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The American Spectator
Up From Gunnar Myrdal
America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible :by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom
reviewed by Kenneth S. Lynn Kenneth; Kenneth S. Lynn is the author most recently of Charlie Chaplin and His Times (Simon & Schuster).
America in Black and White, by Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute, is a richly factual, rigorously analytical, profoundly humane account of the changing status of black Americans and of black-white relations since the early 1940's. As a comprehensive survey of the issues of race in America, the only achievement that deserves mention in the same breath with the Thernstroms' is the Gunnar Myrdal classic, An American Dilemma (1944). To make a different sort of comparison, there are a good many scholars nowadays who have tabulated valuable data on black attitudes, occupations, education levels, and so on. But when it comes to grinding the numbers and commenting on their significance, the range of the Thernstroms' statistical assemblages and the power of their interpretations of them place America in Black and White in a class by itself.
Out of the hundreds of cogent observations in their historical conspectus, let me begin with this one: black anger and white surrender have become a staple of contemporary racial discourse. As an example of this deplorable development the authors cite the interesting exhibit of black life on Southern plantations that opened at the Library of Congress in 1995. A black employee of the Library was so upset by the sight of an 1895 photo of an armed white man on a horse looking down on black cotton pickers that he "couldn't look at the rest of the exhibit." It reminded him, he ranted, "of white overseers here at the Library...looking down over us to make sure we're doing our work." When other black employees echoed this sentiment, the Library's white leadership closed down the exhibit forthwith. In the light of such anecdotes, it seems altogether likely that when the Thernstroms began their research eight years ago, they did so in the knowledge that angry black intellectuals would someday write destructive reviews of America in Black and White, and that surrender-prone white writers and editors would aid and abet these outbursts. For while an uncritical faith in affirmative action formulas had become orthodoxy in academia and other redoubts of the highly educated, the Thernstroms had remained steadfastly committed to the ideal of a race-transcendent America.
The first manifestation of an angry black/white surrender desire to discredit America in Black and White erupted, startlingly enough, a full two months before the book's formal publication date in an equally startling venue: Harvard Magazine, which is normally dedicated to saying nice things about Harvard professors. The person who was responsible for the nastily premature release of the review was the magazine's editor, John S. Rosenberg, and it was Rosenberg as well who picked as the reviewer a known enemy of the Thernstroms.
Christopher Edley, Jr. is a black professor at Harvard Law School and a self -proclaimed policy wonk who worked for a time in the Clinton White House as special counsel to the president and who in 1995, in collaboration with George Stephanopoulos and with considerable fanfare, undertook a review of the government's affirmative action programs. The review was prompted by the political needs of Bill Clinton that had arisen out of the Supreme Court's decision in Adarand Constructors v. Pena. For Adarand had had the effect of threatening all federal programs that used racial and ethnic criteria for decision-making. Edley and Stephanopoulos promised that their review would be "candid and balanced," and that the report of their investigations would contain a set of policy recommendations. In the end, though, they did not finger a single program for elimination. In the opinion of the Thernstroms, the arguments in the Edley-Stephanopoulos report were "shoddy"—as editor Rosenberg could have learned from even a cursory examination of the bound galleys of America in Black and White.
When Edley's review proved to be an assault on the Thernstroms as well as on their book, did Rosenberg have second thoughts about publishing it? Alternatively, did it occur to him to ask Edley to tone down his ad hominem remarks, such as his characterization of Abigail Thernstrom not as the scholarly author of an award-winning study of affirmative action and minority voting rights that the Supreme Court had taken note of, but as a "conservative policy provocateur," or his wild suggestion that the Thernstroms' commitment to democratic values in general and to reasoned deliberation in particular was weak? The answer to both those questions is another question. If Rosenberg had dared to monkey with Edley's piece, would he have been publicly accused of racism? Possibly the answer to that question may be found in a revealing indication in the review of the heat of Edley's temper: "Someone of my general persuasion will read this book and have the following experience literally dozens of times. You read two or three seemingly reasonable paragraphs and then you hit something that just boils your blood...."
