Race in America

Race in America

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 19 1997 3:30 AM

Race in America

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       First, I am glad that you agree with me that, as a matter of law and policy, police ought not to be permitted to use race as a factor in calculating the suspiciousness of persons, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. I am sorry that you did not have occasion to discuss this matter in your book, but I look forward to hearing you raise this issue in other forums, since this particular use of racial distinctions in the law is poisoning our social environment in a terrible way. I am glad, too, that you agree with me that authors ought not to use phrases such as "black crime," since doing so probably nourishes the mistaken impression that there is something intrinsically racial--something "black"--about crimes committed by people who happen to be black. Unfortunately, you failed to weed out the "black crime" phraseology from your book; it appears on many of your pages. Perhaps that can be remedied in subsequent editions.
       Second, I definitely disagree with you when you contend that liberals exercise dominance in the national discourse about race relations. You write that "President Clinton can get away with a totally stacked deck" in terms of assembling the voices that shape public opinion and administer policy regarding the race question. The rejection of Bill Lann Lee, however, is one of many indications that your contention is wrong. You say that "the views of Shelby Steele and Tom Sowell and Ward Connerly are seen by the chattering classes as definitely on the fringe." Are the editors of the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, the City Journal, and the National Review part of what you call "the chattering classes"? If so (and I do not see why they should not be counted as part of the opinion-making apparatus that is often described as "the chattering classes") I do not see how you can sustain your point. For in these and many other publications it cannot be said that Steele, Sowell, and Connerly are marginalized. To the contrary, in these influential forums the ideas and sensitivities that Steele, Sowell, and Connerly articulate and represent are all too central.
       Third, lest my original review be forgotten, do you think that any of the criticisms of your book that I noted are well taken? For instance, wouldn't you agree in hindsight that it was an important oversight to omit any mention whatsoever of Patterson vs. McClean Credit Union (a case of wide influence involving allegations of egregious racial discrimination) in your chapter on race relations in jobs and contracts?
       Fourth, you are right in saying that the problems we confront are difficult. You are also right in noting that the policies with which I mainly deal in my writings--the policies of the courts--though significant, are of limited reach and must be supplemented by developments in the economic, political, and cultural structures of the nation. Where you are wrong, however, and very, very, very, very, very wrong, is in your suggestion--so at odds with your professed optimism--that the core problems that we confront are so difficult that any planned, collective governmental effort to remedy them is doomed to futility.
       Finally, you are wrong, too, in pointing to self-destructive, poorly educated, badly behaved Negroes as overwhelmingly the primary locus at present of the American race problem. In your writings, with a few exceptions (e.g., Andrew Hacker and other white liberals), white folks come in for sharp criticism only when they are at a convenient historical distance. Far more than you recognize, in terms of race relations, the ignorance, indifference, inertia, prejudice, fear, and anti-black animus of all too many whites continue to burden our long walk to freedom, justice, and equality.

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.