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The New Republic
September 29, 1997

The Facts And The Feelings

Alan Wolfe

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

A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America
by David K. Shipler
(Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pp., $30)

As if written to collide with each other, two huge books have appeared that advance radically different interpretations of the state of race in America. David Shipler, the author of a book on Arabs and Jews and a book on Russia, has returned to the United States after years as a foreign correspondent. He engages in "an act of discovery ... a personal quest" to explain how "a white person who had grown up in privilege" reacts to a country "where racist thoughts and images are quieter, subtler, insidious." Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom—the one a Harvard historian and renowned student of ethnicity, the other a fellow at the Manhattan Institute—conclude that America has experienced dramatic improvement in its racial agony since Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944).

These accounts not only differ in their conclusions, they differ also in how they reach them. Shipler's method is subjectivity: he allows those with whom he speaks, including his own children, to speak through him to the rest of America. Empathic and emotional, Shipler writes as a revivalist preacher, asking white people to look into their souls and to change their ways. The Thernstroms believe that it is not people's feelings that are important, but, as Marxists used to say, objective conditions. They are no Marxists, but they are certainly objectivists, and they write as social scientists, assembling data, weighing evidence, testing ideas. Shipler sometimes turns to numbers, and the Thernstroms occasionally get passionate; but you would be hard pressed to find two books that go about the same task in such dramatically different ways.

For this reason, the appearance of these books is a fine occasion for a reckoning. Contrasting Shipler and the Thernstroms yields answers to the question of how much progress America has made on the racial front, answers that have important political implications; but it also yields answers to the question of how we make judgments about the extent of such progress. The question of method should never be neglected. The president has asked us to have a national dialogue on race. Before people can talk to each other, however, they must have some way of verifying the truth of what they are saying. If people will not agree on method, they will not agree on substance.

Here is a story about method. As Shipler describes it, Roger Wilkins, a journalist and a historian who teaches at George Mason University, bumps into Senator John Danforth in the lobby of the Senate office building. "Hello Senator," he says to him, "I'm Roger Wilkins." The senator, used to this kind of greeting, takes his hand and responds: "Hello, Roger." Wilkins is offended. Whites, he believes, too often belittle blacks; and calling a distinguished- looking professional such as himself by his first name is a sure sign of racism. But Danforth is a politician, Shipler responds. He would call anyone, white or black, by his first name. Not so, responds Wilkins.

After this incident, Shipler encounters the senator. "Hello, Senator Danforth," he says, holding out his hand. "I'm David Shipler." "Hello, David," responds Danforth. The obvious conclusion is that Danforth has been offered a test of racism and, to his credit, has flunked it. But Wilkins is unconvinced. Since whites once held blacks in conditions of second-class citizenship, he tells Shipler, Danforth should have known better. The only way that Danforth could prove his lack of racism would be to call him Mr. Wilkins. Shipler never says what he thinks of Wilkins's reasoning. But he trusts Wilkins as "insightful," and he tells the reader that he relied on him as an expert in "the nuances of black-white miscommunication."

Shipler is a journalist, but here he aspires to be a microsociologist of race relations. He focuses on the everyday interactions, the casual conversations, the daily rituals of contact between blacks and whites in America. The underlying theme of his book is that whites, having witnessed the passing of macro-racism in the form of legal segregation, believe that racial justice has been all but achieved, whereas blacks, witnessing micro- racism everywhere around them, believe the opposite. This difference in perception permeates everything: language, deportment, manners, memory, sex, morality, cognition, style. Whites, rarely thinking about racism, walk around self-confident, open, innocent—and oblivious to the myriad ways they offend black sensitivities. Blacks, thinking about racism all the time, become defensive and suspicious, withdrawing into racial exclusion or proclaiming racial pride.

Now, America desperately needs a microsociology of race relations. One can only wonder what Erving Goffman, if he were still alive, would make of the daily interactions between blacks and whites in our inflamed and hypersensitive racial environment. But the very mention of Goffman's name reminds us how few have the skills to penetrate the secrets of the games that people play with each other, especially about race. David Shipler does not possess those skills. Indeed, he commits two mistakes that distort his sentimental tour through these minefields.

