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The Financial Post (Toronto)
July 5, 1997

Telling A Different Story Of Racism In America: New book an incredibly hopeful account

David Frum

American racism—everybody believes they know all about it. How pervasive it is, and how much black Americans have suffered from it. How it's rising again, and how black Americans are being forced backward by it. But what everybody knows isn't true. For evidence, take a look at a book that will be published this fall by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White. Stephen Thernstrom is a professor of history at Harvard; Abigail Thernstrom, his wife, is a scholar at the Manhattan Institute. Together they have written the definitive account of U.S. race relations in our time.

The Thernstroms' story is an incredibly hopeful one. The black middle class is vast—and growing. Half of black American families earn a middle-class income. Almost half of black American families own their own homes. One-third of black Americans, more than 10 million people, live in suburbs.

Those are amazing accomplishments when you remember that while 80% of white families are headed by a married couple, 53% of black families are headed by a single parent. Those black families headed by a married couple have nearly caught up to whites: The average married black family earns 87% as much as the average married white family.

Don't give the credit for this progress to the U.S. system of racial preferences. Black America's economic condition actually improved faster between 1940 and 1970—before racial preferences—than it has since 1970. In 1940, 87% of blacks qualified as ''poor.'' By 1970, only 30% of blacks were poor. In 1995, after 25 years of affirmative action and special treatment, the black poverty rate remains more or less where it was a quarter-century ago: 26% of blacks remain poor.

White racism still exists, and it's a vile thing. But the Thernstroms show that it's equally true racism has dwindled away as a social force. It was already the case in 1972 that 85% of whites said it would make no difference to them if a black of equal income and education moved next door. And that wasn't just talk. In 1964, only 20% of whites had blacks living in their neighborhoods. Today, 61% live near blacks.In 1964, only 18% of whites claimed to have any black friends. Today, 66% do. In 1978, only 34% of whites reported that blacks attended the same church. Only 20 years later, 44% of whites pray alongside blacks. In 1963, only 10% of whites thought it was acceptable for blacks and whites to date. Today, 66% of whites think it's just fine—and 85% of whites under the age of 24 think so.

My quick summary cannot begin to do justice to the systematic research, humanity and wisdom of the Thernstroms' book. And they are anything but unthinking avatars of optimism. They are alert to bad news, and at the very head of their list of concerns is declining black educational achievement.American blacks have nearly caught up with whites in their formal qualifications. Half of all whites have attended college; so have almost 40% of blacks. Young blacks and young whites are equally likely to graduate from high school. Contrary to myth, schools attended by blacks enjoy abundant resources—school districts with a black majority actually spend 15% more per student than school districts that are 95% white.

The trouble is that while blacks are attending school as long as whites, they aren't learning as much while there. The test that measures what U.S. students actually know shows the learning gap between blacks and whites shrank steadily between 1971 and the late 1980s. Then it began to widen again. The average black student is now three and a half years behind the average white in math, almost four years behind in reading, and five and a half years behind in science.

The Thernstroms blame the U.S. educational system's hostility to excellence. It's damaging enough for a white child with two eager parents when his school asks little of him. But for a black child being raised by a harried single mother who herself may not have a very clear idea of what a good education looks like—the slackness of the schools is a catastrophe.

What black America needs now, the Thernstroms say, is not the renewal of racial preferences. Preferences are bad for all Americans. What black America needs instead is a renewed commitment to equal educational expectations for children of all races.

© 1997 The Financial Post (Toronto)

Visit the America in Black and White webpage



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