May 01, 1998
Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom are an academic neoconservative couple - he a history professor at Harvard, she a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights, a 1987 classic on the new racial gerrymandering. Together they have written a brilliant and important book on race relations, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. President Clinton should buy a copy and disband his silly advisory panel. He would save money, learn more, and create less mischief.
The book's focus is on blacks and their comparative standing in America. This, unfortunately, makes sense - not because other racial and ethnic minorities are uninteresting, undistinctive, or undiscriminated against, but because it is black-white relations that have driven, and continue to drive, public policies regarding race.
Part one of America in Black and White - "History" - begins with a discussion of the Jim Crow era; takes us through the Great Depression, World War II, and the great migrations by blacks from the South into northern cities over the course of this century; and ends with the civil rights revolution in the sixties. This history is nicely written and invariably fascinating. The most interesting conclusion to be drawn from it is the enormous progress achieved by blacks - economically, socially, and legally - well before the passage of the civil rights statutes, and certainly before the use of pro-minority racial preferences became institutionalized. Another lesson, sure to warm the cockles of every libertarian's heart, is that state and local government, not the private sector, insisted most adamantly on segregation.
The book's second part analyzes more recent social, economic, and political trends. It chronicles the growth of the black middle class, the slow decline of residential segregation, and the spectacular rise in voting and political participation by black Americans, including their accession to elective office. Conversely, the authors also recognize the persistence of black poverty and the disintegration of the black family. And they devote a chapter to the problem of black crime: "No issue so poisons relations between the races as that of black crime," stress the Thernstroms. "If the African-American crime rate suddenly dropped to the current level of the white crime rate, we would eliminate a major force that is driving blacks and whites apart and is destroying the fabric of black urban life."
The book's third and final part, focusing on racial preferences, naturally has been the most controversial. In it, the authors recount the transformation of desegregation into busing for racial balance; equal employment opportunity into coercion for race-based results; and the Voting Rights Act into a guarantee of safe seats for minority representatives. They also document the educational establishment's failure to prepare black students to compete for jobs and college admissions; the double standards in college admissions criteria; and the stubborn persistence of racial preferences in government contracting despite increasing judicial authority against them. The use of racial classifications and preferences, concludes America in Black and White, is both widespread and pernicious. They are not the way to ease racial friction - rather, they exacerbate it.
The history and arguments in America in Black and White are powerful. However, the best part of the book is the statistical data and, especially, the seventy-six tables marshaling the best of it. The authors obviously did an extraordinary amount of research to dig up all of these statistical nuggets, and their efforts are worth it. Conservatives have always been good at political theory but, without the neoconservatives' mastery of demographic data, the intellectual rout and political victories of the past generation would have been impossible, and we'd all be huddled together and frozen to death in Russell Kirk's root cellar.
My favorite table in the book was the next to last, which comes in handy if you ever hear America being put down as a peculiarly bigoted society. That table has three columns: countries, the largest minority group in each country, and the percentage of all people in each country saying (in 1991) that they dislike that minority group. The percentage of Americans saying they dislike blacks is too high - 13 percent - but it is lower than that for any European country and their respective largest minority group. Fifty-four percent of the East Germans dislike Poles; 42 percent of the Poles disliked
Ukranians; 42 percent of the Ukranians disliked Azerbaijanis; and so on. Next to the United States, the most tolerant people were the British, only 21 percent of whom said they disliked the Irish. And the French may worship Jerry Lewis, but 42 percent of them say they dislike North Africans.
Is America a racist society? Well, define "racist." Do Americans see a person's race when they see the person? Of course. None of us is literally colorblind. Do Americans make generalizations based on race? Most probably do. Even Jesse Jackson admitted that he is often relieved when the youths he hears walking along the street behind him turn out to be white, not black. Would Americans rather their children marry someone of the same race? A lot of Americans, of all races, probably do.
Is all this a bad thing? Yes, since generalizing about a person's likely behavior based on his race is very likely to result in inaccurate and unfair judgments. It's not irrational to make those generalizations when we have no other information and we have to make a judgment - the Reverend Jesse Jackson has to decide right away whether to cross the street - but too often people don't have to make a judgment based on race alone and don't bother to gather the additional information they easily could.
So America is certainly not a colorblind society. But that doesn't make us racist. Do Americans believe that racism is a bad thing? Yes. Do most Americans believe it is immoral to mistreat someone because of his or her race? Yes. Do they deny that race is the central and defining characteristic in a person's character and ability? Yes. Do most Americans judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? I think so, at least if they have the opportunity to get to know that person.
According to a Gallup poll last year, a majority of whites say they would prefer living, working, and sending their children to school in a racially mixed environment; would not object if blacks "in great numbers" moved into their neighborhood; and would have no problem with their children attending school with mostly blacks. Only one percent said they would move if a black family moved in next door, versus 44 percent in 1958. Most whites (59 percent) and blacks (75 percent) say they have a close friend of another race; among whites, that figure climbs to 66 percent among those age 18-34 (and 72 percent among Southerners). Six in ten whites approve of interracial marriage (the figure is eight in ten for blacks), versus only one in four in 1972. And among those age 18-34, the approval rate is 86 percent for blacks and 83 percent for whites (within the statistical margin of error). Moreover, by 1993, 12.1 percent of all marriages contracted by African Americans were interracial, according to a table in the Thernstroms’ book.
Most blacks (88 percent) and whites (82 percent) also each said they would prefer working with a mixed group of blacks and whites than with mostly members of their own race. The number of Americans who say they would vote for a black presidential candidate is "now nearly universal"; it was only 35 percent among whites in 1958. The three most admired people in the United States, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, are Billy Graham, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey. General Powell was the top choice of Americans age 30-49; Ms. Winfrey, for those 18-29.
It is one thing when the owner of a jewelry store keeps a special eye on the black male teenager who walks in - because he is a teenager, because he is male, and, yes, because he is black. It is another if he refuses to serve that same youth when he comes up to the counter. A society in which the latter happens on a systematic basis is racist; to call a society in which the former happens is, at best, an exaggeration. By the way, the Gallup Poll concludes that "[t]he experience of perceived discrimination by younger black males stands out as being distinctly different from other groups of blacks" since they are "much more likely to say they have encountered discrimination than any other segment of the black population," particularly "in terms of shopping and in terms of interactions with police."
It is too bad that there were still, in 1991, 13 percent of our people who admitted to disliking blacks. But what do we do about it? It is already illegal to discriminate in just about any public transaction. The government cannot do much more than it already does to pressure and educate people against holding racist views; we don't, after all, prosecute thoughtcrimes. Recent proposals, some by conservatives, to criminalize all discrimination are singularly stupid and scary ideas. Preferences are themselves discriminatory and unfair, and the Thernstroms are right to argue that they make matters worse, not better.
But there are things that individuals can do. Old white racists are doing their part, by dying off. The 13 percent who dislike blacks are in fact disproportionately older folks, according to other polling data. And that cohort will shrink over time. Social pressure, individual soul searching, and God will help with younger people. And so, to put it bluntly, will lowered rates of black illegitimacy, crime, and drug use, and a stronger commitment among black parents to forcing their children to achieve academic excellence. That's where Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume should be spending their time.
One last tidbit from the Gallup poll: a majority of blacks and whites say that blacks should focus on improving themselves rather than "changing the system."
The brilliant work of intellectually honest people like Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom will play an important part, too, in ensuring that race relations continue to improve. The uncommon good sense and painstaking scholarship of America in Black and White could not have come at a better time.
Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C.