions can justify the enslavement, forced segregation, or even the extermination of people designated as having inferior ancestry or bad genes. When such attitudes are influential, or have been influential for extended periods in the past with effects that persist, a race problem may be said to exist. As a practical matter, therefore, it is difficult to avoid using the term.
In the history of the United States only one minority has been consistently thought of as a “race” in the full and invidious sense—African-Americans. Hostilities toward other groups, such as American Indians, Asians, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Jews, have often been intense and have led in some cases to widespread violence and deplorable injustices. But cul-tural intolerance has usually played a greater role in provoking their mistreatment than a strong belief in their natural incapacities. Most other persecuted minorities were eventually considered candidates for assimilation and were denounced and abused when they chose to remain culturally distinctive. Blacks, on the other hand, were regarded for centuries as inherently unassimilable because, as subhuman, they lacked a developed or refined human culture and were deemed incapable of having one. Consequently, every effort was made to keep them from taking a full part in American society. John Hope Franklin, therefore, has historical justification when he argues, against the multiculturalist approach of President Clinton, that his commission on race should be primarily concerned with the basic and enduring problem of black-white relations rather than with the full American mosaic that has complicated the classic race question but not eliminated it.
If race in America is still mainly a matter of black and white, then the next question that needs attention is the very contentious one of how well African-Americans are doing. Scarcely anyone denies that their situation is better in some ways than it was before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s ended legalized segregation, gave Southern blacks access to the ballot box, and provided African-Americans with legal remedies against employment discrimination which came to include affirmative action policies. But many believe that progress since the 1970s has slowed or stalled and that there are current signs of regression toward greater segregation and economic or cultural deprivation. Almost everyone agrees that there is both good news and bad news; the debate is over which should be in the headlines.
Relatively uncontroversial is the proposition that African-Americans as a group have not been as successfully integrated into the mainstream of American life as the architects of the civil rights reforms hoped and expected that they would be. What accounts for the disappointment of these hopes? The answer of many liberals and of most African-American leaders and intellectuals is the persistence of white racism, prejudice, and discrimination—the belief that the traditional American caste system has adapted to the new legal and political equality by finding subtler ways of keeping blacks “in their place” at the bottom of the nation’s status hierarchy. But others, including some liberals, argue that the evidence from opinion surveys and other data show that white racism has declined so substantially that the cause of black poverty, resentment, and demoralization must be sought elsewhere.
Alleged deficiencies of culture and leadership among blacks themselves—especially their tendency to blame racism for self-inflicted wounds and to short-circuit the integration process by practicing self-segregation—are the most popular explanations of those who deny the force of persistent racism.1 Also blamed for recent setbacks are misguided government policies, especially affirmative action and the welfare system, that have allegedly lowered group standards of conduct and achievement, creating feelings of dependency and entitlement that have sapped the initiative and capacity for sustained effort on the part of a substantial segment of the black population.2
Disagreement on the causes of black underachievement, poverty, crime, and family disintegration point to radically different remedies. Many white liberals and most black leaders favor an expansion of governmental activity—more effective affirmative action, WPA-type job programs for the ghetto unemployed, a social safety net for children and the unemployable, and universal health care. Libertarian conservatives would go in the opposite direction—ending welfare, affirmative action, and all other programs that protect people from the “discipline” of the free market and the need to “stand on their own two feet.” Centrists like President Clinton try to split the difference by reducing but not ending government programs to help the disadvantaged.
The books under review are all serious efforts to address these basic questions concerning the state of black-white relations in 1997. They approach the problem from the same starting point—a commitment to the liberal ideal of equality of rights and opportunities for all Americans. The authors all claim to share the integrationist dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., and seek in differing ways to recapture the hopeful “black and white together” spirit of the civil rights movement. Unrepresented and generally disdained in these works are the views of black nationalists and pessimistic social scientists who regard anti-black racism as so deep-seated among whites that there is little or no hope of overcoming it; but also repudiated are those who would deny or forget the terrible racist past of the United States and fail to see its relevance to the present.
