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September 20, 1997

America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible

Samway, Patrick H.

If too many americans feel that inadequate race relations have been a lingering battle on our own shores, they might take heart from reading America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 677p.), by Stephan Thernstrom, the Bancroft Prize-winning Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard and editor of The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, and his wife, Abigail, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City and author of Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. According to the Thernstroms, the prevailing pessimism about the status of African Americans and the state of race relations in the United States is not justified by the facts, which show that the lives of most African Americans have improved dramatically over the past five years, in spite of statistics indicating that the proportion of blacks in poverty is still triple that of whites, that the unemployment rate for black males is double that of the white rate and that the rate of death among blacks from homicide is six times higher than in the white community. Two-thirds of all black infants are now born to unmarried women, and only 35 percent of black children live with two parents. But stressing the bad news distorts the overall picture of enormous progress.

  America in Black and White asserts that we are not splitting into two nations, separate and unequal, but instead are painfully groping toward a more just and cohesive society. In fact, the authors state that we will reach our goals (measured by years of schooling completed, occupational levels, median incomes, life expectancy at birth, poverty rates and home ownership rates) faster if we abandon policies like affirmative action that have not accomplished their objectives but have instead heightened racial consciousness and conflict. 

According to the Thernstroms, Americans argue without a common language: "We quarrel with the left—its going-nowhere picture of black America and white racial attitudes. But we also quarrel with the right—its see-no-evil view. It seems extraordinarily hard for liberals to say we have come a long way; the Jim Crow South is not the South of 1997. But it seems very hard for conservatives to say, yes, there was a terrible history of racism in this country, and too much remains." By documenting our racial problems and progress using the tools of the historian and the social scientist, the Thernstroms offer a framework for productive debate, in the hope that if we understand the territory we can better decide the direction to take. Just as Gunnar Myrdal's The American Dilemma was full of hope, so too the Thernstroms' book rests on an optimistic premise. 

© 1997 America

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