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The Nation
December 14, 1998

The 'Racial Realism' Hoax

Philip Klinkner

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

Before he began his national conversation on oral sex, President Clinton set out to start a national conversation on race. Whether intended or not, that effort produced more of a monologue than a dialogue, as a spate of books in the last year set out to establish a new social consensus on American race relations. Among these are Stephan and Abigail Themstrom's America in Black and White; Alan Wolfe's One Nation, After All; Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism; Tamar Jacoby's Someone Else's House; and Shelby Steele's A Dream Deferred. Though many of the ideas advanced by these authors have been commonly voiced in right-wing quarters for decades, they are now offered up as the voice of the reasoned and informed center; "racial realism" in Wolfe's phrase. 

As Wolfe's categorization suggests, these books are best seen collectively. Indeed, their near simultaneous publication indicates the growing and organized campaign against racial equality from the right. Several of these authors are sponsored in one way or another by right-wing think tanks and foundations. Both Abigail Themstrom and Tamar Jacoby are senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute, while Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Both Jacoby and the Themstroms were supported by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation. The authors have also been mutually supportive by providing each other with glowing book-jacket blurbs, positive citations and thankful acknowledgments. The publication of these books has been amplified by their generally favorable treatment in the mainstream media—positive reviews (often by one another), magazine excerpts, newspaper and magazine interviews and articles profiling the authors.

Just how realistic is this new consensus on race? Each of the aforementioned books advances its arguments in different ways. The most recent is Shelby Steele's new A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, which offers a follow-on to his 1991 effort, The Content of Our Character. Little has changed in the intervening years. Thus, Adolph Reed's description in these pages [March 4, 1991] of Steele's earlier work as "an abominably thin, simple-minded book ... unburdened with facts outside a particularly limited compass of personal experience, and its analysis is innocent of social or political complexity. It builds castles of psychobabble on platitudes and banal autobiographical anecdotes," applies equally well here.

Once again, Steele treats us to a repetitive series of personal encounters (two lunches, a dinner party, a coffee and a reception) from which he spins out his grand theory of American race relations. In one encounter, he argues with a black woman journalist over the extent of black victimization. The conversation ends when the woman leaves in a large Lincoln rental car, paid for by her work expense account. To Steele, this is proof that black victimization is largely exaggerated and that those who argue otherwise are self-serving hypocrites. The only piece of supporting evidence he provides for his views is an article in The New Republic by rapper Bill Stephney of Public Enemy.

This time around, Steele sets out to critique what he sees as the failings of contemporary liberalism. According to him, modern racial liberalism is not about actually helping blacks but about helping white liberals to redeem and feel better about themselves. In doing so, he takes up the conservative label that he rejected earlier and does so with the zeal of a recent convert, claiming that liberal welfare policies "created the black underclass in America" and calling for a return to social Darwinism, since "failure and suffering are natural and necessary elements of success." 

Though Steele calls on blacks to reject victimization, he has no trouble casting himself as the victim. In his opening essay, "The Loneliness of the 'Black Conservative,'" he writes of the "symbolic annihilation" of black conservatives because they are "at odds with a very cozy and very functional symbiosis" between white liberals and those blacks who support them. Steele, however, offers no explanation of how writing an award-winning and best-selling book, being regularly sought out by the media for commentary and securing a sinecure at the Hoover Institution constitutes "symbolic annihilation." In fact, Steele's own experience suggests another symbiosis, far more cozy and functional than any between blacks and white liberals. Where Steele condemns a relationship in which "the [black] affirmative-action professor and the white university president who supports him—one finding an illusion of equality and the other an illusion of redemption—are obligated to an unexamined orthodoxy of received justifications. Neither one can risk an open mind," one might instead imagine a black conservative writer and the white conservative foundation that hires him—one finding an illusion of reward based on merit and the other the illusion of color-blindness. 

Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism tracks closely to A Dream Deferred in both content and style (it was reviewed in these pages November 3, 1997, by Marcia Smith). In a rambling and incoherent series of essays, Sleeper relies mostly on personal stories and ad hoc analysis to suggest that liberals are now the ones holding America back from the racial promised land. For Sleeper, anyone who mentions race is a racist. In thinking so, he denies the obvious fact that while race is irrelevant biologically, it is nonetheless a powerfully important influence on a range of economic, political and social outcomes. Where Steele relies on repasts for his data, Sleeper uses voice-mail messages. In one instance, he offers the voice-mail messages of New York University historian Robin Kelley and Harvard philosopher Cornel West in which both men beg off from additional requests for speaking engagements and other commitments. "Such are the wages of oppression," concludes Sleeper, suggesting, like Steele, that any blacks who have attained a degree of status or celebrity have no right to criticize the United States for racism. He also gives us the voice-mail message left for him by a young black man angered by one of Sleeper's columns. From such an obviously extreme example, Sleeper goes on to generalize a similar outlook to all black Americans. Elsewhere, Sleeper's essays range from the derivative (a discussion of majority-minority voting districts that rehashes the conservative arguments of Abigail Themstrom) to the incomprehensible (a discussion of the interrelationship of New England Yankee ideology and the philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois) to the truly bizarre (an exegesis of Alex Haley's Roots). In the end, the book adds up to little more than a confusing and confused rant. 

Unlike Steele and Sleeper, sociologist Alan Wolfe attempts to offer data and systematic analysis for his conclusions. The key word, however, is "attempts." One Nation, After All is based on the findings of Wolfe's Middle Class Morality Project. In it, he surveyed approximately 200 middle-class Americans in focus groups drawn from eight suburban communities around the country. Each person was interviewed for approximately one and a half to two hours. Such a limited and unrepresentative sample is hardly a reliable indicator of anything, yet Wolfe has no problem making sweeping generalizations on the basis of such flimsy results, claiming that middle-class Americans are far more inclusive and tolerant of everyone (except gays and lesbians) than liberal commentators have suggested. Furthermore, social scientists are well aware of the difficulty of determining the racial attitudes of white Americans since few are willing to say anything that might be construed as racist, regardless of what they really think.

Nonetheless, Wolfe seems to have asked the obvious questions and gotten the obvious answers; few of the whites interviewed expressed overtly racist beliefs. In addition, Wolfe did not attempt to be systematic in his questioning, choosing instead to allow the respondents to focus on the issue of most concern to them. Though most of the blacks interviewed spent a great deal of time talking about race, few whites did, suggesting once again that Wolfe did little more than scratch the surface of the latter's racial attitudes. 

Wolfe's focus-group methodology is problematic in another way. Since most people are eager to please, they generally tell the interviewers what they think they want to hear. Thus, one can lead a focus group in just about any direction. By naming it the Middle Class Morality Project, Wolfe makes clear the direction in which he was going. One wonders what he might have found if he had named it the Middle Class Immorality Project, since other focus-group surveys with different agendas have come up with strikingly different results. For example, after the 1984 election, pollster Stanley Greenberg interviewed Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan, a community similar to those selected by Wolfe. Greenberg, however, found very dissimilar results. According to him, those interviewed

  • express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost
  • everything they think about government and politics.... Blacks constitute 
  • the explanation for their [whites'] vulnerability and for almost everything
  • that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes 
  • middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent
  • place to live.... The special status of blacks is perceived by almost all 
  • of these individuals as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement. 
  • Indeed, discrimination against whites has become a well-assimilated and 
  • ready explanation for their status, vulnerability and failures. 

Greenberg's focus group-based findings might well be flawed, but surely no more than Wolfe's. 

In Someone Else's House, journalist Tamar Jacoby seeks to find out what has happened to the cause of racial integration in post-civil rights America by examining the history of racial politics in New York, Detroit and Atlanta over the past thirty years. She describes how, in New York, integration failed because limousine liberals like Mayor John Lindsay and Ford Foundation head McGeorge Bundy kowtowed to the demands of black demagogues like Sonny Carson. In Detroit, integration also failed as blacks, led by Mayor Coleman Young, sought to establish black power in one city and did nothing to stop white flight.