Despite this measure of ideological agreement among the authors, each of whom claims to speak for liberal values, they end up disagreeing sharply on the wisdom and legitimacy of race-conscious public policies, especially affirmative action. Two of the books, those by David Shipler and Orlando Patterson, present the case for affirmative action, while the works by Jim Sleeper and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom argue against it. This quarrel among analysts of race relations who draw on the liberal integrationist tradition reflects a deep division among Americans who consider themselves liberal in some sense. Survey data show that those who describe themselves as both liberals and Democrats are almost equally split on whether remedies for black disadvantage should take account of race or be colorblind. 3
The most polemical and least substantial of the books is Jim Sleeper’s Liberal Racism. But it is useful because of the forthright way that it presents the case against race-conscious policies and more broadly against what the author takes to be the current gospel of “multiculturalism.” Sleeper, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, considers himself a man of the left and frequently contributes to liberal periodicals. His principal argument is that liberals have betrayed the colorblind, race- transcending values that inspired their support of the civil rights movement. He excoriates race-conscious liberals for endorsing multiculturalism, “identity politics,” and affirmative action, as well as condoning black separatism on college campuses and elsewhere. Sleeper especially deplores the extent to which liberals have accepted the self-serving contention of black demagogues that white racism is worse then ever, when it fact it has declined markedly in recent years.
In my opinion, Sleeper is on relatively firm ground in his criticisms of racial gerrymandering to increase black representation in the South. Its unintended effect has been to increase the power of conservatives in Congress; it has substituted symbolic representation—more black faces in Congress—for the greater influence that would have come from having more racially mixed districts in which blacks would hold the balance of power. His provocative title means that, for him, using racial classifications for the professed purpose of overcoming racism is actually racist in itself and deepens the divisions between black and white rather than overcoming them. With views that sometimes recall those of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Disuniting of America, he argues that liberal concessions to racial and ethnic particularism endanger the civic unity on which the cohesiveness of the nation depends.4
The problem with his book is that it overstates its case and wastes much of its heavy artillery on straw targets. Who exactly are the “racist liberals” whom Sleeper is attacking? Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell are his most frequent, indeed virtually his only, examples of pessimistic liberals who argue seriously that white supremacy is so central to American values and institutions that there is virtually no hope of overcoming it.5 Most liberals that I know and whose books I have read are more hopeful. Some, like William Julius Wilson and Martin Carnoy, put much of their faith in traditional liberal policies of the New Deal type that are aimed at class disadvantages rather than specifically racial ones, although they find that there is still need for some race-specific remedies.6 Others, like Lani Guinier and the Princeton political philosopher Amy Gutmann, believe that affirmative action is not only consistent with liberal values but, if properly conceived and implemented, can unify rather than divide America.7 Although there may be such persons in New York City, I do not personally know anyone I would consider a liberal who is sympathetic to Al Sharpton’s demagoguery in the Tawana Brawley case or to militant Afrocentrism in education and scholarship.
The liberal policy of multicultural higher education, as it works at my own university and most others I know of, does not, as Sleeper claims, intentionally condone or encourage racial and ethnic separatism and has nothing whatever to do with Afrocentrism, which is obviously a form of mono-culturalism. Multicultural education, properly conceived, is a serious effort to achieve what historian John Higham calls “pluralistic integration,” a search for common ground and mutual tolerance among people of diverse cultural backgrounds.8 It should encourage a cosmopolitan respect for different cultures rather than an ethnocentric preoccupation with one’s own and is therefore consistent with the highest aims of a liberal education. By describing liberals who favor multiculturalism and some race-conscious policies as “racists,” Sleeper is giving credence to misleading right-wing propaganda and muddying the issues rather than clarifying them.
A more scholarly and extensively documented presentation of a similar perspective is America in Black and White by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. He is a distinguished Harvard historian; more than anyone else he led the movement for quantitative social history in the 1960s and 1970s. She is a political scientist who has specialized in voting rights issues. Because of its extensive and seemingly authoritative use of statistical data, America in Black and White is a challenging book. Not being a statistician, I have to accept most of its data on faith, as I am quite prepared to do in view of Stephan Thernstrom’s well-established reputation for statistical analysis. Sometimes, however, the analysis of data that, on the face of it, do not support the general argument seems forced and unpersuasive. For example, the authors criticize a research project on employment discrimination in Washington, D.C., in which equally qualified blacks and whites were asked to apply for the same jobs. Although the results showed that the employers had a significant preference for whites, the Thernstroms argue that the study should be discredited because it did not include the federal government. But it was, after all, a study of discrimination in the private sector. One expects the federal government, where affirmative action has long been in effect, to be “an equal opportunity employer.”
The book first seeks to demonstrate that at least some blacks have had substantial gains during the last half-century; it then argues that the current racial “crisis” is caused by a combination of ignorance about how far blacks have come and misguided race-conscious policies, such as affirmative action, that have been based on a false assumption that the persistence of white racism is at the core of the problems that remain.