Shipler's first mistake is that he approaches his interviews knowing what he wants people to say. Consider Nancy Deuchler, who is the black manager of a B. Dalton's bookstore in Chicago. Every now and then a white person will approach her and ask to speak to the manager. When she responds that they are speaking to the manager, they are often taken aback. But only for an instant: "...then they would just get over that and deal with me," she tells Shipler. " I have no problems, I've never had problems." Here is a case that undermines Shipler's thesis that for black Americans racial insult is omnipresent. But he will not be dissuaded. "Still," he manages to conclude, "she mentioned it." As if a person being interviewed for a book about race is going to bring up the subject of mountain biking! And off he goes to tell the stories of other African Americans whose experiences with whites are less positive. Goffman taught microsociology to search for the unexpected, for the jarring incident that forces the conclusion that reality is always more complicated that we are prepared to admit. Shipler is so persuaded that he understands reality that he cannot hear those who are telling him that he is wrong.

Shipler's second mistake is to over-empathize with his subjects. He simply cannot look his friend in the face and say, "You know, Roger, you were completely wrong about Danforth." It is not Shipler's task, as he understands it, to point out the error of others' ways, especially if they are black. The empathic scribe records, he does not criticize. True, Shipler exposes the factual inaccuracies of some of the more extreme versions of Afrocentrism, such as Portland's Baseline Essays, but he also implores white Americans to understand why it is so important for black Americans to claim ancient Egypt as their own. No such empathy is shown for Afrocentrism's critics. They are engaged in "a backlash of defensive outrage," people who "sneer at any Afrocentric facts' that violate what they think they know" and as a result express "contempt" for leading Afrocentric thinkers such as Molefi Kete Asante.

The best ethnographers bend over backwards to avoid excessive identification with their subjects. They know that understanding requires distance. Shipler holds instead to what the professors call a "standpoint epistemology": how you understand the world is directly tied to your place in the world. Wittingly or not, Shipler is a party to the fashionable assault on objectivity. When it comes to race, certainly, there is never, in Shipler's view, one truth about a specific situation; there are at least two truths, and perhaps more. Since only blacks can know the truth of black pain, ethnographic distance is impossible. Whites and blacks perceive different truths, and so whites must give blacks the benefit of the epistemological doubt.

From Shipler's perspective, there is one place that we are particularly forbidden to enter in our flawed attempts to establish truth, and that is history. For blacks and whites think about the past in different ways. White Americans have "short memories," but "black America ... feels the reverberations of slavery, yearns for roots, searches for pride, and reaches back to grasp at ancient uncertainties." Shipler talked to an African American student at Colgate who, on his dean's advice, takes two sets of notes in his courses. One is based on the "white lies" told by his teachers— Socrates was Greek, Columbus discovered America—which he duly recounts to pass the tests he had to pass. The other, Afrocentric in texture, is designed "to keep your own sanity." "You got to lie, you can't tell the truth," a University of Nebraska student told Shipler. "He reminded me," he comments, " of the freethinking Soviet students I had known, who had learned one set of facts around the kitchen table but knew what they were required to say in school."

But those Soviet students were right: they were being fed lies. Shipler's African American students are wrong. Had Socrates not been Greek, as Mary Lefkowitz has pointed out, surely a xenophobic Athenian would have mentioned it. And it is not only the fanciful adherents of Afrocentrism who are misled by false historical accounts. One of Shipler's respondents waxes nostalgically for the segregated schools of the South. "Since white schools didn't hire blacks with Ph.D.'s, a lot of them were teaching in predominantly black schools," this sociologist told him. "Yes, it was segregated," a vice- principal in Chicago reflects. "Yes, the books were probably five years old, but they were wonderful books—Carter G. Woodson and that kind of thing," he says, referring to one of the leaders of the revival of interest in black history.

Actually, as the Thernstroms point out, Jim Crow schools were "dreadful." They deliberately tried to keep black students ignorant of the world. When Myrdal toured the South in the late 1930s, one-third of the teachers in Southern black schools lacked even a high-school degree. Horace Mann Bond administered the Stanford Achievement Test to black public school teachers in Alabama in 1931 and found their scores below the national norm for ninth graders. Nor were these schools examples of black pride in miniature: Myrdal visited one in which not a single black student had heard of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or W.E.B. DuBois, though one student did recognize Booker T. Washington as "a big white man." Shipler's vice-principal dates his experience in the segregated South to 1952, and it may have been the case that at that time, determined to head-off the Supreme Court, white legislators had set about improving black schools in the South. But none of this is considered by Shipler. He seems to think that if his black respondents believed things were better under Jim Crow, then better they must have been.

