The three books under review address black–white relations—the most urgent and intractable domestic problem the United States faces today and has suffered from throughout its existence. George M. Fredrickson’s short history conforms to the best academic tradition. Detached in tone, it carefully defines “racism,” and goes on to discuss how it originated in late medieval Europe, emerged in Iberia, took root in the New World, rose to a virulent climax in the first half of the twentieth century in Germany and in the United States, and still persists, though “it is less intense and intellectually respectable than it was a century or even a half-century ago.” The two other books under review, by Glenn C. Loury and David Brion Davis, are admirable in a different way, combining subtle analysis and argument with moral fervor. Neither, though, comes up with anything resembling a practical recipe for overcoming the racial divide in the United States—or elsewhere in the world for that matter.
Both Fredrickson and Davis are distinguished American historians whose earlier books also dealt principally with race relations. Their erudition is correspondingly impressive. The books of both are a sort of summation of their respective historical studies. Fredrickson has distilled and broadened his comparative historical work of many years. Davis, instead, has gathered twenty-six recent essays together, nineteen of which were first published in The New York Review of Books, and has written a new, autobiographical introduction to explain their cohesion. Loury, by contrast, is an economist by training, who, after a conspicuous and volatile academic and public career, concludes in The Anatomy of Racial Equality that the past shapes the present so powerfully that private choice and market behavior cannot be trusted to correct existing wrongs, as he once supposed. His knowledge of the past is far scantier than that of the two historians; but the fact that he is black gives his account of present-day conditions a poignancy and power that not even Davis quite matches.
Fredrickson’s short book deals with the rise and fall of anti-Jewish and anti-black racism in Europe and America, with a side glance at South Africa. The term “racism,” he tells us, only entered historical discourse in the 1920s. In his introduction, he writes,
I pay particular attention [in the appendix] to how investigations of anti-Semitism and white su-premacy have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. In the main body of the book I attempt an extensive comparison of the historical development over the past six centuries of these two most prominent expressions of Western racism. (To my knowledge no one has previously attempted such a study.)
In both instances, Fredrickson deftly combines intellectual with social and political history to explain the emergence of racism and its recent decline. The result is subtle and persuasive. Surveying religious prejudice and other forerunners of racism in late medieval and early modern times, he points out how the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century prepared the way for racism: “Paradoxical as it may seem, the rejection of hierarchy as the governing principle of social and political organization, and its replacement by the aspiration for equality in this world as well as in the eyes of God, had to occur before racism could come to full flower.” And again, in the 1880s, as soon as anti-Semitism became a distinct political movement in Germany, “like the Democrats in the southern United States, the German Conservatives learned that racism could be used, whenever expedient or necessary, to steal the thunder of their populist rivals and keep themselves in firm control.” The book concludes with the following observation:
Grasping for one’s identity in a world that threatens to reduce everyone who is not part of the elite to a low-paid worker or a consumer of cheap mass-produced commodities creates a hunger for meaning and a sense of self-worth that can most easily be satisfied by a consciousness of race or religion. Race offers less of a haven to the alienated and disenchanted than it once did, because of the worldwide campaign against it that was one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. But absolutist religion retains its appeal, and to the extent that it becomes militant and politicized, it has the potential to become the twenty-first century’s principal source of intergroup conflict and aggression.
So in Fredrickson’s view, human conflict, violence, and injustice persist indefinitely into the future, since even if racism may be in decline, other group identities—especially religious ones—are likely to intensify their hold on popular feeling, strengthening themselves in the age-old way by treating everyone else as dangerously different. Yet he says nothing about nationalism, the most virulent cause of human violence across the past two hundred years. Perhaps nationalism remains sacred in the United States, or very nearly so, just because in principle and to a large extent also in practice it unites privileged elites with Fredrickson’s “alienated and disenchanted” classes. Moreover, as none of these three distinguished authors is ready to recognize, the recently expanded role of blacks in the American armed forces suggests that nationalism and the armed conflicts with external enemies that it sustains might have the effect of diminishing black–white frictions within American civil society. It is worth recalling that President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces, and the experiences of integrated combat units in the Korean War, preceded the civil rights movement in the South.
In any case, it seems to me that Fredrickson’s learned and elegant essay, together with both of the other books under review, by excluding warfare from their consideration, miss the full breadth of intergroup conflict and cooperation, of which black–white relations within the United States are only a part.
Loury introduces his book as “a meditation on the problem of racial inequality in the United States.” His meditation takes off with rigorous logic from three axioms: (1) race is a social convention; (2) racial disparity is a social artifact; (3) the historical fact of slavery embedded racial “otherness” in American consciousness. He then argues that racial stereotypes are often self-confirming so that “durable racial inequality” arises from “vicious circles of cumulative causation.” Ordinary human beings “‘create facts’ about race, even as they remain blind to their ability to unmake those facts and oblivious to the moral implications of their handiwork.”
