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The New York Times
Racism Is (a) Entrenched? Or (b) Fading?
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
"America in Black and White," a new book by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, is a vast, data-laden study whose most important conclusion is that the United States has gone a long way in the past six decades toward eliminating the stain of racism from the white American heart.
"A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America" by David Shipler, another large, data-filled book, comes to the nearly opposite conclusion. Racism has not disappeared, says Mr. Shipler, but has simply gone underground; so this is still a nation living on two sides of a yawning racial divide.
Two weighty new books; two very different points of view on what remains the primordial American subject: race. In a publishing season that has brought a large outpouring of new works on race relations, these two ambitious books represent a sharpening of the debate. How to characterize the two points of view?
Prof. Randall Kennedy of the Harvard Law School speaks of two traditions, one optimistic and the other pessimistic, that have almost always coexisted on the fiendishly complicated question of race. The two traditions—debated this week at the Manhattan Institute in New York, where the Thernstroms faced off with some of their adversaries—are present in virtually all of the new books.
"The pessimistic tradition, represented by such very different figures as Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X, holds that racism is so deeply entrenched in the American soul that it will never loosen its grip, even if it does change form," Mr. Kennedy said. "Then there's the counter-tradition, the optimistic tradition, represented by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. and many others: We have gigantic problems but we shall overcome."
The optimistic tradition, which includes Mr. Kennedy's own book, "Race, Crime and the Law," may represent a new turn in the scrutiny of race in America. While many points of view have always competed for attention, it is probably fair to say that the pessimistic tradition—or at least the view that the country is doing badly in its efforts to bring about true racial justice—has predominated for several decades. Now, judging from the recent flood of new books, a troubled optimism has risen more strongly than ever before.
For most of the last 30 years or so, the prevailing view expressed in books and by political leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the directors of the major civil rights groups was that America was continuing to fulfill the dire predictions made by the Kerner Commission report. Formed in the aftermath of the devastating urban riots of the 1960's, the Kerner Commission predicted that the country was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." It also found that the main responsibility for this unfavorable state of affairs was "the tenacity of white racism."
That theme ran heavily through much of the commentary on race. There was, for example, Andrew Hacker's 1992 book, "Two Nations," a national best seller whose basic argument was that the Kerner Commission was correct. Another influential book of the time was Derrick Bell's "Faces at the Bottom of the Well," which argued that even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than "short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance." Clearly, books like Mr. Shipler's and several others, including "Long Way to Go," a study of race in Milwaukee by Jonathan Coleman, though more nuanced, elaborate on the pessimistic tradition. They try to show, in large part by examining the states of mind of both blacks and whites, that racism continues to be responsible for many of the disadvantages that blacks experience.
In one climactic moment near the end of his book, for example, Mr. Shipler reports on a corporate diversity training seminar during which the leader asks how many of the people present had "considered not having children because of racism." When a dozen or so women, mostly black or Hispanic, stand up, having decided that the "trial of raising a black child in America would be too severe," Mr. Shipler uses the occasion to reflect on the enduring strength of racial misunderstanding:
"We cannot escape from our intimate histories, our unacknowledged racial mixtures, our awkward and unsatisfying efforts at integration. We have not completely purged the prejudices from our inner thoughts: We do not discount the body's appearance, the voice's sound, the suspicions of the mind's inadequacy."
That is a powerful statement. But it is also exactly the sort of declaration that has been energetically challenged by the new wave of books.
The most encyclopedic and perhaps the most optimistic of them is the Thernstroms', which has already been widely reviewed, both positively and negatively. Among the others is Mr. Kennedy's "Race, Crime and the Law," a penetrating study of the ways in which racial politics has affected the legal system. In it Mr. Kennedy argues that we have moved a long way since the era of Jim Crow toward eliminating racism from the law.
Among the most sharply polemical of the new books are "Liberal Racism," by the journalist and essayist Jim Sleeper, and "The Ordeal of Integration," by Mr. Kennedy's colleague at Harvard, the sociologist Orlando Patterson. Both rail against what Mr. Patterson calls "the bizarre cult of the victim that has become the hallmark of late-20th-century liberal doctrine."
Mr. Patterson writes perhaps the harshest and most unforgiving response to the Kerner Commission-Hacker point of view.He cites one passage in Mr. Hacker's book in which the author describes the pain he says parents must feel at telling their children they will never be "treated as other Americans."
"Oh God!" Mr. Patterson writes sarcastically. "And this is barely the start of the daily pile of agonies. . . . For even a Colin Powell must know in his heart that even though he may have headed the greatest military machine in the history of the world, he is still only a nigger in the eyes of the land he has so loyally served."
Similarly, Mr. Sleeper, a strong opponent of what he calls "diversity-driven color coding," argues that many liberals have fostered the idea that "one's skin color determines one's destiny." Put another way, he says, the very people "who fought nobly to help this country rise above color have become so blinded by color that they have leapt ahead of conservatives to draw new race lines in the civic sand."
These books in the optimistic tradition are by no means alike, and none proclaim that racial equality has been achieved. But they are all inclined to give the country a good deal more credit in the battle against racism than the books in the pessimistic tradition. Speaking of the Kerner Commission, for example, the Thernstroms say: "What is striking, with the benefit of hindsight, is not how prescient the report was, but how far off the mark it has turned out to be."
What the authors do disagree on is the cause. The Thernstroms argue that more progress was made between 1940 and 1960, when there were no special government programs aimed at insuring racial equality, and they use that argument in a powerful attack on affirmative action. Mr. Patterson, by contrast, is an ardent defender of affirmative action and gives it credit for much of the progress that has been made.
Still, Mr. Patterson writes, "The changes that have taken place in the United States over the past 50 years are unparalleled in the history of minority-majority relations." And where serious problems exist, including the high number of black males in the criminal justice system and the rise in out-of-wedlock births among blacks, Mr. Patterson rejects the conventional "two-nation" theory that racism is at work.
Not surprisingly, each of the various arguments seems to carry a political subtext. Those who emerge in the "pessimist" camp are more likely to favor racial preference programs, the "optimists" to oppose them.
Mr. Patterson alone seems to break this pattern. Though clearly in the optimistic camp, he argues in his book, "Affirmative action has made a major difference in the lives of women and minorities, in the process helping to realize, as no other policy has done, the nation's constitutional commitment to the ideal of equality, fairness and economic integration."
© 1997 The New York Times
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