In his effort to posit divergent racial styles of recall, Shipler appears to suggest that for black Americans facts do not matter. Not all of his respondents agree. Levi Nwachuka, a Nigerian historian at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, was appalled that not a single one of his students could identify an African country on a blank map of Africa. Maybe, he gently suggested to Shipler, his students would be better off with more facts and fewer myths? To which Shipler contrasts the view of Haki Madhubuti, a poet and publisher in Chicago: "I can claim anything in Africa I want." Shipler himself is not the best of historians; he predates Boston's busing controversy by eight years, for example. Perhaps that explains why he seems so indifferent to the tragedy of students so cruelly stripped of the capacity of learning how the world around them came to be.

History, for Shipler, has a primarily therapeutic function. It allows blacks to believe in things that give them pride, even in things that never happened. It gives whites an opportunity for redemption. Visiting Somerset Place, a North Carolina plantation once run by the slave-owning Collins family, Shipler encounters John Graham, a Duke University administrator who is a descendent of the Collins clan. Graham is actively involved in reconstructing the plantation and regularly attends the gatherings organized there by descendants of the slaves. He expected resentment from them, but he found that "people were really very easily engaged ... There really was an opportunity for dialogue and a relationship." Of course, Graham himself never owned slaves. Still, he tells Shipler, "I suspect that if I had lived in those times and been in their shoes, I would have been a slave-owner too."

Shipler is attracted to Graham because he wrestles with his responsibility for racism, "something few whites do." Yet what can responsibility mean in this context? Graham cannot undo what his ancestors did and the descendants of the victims cannot forgive him, since there is nothing to forgive. No doubt Graham is a very sincere man, but there is actually little "wrestling" going on here; each side plays its assigned role in the drama of race relations, drawing the appropriate therapeutic conclusions from history without ever confronting the reality of the history that they are discussing.

For Shipler, racial justice will not occur in America until the entire country has experienced one massive sensitivity training session. Whites " rarely know how their behavior is perceived, how their comments are taken, how their actions may be subtly shaped by latent biases." Blacks have no monopoly on the truth, Shipler concludes, but "they can teach white Americans how to examine themselves, how to interpret their own attitudes, how to gain self-knowledge." The trouble is that "there is much that is deeply buried, and unless we work at digging it up for inspection, we remain strangers to ourselves as well as to each other." We can learn to talk to one another, but we have to learn to cry on one another's shoulders first.

Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom see very little to cry over in contemporary America's race relations. Like Shipler, they turn somewhat didactically to history for lessons. But whereas the tender-minded Shipler knows all he needs to know about the present and looks to the past for catharsis, the tough-minded Thernstroms insist that the more we learn about the past, the better we will be able to make judgments about the present. If things have gotten worse, then radical steps may be necessary to further racial justice. If they have gotten better, then it is time to rethink the way we consider race.

The Thernstroms maintain that things have gotten better. They comb census data, public opinion polls, and the research of other social scientists to come up with tidbits such as these: in the 1980s the rate of suburbanization for blacks was four times what it was for whites; forty percent of African Americans consider themselves middle class; some whites express a dislike for blacks, but in far lower proportions than Bulgarians express for Turks, East Germans for Poles, or Russians for Azerbaijanis; schools attended by minority students generally receive more public funding than schools which are not; the income gap between Jews and Gentiles is nearly twice that between whites and blacks; a greater proportion of whites convicted of murder are handed the death sentence compared with blacks; blacks have not been admitted to the University of Mississippi in proportion to their percentage of the state's population, but their graduation rate is roughly equal to that of whites.

Behind such numbers, they argue, lie profound changes in America's racial fabric. In politics, the number of black office holders increased from 1,469 in 1970 to 8,406 in 1995. Black mayors have been elected in Dayton, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Boulder, Roanoke, Little Rock, Hartford, and Dallas, among other cities. Once invisible in Southern legislatures, 312 black Americans served in them by 1993. On the national level, "the Democratic Party would have lost every presidential election from 1968 to the present if only whites had been allowed to vote." Racist campaigns have all but disappeared in America "because they cost votes."

The same kind of progress can be seen in the growth of the black middle class. Economic achievement is linked to schooling. In 1960, the percentage of whites who attended college (17.4 per cent) was more than twice that of blacks (7.2 per cent). By 1995, a gap still existed (49.0 per cent for whites, 37.5 per cent for blacks), but it had significantly narrowed. And with it, so has the income gap. Black males now earn 67 per cent of what white males earn, up from 41 per cent in 1940; and the figures for black females are even higher. If we compare the median income of intact black families with intact white families, blacks make 87 per cent of what whites make. 31.9 per cent of blacks in America now live in the suburbs, compared to 15 per cent in 1950. 42 per cent of all black households in America own their own home, still below the 69 per cent of whites, but more than twice the proportion reported by Myrdal in 1944.

