Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2235
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 convictions. In cities such as Detroit and Washington, D.C., in which blacks run the government, arrest rates were not substantially different. Much has been made of the glaring fact that blacks comprise 12.5 percent of the population but represent 40.4 percent of the prisoners on death row. Although this is certainly a huge disparity, the Thernstroms point out that the percentage is actually smaller than one would expect considering that 58 percent of those in jail for murder are black.
One of the motifs of their book is that it is false to assume that all disparities between the races are the result of racism. In the chapter on politics, the authors examine the common perception that the political system is biased against black Americans and they are not well represented in government. The Thernstroms answer with statistics: Between 1967 and 1993, blacks won mayoral seats in 87 cities with populations of over fifty thousand. In many of those cities, blacks were a minority. In the South in 1968, there were three black mayors; in 1996, there were 290. These numbers remain lower nationwide than the black population would warrant. However, the authors note that whites belong, in substantial numbers, to two different political parties, while blacks are inclined to belong to one party almost exclusively. In Republican districts, Democratic black candidates have little chance to win. In Democratic districts, they tend to win in direct proportion to their numbers. For example, in the 1992 general election, blacks made up 14 percent of Democratic primary voters, and they won 14.4 percent of the seats occupied by Democrats in the House of Representatives. In 1994, their percentage of seats actually rose above their ratio, to 18 percent. Despite the clear progress, charges that African American candidates lose elections because of racism continue to be made. In fact, the Thernstroms demonstrate the converse. Whites are willing to vote for black candidates over white candidates, but blacks are unwilling to vote for whites over blacks.
Despite this revolutionary progress, much of the intelligentsia persists in attributing black problems to white racism. In this way, they justify using race-conscious solutions such as preferences, quotas, and racial gerrymandering. The Thernstroms believe that such solutions are either ineffectual or have created new problems. Part 3 of America in Black and White analyzes the origins and uses of race-conscious policies to promote racial equality and questions the degree to which those policies have contributed to black progress. Chapters on public school desegregation, university admissions policies, skills tests, voting, and jobs and contracts all demonstrate the manner in which the original goal of the Civil Rights movement—a color-blind society—was transformed into laws that foster a color- conscious and unjust society. One of the problems with civil rights law, say the Thernstroms, is that it has come to be based on a clumsy tool—the “statistical yardstick”—that oversimplifies data to prove that a race-conscious solution is necessary to erase racial disparity. As a result, the original intentions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have been controverted, and equal results have replaced equal opportunity as the goal. In business, for example, the government assumes that numerical disparities between the percentages of white and black (and other ethnic) employees in the workforce are evidence of discrimination. In order to avoid being sued by their government, therefore, companies use ethnic quotas that discriminate against whites to eliminate such disparities. The Thernstroms believe that inferring discrimination from percentages of ethnic groups in the workforce fails to take into consideration levels of experience, quality of education, and cognitive ability.
A similar misuse of statistical measuring occurs in education and voting. The authors note that the original mandate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended laws that segregated children in the South, soon became a mission to balance the racial makeup of schools all over the country, whether they had a history of segregation laws or not. The result was busing children to achieve arbitrarily determined “ideal” racial mixtures. Likewise with voting: Operating within its original limitations, the law, which required the Justice Department’s “prescreening” of changes in voting procedures, was very successful. Like its predecessor, however, it was soon to be interpreted liberally. Any district in which black voting participation fell below 50 percent became subject to government scrutiny, even if that district had no history of electoral discrimination.
The Thernstroms provide several examples to show the detrimental effects of this skewing of the intentions of the civil rights acts. They cite the disastrous effort to desegregate the Boston school district, in which a judge ordered an exchange of half of the sophomore class at black Roxbury High School for the entire junior class at white South Boston High. The result was a boycott of the schools by white parents and an increase in middle-class black and white flight to the suburbs. In 1970, 62,000 white children attended school in Boston. In 1994, 11,000 did. Similarly, in voting rights, the authors note that an act originally designed to fight discrimination came to insist upon extraordinary measures to protect minority candidates from competition. Gerrymandering, for example, has been used to create “black” and “Hispanic” voting districts. Finally, they point out that higher education’s effort to alleviate its own guilt by admitting black students to the top universities in the nation, despite test scores indicating they were not adequately prepared, has resulted in a significant number of black student dropouts. Admitted to fulfill a minority quota, many students fail who, at less competitive schools, might pass easily, gain self-esteem, and earn a college degree with which to enter the workforce.
Until recently, this shift from the original focus of civil rights law led the Civil Rights movement away from individual rights to the pursuit of group rights. This thinking, which can be traced to Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s 1978 opinion that “in order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race,” had become the norm, say the Thernstroms, until several court decisions of the 1990’s and the California referendum known as Proposition 209 challenged it. In the 1990’s, a new generation of Supreme Court justices began to wonder if such race consciousness might worsen racial relations. Whereas racial exclusion was the problem addressed by the civil rights acts of the mid-1960’s, by the mid-1990’s, in the Thernstroms’s words, “racial and ethnic fragmentation, driven in part by racial districting and other public policies, was perhaps the greater danger.” Although such rethinking has caused an outcry from such advocates of race consciousness as Jesse Jackson, who called one court decision “ethnic cleansing,” the Thernstroms are careful to show that the Supreme Court’s reconsideration of civil rights law is an effort to return a wayward movement to its original direction and intent.
The authors warn that continuing to classify by race, to remedy by race, and to engineer racially separate electoral districts, college admissions pools, and work contracts is to segregate American society, not unify it. Their research shows that black Americans have been included in American society to a much greater extent than acknowledged. However, they warn that misperceptions and public policies based on them can drive a wedge between the races. Such divisions could have dire consequences for American society.
America in Black and White provides an antidote to the cynical rhetoric of racial separatism and pessimism so commonly used in discourse about race. It supplies an enormous array of facts to support its contentions. Only through a compendium of such facts, the authors seem to believe, can readers gain the perspective necessary to see and fully understand black and white America’s relationship. Noting that their own study is a response to Andrew Hacker’s best-sellingTwo Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992), the Thernstroms argue that America is, indeed, one nation, “no longer separate, much less unequal than it once was, and by many measures, less hostile.” They conclude by reaffirming their own commitment to a color-blind society that they believe was the original and proper goal of the Civil Rights movement.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXVII, September 20, 1997, p. 32.
The American Spectator. XXX, October, 1997, p. 70.
Business Week. September 22, 1997, p. 12.
Chicago Tribune. September 17, 1997, p. I19.
Forbes. CLX, August 11, 1997, p. 76.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 12, 1997, p. 11.
The New Republic. CCXVII, September 29, 1997, p. 27.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 7, 1997, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly. CXLIV, July 7, 1997, p. 55.
Time. CL, September 8, 1997, p. 60.
The Wall Street Journal. September 4, 1997, p. A9.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, October 12, 1997, p. 1.