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The Ethnic NewsWatch
November 30, 1997

America In Black And White: One Nation, Indivisible

Robinson, Fredrick D.

America In Black And White: One Nation, Indivisible, By Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, 704 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $32.50.

In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court legally sanctioned segregation, baptizing Jim Crow with three words that, alas, accurately defined the nation at the time—"Separate but equal." Of course, the only thing the landmark case ensured was separation, not equality.

Not many years later, in 1903, educator W.E.B. Du Bois penned these immortal words, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."

And years later in 1944, Swedish sociologist and future Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal, wrote in An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy that racial tensions represent "a moral lag in the development of the nation." The most comprehensive study undertaken at that time, An American Dilemma continues to be a starting point for discussions about America's race problem.

So it is not surprising that Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom use An American Dilemma as the baseline for their new tome, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible.

Like Myrdal, the Thernstroms have been involved with the issues of race in one way or another—particularly Abigail Thernstrom who has long been an ardent and vocal critic of affirmative action. But there are other similarities between the two books. Both were underwritten by foundations: An American Dilemma was underwritten by the liberal Carnegie Corporation and America in Black and White by conservative foundations like Bradley, Olin, Smith Richardson, Earhart, Carthage. Myrdal wanted to see Jim Crow dismantled in the South and the Thernstroms want to dismantle the crippling effects that liberal policies like affirmative action have had in creating new tensions between the races.

Since Myrdal wrote his celebrated treatise on race, the Thernstroms say much has changed. The book opens with a long historical section detailing the South during the height of legal segregation. And their strategy—to poignantly remind us that things aren't like they used to be—works well. Indeed, while problems for some blacks persist, they point out convincingly that for the most part blacks in America have in fact overcome.

But not only that, they argue that civil rights legislation had little to do with it. They cite a booming economy and a change in white attitudes toward blacks that was underway before the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. Still, they think the main civil rights advances—such as the Brown decision, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—were just and right.

Overall, the Thernstroms argue that government efforts—beyond those guaranteeing basic rights of citizenship for blacks—were overreaching and wrong. They believe America will not attain to its racial and democratic perfection until the last stones from the last edifices of liberal excess—such as affirmative action come tumbling down.

"Racist Americans have long said to blacks, the single most important thing about you is that you're black. Indeed, almost the only important thing about you is your color. And now, black and white Americans of seeming good will have joined together in saying, we agree. It has been—and is—exactly the wrong foundation on which to come together for a better future." They're right.

The authors admit that white racism still exists, though in a much milder form. But they say the more serious problem is misplaced black anger that continues to seek societal and governmental redress.

Again, they admit that while blacks have made amazing progress a large portion of the black community lies in disarray. Indeed, drive through an inner city today and see the sad residue of lost faith and hope.

Read the dismal reports in the newspaper that more young black males are in prison than in college, or that the proportion of black male high school graduates going on to college is lower today than in 1975, or that more than two out of three black children are born out of wedlock, or that nearly half of all black families are headed by single women, etc. No doubt, the statistics are maddening.

But the Thernstroms correctly argue that the way to heal those ills is not through anger at whites and demands for more social programs—which in the end simply exacerbates racial tensions—but by turning inward. Besides, they add, affirmative action and other racial policies have had no success in helping to raise the fortunes of the black underclass.

Regardless of good intentions, they contend that policies based on race will never solve our lingering problems. "Together blacks and whites can address them," they write, but "as separate nations within our nation, they cannot—and will not."

The Thernstroms write that they want, "A nation in which individuals are judged as individuals: it was the dream of the 1960s, and we still cherish it." Sadly, America in Black and White is short on specific solutions, but its optimism is refreshing. Read this book and you will come away admiring their commitment to a united America untorn by ethnicity and race.

© 1997 The Ethnic NewsWatch

Visit the America in Black and White webpage



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