Race in America

Race in America

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 15 1997 3:30 AM

Race in America

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Dear Randy,

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       You're certainly on our intellectually most-admired list, and we appreciate the gracious tone of your review.
       America in Black and White is indeed quite optimistic. When, for example, the proportion of working African-American women who were employed as domestic servants dropped from 60 percent to just 2.1 percent, and the average earnings of black women rose from only 36 percent of those of white women to 89 percent, there seems considerable cause for cheers. But whether one stresses the good news or the bad news, how far we have come or how far we have to go inevitably depends upon what one thinks the conventional wisdom is. If we had thought that prevailing opinion was absurdly complacent--ignoring persistent inequality and racism--we would have written a book that attacked that complacency with all guns blazing.
       Perhaps we did devote too little effort to criticizing conservatives. But liberals dominate public discourse on race. One of us has written a mercilessly critical review of Dinesh D'Souza's book The End of Racism, but we did not repeat that critique simply because D'Souza's work had so little impact. We don't find IQ a useful concept, and thus we mentioned The Bell Curve, but dismissed it as having no value for our analysis.
       Do you really disagree that liberal opinion shapes the debate? Historian George Frederickson has recently noted with pride that in 1996 the Stanford Faculty Senate voted unanimously to continue racial preferences in admissions and faculty hiring. Can you imagine another topic (Bosnia, welfare, the necessity for a core curriculum, you name it) on which the Stanford University faculty would agree without a single dissent? It is that sort of unanimity that led us to focus on conventional liberal views.
       Why put the issue of affirmative action at the center of the drama? you ask. Our answer: We didn't. It is central only in the last third of the book. But, alas, racial preferences are an obsession in civil-rights circles--an obsession to which we responded. Jesse Jackson has devoted more energy to attacking the rollback of preferences in California than to discussing welfare reform, although the latter promises to have far greater impact on the lives of ordinary African-Americans than all affirmative-action programs put together. The civil-rights community is almost silent on the need for drastic reform in American public education, when that education is leaving so many students without essential skills. Why? It's a true puzzle.
       We tried throughout the book to move the discussion onto quite different ground: the record of black advancement through the 1960s; changing racial attitudes; recent trends with respect to poverty, residential patterns, education, politics, and so forth. Hence our immense amount of data--compiled in 76 tables. We were interested (as Alan Wolfe so nicely put it in the New Republic) in what the Marxists used to call "objective conditions." We hoped to advance the national conversation by presenting not only our analysis but also the evidence on which it was based, allowing others to develop alternative explanations, from which we will learn much. And we believe, as Wolfe argued, that only debate grounded in hard data can advance the cause of racial justice. Again, don't you agree?
       Finally, you fault us for offering few policy prescriptions. True. Historians and social scientists--unlike lawyers--rarely offer solutions. It's hard enough to figure out what the problem of poverty looks like; solving it is another mountain to climb, which we leave to you. Do you have a concrete program to offer?

This dialogue grows out of Randall Kennedy's review of the Thernstroms' book, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. To read the review, which appeared in Slate, click here.

Click here to purchase the Thernstroms' book, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible,from Amazon.com.