White and black. The categories are epistemologically absurd, but as historical constructs, they have nonetheless centrally shaped our national identity. Racial interaction has, over the centuries, been at the heart of the American story, shaping its institutions, dictating its policies, poisoning its promises. These days, there seems to be a widespread assumption among whites that a great deal of progress has been made in race relations and, as a corollary (we are a famously optimistic people), that further progress will inevitably proceed.
For many whites, this is another way of saying, “We’re sick of the whole issue” (“race fatigue” is the term some social scientists use to describe this spreading feeling). Mostly in private, more and more whites are saying they are fed up with hearing about black grievances, that everything within reason has been done to improve the lot of African Americans, that it has improved (even if damned few blacks seem willing to admit it, as one of the fatigued might say), that the improvement has often come at the expense of white disadvantage and that if anything more is to be done, it is up to blacks themselves to do it: to get the needed education and job skills, to rid their communities of drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare loafers.
Despite this popular (white) disengagement, an avalanche of new books about “the race question” has been released this fall. Two stand out as major reconsiderations: Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom’s “America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible” and David K. Shipler’s “A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.” The Thernstroms’ massive book will become something of a bible for those suffering from burnout on the race question. Learned, sophisticated, filled with impressive charts and statistics, announcedly anti-racist, it provides an encyclopedic rationale for being all at once optimistic and inactive about racial divisions. A legion of fatigued white hearts will sigh in grateful unison. For the rest of us, there is “A Country of Strangers.”
“America in Black and White” opens with six historical chapters about race relations in the 20th century; they contain no fresh scholarship and make for dull reading. The remaining two-thirds of the book focuses on assorted public policy issues and is both livelier and more deeply suspect than the opening. Despite useful data and scattered insights, the discussions of poverty, crime, voting rights, etc., are compromised by subtle partisanship and by a chilly tone of dispassion that borders on disdain.
The Thernstroms, for example, dismiss Huey Newton as “a man who both played at black power politics and led a life of serious crime.” Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is disposed of in three words: “sarcastic and abrasive.” When the Thernstroms come to the 1965 Watts riot, they talk about a “seemingly gleeful” mob overreacting to “an ordinary police action.” This manages simultaneously to reduce the LAPD’s long-standing history of brutality to the equivalent of a feather duster and black rage to a childish pout. More subtle judgments are surely in order: How about a respectful word, say, about Newton’s initial idealism? But that might dilute the Thernstroms’ determined equation of moral urgency with civil disorder. Militancy, they warn, leads to riots; riots mark “the end of hope.”
Meaning: the hope of winning white sympathy. To accomplish this, the Thernstroms sternly warn that blacks must properly engage the political system. Whites will vote for African American candidates and welcome African American neighbors who present themselves as acceptably mainstream in lifestyles and values. By implication, there should be no more talk about the specialness of black culture.
And certainly there should be no further calls for preferential treatment. Good riddance, according to the Thernstroms, because affirmative action policies assume blacks are “too crippled to be judged on their individual merit.” But if blacks had historically placed their hopes on convincing whites of their “individual merit,” rather than on a collective struggle against a racism that stigmatizes on the basis of group membership, there would never have been a civil rights movement.
The Thernstroms do acknowledge, grudgingly, that preferential policies “possibly” account for the accelerated numbers of African Americans now in law, medicine, engineering, academia and government. Still, the Thernstroms insist, affirmative action policies have done far more harm than good. As one example, they offer the “set-aside,” a policy that has “failed miserably.” Why? Because bribes, kickbacks and assorted other corrupt practices have become part of the process.
Yes, but what else could one expect in an economic system based on greed and endemic with corruption, the kind of corruption that long allowed racism to systematically exclude black bids in the construction industry. (Before the election of a black mayor in 1974, Atlanta, whose population is half black, gave exactly .5% of city contracts to black firms.) If the presence of periodic dishonesty is an argument for dismantling a policy or a system, then the Thernstroms might better expend their energies warring against market capitalism.
Their emphasis is elsewhere: on persuading us that white racism has declined to the point that it is no longer a significant factor in accounting for the ongoing plight of many African Americans. They announce, for example, that “naked discrimination” among real estate agents is a thing of the past. What bias remains is far less important in accounting for residential segregation than is the unwillingness of African Americans to live in areas that have no more than a handful of black residents.
This amounts to an inventive new way of blaming the victim. If blacks wish to avoid being isolated among antagonistic white neighbors, that is a commentary on white racism, not on black insularity. And the levels of white antagonism remain high: When a neighborhood becomes as much as one-third black, 57% of whites say they would feel uncomfortable and 40% would immediately move. In short, the welcome mat is, sort of, put out to blacks, if whites continue to dominate. We are supposed to equate this with social justice.