The Thernstroms spend considerable energy demolishing the prediction of the Kerner Commission in 1968 that racism would create two nations in America, separate and unequal. The Kerner Commission never anticipated immigration, which brought new life to America's inner cities. It was unable to imagine that white flight from the cities would someday be equalled by black flight. The dire warnings of the Kerner Commission begin to approximate to reality only in some cities, especially formerly industrial ones in the Midwest such as Detroit. The great bulk of urban growth in America since 1968, however, took place in cities such as San Jose and Phoenix, where the black population was, and still is, relatively small. Some residential segregation, persists, moreover, because blacks want it that way. In sum, "by every possible measure ... the residential separation of blacks and whites in the United States has diminished substantially over the past three decades."

Is the Thernstroms' positive interpretation of these trends justified? It is not, after all, as if they come to the subject without opinions; they are both known as right-of-center participants in the debates about race. They do not hide their political views in their book, and they acknowledge support from the same kind of conservative funding sources that supported Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza. Yet nothing in the Thernstroms' work resembles the work of Murray or D'Souza. The Thernstroms criticize the conservative "see no evil" view as well as the left's "going nowhere picture of black America and white racial attitudes." They rarely rely on rhetoric or polemic to make points, preferring arguments about data. If they cannot draw a conclusion, they do not draw one: when they discuss why black SAT scores have declined since 1988, they admit to being "stumped." And when there is bad news to report, findings that run against the grain of their positive story, they generally report it. They note, for example, that in spite of the narrowing of the income gap between blacks and whites, there remains a huge gap in the accumulation of wealth. They record the depressing news that whites think that 32 per cent of the American population is black. And they are fully aware that black poverty— a state in which 29 percent of African Americans find themselves, triple the rate among whites—remains "the single most depressing fact about the state of black America today."

Still, the Thernstroms sometimes read the data as they would prefer to read them. Take that "depressing" news about black poverty. They contend that it is not racism that explains why black poverty persists; rather, "it is family structure that largely divides the haves from the have-nots in the black community." In 1959, 61 per cent of children in intact families were poor compared to 13 per cent in 1995. Today very few Americans who hold full-time jobs—white or black, male or female—live below the poverty level. Black poverty is therefore primarily due to an increase in the number of single mothers. Since 1987, the Thernstroms point out, fertility and marriage have been negatively correlated among blacks; that is to say, the birth rate among married black women was lower than the birth rate for unmarried black women, " the first time that has happened for any ethnic group." This is truly an astonishing trend, and the Thernstroms are right to confer such significance upon it. And yet I see no reason to conclude that racial discrimination no longer plays a significant role in perpetuating higher poverty rates among blacks than whites.

Those who believe that discrimination is still a powerful force in American life often cite "audit studies" in which equally matched black and white job applicants will present themselves to unsuspecting vendors or employers. Three such studies are reviewed by the Thernstroms. A Denver study in 1991 showed no substantial differences between black and white testers; a Chicago study in 1990 indicated that whites were preferred over blacks twice as often as blacks were preferred over whites; and a Washington, D.C. study in 1990 found that whites were chosen over blacks in 20 percent of the cases while blacks were preferred over whites in 5 percent, a four-fold preference for the one group over the other.

One conclusion to be drawn is that Chicago seems the typical case, with Washington atypical because discrimination there was so high and Denver atypical because it was so low. Yet the Thernstroms dismiss the Chicago results as based on too small a sample, and they criticize the Washington results for concentrating on private employers when the public sector is so large in the capital. Now, it is always possible to find fault with studies such as these. That is how social scientists make their living. Yet who can deny that some racial discrimination in employment still exists? Indeed, the Thernstroms are careful to say as much. Since they find any such discrimination abhorrent, one wonders why the Thernstroms are so reluctant to display a little more empathy toward those who are refused jobs through no fault of their own.

Another potential indication of the persistence of discrimination by race involves housing. "The residential separation of the races is one of the most conspicuous features of the typical American metropolis today," the Thernstroms correctly point out. But how much of that separation is caused by discrimination? Not much, they answer. They discuss a study which showed that black buyers and renters were shown 25 percent fewer available properties than whites and that roughly one out of ten black testers were steered to primarily black neighborhoods. "These figures do not seem high enough to support the claim that patterns of exclusion are the norm rather than the exception." But the question is not whether discrimination is the norm. The question is whether discrimination at the margins can have substantial effects on the persistence of residential segregation.

