The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
to develop and disseminate new ideas that
foster greater economic choice and
individual responsibility.

The Weekly Standard
October 6, 1997

Cockeyed Optimists

By Dinesh D'Souza; Dinesh D'Souza is a John M. Olin fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, will be published in November by the Free Press. The Thernstroms Take on Race in America

Stephan Thernstrom Abigail Thernstrom
America in Black and White One Nation, Indivisible
Simon & Schuster, 480., $32.50

Just about every new book on race mourns the lack of candid discussion of the subject, deplores the hot-tempered rhetoric on all sides, and proclaims its mission as one of rising above the shouting and eschewing the simplistic positions of both liberals and conservatives. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom begin their book in precisely this way, announcing that they are challenging the orthodoxies of the Right ("There is no racism") and the Left ("There is nothing but racism").

Oddly, however, hardly any conservatives are criticized by name. The authors proceed to identify the rightwing position with one Jared Taylor, a white-power advocate who is hardly a mainstream figure. I am unaware of a single reputable conservative who espouses what the Thernstroms call the "see no evil" view that denies the existence of racism (or a history of racism) in the United States.

What the Thernstroms are doing, in other words, is posturing. Even as they bewail the dishonesty and self-righteous rhetorical positioning of the race debate, they are performing some dainty pirouettes themselves aimed at attracting the accolades of liberal reviewers. The Thernstroms recognize the need to take other conservatives to task in order to win favorable mentions in the New York Times and the New Republic.

Still, the main thrust of America in Black and White is directed against the liberal view the authors explicitly identify with Andrew Hacker's 1992 bestseller, Two Nations. Although influential, Hacker's book reflects the most extreme position among liberals. It asserts, without offering a shred of evidence, that America is a chronically racist society and that racism is likely to remain a permanent feature of the national psyche.

The Thernstroms devote the better part of 500 pages, including scores of tables and charts, to refuting this view. They review the history of black progress in the past half-century and show that blacks have made impressive strides in education, earnings, and political power. Indeed, while the legal changes enacted during the civil rights era may have consolidated these gains, the Thernstroms point out that in many areas, black advancement was no less rapid between 1945 and 1964 than in the two succeeding decades. They also chart the trajectory of improving race relations between whites and blacks.

The Thernstroms are at their best when they are discrediting liberal shibboleths. One example is their persuasive critique of Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's book American Apartheid, which attributes many of the continuing problems of the black community to the fact that black housing patterns are roughly as segregated as they have ever been. Longtime affirmative-action critic Nathan Glazer credits the Massey-Denton book with his newfound support for racial preferences for blacks. But the Thernstroms offer strong evidence that should compel Glazer to reconsider. In 1970 only 3.6 million blacks, or 16 percent of the black population, lived in the suburbs. In 1995 that number increased to 10.6 million, or 32 percent of the black population. Even in the inner city, most blacks today live in mixed-race neighborhoods that include substantial numbers of whites, Hispanics, and Asians.

Moreover, statisticians measure residential segregation by positing as ideal a neighborhood in which blacks make up precisely their proportion in the general population. Scholars use an "index of dissimilarity" to chart departures from this norm. The Thernstroms show the limitations of this device. They cite surveys showing that most blacks prefer to live in neighborhoods with black populations around 50 percent. What all of this means is that the enforced patterns of inner-city segregation Massey and Denton allege are greatly exaggerated, and that homeowner preferences, which Massey and Denton discount, are an important factor in determining the residential distribution of groups.

Of America in Black and White, the authors write, "This is an optimistic book." Based on the historical record, the Thernstroms" hopeful outlook seems justified. But if they have done a thorough job undermining the extreme position that blacks as a group have not made progress over the past several decades, they face a more serious challenge in dealing with the more nuanced position, held by many liberals as well as conservatives, that for black America this is the best of times as well as the worst of times.

This position holds that despite the rapid gains of the past, blacks face serious obstacles in advancing at a similar pace into the future. The reason is that even middle- class blacks are uncompetitive with their white counterparts on virtually every measure of academic achievement and economic performance. Moreover, the miseries of a substantial subset of the black community—the underclass—have deepened in recent decades, with no sure sign of abatement.

Consider one bit of data the Thernstroms themselves cite: Blacks from families earning over $70,000 a year have lower SAT scores than whites from families taking in less than $10,000. This is an amazing statistic, and by itself, it destroys the liberal insistence that standardized tests merely measure socioeconomic status. It is also fatal to the general liberal attribution of black underperformance to white racism: How could racism conspire to make poor whites perform better on reading and math tests than upper-middle-class blacks?

So if the liberal position that blames black failure on societal deprivation is fallacious, how to explain such outcomes? On the right, there are two camps. The first, identified with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, attributes black underperformance to intelligence differences between groups that are, in part, hereditary. Now The Bell Curve may be—I believe it is—a flawed book, but it advances serious claims based upon a wealth of data. The Thernstroms, however, coolly dismiss it by asserting that "we strongly differ from Herrnstein and Murray" and "we do not find IQ a useful concept." These pieties may be sufficient for those already bitterly prejudiced against The Bell Curve, but many scholars who recognize the importance of IQ as a predictor of social outcomes are bound to find the Thernstroms' treatment of Herrnstein and Murray frivolous and unconvincing.

The alternative position, identified with Thomas Sowell, emphasizes cultural or behavioral differences in family structure, crime rates, study habits, rates of business formation, and so on, as largely responsible for why some groups do better than others. The Thernstroms seem closest to this view. At various points in the book they make references to broken families and the drug trade as obstacles to black advancement. But they are careful not to embrace the cultural argument, and it is not hard to see why: Doing so would undermine the optimism that the authors believe is their signature contribution to the contemporary race debate.

Yet is this optimism warranted? The story of black progress registered in the Thernstroms' book is largely the consequence of liberalized attitudes toward blacks and the steady elimination of legal barriers to black advancement in such spheres as education, employment, and politics. But that work is largely complete. As the Thernstroms' data show, blacks generally enjoy equality of rights under the law. The main factor holding blacks back today is not racism but the inability of blacks to take full advantage of the opportunities that are now available.

So black progress in the future mostly depends on a change of attitude and behavior within the African-American community. Presumably this would also require a new outlook on the part of the civil-rights leadership, or the emergence of new leaders to replace them. Public policy can help, of course, but its influence on the private domain of marriage rates and homework habits is limited. Consequently, the main responsibility must lie with the black community itself.

For all its impressive scope and valuable data, America in Black and White offers no evidence that any of these internal changes are taking place. Nor do the authors even advocate cultural reform as an indispensable prerequisite for blacks to advance more rapidly in the next century. The best reason to be optimistic about America's racial future is the success of the non-white immigrants, which has far outpaced that of indigenous blacks. If there is a case for feeling good about the prospects of African Americans, that case is not effectively made here. *

© 1997 The Weekly Standard

Visit the America in Black and White webpage



Home | About MI | Scholars | Publications | Books | Links | Contact MI
City Journal | CAU | CCI | CEPE | CLP | CMP | CRD | ECNY
Thank you for visiting us.
To receive a General Information Packet, please email
and include your name and address in your e-mail message.
Copyright © 2009 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.
52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494