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Austin American-Statesman
September 8, 1997

Remarkable progress on race has been made

Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON—It is always comforting when new research confirms one's findings on a controversial subject, and that happened last week with the appearance of an important new book on race relations in America.

Much more racial progress has occurred in the past two decades than is fully realized. Despite periodic racial eruptions triggered by some crime or injustice, the overriding fact remains that there have been sweeping, positive social changes in America that have lifted the lives of millions of minorities.

Unfortunately, these positive changes and trends are rarely reported by the national network news organizations, which all too often have distorted issues having to do with race. The subject is a complex one with many layers.

It is a subject too often driven by social mythology and racial generalizations. For example, most minority families are not poor. Onethird of all black families are upper income (that is, above the median income range), one-third are right in the middle range, and one-third are poor and low income.

Perhaps the most underreported and yet socially significant change going on today is the migration of central-city minorities to the suburbs.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau figures, 51 percent of Asians live in suburban communities, 43 percent of Hispanics and one-third of all black families. This migration has been especially strong over the past two decades. When the next census is taken in three years, it will show a more dramatic movement of minorities out of the cities in the '90s.

Equally important, these are integrated suburbs. More than one-third of the black population lived in integrated neighborhoods in 1990 and the trend is accelerating, according to Brookings Institution scholar Ingrid Gould Ellen. The number of households, both white and black, living in integrated communities grew markedly between 1970 and 1980, and even faster between 1980 and 1990,'' she found.

Other studies have found similar increases in the nation's racial integration, all of it largely driven not by government programs, but by hard-working Americans climbing the economic ladder, buying their dream home in the suburbs, and building a better life for themselves and their children.

The point is simply that our free-market economy still works, that this is not a racially divided society that is engaged in a cultural war, but an increasingly integrated, upwardly-mobile country in which most people are getting along just fine.

These observations are confirmed by a new book by Harvard Professor Stephen Thernstrom and his wife, Abigail, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, titled America In Black And White: One Nation Indivisible.''

Contrary to the pessimistic belief that America is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,'' the famous conclusion contained in a 1968 presidential commission on race relations, the Thernstroms have found that we are more integrated and more racially united than ever. Racial progress is threatened more by poor, misconceived policies (such as affirmative action) than by bigotry, they say.

They spent seven years writing their book, and its chief findings include:

*The quality of life for black Americans has improved dramatically by just about every possible measure of social and economic achievement.'' They note that one third of all blacks live in the suburbs, double the number in 1970. Black ghettos are a dwindling feature of urban life,'' says the Manhattan Institute.

*Race relations overall have improved markedly. Their studies found that four out of five black Americans and three out of four white Americans can identify a good friend of the other race, where 20 years earlier only one in five blacks and one in 10 whites could say the same.''

*Affirmative action and other racial preferences and social welfare policies have not been the reasons for this progress. They found that the growth of the black middle class long predates the adoption of race-conscious social policies.'' If anything, these policies have been conspicuous failures.

In the era of affirmative action (the past quarter century), the proportion of African Americans with incomes below the poverty line has remained almost unchanged''—after nose-diving from 87 percent to 30 percent in earlier decades, they point out.

In a media-driven era when myths and muddled thinking have distorted too much of our perceptions of who and where we are as a nation, the Thernstrom's book shines some desperately needed light on race relations in America. We still have a long way to go, but the remarkable progress we've made needs to be more widely reported—and understood.

Lambro is a political columnist based in Washington, D.C. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.

© 1997 Austin American-Statesman

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