The result is what Loury calls social stigma:
As we encounter one another in social space, we perceive the physical markings on one another’s bodies and go on to play our respective parts, enacting scripts written long before we were born…. For when that “other” being encountered in American society is black, and when there is a question of her fitness for intimacy, taboos and suspicions—long in the making and difficult to acknowledge or confront—come quickly to the fore…. Here we enter the territory of racial stigma, of dishonorable meanings socially inscribed on arbitrary bodily marks, of “spoiled collective identities.”
Racial dishonor, he later explains, means “an entrenched if inchoate presumption of inferiority, of moral inadequacy, of unfitness for intimacy, of intellectual incapacity.” In short, “withholding of the presumption of equal humanity is the ultimate mechanism of racism in American public life.”
It follows that we should react to what he calls “behavioral problems” of the “so-called black underclass…as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. This is an American tragedy. It is a national, not merely a communal disgrace.” He concludes: “In truth, the moral failing here lies with those who would wash their hands of the poor, declaring ‘we’ve done all we can.'”
I find Loury thoroughly convincing about the social construction of racial stereotypes and their devastating human consequences. My own experiences of living for forty years in the racially mixed neighborhood of Hyde Park in the midst of Chicago’s black ghetto confirm everything he has to say about how stereotypes are generated, transmitted across generations, and sustain racial inequality and injustice. Loury himself grew up on Chicago’s South Side, so we share that awkward experience. But when he gets to his final chapter I find his prescription for betterment patently inadequate.
He declares that racial justice ought to take precedence over race blindness, so paradoxically “the ultimate moral irrelevance of race in our society may require functional attention by administrative personnel to the racial composition of the learning environment. Whether, and to what extent, this may be so is a prudential, not a principled, question. It cannot be resolved a priori.” This amounts to a mealy-mouthed endorsement of affirmative action—a measure he had formerly opposed—to bring more blacks into managerial roles in our society until such time as the American public begins actually to believe that we are one nation, indivisible. But, he thinks, more is needed:
On this view, achieving the elusive goal of racial justice requires that we undertake, as a conscious goal of policy, to eliminate the objective disparity in economic and social capacity between the race-segregated networks of affiliation that continue to characterize the social structure of American public life, and that constitute the most morally disturbing remnant of the nation’s tortured racial past.
But Loury simply does not say how conscious policy can ever expect to disrupt the “race-segregated networks” that now entrap innumerable youths in self-destructive behavior in the black ghettoes of our cities. What we used to call “urban renewal” in Hyde Park, if undertaken on an unprecedentedly widespread scale, might indeed redistribute the black underclass across urban landscapes and break it up into scattered fragments. But would that heal the gap between black and white? I doubt it. Many poor blacks would resist official efforts to change their accustomed ways of life; and whites would most certainly nullify the intended effect of such extensive social engineering until or unless some miracle persuaded them to welcome lower-class blacks into their own distinctive social networks.
The convincing arguments Loury makes concerning the historical transmission of prejudice and the vicious circle of self-confirming stereotypes surely contradict his assertion that deliberate policy must somehow crucially build on moral exhortation—“What manner of people are WE who accept such degradation in our midst?”—to alter prevailing beliefs and behavior on both sides of the racial divide.
Yet I must also confess that what Loury has to say challenges my own behavior when I lived on Chicago’s South Side. My policy was to try to treat blacks and whites evenhandedly and as I would wish to be treated myself. This meant leaving other people alone unless I had particular business with them; and as a professor, my business was almost wholly with students and colleagues. A few of them were black and I did not go out of my way to cultivate them. Letting each person, black or white, sink or swim in pursuit of personal goals seemed to me the right thing to do, allowing everyone full autonomy and scope for personal idiosyncrasy. It also safeguarded time and energy for my own intellectual and professional pursuits. This worked pretty well in my relations with members of the black elite on our campus, but it had the effect of insulating me almost entirely from the many lower- class blacks living around us.
My sons had a different experience, since, when they were young, they played with a few poor and venturesome black boys on the block where we lived. But one fateful day when my elder son showed up with a prized new baseball mitt, one of his black playmates ran off with it. Theft was a new experience for him and with the iron logic of childhood he concluded that playing with black boys was not safe. My wife and I tried to convince him that most black boys were not thieves, but thereafter he and his white friends were always on guard when playing with blacks; and a year or two afterward everyday human contact across the racial barrier broke off entirely.
That was because, when puberty set in, the two black gangs that divided Hyde Park between them asserted their claim to the allegiance of black youths. From about the age of thirteen, belonging either to the Blackstone Rangers or to the Disciples—depending on which side of Woodlawn Avenue one lived on—was not a free choice for young black males. By tacit agreement white youths were wholly excluded and never recruited, but, for young blacks, refusal to join risked bodily injury. Yet joining meant submitting to a strictly enforced and disastrously shortsighted discipline, since its core principle was to require gang members to prove their manhood by defying teachers, parents, policemen, and other adult authorities.