For the Thernstroms, it cannot. Demand, in their view, is sovereign; bias resides in customer preferences, not in manipulations of supply. "The steering' metaphor is misleading in its implication that real estate agents are in the driver's seat, and that they take their clients to destinations they would not have chosen on their own," they conclude. "The agents are more like taxi-drivers; they turn the wheel, control the gas pedal and the brakes, but the customer decides where the vehicle is headed." Yet housing is not governed by the universal logic of supply and demand but by local customs. In Atlanta and Washington, D.C., the Thernstroms may be right: black suburbanites prefer to live in black suburbs. But what if there are no black suburbs?

In Boston, black middle-class families fleeing the city have little choice but to find housing in suburbs predominantly occupied by whites. Highly publicized incidents—such as the one in which police stopped a member of the Boston Celtics in his own suburb for no other reason than his race—have created a veritable folk culture around which suburbs are welcome to blacks and which are not. Should a relatively large number of potential black residents choose not to look for housing in those perceived as hostile—and then should there be a 10 percent rate of racial steering imposed on those who do—the result would easily turn into a nearly all-white suburb. "Biases in the real estate market certainly exist, but they appear minor compared to the biases of real estate customers themselves," the Thernstroms write. I see nothing in their data that warrants such a sweeping conclusion.

There are occasions in which the Thernstroms' distaste for affirmative action affects their interpretation of data. "On many accounts," they write, " the socioeconomic gains made by African Americans in the affirmative action era have been less impressive than those that occurred before preferential policies." Yet their own data show dramatic increases in the percentage of black doctors, lawyers and engineers between 1970 and 1990. This suggests that it is not the pace of middle class growth that matters, but the shift to more professional middle class jobs. Acknowledging this, the Thernstroms write that such a result "undoubtedly does reflect the fact that the nation's professional schools changed their admissions standards for black applicants." But instead of concluding that a policy they clearly do not like nonetheless had at least one positive result, they ask whether such gains are really worth the costs of affirmative action. Besides, "black practitioners of these professions make up a small fraction of the total black middle class today." This backtracking sounds disturbingly like Roger Wilkins in reverse: if the results of the test are unacceptable, change the test.

America in Black and White is neither a work of scholarship written from no particular point of view nor a personal essay that asserts a point of view without evidence. It is a bit of both: an intervention into a public debate which asks that the criteria for resolving the debate be factual. The book's great strength, revealed most clearly in its historical sections, is its insistence that some of our most contentious questions have answers. Its most conspicuous weakness, most prominent in its treatment of contemporary debates over federal contracts or voting rights which rely less on data collection, is that it sometimes finds those answers too predictably.

Is it possible to say anything conclusive about racial progress in America? If the empathic approach of David Shipler is too subjective and anecdotal to be trusted, the data-driven approach of the Thernstroms is neither value-free nor unambiguous. Still, this is not one of those subjects for which even- handedness is the best policy. Both of these books have flaws, but it would be wrong to conclude that neither has an advantage over the other.

Where race is concerned, it is time for facts to win out over rhetoric. One could discount by 25 percent every development that the Thernstroms discuss and still come away astonished at how radically America has changed in so short a time. Any American fifty years old has witnessed America move from a society in which most whites would never have the opportunity to interact with black people on equal terms to a society in which David Shipler's black respondents complain of not being able to discuss Malcolm X in a class at the Air Force Academy, of finding King Kong racist, of meeting whites curious about their braids, of worrying about losing their street jargon if they attend suburban high schools, and of being refused service in a Princeton eating club. The notion that we live in the same old racist America—"as segregated now as it was in 1954," as President Franklyn Jennifer of Howard University said in 1992—is absurd.

As if it were not enough in one lifetime to have abolished legal segregation, America has also made dramatic progress in matters closer to the heart. Shipler relates the occasional rudeness experienced by interracial couples; but the Thernstroms point out a dramatic increase in interracial marriage from 0.7 percent of all new marriages by African Americans in 1963 to 12.1 percent in 1993. Shipler asks white Americans to recognize the lurking racism in the way they think about crime; but the Thernstroms discuss data showing that blacks are more fearful of crime than whites. Shipler tells tales of isolation and separation; but the Thernstroms report data showing huge increases in black and white social contact—churches, friendships, neighborhoods—since the 1960s. Taken together, the data assembled by the Thernstroms paint a picture of progress on enough fronts that the methodological questions can once and for all be resolved: race relations have improved dramatically in America, and those who believe otherwise are wrong.

