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St. Petersburg Times
November 23, 1997, Sunday

AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE One Nation, Indivisible
By Stephen Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom
Simon & Schuster, $30

A COUNTRY OF STRANGERS Blacks and Whites in America
By David K. Shipler
Knopf, $30

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Two unusually large tomes—America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, by Stephen Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler—come from opposite poles in their attempts to make sense of the nation's ugly and enduring race dilemma.

The Thernstroms are scholars, Stephen, a Harvard historian and editor of The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethic Groups, Abigail, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a prize-winning author and a leading opponent of affirmative action. Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book author.

America in Black and White is a pollster's tour de force. Using Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, the 1944 book that defined race in America for nearly a generation, as their baseline, the Thernstroms employ polling data and statistics in an attempt to debunk the longstanding white liberal and black notion that race relations in America have not improved significantly during the last 50 years and may, in fact, have declined. They argue, sometimes convincingly, that the country is not, as the Kerner Commission declared in 1968, splitting into "two nations" that are separate and unequal. To the contrary, blacks and whites are slouching toward a unified society and a common destiny.

As proof, the authors trace the horrors of the Jim Crow South, pointing out, for example, that as late as 1940, no Southern town had a black police officer and that black poverty was a whopping 87 percent. Against this backdrop of discrimination, the Thernstroms show that the economic forces of World War II, not the New Deal and later civil rights legislation, opened the doors of countless opportunities for blacks.

The point of this argument, supported by graphs and charts, is that the objective conditions of class, not the amorphous contours of race, have been, and are, at the center of the most stubborn problems in black America. They also maintain that the dissolution of the family, not race, has virtually destroyed African-American communities.

Because these are problems of class, programs that foster preferential treatment based on race, such as affirmative action, must be abandoned. These programs must be abandoned, the authors claim, because they are having the opposite effect of what was intended. Contract set-asides and special college admissions efforts, for example, have not leveled the playing field for blacks but are hardening resentments on all sides, causing deeper conflicts between the races.

As unapologetic opponents of affirmative action and other liberal causes, the Thernstroms compromise the power of their arguments by leaning too far to the right in too many instances. One critical flaw is that, while mostly dismissing the negative impact of white racism in the race equation, they treat black prejudice as a far more noxious problem to everyone involved.

To make their point, they feed the reader the angry words of Derrick Bell, Louis Farrakhan, selected Afrocentrists and others who advocate or court separatism. They purposefully avoid the voices of black moderation and those of reasonable white liberals.

For all of its flaws, however, the book is worth reading. If nothing else, it offers piles of statistical data showing that African-Americans have come a long way. The work also shows that optimists have reason to hope, that the races are not as far apart as the civil rights establishment and others claim.

A Country of Strangers is not a scholarly study. It is a passionate, eloquent book. And unlike the Thernstroms, Shipler trusts as the truth the intuition and the unadorned emotions and spontaneous observations of the people he interviews. While the Thernstroms relied on numbers to explain the dynamics of race, Shipler explains—through a white writer's perspective—the day-to-day depersonalization of being black in the United States.

One of the book's crowning achievements is its dissection of the stubborn stereotypes that brand black men as compulsive criminals and black women as indolent baby machines. Sometimes mimicking Studs Terkel, Shipler, who spent five years traveling across the country, lets his speakers depict an America that has descended into separatism, a separatism fueled mainly by white racism and black reaction to it.

Unfortunately, African-Americans too often emerge from these pages as perpetual victims who find no respite from inner race consciousness and external discrimination.

Because he is a reporter with his mind made up, Shipler weakens the force of his thesis by asking transparent questions of blacks that lead inevitably to the answers he wants, answers that are predictable. He is also too quick to dismiss as racists too many whites who sincerely believe that hard work and high moral standards will yield the good life, that laziness and moral relativism will lead to personal and communitywide disaster.

Thankfully, though, Shipler often pulls back and shows balance. He does not, for instance, embrace the extremes of Afrocentrism and the bleak universe and self-loathing of gangsta rap. Shipler also attempts, albeit in fits and starts, to move the debate beyond the well-worn conservative-liberal paradigm. The issues of race are too complex for such shallow treatment, and Shipler acknowledges as much. Still, he errs by not taking blacks to task often enough.

A Country of Strangers would have benefited from a fuller discussion of affirmative action and the broader issues framing it. But Shipler avoids these topics because to acknowledge a need for preferential treatment is to acknowledge that blacks need a leg up. And to say that a people need a leg up is to suggest their inferiority. In no way would Shipler offer such an indictment of a people with whom he empathizes.

For all of its flaws, A Country of Strangers is a must-read for anyone interested in the interpersonal dynamics of race in America. It brings the human side to a tragedy—America's race dilemma—that has increasingly become a tool of politicians and other partisans seeking to benefit from a divided America.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.

© 1997 St. Petersburg Times

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