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Affirmative Action and Reaction
By Nicholas Lemann; Nicholas Lemann is the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America."
America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible.
The baseline for this book is "An American Dilemma," by Gunnar Myrdal. Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom's very first and very last paragraphs are reverential recapitulations of Myrdal. Plainly their ambition is to produce a survey of race relations that is so large and authoritative that it changes the way the issue is understood, as Myrdal's did.
In one sense, the two books can't fairly be compared. "An American Dilemma," which was published in 1944, was based upon extensive firsthand field work, mostly in the Deep South, while "America in Black and White" is done from work in the library, from reading secondary sources. Politically, however, there is a parallel. "An American Dilemma" was underwritten by a liberal foundation (the Carnegie Corporation) and written by a scholar with a mission in mind: eliminating the Jim Crow system in the South. "America in Black and White" was financed by a congeries of conservative foundations (Bradley, Olin, Smith Richardson, Earhart, Carthage), and aims to bring down affirmative action and most other policies whose stated goal is to give special help to African-Americans.
Like Myrdal, the Thernstroms are whites with a history of engagement in issues of social justice. Abigail Thernstrom has long been one of the country's leading opponents of affirmative action, especially in the drawing of electoral districts. Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard, became the object of black student protests in 1988 as a result of a remark he made about the black family in an ethnic history course he was teaching. He later complained that he was hung out to dry by the Harvard administration and stopped teaching the course. Since then the incident has been used, in Dinesh D'Souza's "Illiberal Education" and elsewhere, as a prime example of the depredations visited upon universities by the forces of political correctness.
To assume the Myrdal mantle means speaking in a calm, clear, generous voice, but "America in Black and White" does this only intermittently. It is irresistibly tempting to discern a split personality in a volume with two authors; whether or not that is the reason, this book veers back and forth between two sensibilities, one reasonable and large-spirited, the other pugnacious and angry to the point of occasional bitterness and sarcasm. The Thernstroms' treatment of Myrdal himself provides a small example: while they invoke him as a patron saint in some places, elsewhere they convincingly take him down a peg or two. Martin Luther King Jr. gets the same treatment: portrayed sometimes as a hero with a simple, magnificent dream of a color-blind society, other times as a savvy, borderline-cynical media politician.
"America in Black and White" does have a clear, consistent line of argument, although the variability of tone vitiates it somewhat. The Thernstroms begin with a long historical section, taking up a third of the book, about the South during the age of legal segregation. It is meant to remind us how almost unimaginably bad things were for most black Americans until not all that long ago.
The Thernstroms' main point, though, is that the civil rights movement and the Federal Government intervention it brought about deserve far less credit for African-American progress than they are ordinarily given. In the authors' view, World War II, not civil rights legislation, was what firmly set black America on a better course. The economy boomed, and millions of blacks left the realm of Jim Crow for a much better life in the North. The Thernstroms also use polling data (which they rely upon heavily throughout this book) to make a case that a wholesale improvement in white attitudes toward blacks was under way before the 1960's.
The main civil rights milestones—the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—get the Thernstroms' wholehearted approval. But they present all the Government's efforts aimed specifically at improving conditions in black America—as opposed to guaranteeing the basic rights of citizenship—as a terrible mistake, producing no gains for blacks and great resentment (wholly justified, in their opinion) by whites. In area after area—especially affirmative action—the Thernstroms sketch a bombed-out landscape of liberal failure. If we would abandon these race- and results-conscious efforts, they say, we could resume our former progress toward a healthier black America and better race relations.
It seems to me that most books on race relations, by authors black and white, liberal and conservative, implicitly claim to be written from the black point of view—that is, they present themselves as being concerned solely with what's good for blacks. "America in Black and White" has less than the usual complement of this quality. It insists throughout on a more benign view of white sentiments and behavior than is customary. In their conclusion the Thernstroms say that "too much remains" of white racism. But this is inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the book; not many pages earlier, they were declaring that white "haters have become a tiny remnant with no influence in any important sphere of American life" and that "few whites are now racists." To the extent that whites are race-conscious, they say, "that has been one of the regrettable results of public policies that stress racial identity."
The Thernstroms treat black racism, on the other hand, as a much more serious problem. Since the late 1960's, they maintain, "the balance of power in racial confrontations has shifted," and what now dominates is a dynamic of "black anger" and "white surrender." The voices in black America that they hear most loudly and quote from most often are those of the race-man camp, expressing the kind of sentiments that strike them as "tribalistic effusions." There is much Derrick Bell in the text, and little William Julius Wilson.
