Throwing The Book At Race
A Benchmark New Work Turns the Accepted History of Racial Progress in America Upside Down
September 8, 1997
Reviewed by Tamala M. Edwards
What best symbolizes black progress--and white resistance--in America is the march. Haggard slaves marched north, using moonlight and north-facing moss to get to freedom. Years later, regiments of blacks again marched north, this time in the great migration, drawn by jobs and away from Jim Crow. In the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the most poignant images were of the march: from Selma to Montgomery, then to Washington and the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr. tell of a dream. New laws signaled the next campaign: blacks and whites heading toward an integrated, egalitarian society.
But decades later, Americans have not crossed their Jordan. In fact, for all the effort to make the racial issue irrelevant, it has become more pervasive and indelible. Last week a California law forbidding the use of affirmative action in state programs went into effect; movements to pass similar laws are afoot in other states and in Congress. One harbinger of that change: at state law schools in Texas and California, the end of preferences has meant classes with single-digit numbers of blacks. And as the Supreme Court prepares for next month's new session, its most anticipated case is one that could abolish affirmative action outright. Into this fray comes America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible (Simon & Schuster; $ 32.50) by noted Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom and his scholar wife Abigail. The couple are the latest in a string of former liberals come round to denounce affirmative action. But unlike more polemical authors, the Thernstroms pin their arguments to seven years of research, modeling their approach on Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 benchmark racial survey, An American Dilemma. Their prose is cool, not overheated, and their 704-page book is stuffed with tables, charts and graphs tracking black progress over the past 60 years.
Already, prepublication, the book is causing a stir. Christopher Edley, President Clinton's point man on the "mend it, don't end it" approach to affirmative action, published a rebuttal in Harvard magazine in July. Kirkus Reviews has declared the book "likely to be seen as the benchmark scholarly study of America's current anguish over the race question." The New Republic is planning an excerpt.
So what exactly does the book posit? The cornerstone premise for the Thernstroms is that things are not so bad as they seem, that both blacks and whites are better than, and different from, their stereotypes. Whites, they argue, are mischaracterized as a racist monolith, when in fact polls show a different picture. Whites surveyed in the 1940s wanted firm separation of the races, but by 1994 a majority told pollsters they have blacks as neighbors and close friends; at least a third say they have had blacks over for dinner.
Blacks are equally ill-served by depictions of them as poverty-stricken ghetto dwellers. The 1968 Kerner Commission report famously declared that America was in danger of becoming "two societies...separate and unequal." In the hysteria following the 1968 riots, the Thernstroms say, the commission overlooked data showing that blacks had been making substantial strides. And 29 years later, they assert, it is clear that blacks gained more ground in education, income and other areas before the civil rights movement and affirmative action than they have since. In fact, the first signs of actual slippage emerged around 1970. The commission also failed to foresee that 40% of today's blacks would be planted squarely in the middle class, or that a third of them would soon come to live in the suburbs. It was also wrong about the fate of large cities. Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco are today defined more by viable minority communities of Asians and Hispanics than they are by trapped blacks. The inner-city black population peaked soon after the Kerner Commission report and has declined since.
Given that, the book argues, the law should have gone no further than the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 and the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education case. Had reform ended there, the Thernstroms say, the American people would have done away with de facto segregation themselves, in the natural course of events and without racial animosity. Instead, Congress and the court were swayed by the slow progress of school desegregation and the alarms of the Kerner report. Forced busing and affirmative action were mandated, accelerating not just white flight but also a whole raft of policies that didn't help blacks and sometimes hurt.
The book marshals data to debunk both affirmative-action laws and the contention that persistent racism makes them necessary. Some of its points are compelling. To wit: Whose fault is it, and how much have we gained from preferences, when both poor blacks and blacks whose parents make $ 70,000 score behind poor whites on Scholastic Assessment Tests?
And if it is racism that has left black men unable to provide for their families and unattractive for marriage, how does one account for the fact that 40 years ago, marriage rates and legitimate births were double what they are now?
But in their zeal to offer alternative explanations for racial disparities, the Thernstroms often construct tenuous arguments. Studies have repeatedly agreed with blacks' complaints of redlining, but the Thernstroms posit that the key factor is more likely low black income--as if the fault lies with black people who don't know how to read their checkbook balance before they venture forth to buy a house.
These out-of-hand dismissals pervade the book, stealing weight from other provocative, thoughtful ideas. In the Thernstroms' view, black protest in New York City after well-known racial episodes--in Crown Heights, Bensonhurst and Howard Beach--is evidence that paranoid blacks blame society at large for the nasty work of individuals. (Yet the high number of whites who supported Bernhard Goetz after he shot four black teenagers on the subway is attributed not to white paranoia but to white awareness of high black-crime rates.)
"It is the almost unrelenting lack of sympathy to the other point of view that is most vexing about the Thernstroms' book," writes Edley. "The authors seem focused on readers who already agree with them. What contribution does this make? Doesn't it simply equip partisans with juicy quotations to score points?" And the book begs the question: If progress really is so great, why don't blacks believe it? Even those blacks who are high achievers are bitter about the racism they face (as witnesses another compelling book, Ellis Cose's The Rage of a Privileged Class, published in 1994). A recent poll for the New Yorker found that 65% of blacks say they have never been denied a job or promotion because of race--yet even a greater percentage believe racism remains a huge problem. Is this mass delusion or something else? Is there no way to get to the motivation or the origin of such black discontent? Shouldn't a study as exhaustive as this at least try to plumb that point? "You may be right," Abigail Thernstrom told TIME. The Thernstroms were "sufficiently tired" of the voice of black discontent that they chose not to get to the bottom of it. "I think that's a fair criticism of the book," Stephan says. "We didn't have the energy, among other things. That's an arguable failing on our part." Had they the energy or inclination, it might have made their arguments more persuasive.
In addition, a double standard is at work in the Thernstroms' assertions about black shortcomings and white attitudes. For blacks, the Thernstroms have concrete data--marriage rates, test scores and employment figures. But a major part of their argument--that white racism has largely disappeared--rests on the answers that whites give pollsters when queried about intolerance. It's an axiom of the business that people give pollsters answers they believe to be socially acceptable. "Even Jesse Helms wants a black neighbor--as long as it's Colin Powell," says political scientist Andrew Hacker.
Nor are the authors certain that an America devoid of racism--and of affirmative action--would match their dream. "The fabric of society is very complicated," allows Abigail. Why, for example, did so many negative forces--high crime, low test scores, family breakdown, joblessness, poverty--worsen for black communities in the years after 1970? The book suggests it was ugly black rhetoric, ensuing white anger and the failures of affirmative action that accelerated pathologies in black communities--not the rise of drug use, or turmoil over the Vietnam War, or changing sexual mores, or a general cynicism about authority, which affected society in general. Can we be definitive about what went wrong here? "Nobody knows the answer," Abigail told TIME.
The Thernstroms are disarming in their willingness to concede what they don't know. They say they are less concerned that readers agree with all their theories than that people use the data to draw more exacting road maps for race. Indeed, some of the data are cause for both camps to reassess their view of the world. But there is enough that is not addressed here that in the midst of the rising debate over affirmative action, the nation's longest march still seems burdened by too much ideology and too few sensible maps.