Race in America

Race in America

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Race in America

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Dear Randy,

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       As you know, we agree with you on the matter of racial stereotyping in the course of law enforcement. And, as you will recall, we are as uncomfortable as you are about phrases like "black crime," which encourage generalizations based on racial identity. So, we're with you. If conservatives want people to be treated as individuals, they need to understand what that really means. Others may shrug; we do not. And there is no place in our book in which we betray complacency on that score. But "conservatives," too, are individuals; we don't think of ourselves as belonging to any camp, and you shouldn't generalize from your experience with others to us. We shouldn't be arrested for the crimes of others who look politically alike.
       Second, you're not seriously disputing the dominance of liberals in the national discourse on race. President Clinton can get away with a totally stacked deck (no voices disagreeing with the need for racial preferences and other aspects of civil-rights orthodoxy) precisely because the liberal voice is considered mainstream, centrist, and thus acceptable, whereas the views of Shelby Steele and Tom Sowell and Ward Connerly are seen by the chattering classes as definitely on the fringe.
       On the question of the admittedly large sales of The Bell Curve: How do you know that the book tapped "into feelings of racial superiority and anxiety"? We have a lot of good polling data on white racial attitudes by now, which all tell the same story: White racism is way, way down. A Gallup poll in June 1997 (too late to be included in our book) indicates that only 1 percent of whites would move if blacks became their next-door neighbors. Only 18 percent said they would move if blacks "came to live in great numbers." Much other reliable polling--summarized in our book--paints an equally reassuring picture.
       Furthermore, if The Bell Curve tapped "into feelings of racial superiority," what did the popularity of other, very different, books reveal? Andrew Hacker's Two Nations, Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well, and Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler were all big best sellers. Their common message: Whites are racist trash. Whites bought these books in droves. Did those sales reveal white feelings of racial inferiority? We suspect neither generalization does much to illuminate the complexity of the racial climate.
       Finally, you say you have a concrete program to offer. It attacks only problems involving the administration of criminal justice. What about the appalling racial gap in academic performance? We think we have some answers, but we could use some help in adding to the list. Of black children living in poverty, 85 percent reside in single-parent households. Do you know what to do about the disintegration of the black family, which is inseparable from the persistence of poverty? On average, blacks in metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods that are about 60-percent black. We show that's much more residential integration than is generally assumed. And yet we would all agree that there is still too much residential clustering, a problem for which there is no easy solution. Or do you have one?
       It's the law that interests you, but legal change only goes so far. No statute and no court decisions will alter the out-of-wedlock birthrate for black women--a birthrate that is actually higher than that of married black women--a historical first. True, we have no concrete program to offer; but neither do you--we suspect. But again, if we can at least move the debate onto the ground of facts, which is what our book tried to do, then we can look through a common lens at the landscape, and think together about what to do.

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.