The long historical section at the beginning tells the story of black-white relations through the 1960s in a generally accurate and effective way. It is unsparing in its account of the horrors of the Jim Crow system in the South and strongly appreciative of the heroism and achievements of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. But the Thernstroms may draw too sharp a contrast between the integrationist struggle personified by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Power or black nationalist phase that followed and scuttled King’s dream of racial togetherness. We sometimes forget that the Southern civil rights movement was in many ways an expression of black autonomy and self-determination. Led by blacks, premised on black solidarity, and drawing on the distinctive traditions of the black church, it was in its own way a manifestation of African-American ethnic identity and assertiveness. King won crucial national support from whites by stressing the compatibility of the movement’s goals with universalist American values. But he was also aware, as were most of his black followers, that they were seeking liberation as a people from a species of colonial domination by another people. (King often likened his struggle to anti-colonial movements in the third world.) Group consciousness as a basis for black identity politics was as much a legacy of the Southern civil rights movement as the ideal of a colorblind America.
Contrary to the prevailing assumption that King would have been opposed to affirmative action if he were living today, he clearly endorsed its basic principle in 1964: “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised,” he wrote in Why We Can’t Wait,
some of our friends recoil in hor-ror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first man would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.9
It is high time that contemporary advocates of “colorblind” policies stop claiming King’s authority and recognize that he was strongly in favor of “doing something special” for the Negro “in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
The second section of America in Black and White records and analyzes recent trends and concludes that blacks have made great gains since the 1960s. The Thernstroms summarize the current situation as follows:
Blacks participate—often decisively—in elections: had Colin Powell chosen to run, we might well have inaugurated our first African-American president in January 1997. The black underclass often seems to define black America, but less than one-fifth of African-Americans are actually poverty-stricken residents of central cities, and (contrary to conventional wisdom) almost all [black students] get a high school diploma. Median family income for married black couples is now only 13 percent below that of white couples; half of all black families have incomes that are at least double the poverty line. Almost no adult men with full-time jobs are destitute, and the substantial black middle class that has emerged since 1940 is passing on its status to the next generation…. Not only has residential segregation declined in most big cities; 30 percent of the black population lived in suburbs by 1994….
There is, of course, bad news as well as good…. Most blacks are not poor, and most of America’s poor are not black. Nevertheless, nearly a third of African-Americans are still impoverished, a consequence in large measure of the number of single-parent black households. A social pattern with devastating economic consequences has become the norm in the black community; in 1995, 85 percent of black children in poverty lived in households with no father present. In addition, since the 1960s, crime rates have been surging in the black community, particularly among young black males.
It would seem that the good news outweighs the bad, but not by much. The success of married and middle-class blacks appears to be in some danger of being overshadowed or undercut by the disintegration of the black family and the poverty associated with it. Not noted here but discussed elsewhere in the book are the appalling rates of unemployment among black males: only 52 percent of those eighteen to sixty-four “have full-time, year round jobs, as compared with two-thirds of white males.”
But the Thernstroms deny the connection often made between male joblessness and family disintegration. The unemployment rate does not correlate statistically, they show, with the rise of unwed motherhood. In the past unemployed young men were much more likely to marry than they are now. They blame persistent black poverty mainly on the breakdown of the black family and they hint, but do not show, that there is a cultural explanation for the rise of single-parent households. At this point Dinesh D’Souza would rush in and talk about black cultural pathology; but it is worth noting that unwed motherhood is rising at a faster rate among whites than among blacks, although it remains at a lower level, and that single-parent households are becoming much more common, especially among poorer citizens, in other modern industrial nations. Something has been happening here that we do not fully understand and, until we do, we should perhaps reserve judgment about the causes.10
The undeniable good news is that the black middle class has expanded greatly since the 1960s—to the point where 40 percent of all blacks con-sider themselves to be middle class and about 30 percent actually qualify according to standards used by social demographers. How was this gain achieved? The Thernstroms deny that affirmative action has had much to do with it. They argue that the black middle class was growing as rapidly before the beginnings of affirmative action as it has since. This strikes me as one of their weaker contentions. As they themselves demonstrate, the substantial gains in per capita black income relative to that of whites between the 1940s and 1960s, which laid a foundation for expansion of the middle class, occurred because of favorable circumstances that were unique to that period—a booming economy, a tight labor market, and a mass migration of blacks from rural poverty in the South to relatively well-paying industrial jobs in the North.