What was the legacy of the Jim Crow South? the Thernstroms ask at the end of their somberly recapitulative first chapter. It had been Myrdal's belief that the impact of slavery followed by eight decades of segregation and white supremacy could be seen in the "distorted" and "pathological" nature of black communal life. By his hammer-like insistence on the damage suffered by an utterly helpless people, the Thernstroms observe, Myrdal sought to arouse the American conscience to the need for a major effort to promote racial justice. Among the subsequent measures of the strength of his indictment was the prominence of An American Dilemma in the NAACP's armamentarium of arguments when it called on the Supreme Court to outlaw racially segregated schools, and another was the favorable citation of the book in the Court's unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). No one, however, adopted Myrdal's damage thesis more fervently than the novelist Richard Wright, for Wright's best -selling novel, Native Son (1940), had also presented black life as a tale of unmitigated oppression that had drained the Negro of every ounce of personal autonomy and independence.
The Thernstroms' opinion, on the other hand, is that Myrdal's discussion of the pathology of black life was "the least satisfactory part of his great survey of the 'American Dilemma.'" Only two of his forty-five chapters, they point out, were devoted to the institutions and culture that defined "the Negro Community," as he called it. These chapters, moreover, revealed him as "tone deaf to religion." In support of their criticism, the Thernstroms invoke an eloquent review of An American Dilemma, written by Ralph Ellison at the behest of the Antioch Review some seven years before the appearance of Ellison's fictional masterpiece, Invisible Man (1951), but never published, perhaps because—the Thernstroms speculate—"it ran counter to prevailing white liberal orthodoxy." While Ellison was impressed by Myrdal's book in a number of ways, he found it impossible to embrace its core proposition that the most important characteristics of black Americans were largely "marks of oppression." "Can a people live and develop for over three hundred years," Ellison asked, "simply by reacting?...Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma?"
But the most telling rebuke of the deuteragonistic conception of blacks as putty in the hands of white racists came from contemporary historical events. At the very moment that Myrdal was basking in the praise of his book the South was in the throes of remarkable change, to which black initiative was contributing significantly. The superheated war economy and the very tight labor market of the early 1940's had triggered a massive movement by blacks from the Southern countryside into Southern cities. Jim Crow racial bars remained high in Southern industry, the Thernstroms make clear, and blacks were hired only as a last resort. In such a labor-hungry economy, however, employers often had no choice, and when that was the case black as well as white newcomers to town found factory gates open to them. Between 1940 and 1945, the figures in America in Black and White show, the farm population of the South fell by 20 percent, while the number of urban residents increased by almost 30 percent, a rate of growth unparalleled elsewhere in the country.
Meantime, a flood-tide of black people was sweeping northwards in a flow that would last for thirty years. Between 1940 and the end of the 1950's, over 3 million blacks left the South, and another 1.4 million did the same in the 1960's. This Second Great Migration, so-called, has received less attention from historians than the First Great Migration of the World War I era, but as the Thernstroms emphasize in italics, the second was four times the size of the first. During the 1940's, more than one-third of all young blacks in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina departed for the North. In the South as a whole, 26 percent of the black population aged 20 to 24 headed north between 1940 and 1950, and another 25 percent followed suit in the next ten years. As a consequence, the black population of Michigan rose a staggering 113 percent in the 1940's and another 62 percent in the 1950's. Illinois experienced rises of 67 percent and 61 percent, and for the state of New York the figures were 61 percent and 51 percent.
In a particularly instructive passage, the Thernstroms point out that blacks not only shared the general prosperity of the war and the immediate postwar years, they advanced at a faster rate than whites, albeit from a lower starting position. As a result, between 1940 and 1960 "the economic gap between the races narrowed with greater speed than in any comparably short span of years since then." At the same time, black life expectancy rose by 10.5 years, while the proportion of blacks completing high school more than tripled. Through the marshaling of such numbers, the Thernstroms underscore the pivotal importance of the 1940's and 1950's in the drama of black American life—and undermine, not incidentally, a cherished liberal myth. For the truth of the matter is that "it is too often assumed that the significant advances blacks have made in modern times all occurred in the 1960's and after, and that they were the result of civil rights protest and federal legislation provoked by that protest."
