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The Hartford Courant
October 19, 1997

A Question Of Racial Progress In America

Owen Mcnally

Long Way to Go: Black & White in America
By Jonathan Coleman, Atlantic Monthly Press, $26.50, 451 pp.

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

In the long hot summers from 1965 to 1968, a wave of urban riots swept the United States, causing nearly 300 deaths, injuries to 8,000, the arrests of 60,000 and property damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

After studying these disorders that ripped apart Watts, Detroit and other racial flashpoints around the nation, the blue-ribbon Kerner Commission reported in 1968 that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." Now, almost 30 years after the commission's findings, two invaluable but certainly not infallible works on race take diametrically opposed views on how much progress has been made since then.

Jonathan Coleman's "Long Way To Go," a first-person, journalistic work written with passion, finds the principle of "two separate and unequal Americas" still much in force. Author of two bestsellers, "At Mother's Request" and "Exit the Rainmaker," he makes his finding after an intense study of Milwaukee, one of America's most segregated cities.

Coleman comes down on the side of the Kerner Commission, which found "white racism" at the root of America's racial problems. It's up to whites, writes Coleman, who is white, to "either give up on the idea of racial harmony and just go on . . . or try to find a way to change hearts and minds."

Stephan Thernstrom and his wife, Abigail Thernstrom, in "America in Black and White," sharply dissent from the Kerner Commission findings and from such contemporary works as Andrew Hacker's "Two Nations: Black and White,

Separate, Hostile, Unequal." The two noted scholars, who are white, maintain that African Americans have been making substantial progress and that racism—at least the hard-core brand—has greatly diminished.

As a major sign of this progress toward making America a house undivided, the Thernstroms point to the rise of the black middle class. "One of the best kept secrets of American life today is that more than four out of ten African

American citizens consider themselves members of the middle class," they write.

The Thernstroms back their contentions with a barrage of charts, graphs and tables detailing the results of public opinion polls, census data and thefindings of other social scientists.

The two conservative scholars are dispassionate—all mind. Coleman, a liberal journalist, is fervent—all heart. He loves to interject himself into his narrative, as when he confesses his white man's "guilt" over racism. He even admits to wanting to strangle one of his more exasperating subjects.

Such emotional outbursts would be unthinkable coming from the unflappable Thernstroms. At their most violent, these devoted scholars may perhaps choke a few extra salient facts from some recalcitrantly abstruse study.

As part of their condemnation of affirmative action policies, the two social scientists maintain that things were getting much better for African Americans even before affirmative action progams took effect in the 1970s. Besides affirmative action, they deal with numerous pivotal, even volatile issues, including forced busing, desegregation, housing, academic testing, black separatism, voting rights and Afro-centrism.

History and precedent are vital for these academics. The early section of this massive work, in fact, provides an invaluable history of race and racism in the United States.

For all their intelligence, lucid prose and argumentative skills, the Thernstroms paint a far too glossy view of race in America. Yes, they acknowledge the need for more progress. And, yes, they're truly intent on guiding readers through this complex terrain that Coleman calls "the minefield of race in America."

But at times, as when they say "how much has changed for the better," they sound like meteorologists so totally wrapped up in their data, their maps and super Dopplers that they never bother to look out the window to see what's actually going on outside.

Coleman, on the other hand, plunges boldly, even a bit naively, into that outside world. And in his sometimes overheated way, he gives valuable first-hand impressions from the racial divide.

He spent countless hours interviewing hundreds of black and white Milwaukee residents while immersing himself in the community in 1991. Tape recorder in hand, he got to everybody, from a white suburbanite Rotarian to a charismatic black militant to a heroic black school superintendent who becomes a casualty of "racial fatigue."

Both books have something significant to add to the national dialogue on race.

© 1997 The Hartford Courant

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