Since the 1970s, very different conditions have prevailed. Deindustrialization and decline or stagnation in real income for most workers have made it more difficult for blacks, as for other members of the working class, to attain middle-class status. But the solid black middle class of professionals, executives, managers, business owners, military officers, and civil servants has nonetheless continued to grow, notwithstanding downsizing in the private sector and cutbacks in the government spending that sustains a high level of public employment. Affirmative action must have contributed to this growth. The effects of the large increase in the proportion of blacks in higher education since the 1960s and the race-conscious hiring policies that many corporations have instituted since the 1970s can scarcely be denied. Many blacks with high achievements (including Colin Powell, federal judges, presidents of corporations or foundations, and provosts, deans, and professors at prestigious universities) have candidly expressed their debt to affirmative action—without, in most cases, being the least bit embarrassed by it. For it should be obvious to everyone that they have proved themselves more than competent to shoulder the responsibilities they were asked to assume.
It might be argued, however, that affirmative action has served its purpose and is no longer needed because racial prejudice is no longer a significant barrier to the advancement of qualified blacks. From a variety of polling and survey data the Thernstroms provide evidence of a steady decline in white prejudice over the past thirty years to the point where, they argue, it is no longer a significant cause of black disadvantage. For them, affirmative action was never a legitimate remedy, because it was in conflict with the principle stated in Justice John Harlan’s classic dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Constitution is “color-blind.” They even fault Brown v. Board of Education for not clearly stating this principle, a failure that made it possible later on for some race-conscious policies to pass judicial scrutiny. But even if one believes, as Martin Luther King, Jr., did and as the Supreme Court has held, that race must sometimes be taken into account in order to insure equal opportunity for the victims of racism, do we still need to do it if racism has declined to the extent that the Thernstroms claim?
The results of surveys and studies of white racial opinion are actually mixed or ambiguous, and differing conclusions can be drawn. It is true that fewer and fewer whites give blatantly racist answers to the questions asked them by opinion researchers, but a significant minority still do. Orlando Patterson, looking at the same evidence as the Thernstroms in his provocative book, The Ordeal of Integration, estimates that roughly a quarter of all white Americans are hardcore, unabashed racists. That many bigots can give blacks a lot of trouble; they outnumber blacks in the total American population by about two-to-one and are likely to be overrepresented among whites with whom blacks have frequent (and often unpleasant) contact, such as policemen, store clerks, and taxi drivers. And how strongly committed to racial equality are the whites who do not share these attitudes? Would they actively intervene on behalf of an African-American who they observed was being subjected to insulting or discriminatory treatment by another white? Some would, but I suspect that many would not. Good Samaritanism is always a rare virtue.
The Thernstroms do not mention the 1990 University of Chicago study cited by David Shipler in A Country of Strangers to support his view that prejudice has been persistent. Instead of simply asking people to agree or disagree with flat statements to the effect that blacks are less intelligent or more lazy than whites—questions of the type that other surveys had used over the years to reveal a steady decline in racist attitudes—the university’s National Opinion Research Center asked people to rank various ethnic groups in intelligence, industriousness, and willingness to be self-supporting instead of living on welfare. In response, 53.2 percent of a cross section of Americans said blacks were less intelligent than whites; 62.2 percent thought they were lazier; and 77.7 per-cent believed they were more likely to prefer welfare to work. If surveys of this type had been taken thirty years ago, they would undoubtedly have revealed even higher percentages of people with negative stereotypes of blacks. But it would be hard to deny, on the basis of such data, that low expectations of black abilities are still prevalent in this society and are bound to make many employers more reluctant to hire and promote blacks over equally—or even less—qualified whites, unless some kind of affirmative action program is in operation.
Although it draws support from the University of Chicago study and other efforts to quantify racial attitudes, David K. Shipler’s A Country of Strangers tries to gets behind the statistical evidence and describe how actual human beings confront the race issue on a day-to-day basis. A former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Shipler traveled around the country and interviewed in some depth hundreds of people about their perceptions and experiences of the division between black and white. He found that many whites believe blacks are much better off than they actually are; a majority think that African-Americans have the edge over whites in jobs and education. This gross exaggeration of black well-being and achievement reinforces opposition to affirmative action and other policies in which blacks are beneficiaries of special government programs.
Shipler also talked to African-Americans and believed them when they complained about constantly being devalued and suspected of incompetence, or worse, by the whites whom they encounter, work for, or are taught by. Low expectations of achievement can be self-fulfilling prophecies, as in the educational tracking systems that are the new face of separate-but-unequal education in supposedly integrated schools. When most blacks are excluded, sometimes arbitrarily, from the honors courses that prepare students for college, they tend to internalize a belief in their own incapacity or, worse, they come to devalue education-al achievement as a “white thing” that they want no part of. If employers, like many teachers, expect little of blacks, they are either reluctant to hire them in the first place or to give them the respect and responsibility that would put them in line for promotion. The stereotypes that persist in the minds of many whites that African-Americans are lazy, dishonest, or lacking in leadership qualities create a vicious circle that may encourage such inadequacies and make discrimination appear “rational” and non-racist.
