America in Black and White Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Surveying the current state of racial discourse in America, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom conclude, “Today we argue without a common language.” Part of a growing number of scholars who were sympathetic to the cause of civil rights for black Americans in the 1960’s but who have since recoiled at the misapplication of the intentions of that movement, the Thernstroms believe that the language of fact and reason will provide a firmer foundation for black and white relations in the United States. Committed to race-neutral policies, the measuring stick by which they judge today’s racial policies, they counter the lack of intellectual rigor in popularly held explanations of racial disparities by using sociological studies and some seventy tables to bolster their contention that American society has changed in revolutionary ways. They also criticize the misuse of statistics to further policies at odds with the original intentions of civil rights legislation.

The book has three parts. Part 1 traces the history of African Americans from the Jim Crow era through the triumphs and subsequent divisions in the Civil Rights movement. Part 2 traces social, economic, and political trends since the 1960’s, focusing on various misconceptions about the role of race in them. Part 3 analyzes the use of preferential policies.

Part 2 contains chapters on the rise of the black middle class, the changing relationship between city and suburb, poverty, crime, and politics. It is particularly valuable for isolating various misconceptions about race and tracing their harmful consequences for black progress and racial relations. One misconception is that poverty defines black America. Whereas racial activists have a vested interest in such a definition because it allows them to blame racism for poverty, the Thernstroms remind readers that most poor people in America are not black and the majority of blacks are not poor. Although a significant portion—29 percent—are still poor, remarkable improvement has taken place since 1940, when 87 percent of African Americans (and 48 percent of whites) lived below the poverty line. Another misconception is that the Civil Rights movement has been the cause of economic improvement. On the contrary, the Thernstroms find that the greatest progress occurred between 1940 and 1960, when blacks reduced their impoverished percentage from 87 to 47. They note that a quiet social revolution has taken place: A considerable percentage of African Americans have migrated to the suburbs and risen to the ranks of the middle class. In 1940, only 1 percent of black families qualified as middle class; in 1970, 39 percent qualified; and in 1995, 49 percent. Black economic progress has slowed since the 1970’s, not because of the unyielding racism of white America but because of the economy’s general stagnation and the precipitous rise in single motherhood and crime in black communities. Even so, for two-parent black families, poverty continues to decline at an impressive rate, from 25 to 13 percent since 1969. The implication of these figures is that hard work, a strong economy, a life free of crime, and traditional two-parent family structures have more to do with black success than race-based solutions and anti-poverty programs.

Another misconception is that residential segregation continues unabated. The Thernstroms provide evidence to the contrary. The percentage of African Americans living in the suburbs increased from 15 percent in 1950 to 32 percent in 1995. Neighborhoods are more fluid and segregated than twenty years ago. The percentage of whites for whom it would make no difference whether their neighbor was black has risen dramatically, from 36 percent in 1942 to 85 percent in 1972. Moreover, those who argue that racism is responsible for segregated living arrangements assume that, given a choice, black house-hunters prefer all-white neighborhoods. In fact, the Thernstroms argue, they are more inclined to gravitate to where other African Americans have gone before them. Far more important than race are the possible social and economic problems accompanying an influx of poor people, and this is a concern that black middle-class residents share with their white counterparts.

Another popular misconception, according to the Thernstroms, is that black men are unfairly singled out for criminal prosecutions; another is that African Americans are routinely victimized by whites. Although such interracial issues as hate crimes, police brutality, and the disparity in the proportion of black and white criminals in jail gain the majority of media attention, the catastrophic fact is that African Americans murder and are murdered at rates far above any other ethnic group in the United States. At one-eighth of the population, African Americans comprise half of the murder victims in the U.S., and 93 percent of them are killed by fellow African Americans. The Thernstroms show that, in 1993, black people suffered 1.3 million crimes committed against them by other black people. Of the 1.7 million crimes between blacks and whites in 1993, 89 percent involved black offenders and white victims. Given these statistics, the Thernstroms think it remarkable that the public debate still centers on black victimization by whites.

They also refute the notion that the criminal justice system is biased against black Americans. They found that, in 1990, the percentages of whites and blacks prosecuted for crimes were very close, as were the percentages of...

(The entire section is 2235 words.)