As a result, from puberty onward many young blacks on Chicago’s South Side stopped even trying to conform to the hopes and expectations of their teachers or anyone else who was older than themselves. Short-term satisfactions from being respected and feared by one’s fellows—more specifically by the rival gang on the other side of Woodlawn Avenue—came only at the cost of gun fights, and occasional injuries or even death. Making a living by hunting and gathering on the streets, with the prospect of eventually working up to shaking down storekeepers, selling drugs, and engaging in random holdups, was precarious at best, and risked arrest and imprisonment. Not a good life, certainly, and a short one for many.
Yet once that life was embraced, the obvious alternative was taking an unskilled, low-paying job. Even when there was a chance of getting hired in the first place, humbly conforming to an employer’s wishes in order to keep such jobs was understandably unattractive. What a trap to fall into! Yet this, or something very like it, was normal on Chicago’s South Side. I observed what was happening, regretted what I saw, and did nothing about it other than be cautious when walking the streets, once handing over my wallet meekly when two young black men accosted me in the dark. All too obviously, separate and drastically unequal black and white life patterns prevailed around me. Intermingling, as we did, on the streets of Hyde Park simply emphasized the gap. And trying to behave equably made no difference, since the blacks with whom I did have extended personal encounters were those who came from elsewhere and had already begun to climb the educational ladder with more than usual success.
How then to respond to Loury’s summons to a “broader and more comprehensive moral vision” and commitment to “race-egalitarianism”? In my own case, I feel regret at my personal acquiescence in the tragedy that took place around me. But what was the alternative? Abandoning my professional career to preach the gospel of racial egalitarianism? That would have seemed to me as unattractive—and as futile—a choice as accepting humble jobs must have seemed to gang members in much worse conditions. The boundary between actual helpfulness and self-righteous interference is fuzzy at best; and a white man who presumes to tell young black men how to conduct their lives (or anyone else for that matter) is almost sure to exude repulsive condescension. I remained puzzled and sad, unable to see any sort of solution, yet uncomfortable now in recollecting that I did not even try to reach across the racial gap.
My disquiet is reinforced by knowing that moral crusades and religiously motivated reform movements were critical in abolishing slavery in the nineteenth century, as David Brion Davis shows in his most famous books, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823, and Slavery and Human Progress. As the title of his collected essays, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery, indicates, Davis himself is an unabashed and emphatic moral crusader, seeing “racial slavery and its consequences as the basic reality, the grim and irrepressible theme governing the settlement of the Western hemisphere and the emergence of a government and society in the United States that white people have called ‘free.'”
Religious questions have long concerned him. He begins the autobiographical introduction to this book by declaring: “On May 5, 1988, at the age of sixty-one, I converted to Judaism after a year of required study and passing an oral examination by three rabbis (a Bet din or rabbinical court).” This unusual conversion, he tells us, came after a lifetime of philosophical and religious angst. Having been raised by agnostic parents, he reacted very strongly to two of Reinhold Niebuhr’s books when he was an undergraduate. They persuaded him that a “totally ‘other’ Creator,” who was nonetheless somehow accessible to human beings, opened the possibility of “self-transcendence.” But selfish, transitory, and finite human personalities hindered self-transcendence, through various sins, and especially the sin of pride. “The archetype of this sin of pride and contempt for others, I later concluded, was human slavery, especially racial slavery.”
If so, the abolition of slavery meant overcoming one of the major public expressions of sin, perhaps even achieving collective self-transcendence. Accordingly, he devoted most of his professional career to investigating exactly how that happened. Not surprisingly, his central conclusion, as rephrased in one of the essays reprinted in this new collection, was that the antislavery movement “cannot be reduced to economic self-interest. The popular hostility to slavery that arose almost simultaneously in England and in parts of the United States drew on traditions of natural law and a revivified sense of the image of God in man.”
The twenty-six separate essays of The Image of God show that Davis is exceedingly learned and sophisticated in his review of a wide variety of books, most of which deal with slavery and its abolition. His own analysis of how religious ideas intertwined with self-interest and other sensibilities to allow Abolitionists to prevail seems masterly to me. And, like Fredrickson and Loury, Davis is acutely aware that ending slavery did not establish racial justice or equality in the United States. In his perceptive essay on Frederick Douglass he writes:
No other leader was so sanguine on the prospects for racial equality and racial integration, or so convinced that these goals were part of a more general struggle for women’s rights, temperance, and social uplift. The very qualities that made Douglass such an effective and eloquent critic in the pre-emancipation era have rendered his legacy increasingly open to question.