The belief of many whites—an overwhelming majority according to most polls—that affirmative action gives preferences to unqualified blacks over qualified whites is compatible with the stereotype of black incompetence and may cause its black beneficiaries to doubt themselves and fail to perform as well as they are capable of doing. “When African-Americans are excluded,” Shipler notes, “it is because they are less capable. When they are accepted, they are still less capable, but their deficiencies have been unjustly ignored in favor of the color of their skin. The virus of bigotry mutates and survives.”
Despite such negative results of affirmative action, Shipler believes that it is a just and necessary policy. The current problem is not the blatant kind of racism that allows blacks to be excluded or discriminated against purely on the grounds of race; public attitudes no longer tolerate this kind of bigotry. It is the “subtle” prejudice that apparently denies opportunity to blacks on grounds other than race but is in reality influenced by racial stereotypes.
Whites who discriminate subtly may not even be aware of what they are doing; almost all would deny being racists [and, one might add, would probably not be counted as racists in most opinion polls]. They can fool themselves into honestly thinking that what they are seeing is one characteristic (lack of leadership ability) when their perception is actually triggered by another (blackness).
Going to the heart of opposition to affirmative action in admission to higher education—the willingness to admit blacks with lower test scores than whites—Shipler argues that standardized tests are an imperfect and unreliable measure of ability and potential achievements. College admissions officers also look for ambition, perseverance, and energy, as shown by the extent to which an applicant has been relatively successful in school despite a disadvantaged environment or background. SATs are good predictors of freshman grades, he writes, but not of later academic or professional success. He points to a study showing a high success rate among Harvard alumni from blue-collar backgrounds who were admitted with low SAT scores under an earlier form of affirmative action.
It is therefore quite possible that admitting blacks or minority students with lower test scores than is required of others is not really reverse discrimination at all. It may be a matter of admitting people who are fully qualified to do the work on the basis of a better mode of evaluation than test scores alone can provide. The Thernstroms cite the claim of the president of Williams College that black students admitted under affirmative action do on the average as well over four years as other students. They are skeptical of the claim, and their faith in the predictive quality of test scores leads them to believe that it cannot be generally true of other elite institutions that admit blacks with lower scores. I strongly suspect that it is. In more than thirty years of teaching at Northwestern and Stanford, both of which have had vigorous affirmative action programs, I have never had the sense that blacks in my classes were performing less well and getting lower grades than whites. The Thernstroms cite no studies demonstrating black underachievement in such institutions.
Recognizing that affirmative action in hiring or admissions does not guarantee an environment conducive to fair treatment once one is employed or enrolled, Shipler also advocates “diversity management” and “sensitivity training,”—that is, some combination of workshops and courses designed to change white attitudes by exposing and refuting the prejudices that prevent them from treating blacks fairly. But the notion that white prejudice and its effects on blacks can be significantly reduced by cleverly designed diversity classes and similar measures is doubtful on several grounds. For one thing, it would seem to contradict Shipler’s recognition of the role of “power” in race relations. In a chapter showing that many whites instinctively feel that a social order that gives them power and precedence over blacks is normal and natural, Shipler raises the possibility that the rewards of caste superiority are so central to the self-esteem of many whites that they would be unwilling to surrender them no matter how strong the evidence that blacks are unfairly treated. Power and privilege are like valued material possessions; people do not readily give them up even if they cannot justify them on rational grounds.
It is also difficult to see how affirmative action and diversity management will help poor blacks who lack the education and motivation to take the first step up the ladder to educational or occupational success. If the problem of white racism and black disadvantage is as serious as Shipler claims, more radical remedies would seem to be called for. Is the responsibility of corporate executives and their affluent shareholders toward African-Americans fully discharged when they provide for affirmative action and diversity management (which in fact cost them little and may even be good for business)? Or should they be taxed more heavily to provide good schools, decent housing, job subsidies, guaranteed medical care, and other government programs that would enable larger numbers of disadvantaged blacks and others to meet the minimum qualifications that they need to benefit from any kind of affirmative action program?
Orlando Patterson in The Ordeal of Integration agrees with Shipler on the need for affirmative action and in fact provides an argument for it that is broader and bolder in its historical and philosophical implications. But he emphatically disagrees with Shipler on the desirability of diversity management and sensitivity training, methods that he finds manipulative, condescending, and likely to do more harm than good.
