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Austin American-Statesman
November 2, 1997

Across the racial divide

Susan S. Richardson

America In Black And White: One Nation, Indivisible'
by Stephan and Abigail Thernstorm
Simon & Schuster, $32. 50

The Ordeal Of Integration: Progress And Resentment In America's Racial Crisis'
By Orlando Patterson
Counterpoint, $24. 50

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafete Ria?: And Other Conversations About Race'
By Beverly Daniel Tatum
BasicBooks, $24

President Clinton's faltering national dialogue on race reflects the rut in which American society finds itself more than 40 years after desegregation efforts began.

Many Americans don't appear to know where or how to begin a new dialogue on an old, unresolved issue. Yet strident race theorists and traditional conservative and liberal thinkers have hijacked discussions of political, economic and social differences between blacks and whites. The strident views of race theorists, both so-called Afrocentric scholars who promote black racial superiority and white theorists who promote black inferiority, are poisoning the common waters we must dive into for solutions.

Books purporting to point the way out of our current stalemate are popping up like dandelions. These new tomes represent a range of opinions (and levels of scholarship) on what Gunnar Myrdal called an American dilemma'' in his ground-breaking 1944 book on race.

Three new books are notable for their attempt to escape the usual snares in writing about black-white relations: America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible,'' by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, The Ordeal of Integration,'' by Orlando Patterson and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?'' by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Together the books explore the concept of racial identity, economic and educational differences between blacks and whites and the use of affirmative action as a suitable remedy for discrimination. The conclusions and approaches in the books are different, from the individuals-can-make-a-difference tone in Tatum's book to the comprehensive research yet ambiguous conclusions in the Thernstroms' book to the intellectual public policy timbre of Patterson's book.

In America in Black and White,'' the Thernstroms, scholars in politics and sociology, counter the dismal outlook of racial pessimists who say race relations are reverting to those of pre-1954 America. (That year the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal'' schools were unconstitutional, opening the doors to civil rights-era changes. )

In their lengthy book, they dispel the naysayers with a sweeping review of civil rights-era laws, coupled with statistics on black progress. The growth of the black middle class, the increase in college-bound blacks, the narrowing gap between white and black income and the desegregation of schools and neighborhoods herald significant social changes, the Thernstroms state.

Because affirmative action has been successful in creating a black middle class, the authors conclude that colorblind policies can now be employed to address lingering black-white inequities in academic testing and other areas.

(We have) let the underclass define our notion of black America; it is a very misleading picture,'' the Thernstroms conclude.

They see an either-or syndrome when it comes to reporting on African Americans: There is no racism; there is nothing but race. ''

However, they fail to broach what is at the heart of black and white dissonance on issues, startlingly evident in the reaction to the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial, and perceptions of racial progress.

Racial identity politics have gained a foothold mong many African Americans, expressed in their willingness to champion all-black schools, says Patterson. Like the Thernstroms, he considers this a retreat to the separate but equal'' schools of the past.

Patterson, however, attempts to dissect its political implications: Afro-American identity rhetoric and race-conscious policies not only have negative educational consequences but play straight into the hands of the most reactionary political forces in society. ''

Patterson doesn't oppose affirmative action. Instead he urges the continuation of the programs for at least 15 years; then they should be replaced with class-based programs. While the black middle class has benefited from affirmative action, the black underclass, the bottom one-third of the African American community, remains stuck, the Harvard sociology professor notes.

Simultaneously, he promotes racial intermarriage as a solution to the faulty concept of race.

All the authors agree that race is a social and political concept that has no connection to biological differences among human beings. As such, the concept itself promotes divisions.

However, Tatum, a psychologist who specializes in the development of racial identity in African Americans, is reluctant to minimize the social significance of race. The title of her book, which argues that we must challenge racial differences to overcome them, speaks to a common sight in integrated corporations and schools: the self-segregation'' of groups based on race.

As teens struggle with identity, one of the most obvious things they focus on is race because they begin to notice they are being treated differently . . . Kids of color are going to connect with other kids who will identify with their experience and validate it,'' the author writes.

All groups join together, Tatum says, as a safeguard against hostile'' institutions and cultures.

At the end of her book, Tatum offers resources (books, groups) on breaking racial barriers. This leaves readers with a sense of personal duty to work on overcoming racism daily.

It is a much more empowering conclusion than the Thernstroms and Patterson offer readers.

Interrupting racism is a long-term commitment and we must sustain ourselves for the long haul,'' Tatum says.

Reviewer Richardson An American-Statesman Edito Rial Writer.

© 1997 Austin American-Statesman

Visit the America in Black and White webpage



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