Whites who are liberal on race issues appear here in cartoon form as radical-chic types who find black rage appealing, or as cringing, guilty softies. White supporters of affirmative action embrace "policies built on deference to black victimization through which they can display their racial virtue." When the Thernstroms take the trouble to present calmly a specific counterargument to their position and then dismantle it, as they do with the 1968 report of the Kerner Commission on urban riots, the result is fresh and interesting. But usually they are content to give a version of the other side that makes it sound merely idiotic. For example, they summarize a statement about violence in schools from an official of the A.C.L.U. thus: "So when a student won't turn off his blaring boom box in class . . . and throws a chair at another student, it's the school's fault for not having provided him with 'meaningful education.' "
Some readers undoubtedly will find the Thernstroms' version of American race relations to ring true, and will feel that their frequent citations of poll results cinch the case. But limning racial attitudes is not hard science. I found myself consistently thinking that the Thernstroms were a few degrees away from a sure, comfortable sense of the state of racial sentiments. "The white supremacist South of old was rapidly dying by the 1960's," they write, but that doesn't call forth the place where I grew up. When President John F. Kennedy was shot, spontaneous cheering broke out among my fellow fourth graders in a New Orleans private school, which was a reflection of months of parental complaining about the proposed Civil Rights Act. With regard to contemporary America, I think they overplay the importance of the utter-bleakness strain in the public conversation about race. Is it really "one of the best-kept secrets of American life today" that "more than 4 out of 10 African-American citizens" along with two-thirds of whites, "consider themselves members of the middle class"?
Interviewing people in the opposition camp might have made the Thernstroms more empathetic, or at least better attuned to nuance. As it is, they are richly understanding about one side of the racial and political divide, and often dismissive or dense about the other. They describe the verdict of the black-majority jury in the O. J. Simpson case, angrily, as "in short, another instance in which a court was overwhelmed by the politics of racial grievance." Earlier in the book, though, in a discussion of the possible biases of white juries in Georgia, they treat the phenomenon of racial jury nullification in a strikingly more forgiving way: "It is certainly not implausible that white prosecutors, judges and jurors in Georgia found it easier to identify with white victims than with African-Americans, and viewed crimes with African-American victims differently from crimes whose victims were their fellow whites. The capacity to feel empathy across racial lines is in short supply today." Another example of their reductive treatment of positions they disagree with is their handling of black nationalism, a venerable, complicated, important aspect of African-American life that comes across in these pages as completely pernicious, and also marginal.
The Thernstroms' dislike of the other side in the race-relations debate is so strong that it regularly trumps the intellectual consistency of their argument. When they are criticizing aggressive, results-oriented enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, they present it as a betrayal of the simple ideals of the mid-1960's: "In 1965, access to the local restaurant, the local hospital and the polling booth was the aim that informed the whole civil rights movement." But elsewhere, when they are trying to reduce the credit the civil rights movement gets for America's racial progress, they paint quite a different (and more accurate) picture, observing that as early as 1964 the movement "was splintering." They heatedly deny that affirmative action has helped blacks economically ("manifestly absurd"), but also say that the number of blacks in affirmative action programs is much too high. Can none of these blacks be benefiting from their undeserved good fortune?
The same phenomenon is at work in a larger and more important way in the Thernstroms' attitude toward the state of black America. The sincerity of their desire for better race relations and better conditions for African-Americans can't be doubted. Although their overall stance is that things are much better in black America than the guilty liberals and self-appointed civil rights leaders want you to know, they also, when trying to show that Government programs haven't worked, haul out many, many alarming statistics about the racial gap. Black crime is much too high, black poverty is stuck where it was in the early 1970's, black educational performance continues to lag far behind white, most black children don't grow up with two parents at home. The Thernstroms remind us of all this when it serves their purposes.
A book that truly succeeded in putting forth a sweeping, inspiring new vision of how to solve the problem of race in America would, after making us aware of these terrible conditions, propose to do something about them. The Thernstroms, after insisting, lengthily, that past liberal remedies have been ineffective and, briefly, that "black poverty impoverishes us all," do not. They propose instead, with real eloquence, toughness and conviction, that "it is on the ground of individuality that blacks and whites can come together." That looks more like an argument against affirmative action than the second coming of Gunnar Myrdal.
© 1997 The New York Times
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