Patterson is a Harvard sociologist of West Indian origin and British education who has written brilliantly on slavery and freedom as social and philosophical issues in world history. He is a resolutely independent thinker whose take on “America’s ‘racial’ crisis” is thoroughly original, and his is the most profound and thought-provoking of the books under review. But a great many people—black and white alike—would have to change their way of thinking about “race,” and other matters as well, for his views to receive the attention they deserve.
Patterson, first of all, wants to de-racialize the terminology we use, substituting “ethnicity” for “race” and “Afro-Americans” and “Euro-Americans” for “black” and “white.” In international or comparative terms, it is in fact often hard to distinguish the practical effects of what we call “race” in one context and “ethnicity” in another. People have been enslaved, segregated, and massacred as readily on the basis of differences in religion and culture as because they had varying pigmentation. An alternative would be to divorce the terms “race” and “racism” from a strict association with discredited biological theories and apply them to all situations where the members of one ethnic group (defined by their solidarity on the basis of a belief that they share a common ancestry) seek to dominate or exterminate those of another. Under this reformulation there would be race and racism in nations throughout the world, as well as in the United States and South Africa. But the relationship between “Afro-Americans” and the various “Euro-American” ethnic groups that became “whites” in the United States is one of the most intense and long-lasting examples of ethnic domination or applied racism to be found in the annals of human iniquity.
Unlike most African-American intellectuals, Patterson is an optimist in his views on how blacks have been doing in the past thirty or forty years. Almost as strongly as the Thernstroms, he makes a case that life has gotten much better for most blacks since the civil rights movement, and he sharply criticizes those who insist that nothing has changed or that matters have gotten worse. He accepts the proposition that white prejudice has declined drastically and he celebrates the growth of the black middle class. He admits that there is an “underclass” that creates serious problems, but he insists that it makes up “only a small fraction, at most 10 percent of the Afro-American poor—or a total of about 900,000 persons.” He notes that there is also a Euro-American underclass, slightly less numerous perhaps, that exhibits the same traits of violence, criminality, sexual predation, and “moral nihilism.”
In general therefore, Patterson supports the view of Sleeper and the Thernstroms that there has been great improvement in African-American circumstances and in race (or ethnic) relations in recent decades. He also shares with them an opposition to racially gerrymandered congressional districts. In contrast to Shipler, as already noted, he has no use for diversity management in integrated settings. Integration, he contends, is bound to be painful, with frequent conflict and misunderstandings; people just have to work their way through it. There is “no need,” he argues,
for any special set of sensitivities in our interactions with people from different ethnic backgrounds. Any attempt to do so will be folly, for it will lead down the path of patronizing contempt or relativistic social and political chaos.
Patterson also criticizes the social or environmental determinism that attributes the poverty of a third of the black population and the criminality of a much smaller segment entirely to circumstances beyond their control. He rejects such heavy emphasis on victimization and asserts that even the most disadvantaged young men and women have the capacity and freedom to avoid crime and improve the conditions under which they live. Most poor people, he points out, do not deal drugs or commit violent crimes.
Careless readers of the first half or so of his book might conclude that Patterson is an African-American conservative, like Thomas Sowell, for example, who believes that blacks have little to complain about: they should make their way in the market economy and expect no help from government. How wrong such readers would be! As he reveals in his ingenious and original defense of affirmative action, he is more radical than most liberal defenders of race-conscious policies. By broadening the concept of social responsibility to include corporations and other organizations as well as individuals, he directly challenges market conservatism and gives affirmative action something that it has generally lacked, a well-grounded moral and philosophical rationale.
Using polling data, Patterson shows that the overwhelming white opposition to affirmative action does not reflect a sense of being personally damaged by the policy. Only 7 percent of respondents actually claim to have been victims of “reverse discrimination,” and only 16 percent know of someone else who has. More strikingly, most whites have no complaints about the affirmative action policies that are in effect where they actually work. Why then do eight out of ten oppose such policies in the abstract?
The reason, according to Patterson, is that they have been manipulated by politicians and the press and television into believing that affirmative action is unfair to whites because it violates the principle of equal opportunity that is central to the American value system. Furthermore, some of the defenders of affirmative action have encouraged this belief by presenting it as a kind of group entitlement based simply on race. He accepts the findings of the political scientist Paul Sniderman and his associates that the heavy white opposition to affirmative action is not based primarily on race prejudice but on moral and political beliefs about fairness and equity.11
For Patterson, affirmative action can be justified on general principles that meet the objections of its principled opponents. There is, he writes, widespread agreement that individuals should be held morally responsible for their actions, but the ideologues of free market capitalism have managed to obscure the principle that corporate bodies enjoying the same rights as individuals are similarly responsible. Patterson’s essentially social democratic position is that government is the agent that acts on behalf of the people to ensure that both individuals and corporations act responsibly and in the interest of the society as a whole. In the case of natural disasters, or “Acts of God,” everyone agrees that the government should be the agent that provides relief for those who have suffered through no fault of their own. Patterson sees no reason why it should not act similarly in the case of man-made disasters or “Acts of Man,” such as the closing of a factory on which a whole community depends for employment.
