The State Of Race Relations; In Black And White
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Chicago Tribune
September 17, 1997

The State Of Race Relations; In Black And White

Linda Chavez. Creators Syndicate.

Americans are deeply divided by race: two nations, separate and unequal, according to many civil-rights leaders and commentators. President Clinton is so disturbed by the racial climate that he has called for a national conversation on race, devoted several national speeches to the issue and appointed a special commission to conduct hearings on the subject around the country.

But are things really as bad as the president and much of the civil-rights establishment believe?

Not according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, whose new book, "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," promises to become the standard reference book on contemporary race relations.

Stephan is a history professor at Harvard University and editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Abigail is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of a prize-winning study of the Voting Rights Act.

In some 700 pages, including more than 70 tables and charts, the Thernstroms tell a remarkable story of black progress since 1940 and an equally impressive story of improving race relations between whites and blacks over the last 50 years. This story is perhaps the best-kept secret of 20th-Century America.

Despite the millions of words that have been written on race in recent years, there is much new information in the Thernstroms' book.

- For example, although we frequently hear that blacks continue to live in segregated neighborhoods, most blacks, 83 percent, say they have some white neighbors.

- While blacks continue to suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, black, married two-earner couples make almost as much as white, married, two-earner couples. Their incomes were only 13 percent less in 1995, even without adjusting for differences in education or region between the groups.

- One-third of black men and 60 percent of black women now hold middle-class jobs.

- And while there are still too many Americans who harbor racial prejudices, fully 70 percent of blacks and whites say they have friends of the other race.

Most interesting of all, however, is that many of the strides the Thernstroms describe occurred far earlier than most accounts acknowledge, before the civil-rights movement and the legislative and court decisions of that era. In fact, the Thernstroms show that the most rapid progress in black earnings occurred between the end of World War II and the 1970s.

In education, the period of greatest advancement came in the 1980sóduring the Reagan years, no less. Between 1971 and 1988, black and white reading scores narrowed from a gap of almost six years to only 2.5 years, with the most rapid gains made between 1980 and 1988. If blacks had continued to progress at this same rate, there would be no reading gap between blacks and whites today. Instead, the gap began to widen again after 1988 and is almost four years today. The average black high school graduate thus reads at the same level as the average white 8th grader.

The Thernstroms offer no simple explanation of why the skills gap between blacks and whites has begun to widen again in the last few years, although they suggest that crack cocaine, high levels of juvenile crime and the accelerating breakdown in the family may all have contributed.

They also indicate that the biggest culprit may be the public schools' failure to educate poor, black children. They blame public schools for having low expectations, which produce low performances among black students, and note that inner-city Catholic schools do a much better job of educating poor black childrenóat a fraction of the cost of the public schools.

Unlike so many who write on racial issues, the Thernstroms begin with the facts, accumulating the most comprehensive data gathered in the last 50 years on the condition of blacks and on racial attitudes of whites in the United States.

Since the Thernstroms are critics of racial preference in education and employment and racial gerrymandering in creating voting districts, diehard advocates of those policies will be quick to dismiss their work.

The Thernstroms' own challenge to their critics is to look at the numbers, and dissect them differently if they can, but let facts tell the true story of American race relations today. They believe, as do I, that there is more reason here for optimism than anguish or despair.

© 1997 Chicago Tribune

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