Of course, people may agree that great progress has been made toward racial equality and still disagree about how much remains or about what ought to be done. Shipler, and those who think like him, continue to adhere to what can be called "black exceptionalism." This way of thinking suggests that all groups in America have to obey the same rules, except blacks. To those who feel that African Americans need special legislative districts or separate admissions committees for professional schools, Shipler adds the idea that blacks are also exceptional in their feelings. I find this notion of an apartheid of the mind repellent. It reverberates with discredited theories that how we think or feel is inextricably linked to the genes that we happen to have. And it does something that a liberal polity ought never to do: it probes too deeply into feelings. Shipler declares that "this is the ideal: to search your attitudes, identify your stereotypes, and correct for them as you go about your daily duties." His language reminds me of China's thought police, and leaves my blood running cold.

Black exceptionalism, as the Thernstroms' history makes clear, grew out of demands for "black power" that came to dominate the civil rights movement after the riots of the 1960s. In retrospect, the problematic term in that demand is not "black," it is "power." Our society can tolerate expressions of black pride just as it tolerates expressions of Jewish pride or Italian pride.But it also requires that our politics be held together by something more than power. No group in our society—no matter how small, no matter how victimized—can ever be permitted to believe that it can have a slice of power to itself, beyond the scrutiny and the checks of others. That applies as much to the power of sympathy as it does to political power. Black exceptionalism in politics corrupts democracy. A black exceptionalism of the emotions is not a recipe for understanding. It is a license for psychological blackmail.

Or so one of Shipler's examples demonstrates. In the most pathetic moment in his book, he describes one of those workshop exercises so favored by diversity trainers these days. Each person in the room was asked to walk about and choose the person most different from himself. Shipler and a young black woman found each other. How many of you, the facilitator asked the entire group, have considered not having children because of racism? Not only did Shipler's partner stand, but so did a dozen or so other women, mostly black and Latino. "Since my children are my fondest joy," Shipler writes, "I cannot imagine many sadnesses more profound than this." Give me a break. Either the women who stood were indulging in an emotional theatricality that cost them nothing or they were sincere. If the former, then they may fool the Shiplers of the world, but they are unlikely to persuade anyone with even a modicum of common sense. If the latter, then they have a problem that not even the complete elimination of white racism will help them solve.

When President Clinton called for a national conversation on race, my first reaction was indifference: commissions rarely do any good, but they rarely do any harm. Having read Shipler, I am now convinced that a national conversation on race can be downright harmful. For Shipler shows why the current craving for dialogue is actually just another form of black exceptionalism. Any good conversation presupposes equality among the speakers; each has something to say and is expected to say it. But the "dialogue" that Shipler urges goes only one way: the self-designated victims are given the right to lecture all and sundry, in any way they want, on any topic they choose, based on the supposition that contrary opinions do not constitute legitimate disagreement but examples of the very kinds of racism the conversation was called into being to stop. This is talk to end all talk, a conversation designed to shut people up and shut people in.

What Shipler thinks of as heartfelt dialogue and profound conversation strikes me as demeaning to all sides. His examples paint a picture of black America represented not by those who have struggled against persistent discrimination to make it, but by those who, in insisting that black success is impossible in racist America, send out a message of numbing resignation. And his white America is symbolized not by those who have taken dramatic strides to move beyond the racism of their parents' generation, but by those so ashamed of themselves that they take pleasure in confessing to sins they never committed. When black self-pity meets white self-hatred, we are better off not speaking.

The Thernstroms, one presumes, are not big on talk. They offer the implicit message that, while intellectuals complain about our lack of racial equality, ordinary people of both races are simply making it happen. They do not conclude that we have reached a state of genuine racial equality or that we no longer need the Civil Rights Act. They do suggest that we should start treating African Americans as an ethnic group trying to make its breakthrough in pluralist America and stop treating them as a racial group confronting persistent discrimination.

I am more cautious than the Thernstroms. I would not go as far in claiming that color-blind public policies and continued economic growth will produce the further progress in racial equality that our society requires. Yet I think that they are right to insist that what has most characterized discussions of race in the United States is a "lack of analytic rigor," and that this has permitted a remarkable amount of demagoguery to pass as serious thinking. For this reason, their tough-minded book serves the cause of racial justice. It shows that the issue is not whether black exceptionalism should end. The issue is when.

© 1997 The New Republic

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