Race in America

Race in America

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 29 1997 3:30 AM

Race in America

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Dear Abigail and Stephan,

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       I would like to make a few brief points in response to your response.
       First, writing a substantial book that warrants a long shelf life is a difficult endeavor. Your achievement warrants respect.
       Second, we are faced by more complacency than you acknowledge. My favorite example nowadays is the fact that daily, routinely, and as a matter of law, political and legal authorities permit, indeed direct, police officers to take race into account in calculating whether to stop a person for questioning or some other, more intrusive, investigation. At the same time that courts demand a compelling justification for making racial distinctions in the affirmative-action context, they blithely permit racial discrimination in policing without asking for a compelling justification for doing so. We hear relatively little about this discrepancy in our law. And we do not see powerful political forces mobilizing in opposition to these racially discriminatory policies. Over the past year when I have raised this matter repeatedly with people who attack affirmative action and the purposeful creation of majority-minority districts, I often receive a shrug--a complacent shrug.
       Third, I definitely do not believe that liberals dominate public discourse on race. They may on certain campuses in the Cambridge-Boston area, but they don't in Congress or in the judiciary at either the state or federal levels. You mention the virtual unanimity of the Stanford University faculty in favor of affirmative action. Though significant, that vote is surely eclipsed, in terms of political importance, by the erasure of affirmative action from the public sector in California. I am very glad that you have rightly rejected the spurious findings and conclusions of The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Whether we like it or not, however, that book has been tremendously popular, in large part because it effectively taps into feelings of white racial superiority and anxiety, feelings that pose a large impediment to the struggle for racial justice in America, feelings whose prevalence and influence you unduly minimize.
       Finally, you ask whether I have a concrete program to offer. I do! And I think that you and many others would find it attractive. Proposals relevant to the administration of criminal justice are found in my book Race, Crime, and the Law. Proposals for racial justice in other spheres of American life will be forthcoming in a series of books to be published in the next few years.

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.