Jacoby claims that these failures were avoidable and that integration might have succeeded if only liberal whites and blacks had been more patient and understanding. This is fantasy. By choosing to begin her analysis in the mid-sixties, she overlooks a prior history of white opposition to even the mildest forms of racial integration. For example, historian Thomas Sugrue shows in his Bancroft Prize-winning treatment of race and housing in Detroit that, since World War II, race has been the preeminent issue in city politics as whites have fought to prevent any integration of their neighborhoods. Though the riot of 1967 and the rhetoric and policies of Coleman Young surely did not help matters, Detroit's racial divide resulted from forces set in motion long before. Much the same is tree in cities with moderate or conservative white leaders that Jacoby would seem to favor. Thus, regardless of location or circumstances, whites have largely resisted integration in cities with more than a small percentage of blacks. Furthermore, Jacoby has little to say about the broader structural and economic factors—declining federal support for cities, deindustrialization, growing income inequality—that have had far more influence on urban politics than the Sonny Carsons of this world.

Only in Atlanta does Jacoby see much reason for optimism. Here, she writes, a pragmatic compromise between black political power and the interests of white economic elites managed to avoid the bitter divisions of New York and Detroit. Still, Jacoby acknowledges, this compromise has done little for most poor and working-class black Atlantans, and the city remains highly segregated. Furthermore, she condemns a crucial aspect of the Atlanta compromise, the establishment of a variety of affirmative action programs that have been important in building the black middle and upper class that she sees as a hopeful sign. 

Jacoby concludes on a pessimistic note, suggesting that integration has largely failed and will continue to fail because of black "underdevelopment." Yet, she omits the fact that "developed" blacks—presumably those with college educations and middle-class incomes—are just as segregated as poor blacks. According to sociologist Douglas Massey, "blacks in large cities are segregated no matter how much they earn, learn, or achieve."

The most important and serious of the racial realists are Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom [see Gore Vidal's, "Bad History," April 20]. Their book America in Black and White offers a sweeping survey of American race relations since 1940 and now serves as the primary text for racial conservatives, just as Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma did for liberals fifty years ago. The Thernstroms place great emphasis on showing how much things have improved for black Americans since 1940. To a large extent this is a straw man argument, since improvement from the dismal position that blacks faced in 1940 is not hard to show and since, despite what the Thernstroms say, few people would disagree that blacks have made great strides over the past fifty years. The Themstroms take this evidence of improvement to suggest that we need no longer worry about racial inequality, or at least that there is little we as a nation can or must do about it. They argue that the greatest economic improvements for blacks preceded the civil rights legislation of the mid-sixties, a point sure to find a receptive audience among those conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza and Richard Epstein who call for the scaling back or repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Further progress, they maintain, is thus just a matter of time or of blacks' improving their attitudes and family structures.

Yet the Thernstroms' own data tell a different and more complicated and pessimistic story, one in which progress has stalled or gone into retreat. Take, for example, black economic progress. Much of this was due to factors that are no longer present—the post-World War II economic boom and the migration of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North. In fact, the Thernstroms' data suggest very little real progress in blacks' economic position, since most of the improvement came from the migration from South to North. Today, as they indicate, black incomes relative to whites' are no better than they were in the North in the early fifties. It's just that so many have moved out of an even worse position in the South. Such a migration, however, is no longer possible today.

The Thernstroms also point to the rise of the black middle class as a source of hope. But once again, their data show that this improvement was largely a function of government programs and policies. The same is true in higher-paying professional occupations, where real improvements came only after the passage of civil rights legislation and the implementation of affirmative action policies by governments, schools and employers. For example, between 1940 and 1970 the number of black doctors rose from only 4,160 to 6,044, but from 1970 to 1990 it grew to 20,874. Similarly, between 1940 and 1970 the number of black lawyers went from 1,000 to 3,703. Over the next twenty years, however, the number grew to 27,320. Given this evidence, it seems clear that the growth of the black middle class has been aided significantly by federal programs, especially the increased federal spending on education and social programs that formed central parts of the War on Poverty in the sixties. It has also been assisted substantially by affirmative action measures since 1970. Nonetheless, though the Thernstroms celebrate the emergence of a black middle class, they call for abandoning the very programs that have been so important in its creation.

In addition to economic changes, the Thernstroms place great emphasis on changes in white racial attitudes. Once again, they are correct in asserting that these attitudes have changed dramatically in the past fifty years; overt expressions of racism are extremely difficult to find in current public opinion polls. But, like Wolfe, the Thernstroms take this evidence at face value and fail to address the findings of various social scientists who suggest that white support for racial equality is far more limited. For example, political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders show that white attitudes regarding a variety of racial policies are best predicted by their responses to various measures of "racial resentment," and that these measures of racial resentment correlate strongly with traditional stereotypes that blacks are lazy, unintelligent and violent. Thus, Kinder and Sanders conclude that the conservative views of whites on matters of racial policy stem more from their antiblack views than from any principled commitment to individualism, meritocracy or limited government. The Thernstroms, however, barely even acknowledge this contrary evidence, referring to it only in an endnote, where they call it "obnoxious."