Thanks to their meticulous command of a vast array of primary and secondary sources on race in America, the Thernstroms have been able to enliven even the most familiar aspects of their chronicle with fresh details. All well -informed students of American politics know, for instance, that in the early years of his political career John F. Kennedy's responses to the civil-rights aspirations of blacks in the South were marked by timidity. But how many political aficionados know that in 1956, when Kennedy made a bid for the vice presidential nomination, he was so pleased at his success in winning the support of the Southern white establishment that he confided to the New York Times reporter and longtime Kennedy family friend Arthur Krock that "I'm going to sing Dixie for the rest of my life"? If this information had come out in the racially tense years of his presidency, rather than long afterwards in an oral history interview with Krock, "it would have been political dynamite," the Thernstroms observe.
Even more interesting than this insight into Kennedy's outright indifference to black pleas for support are the snapshots of the American mind that the Thernstroms present at the conclusion of their account of the civil-rights battles of the early 1960's. Within the priesthood of political activism that the Rev. Jesse Jackson typifies, the common assumption is that it took such events as the televised brutality of Bull Connor and the passive resistance of courageous protesters to melt the hearts and open the minds of white America. With the aid, however, of polling data drawn from William G. Mayer's The Changing American Mind (1993), the Thernstroms demonstrate that white racial attitudes had been undergoing a radical transformation for at least two decades prior to the battle of Birmingham. In 1942, 30 percent of white Americans nationwide thought that black students and white students should go to the same schools. By 1956, 49 percent thought they should, and by 1963 62 percent did. The opinion that there should not be separate sections for Negroes on streetcars and buses steadily climbed in these years from 44 to 60 to 79 percent (and among white Southerners from 4 to 27 to 52 percent). In 1942, 35 percent of white Americans nationwide declared that it would not make any difference to them if a Negro with the same income and education moved into their block; in 1956, 51 percent said it would be okay; and as of 1963 the number totaled 64 percent. Meantime, pro-integration responses from white Southerners about a black on their block rose from 12 to 38 to 51 percent.
Perhaps the performances of tremendously talented black players in major -league baseball and the fact that the Korean War was fought by an integrated American army were responsible in large part for these profound attitudinal shifts. Perhaps, too, the prickings of religious conscience in a nation of churchgoers had an influence—as they certainly did in the case of the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, whose devout Methodist faith not only did not permit him to attend Sunday baseball games, but caused him to look upon the hiring of Jackie Robinson as a moral obligation to treat black players fairly that could no longer be deferred. Unfortunately, the Thernstroms do not seriously address any explanations of the shifts they describe. Nevertheless, one of the rewards of reading America in Black and White is that it enlarges our appreciation of how very many Americans came to realize fairly early in the past half century that while some of their countrymen were racists of varying degrees of intensity, they themselves wished to live in a just and cohesive society.
Four days after the landmark Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965, a riot broke out in the section of South Central Los Angeles known as Watts. Radical-chic enthusiasts automatically sympathized with the rioters; black violence in their view was "authentic," which was a lovely thing to be. But for ordinary Americans, the Thernstroms remind us, Watts "was the beginning of the end of a great deal of hope. Hope, indeed, that has never quite returned." Four consecutive "hot summers" destroyed the unity of the left, revived the Republican Party's ability to compete in national politics, and fueled an upsurge of racial separatism and black power. In addition, 257 cities were shaken by 329 "important" riots, of which the worst—even worse than Watts—was the Detroit riot of 1967, in which more than 7,200 people were arrested, 2 ,500 stores were looted and burned, and 33 blacks and 10 whites were killed.