And we have not yet even discussed the plight of the black working poor and nonworking underclass. Twenty-nine percent of African Americans still have incomes below the poverty level (nearly triple the rate for white Americans). The Thernstroms find this “depressing.” But they are quick to add that “the black experience on this count has not been unique.” And besides, black poverty is not due to curtailed opportunities but to the disintegration of “intact, two-parent families” in the black community. (That single parents, supplemented by a kinship network, can be a viable cultural pattern the Thernstroms never remotely entertain.)
After all, they explain, “there is work available--even in inner city neighborhoods,” and recent immigrants, unlike “unmotivated” (unnervingly close to “shiftless”) blacks, avail themselves of it. We hear nothing from the Thernstroms about the wretched, dead-end nature of the work, the culture of low expectations bred into some blacks by centuries of demoralizing oppression, the accumulated rage over forever starting, and remaining, at the bottom-line entry level.
No such soft-minded (or -hearted) empathy from the Thernstroms. They prefer the Calvinist lecture: Blacks must learn basic literacy skills and good diction, “how to dress appropriately, wake up to an alarm, arrive at work on time, and listen to direction and criticism once there.” The Thernstroms, mind you, describe themselves as nonracists (and objective social scientists to boot). Is it any wonder that the number of blacks who believe whites want them to “get a better break” was down to 25% by 1994?
The Thernstroms regard such pessimism as “something of a puzzle.” It is for people who don’t see or won’t discuss the multitude of everyday slights that African Americans suffer (yes, even successful black doctors and lawyers) and the angry distrust that such disdain generates. Ellis Cose documented that anger in “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” but the Thernstroms dismiss him as “totally credulous,” a characterization far better reserved for their own obdurate forms of denial.
Much of what the Thernstroms willfully ignore or distort Shipler compassionately embraces. While they arrogantly pronounce, he humbly seeks, troubling to catch the subtleties of oppression, deeply appreciative of cultural differences. He agrees that real racial progress has been made in some areas (the number of African Americans holding public office or enrolled in college) but rightly insists that true integration--genuine power-sharing--has largely failed. In most institutions (the armed forces are the chief exception), power is still reserved for whites, and a belief in black cultural inferiority has subtly substituted for the earlier belief in black genetic inferiority. He believes that whites and blacks essentially remain “strangers to each other.” Where blacks read pride and solidarity, whites read touchiness and hostility. Where blacks find a comfort zone in separation, whites see a refusal to join up.
Some African Americans can travel back and forth between black and white worlds with what Shipler calls remarkable “fluidity of spirit.” They established an easy bicultural equilibrium between racial identity and mainstream assimilation. But many African Americans cannot travel so easily, and Shipler is at his most empathetic when describing their excruciating plight: Those who take the path that “leads out of the all-black comfort of family, neighborhood, and culture into the alien landscape of mostly white America” find life lonely, find a world where “whites, mostly, hire and fire and make the rules and determine the styles of interaction.” The effort to maintain their cultural roots while making it in the wider world means an inner balancing act that “tears at black souls.” Shipler suggests that if more whites understood this, “they would be gentler"--a lesson, perhaps, for the Thernstroms.
Whites might also be more appreciative of difference, better able to value the richness of black cultural forms, which Shipler in part characterizes as “the inventiveness of humor . . . the spontaneity of feeling . . . the warm interactive style . . . the sensitivity to relational issues.” And whites might better understand why the banner of “color-blindness” under which people like the Thernstroms march can be seen as insulting, as a willful denial of life-sustaining cultural differences. Many blacks are uninterested in “transcending” race, which in practice usually means assimilating to white values.
Shipler has no more patience than do the Thernstroms with the way some black nationalists invent and distort history for “therapeutic” purposes. But unlike the Thernstroms, Shipler understands that such “beliefs are windows into people’s deepest pain” and that such exaggerations are no more or less pernicious than white silences. He means the kind of silence that had guides at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello referring as recently as the mid-1980s to his slaves as “Mr. Jefferson’s servants.” The kind of silence that makes no reference in high school history texts to the black cowhands who drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail or to the black colleagues of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison. The lack of such material in the curriculum contributes directly--though the psychologically tone-deaf Thernstroms never mention it--to the lowered self-esteem (and test scores) of some African American students.
Confronted with the lying silences, the corrosive history of stereotyping and the stultifying assumptions about black intellectual inferiority, the Thernstroms settle for platitudinous harangue: “nothing under the sun except hard work” (on the part of blacks, that is) can ever bring about racial parity. Shipler opts for a different emphasis: “The real quagmires of blacks’ impotence” lie in “their tightly circumscribed political influence and their hollow economic stature.” He deplores the way white anger gets boiling not about black powerlessness but about attempts, such as redistricting or affirmative action, to overcome it.
Shipler’s moving, openhearted book lays bare the terrifying agility of American racism. It has deftly adapted to changing circumstances and invented new rationales to resist every new remedy for achieving racial parity. Shipler has already won one Pulitzer. For this book, he deserves another.