“It should now be clear,” he says,
that market forces and moral exhortations are insufficient to improve the quality of urban life and of the potential urban labor force. Only a huge, coordinated program, guided by unprecedented imagination and sensitivity, can provide the jobs, the skills, and ultimately the incentives that are needed to overcome America’s historical “curse,” including its pathology of race, and make full use of the nation’s human resources.
He then adds: “No doubt such words will sound naive and dated,” but “contrary to much popular writing, the gains made by most African Americans in the last fifty years are little short of miraculous when judged by the standards of the preceding century.” Yet, he continues,
Just when the rise of a substantial black middle class was beginning to create more positive racial stereotypes for whites, the aimless rebellion of black ghetto gangs and the callous cutbacks in federal social and economic programs had the combined effect of restoring racial fears to the center of attention…. We seem, in other words, to have entered another period when race has preempted class. Perhaps Americans will never overcome their endemic pathology of race until they are finally able to confront the underlying reality of class divisions in America and the destructive myth [that America is] a classless society.
How recognizing class differences would concretely improve race relations is unclear to me. I conclude that Davis, like Fredrickson and Loury, convincingly explores the nastiness of America’s race relations but offers no plausible cure. Yet history never stands still. Change is certain; and perhaps moral fervor, rooted in religion, of the sort that lurks behind Loury’s and Davis’s pages, can, in some circumstances, be a better instrument for hastening, even guiding, change than the cool, detached analysis one finds in Fredrickson.*
All the same, I distrust dogmatic, emotionally powerful religion. It is as likely to divide as to unite, just as Fredrickson says, and as the Black Muslims on Chicago’s South Side convincingly demonstrated. For many years I lived within a block of Elijah Mohammed’s mosque in Chicago. Each Sunday (not Friday in those times) his congregation parked their cars up and down the block in front of our house, and if by chance I walked by, they systematically avoided eye contact, looking instead at my midriff. This established an eerie distance between us, deliberately I presume; and hearsay about Elijah Mohammed’s preaching confirmed that intent.
Yet it was also true that the Black Muslims’ effort to isolate themselves from whites encouraged pride and self-reliance—exactly the traits required to escape from the stereotypes of white superiority pervading American society. At the same time, the uniforms and military bearing of Elijah Mohammed’s corps of young men, “The Fruit of Islam,” embodied a threat (or promise?) of how their faith might someday express itself in organized violence—whether for self-defense or on the attack, who could tell? Watching sullen, stalwart, uniformed men climb out of their cars Sunday after Sunday was a chilling reminder that something dreadful might happen if a chance incident suddenly unleashed their strength and anger. But fortunately for us, rioting never broke out in Hyde Park, and eventually the Black Muslims acquired a larger building further south where whites did not live close by, and where a more orthodox form of Islam gradually made headway among Elijah Mohammed’s successors.
My own opinion is that every human group, when seeking to consolidate internal cohesion, strengthens itself most effectually by engaging in conflicts with its outside rivals. Yet overall and across long periods of time, arrangements for accommodation and cooperation among different and rival groups prevail, simply because cooperation—sometimes willing, but often forcibly imposed—sustains the collective generation of wealth and power that most people prefer to their opposites. Disputes over how to distribute such wealth are perpetual; and cooperation on one scale always creates or intensifies conflict on another. That is why the race problem within American society may diminish if black manpower becomes vital in wartime; and why moral exhortation, even if rooted in religious conviction, is unlikely to make much difference, unless, or until, other Americans feel that joint action with blacks is needed for success in some sort of external conflict.
The racial divide among us is too deeply rooted to dissolve quickly, or to be deliberately suppressed by any democratically acceptable public policy. Stereotypes are powerful and perpetuate themselves on city streets through personal encounters like those of my sons when playing with their black neighbors in Hyde Park. This seems a universal tendency in urban life, since diverse strangers, by congregating in cities, generate local group differences and rivalries. If kept in check by law and custom, such frictions can be uncomfortably bearable, even though exact alignments and the intensity of collisions among rival, jostling groups fluctuate perpetually.
In the United States, as Davis and Fredrickson point out, race relations have in fact changed recently inasmuch as a good many blacks have made real advances since 1950, and the black middle class has become considerably larger. Perhaps in years to come the damaging consequences of youthful defiance of adult expectations and adult authority may become apparent to those most immediately concerned, and begin to ebb away by means of individual choices and the example of those blacks who pursued and profited from high school and college education. But only slowly, I believe, will such processes relieve the situation. In the meanwhile, my own morally flabby resort to distant politeness across class and racial boundaries can have no perceptibly soothing effect, but at least did not make things worse.
May 23, 2002
According to Adam Shatz, “Glenn Loury’s About Face,” The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2002, Loury was baptized late in the 1980s into a black church, after being “caught up into the rapture of these services where people were falling to the floor.” ↩