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August 11, 1997

America in black and white

By Thomas Sowell

History does not get taught as much these days as it once didóbut it gets misused a lot more, perhaps because so few people know what really happened in the past, and are therefore much easier to deceive and manipulate politically. Nowhere is this more true than in the history of race relations in America.

Fortunately, a very thorough and penetrating history of contemporary race relations and racial policies in the United States has just been publishedóAmerica in Black and White by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom. This book is in a class by itself when it comes to telling and analyzing what has been happening in this country on the racial front over the past two generations.

So many myths and misunderstandings guide our political policies, and even our courts of law, that America in Black and White is especially valuable in confronting falsehoods with facts.  One of the most pervasive and influential misconceptions is that blacks owe their economic advancement to the civil rights laws in general and to affirmative action in particular. The authors show that the fastest economic and occupational advancement for blacks came during the 1940s and 1950sóbefore the civil rights revolution. As the upward trend continued in later years, the civil rights movement and liberal politicians claimed credit, as if this had not been going on before.

Nevertheless, the need for civil rights legislation is demonstrated by the painful history of racial discrimination and oppression, especially in the South. Moreover, the social and political impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were dramatic. The bitter situation in the South before these landmark pieces of legislation is spelled out clearly, in a way that will open many old wounds for those of us who lived through that era. However, the Thernstroms do not simply use the past to justify later policies and actions that have had serious problems of their own.

They in fact point out, for example, the chilling parallels between the way white defense attorneys once used racial appeals to all-white juries to get white defendants acquitted for crimes committed against blacks and the way Johnnie Cochran used very similar appeals to racial emotions and bias to get O. J. Simpson acquitted. They bring out the ugliness of both situations, rather than depict one as a justification for the other.

In a similar vein, America in Black and White shows the bitter and determined resistance to desegregating public schools in the South and the ingenious but disingenuous maneuvers used to evade the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. When judicial frustrations finally led to new court orders that now included busing to achieve racial balance, the judges and justices likewise engaged in clever but disingenuous arguments, in order to seem to be basing these orders on the Constitution.

Unlike other studies, which treat the busing issue as simply a moral or legal issue, this book looks at it also in terms of what this decades-long battle actually accomplished for the education of blacksówhich was very little.

More than most histories, America in Black and White traces the development of black people themselves, rather than simply the actions and attitudes of white people toward blacks. Most blacks, for example, had only an elementary school education as late as 1940. No small part of the later economic rise of blacks was a result of getting more years of schooling. Migrating out of the Jim Crow South was another factor.

Retrogressions are as much a part of the story as the successes that are so often celebrated. These retrogressions include not only such things as soaring crime rates and family breakdowns in ghettos across the country, they also include a growing self-isolation of many blacks from mainstream America and their growing susceptibility to demagoguery and conspiracy theories. Perhaps most ominous of all, it includes a growing tendency among ghetto youngsters to reject academic achievement as "acting white."

None of this is simplified by the Thernstroms. Indeed, they puncture many of the over-simplified explanations currently in vogue. America in Black and White is a penetrating analysis, as well as a superb history. It should be "must" reading for anyone concerned about race and race relations in America.

© 1997 Forbes

Visit the America in Black and White webpage



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