His expansive concept of the government’s “representational agency” extends to “Acts of Degradation” of the natural and social environment, which again require a collective rather than individual response. The same concept of agency emphatically includes the righting of injustices or inequities produced by historical developments (“Acts of History”), such as the growth of monopolies and the loss of educational and economic opportunities because of extended service in one of the nation’s wars. Social welfare programs, as well as law enforcement, are collective responses to “the horrendous social and physical blight of the inner cities and the nihilistic violence and other behavior of Afro-American and Euro-American underclasses.” They are an effort to deal with “Acts of Degradation to the social and cultural environment…with dire consequences for all members of society.”
Affirmative action is, in Patterson’s view, a collective response to the history of enslavement, segregation, discrimination, and exclusion from mainstream culture that have left many African-Americans with such an accumulation of disadvantages that they need special help, just as the victims of floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes do. “Whatever its flaws, this policy is one of the finest examples of a nation recognizing and attempting to remedy the collective impact of Acts of History on a specially disadvantaged group.”
Patterson nevertheless acknowledges that such a moral and philosophical justification of affirmative action does not prevent the policy being challenged on ideological grounds; Americans venerate individual self-reliance and scarcely realize when they are departing from it, even though they often do. He concedes that “affirmative action does come into conflict with some of the moral presuppositions of American society and any defense of it must take account of these tensions.” Patterson realizes that his conception that groups as well as individuals have claims and responsibilities is not a popular one, despite the precedent of veterans’ preferences and other implicit acknowledgements that entire classes of citizens deserve special help from government. He is also aware that affirmative action, especially in education, has led some blacks to engage in forms of racial separatism—such as demands for separate dormitories and commencement ceremonies—that negate the integrationist purpose of the policy and encourage the belief that it leads to Balkanization.
He therefore concludes his case for affirmative action by showing how, in its absence, African-Americans will be denied true equality of opportunity. He puts great emphasis on what he calls the principle of “homophyly,” which means that “people who share common attributes tend to marry each other, tend to play more together, and in general tend to get along better and form more effective work teams.” It follows that an employer or personnel officer who is completely devoid of prejudice may find it more “organizationally rational to choose a Euro-American for promotion.”
It is also true that in the real world prejudices based on stereotypes about black incompetence are unlikely to be completely absent, further stacking the deck against a black job applicant or candidate for promotion. Patterson’s response to the colorblind approach recommended by Sleeper and the Thernstroms is pointed:
To argue that we should begin to solve the problem of ethno-cultural exclusion by assuming a color-blind world is to assume away the very problem that we are trying to solve…. The simple truth, the simple reality, is that ethno-racial categorization is a fact of American life, one that we can only do away with by first acknowledging.
I find Patterson’s thoughtful defense of affirmative action as an arguable but necessary step toward the transcendence of race more persuasive than the leap to colorblindness advocated by Sleeper and the Thernstroms. His willingness to engage with basic principles seems to me preferable to the reliance on “diversity” specialists that characterizes Shipler’s otherwise useful and informative account of what Americans are currently thinking and feeling about race. Patterson’s efforts to arrive at a synthesis of what is most persuasive in liberal, conservative, and socialist views may help those who think seriously about race to break out of what has tended to become a sterile debate between fixed positions.
The problem, as Patterson is quite aware, is that affirmative action is very unpopular among whites, some because they dislike blacks but a larger number because they think that “racial preferences” are inherently unfair and a legitimate cause of resentment. In California, we are embarking on an experiment to see what life will be like without affirmative action. The result so far is extremely disheartening: African- and Mexican-Americans have virtually disappeared from the entering classes of the top University of California medical and law schools.
Proponents of affirmative action who have defended the policy as requiring group entitlements based strictly on the race of the beneficiaries have played into the hands of their opponents. The only way that affirmative action can be revived in California and preserved elsewhere is for the terms of the debate to be changed. The defenders of such a policy must base their claims convincingly on the principles of fairness. They should banish the terms “racial preferences” and “reverse discrimination” from their vocabulary and make it clear that they are advocating equality of opportunity and not special privileges for the unqualified or undeserving. They should draw the public’s attention to the situations in which affirmative action has worked fairly and effectively.12 If whites realize that the beneficiaries of affirmative action have made good use of their opportunities and have, for the most part, shown themselves to be competent, white opposition may diminish.