The Thernstroms agree with the judgment of John David Skrentny in The Ironies of Affirmative Action (1996) that the riots remain "one of the most enigmatic phenomena in American history." To white liberal commentators and black activists, by contrast, the meaning of the riots has always been clear. They were cries of pain about poverty, low wages, unemployment, and hopelessness; they were declarations of black America's refusal to walk peacefully to the gas chambers; they were twentieth century slave revolts. Yet these rhetorical flights simply did not fit the facts of the situation in Detroit, for example, the city that suffered the gravest damage, and the Thernstroms deploy their mastery of facts and figures to prove it. Not only was the Motor City far from being a cockpit of horrendous poverty and wretched slums, it boasted "a very large, affluent, and rapidly growing black middle class." In Detroit's auto industry, flush times were back, and black unemployment stood at 3.4 percent, a figure which the Thernstroms tellingly describe as "lower than the national average for whites in any year since the end of World War II," while the income of the typical black family in Detroit "was a mere 6 percent behind the white average, a smaller racial gap than could be found in any other city in the United States at the time." Furthermore, the home-ownership percentage among Detroit's blacks was the highest in the country, the poverty rate was half of what it was among blacks nationwide, and the mayor of the city, Jerome Cavanagh , was a black liberal who, according to the liberal press, had made great progress in bettering race relations between the police and the residents of black neighborhoods.
Individual cities, the Thernstroms concede, are not islands cut off from one another. Thus, "an acute sense of deprivation in Newark could be felt by blacks in Los Angeles as well." That truth, however, leaves all of the leftist explanations of why the riots occurred still far from credible, as the Thernstroms make clear with searching questions. If the rioters really intended to force white regimes that they regarded as racist to their knees, why were there no marches on City Hall, no sit-ins in mayors' offices or city council chambers? The only authority figures whom the rioters did challenge were the police. Looting and burning stores, however, was an oddly oblique way of challenging their power. Why did the rioters not think of picketing police stations, or of attacking them in the manner, as the Thernstroms colorfully put it, of the storming of the Bastille? Despite myth-making testimony to the contrary, the rioters also failed to focus their destructive fury on white -owned enterprises. If your store had something the rioters wanted, a black merchant in Detroit would recall, "you were going to get looted no matter what color you were." His statement was borne out by objective evidence, one piece of which was that the very first target of the looters was Hardy's Drug Store, which was not only black owned, but renowned for fulfilling prescriptions on credit.
The anarchic self-indulgence of the rioters stampeded the administrators of federal anti-poverty funds into withdrawing money from programs in deprived white areas in order to swell the allocations earmarked for African-American ghettos that had either experienced riots or were deemed to be ready to blow. At one stroke, this redirected largesse fostered habits of dependency in blacks and aroused the resentment of whites. "The Negroes (are getting] all the money ," a politician in Newark complained. What made the issue of rewarding rioters even touchier for whites, the Thernstroms persuasively argue, is that the rate of violent crime in the U.S. had risen by 25 percent between 1960 and 1965, and in the ensuing half decade was in the process of jumping another 82 percent. Inasmuch as young black males were responsible for an inordinately large share of the increase, it is no wonder that they were blamed for it all, and that white backlash against black lawlessness became a new dynamic in American politics.
Nineteen sixty-five, the year of Watts, also witnessed a shift of first -order significance in egalitarian liberal thinking that cast a further shadow on race relations. The shift began with a warning by a young assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that a crisis of discontent among blacks was bound to arise unless the guarantees of their equal-opportunity rights were perceived to be leading to approximately equal results. That President Johnson intended to forestall the emergence of this discontent became evident in a speech he delivered at Howard University. "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,'" Johnson asserted in his resoundingly hyperbolic style. Whether Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, who were living and working in Southern California at the time, were among the men and women of good will who immediately found Johnson's speech troubling, I do not know, but in any event their commentary on it in America in Black and White is blistering:
The president's speech rested on the arguably demeaning premise that African Americans were severely handicapped. Bringing them up to a starting line after years of exclusion was not enough; the rules of competition could not be the same for blacks and whites until they were somehow made equally well equipped to compete. In 1965 few detected the racism implicit in the notion that blacks were too crippled to be judged on their individual merit.