The arguments in these books suggest not racial realism but rather racial revanchism, similar to the intellectual and political arguments used by socalled progressives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to undercut and roll back the egalitarian gains of Reconstruction. Indeed, the very language of the so-called racial realists matches closely with that of their earlier counterparts. Then as now, racial conservatives cast their arguments as "hardheaded" and "realistic," in contrast to the "romantic" and "radical" ideas of blacks and their white radical allies. For example, in his review of the Thernstroms' book in The New Republic, Alan Wolfe praised their reliance on "facts" in contrast to the "feelings" used by author David Shipler in his recent and more liberal book, A Country of Strangers. The "facts" were also employed by earlier racial realists, most often regarding the supposed differences between blacks and whites. To them, blacks were genetically and culturally inferior to whites, often lazy, promiscuous and prone to crime. Echoes of this are evident among today's racial realists. "It is not too much to say that our history ill suited us for freedom," claims Steele, mimicking those after the Civil War who argued that blacks were unfit for a life outside slavery. Similarly, Jacoby, with references to the "cancer of black underdevelopment," the "forced interaction between people who are not social or economic equals" and the need for "extensive acculturation—programs to change people's habits, their attitudes toward school, work and the law," seems to have drawn her analysis from Jim Crow's defenders.

In the late nineteenth century, racial conservatives pleaded for "unity" at the expense of justice and equality. Healing the sectional wounds of the Civil War took precedence over racial equality. Today, in like fashion, the Thernstroms suggest that, regarding current race relations, we adopt "a simple rule of thumb": "That which brings the races together is good; that which divides us is bad." Unity surely has its merits, but not at the cost of justice and equality. From the earliest days of our nation, black progress has brought division and white resentments. In fact, if the Thernstroms' rule had prevailed throughout American history, it would most likely have prevented nearly every advance in black rights, from the abolition of slavery to the ending of Jim Crow! There seems to be little reason for thinking that future black progress will be any less divisive, especially since the racial realists stand ready and willing to oppose nearly any government effort to help black Americans. 

The current racial-realist calls for "colorblind" policies also hark back to an earlier era. The time had come, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in 1883, for blacks to cease being "the special favorite of the laws." Each of these authors echoes Bradley, calling for an end to what Steele refers to as the "entitlements" of race. Not only do such appeals to color-blindness minimize or ignore the continuing barriers to black progress, but they also fail to acknowledge that some of the most racially discriminatory legislation meets their test of evenhandedness and racial neutrality. Poll taxes and literacy tests made no distinction according to race. Nonetheless, the clear purpose and result of such laws was to subjugate blacks to white rule. Furthermore, one could state that all efforts in American history to advance black equality—from state abolition laws, to the Civil War amendments to the Constitution, to the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the sixties—violate some abstract notion of race neutrality since they afford blacks a degree of specific legal protection not normally available to whites. Indeed, President Andrew Johnson used the same justification to veto Reconstruction legislation, claiming that programs to help blacks discriminated against whites. 

Finally, in their prescriptions for the future, today's racial realists offer up the same arguments as in the past. Active government efforts at achieving racial equality, the racial realists tell us, have failed since such efforts do not recognize blacks' inherent defects and because they violate white Americans' principled and nonracist commitments to individualism, meritocracy and small government. In the place of positive action, today's racial realists offer only tired laissez-faire bromides-in Jacoby's words, the "long, slow process" of education and "acculturation." Yet nothing in the analysis of the racial realists suggests that these prescriptions will work. Indeed, this has been our national policy on race for at least the past two decades and, despite the Thernstroms' false optimism, things are little improved. Such prescriptions and the analysis underlying them should, therefore, be seen today for what they always have been: not a reasoned and realistic appeal for progress but a disingenuous device to help turn the clock back on racial equality.

Philip Klinkner is director of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College, where he teaches government. He is the author, with Rogers Smith, of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of America's Commitment to Racial Equality (forthcoming from Chicago).

© 1998 The Nation

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