Still, it will be difficult for many whites to support a controversial policy that may conceivably harm them, or, at best, provides them with no obvious benefits. What, then, of a program that would achieve the goals of affirmative action while also offering expanded opportunities to some whites? Might this broaden the constituency of its supporters? (It would not actually require a large shift of white opinion in California; only 54 percent of the electorate supported the referendum doing away with “racial preferences.”) Using class, as well as race, as a basis for special consideration—as is already being done to some extent—would certainly help. And putting less emphasis on standardized tests—as opposed to high school grades and evidence of sustained effort to overcome initial disadvantages—can be defended as a fairer way to determine qualifications. It would also benefit whites who have had to attend bad schools and come from impoverished environments.
We would no longer have affirmative action in any meaningful sense if race were to be disregarded as one important source of disadvantage; but other factors—which often in fact coincide with race—need to be emphasized more than they have been. “Equal opportunity” should be the basic claim of of those who would seek to open the doors to all of those who have been excluded, not because of lack of ambition, natural ability, and willingness to work, but because of social circumstances that they were powerless to prevent but have been struggling to overcome.
In an increasingly diverse society, we need ethnic diversity at every social and occupational level, not just at the bottom. Otherwise we will become, even more than we are now, a society stratified by race and ethnicity, as well as by class. If that were to happen, the resulting racial tensions might make today’s “crisis” between blacks and whites seem relatively minor in comparison. What kind of America will we have if, by the mid-twenty-first century, a privileged white minority or bare majority is pitted against an aggrieved black and brown majority or near majority? A carefully formulated and cogently defended policy of affirmative action, one that unifies rather than divides, is needed now to avert that catastrophe.
October 23, 1997
Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (Basic Books, 1984) remains the most influential work arguing in this vein. ↩
Another new book, Paul M. Sniderman and Edward G. Carmines, Reaching Beyond Race (Harvard University Press, 1997), reveals, on the basis of carefully designed surveys of public opinion, that such respondents are “divided more or less up the middle” on the subject of affirmative action (see p. 143). ↩
Norton, 1992. ↩
The pessimistic liberal view that Sleeper, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and Orlando Patterson all criticize in the books under review is best represented in Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Blacks and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (Scribners, 1992). Hacker, of course, was not necessarily wrong simply because he brought bad news; his book was a wake-up call that was badly needed to counter the complacency about race relations that had developed among whites since the 1970s. But the books under review have helped to strengthen my own conviction that progress has been made and that the struggle for black equality is not hopeless. ↩
See William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears (Knopf, 1996); and Martin Carnoy, Faded Dreams (Cambridge University Press, 1994). ↩
I heard them make this argument in public lectures given at Stanford University during the past two years. ↩
See the last chapter of Higham’s Send These To Me (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984). ↩
Signet Books, 1964, p. 134. ↩
Shipler notes that out-of-wedlock births among whites grew from 1.7 percent of the total in 1950 to 25.4 percent in 1994 and that the percentage of such births among blacks declined from 9.4 times the white rate in 1960 to 2.8 times in 1994 (p. 330). ↩
He cites Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza, The Scar of Race (Harvard University Press, 1993), which makes many of the same arguments as Sniderman and Carmines, Reaching Beyond Race, cited earlier. My only problem with the work of Sniderman and his associates is the way they define affirmative action. The majority of whites polled by Harris in 1988, Sniderman and Piazza acknowledge, came out in favor of affirmative action when it was described as not involving “rigid quotas.” Since the Bakke decision rigid quotas have been outlawed. What we have actually had in most parts of the US is an affirmative action of the kind that takes race into account but does not make it absolutely determinative. To say that affirmative action is a racial quota system is to accept the propaganda of its opponents. ↩
I am tempted here to brag a little about my own institution, Stanford University, partly to counter the dated and generally distorted picture that the Thernstroms have derived from the exaggerated accounts of right-wing ideologues about the controversy over multicultural curriculum reform at Stanford almost a decade ago. In 1996 the Stanford Faculty Senate voted unanimously to continue affirmative action—a pointed response to the decision of the University of California Board of Regents to end it in state institutions. The drive to make the curriculum more multicultural has led to the development of a program on Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity that has brought various ethnic studies programs, including both Jewish and African-American studies, together in the same interdepartmental program, with the aim of stimulating group interactions and the search for common perspectives. ↩