Likewise implicit in that notion was the blunt fact that favoritism to blacks, if pursued beyond the extra efforts to locate overlooked black talent that Johnson seemed to have in mind, would inevitably involve discrimination against whites.
The calamity-breeding 1960's resounded as well with demands for the implementation of school desegregation plans and fair-housing laws. Pushed by Martin Luther King and other outsider spokesmen for disadvantaged urban blacks and backed to the hilt by privileged whites who did not live in the targeted areas and whose children were safely ensconced in private or suburban educational institutions, these social-dynamite designs confronted the white residents of working-class or lower-middle-class neighborhoods with the threat of devastating losses in the value of their homes and the imminent destruction of the concept of the local school. Television and newspaper characterizations of embattled whites as racist oafs heightened the feelings of the residents in such places as Chicago's "Back of the Yards" enclave that federal judges, Washington bureaucrats, and "pointy-headed intellectuals," in George Wallace's words, were intent on wrecking everything they had fought to achieve for themselves and their families.
The Thernstroms conclude the section of their book called "History" with the observation that the election year of 1968 was a racial turning point in two respects. White backlash helped substantially to stem the tide of Democratic liberalism and propel Richard Nixon into the White House. At the same time, ironically, 1968 represented the true beginning of the era of affirmative action and its reverberating consequences. The final two sections of America in Black and White, on recent social, economic, and political trends and on equality and preferences, make such a powerful assessment of developments of the past quarter of a century that they will frame the debate about race in America for years to come.
In the midst of floods of information, we continue to be misled by stereotypes. To many whites, "black" conjures up horrific images of mean streets, high-rise public housing projects, muggers high on crack, and single mothers with broods of kids subsisting on welfare checks. Astoundingly enough, the Thernstroms found, blacks have been even more prone than whites to make these associations. According to a 1991 Gallup poll, approximately one-fifth of all whites, but almost 50 percent of all blacks, indicated that they were sure that three out of four black Americans were poor and lived in inner cities. In fact, less than one-fifth of the black population fits this description. The blacks who regard themselves as middle class far outnumber those with incomes below the poverty line, and in 1995 31.9 percent of all blacks lived in suburbs.
The persistence of the stereotype of inner-city poverty and degradation can be explained in part by the stark reality that disproportionately large numbers of blacks are indeed impoverished, unemployed, and given to committing crimes and to having children out of wedlock. But as the Thernstroms stringently point out in a passage that must have boiled the blood of Christopher Edley, Jr., the stereotype also serves a political purpose. "It nurtures the mix of black anger and white shame and guilt that sustains the race-based social policies implemented since the late 1960's." To call attention to the swelling numbers of middle-class blacks would be politically counter-productive.
Furthermore, when the existence of a black middle class is acknowledged, the timing of its ascendancy is apt to be misstated. The politically inspired myth is that the significant successes of blacks in moving into the middle class have occurred since the end of the 1960's and are attributable to preferential policies. Without the aid of those policies, most blacks would still be mired in poverty. The facts are otherwise, the Thernstroms discovered. Not only was the growth of the black middle class remarkably vigorous well before the advent of affirmative action, but "in some ways, indeed, the black middle class was expanding more rapidly before 1970 than after." Whether the progress since 1970 would have been possible without a national commitment to affirmative action is open to debate, the Thernstroms admit. But, they insist, it most certainly cannot be assumed that the progress could not have occurred without the assistance of affirmative action. The significant fact about the figures in the table they have put together on the percentage of blacks in middle-class occupations in 1940 and 1970 (which measure change in the pre-affirmative action period), and in 1990 (which measure change since), is that the trends visible in the first period have continued in the second without notable alteration.
The single most depressing aspect of black American life today, in the Thernstroms' opinion, is that progress in reducing the poverty of black families ceased around 1970. After three decades of falling very substantially, the black family poverty rate has been stuck within three or four points of 30 percent for about twenty-five years. Yet if the rate of black family poverty has remained constant, its face has changed. Today, poor black families are mainly headed by single mothers. Clustered around that pathological fact are a set of related indications of social sickness. A clear majority of black women nowadays have never been married, versus a third of their white counterparts; almost three out of four black births occur out of wedlock; and since 1987 the birth rate for married black women has been lower than that for the unmarried.
Liberal social scientists have attempted to establish that these appalling developments are the result of poverty, unemployment, or some other economic variable. Thus the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has repeatedly argued that joblessness and poverty are the main source of the disintegration of the black family. But Wilson has found no way of explaining in economic terms why single parents in Chicago's inner-city black neighborhoods, unlike Mexican-immigrant parents not too many miles away, feel little pressure to commit to a marriage. Nor have Wilson and his confreres been able to deal with the success of the vast majority of black American families in remaining intact during the Great Depression of the 1930's. In the face of the failure of the efforts to prove that the disintegration of the traditional structure of black family life can be accounted for by economic conditions, the Thernstroms are frank to admit that they themselves do not know precisely why this disaster has occurred.
The proponents of economic-victim explanations have likewise applied their point of view to the puzzlingly unbudgeable black poverty rate. For a time, Professor Wilson was deemed to be on to something with his "spatial mismatch" theory, which stresses that a substantial proportion of America's black population has been stuck in "rust cities" that have relatively stagnant economies, as opposed to economically vibrant cities like, say, Phoenix, where the black population is a mere 5 percent. Yet Wilson himself has acknowledged that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in blighted Chicago neighborhoods have displayed much more positive attitudes toward work—as evinced, for instance, by their willingness to organize car pools to reach suburban jobs—than have their black counterparts, and have been much more eager to please their employers. Furthermore, a new study by Roger Waldinger—which the Thernstroms cite—reveals that Hispanic, Asian, and Caribbean black newcomers to post -industrial New York City have been happy to accept low-paying, unskilled jobs that native-born blacks have spurned as beneath their dignity. Instead of a spatial mismatch theory, what is needed, it seems, is a disdainment theory, grounded in an awareness of a tragic diminishment in black America of feelings of obligation to one's family.
"Something has got to restore the family structure," Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in 1992. But, he added, "If you expect a government program to change that, you know more about government than I do." While the Thernstroms do not deny that Moynihan may be right, they cannot bring themselves to agree with him. After summarizing a study showing that for all too many years the welfare system had discouraged women, especially black women, from marrying, they raise the hope that "changing the structure of incentives for young men and women will lead them to make different marital decisions."
The shakiness of that expression of hope served to remind me of the infinitely more powerful hope that is conspicuously missing from the pages of America in Black and White. Right to the end of their indispensable book, the Thernstroms go on piling up brilliant analyses, one after the other, whether the topic is the decline of desegregation into an obsolete and irrelevant concept, or the dramatic shrinkage of the racial gap in reading competence between 1980 and 1988 and the disheartening widening of it thereafter, or the intellectually unconscionable go-ahead the Burger Court gave to bold new departures in anti-discrimination law by the Labor Department and other executive agencies, or the mounting levels of violence in predominantly black schools, or the rise of a Holy People complex, as typified by Derrick Bell's contention in Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992) that almost all whites are born evil, whereas almost all blacks are born good.
Yet for all their brilliance the Thernstroms also reveal that to a considerable degree they share Gunnar Myrdal's tone deafness to religion. America in Black and White makes no mention of the Promise Keepers, in which black men are involved, or of any of the upsurges of exclusively black Christian revivalism that are gathering strength across the country in this end -of-the-century time. Years ago, the analyst of the New England Puritan mind, Perry Miller, distilled his sense of the up-and-down nature of our moral history into a single sentence. Declension is the precondition of revival. Do the systole and the diastole of the spiritual life still drive the American heart?
© 1997 The American Spectator
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