Race in America

Race in America

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 17 1997 3:30 AM

Race in America

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Randy:

Advertisement

       That Bill Lann Lee's nomination was temporarily stopped by the GOP-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee simply suggests that a few Republicans for once had the courage to join the overwhelming majority of Americans in opposing racial preferences. The Civil Rights Act of 1997, which reaffirms the nondiscriminatory language of the great 1964 Civil Rights Act, has suffered quite a different fate. Republicans are too terrified of the consequences of dissenting from the liberal consensus that dominates racial discourse to back the bill. You have named every national publication that speaks in a voice that departs from civil-rights orthodoxy, and with the exception of the Wall Street Journal, these publications reach a very limited readership. Moreover, writers on race who appear in Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and other such journals do so under a totally unwarranted cloud of moral suspicion.
       You know perfectly well the depth of Steve's and my commitment to the cause of racial equality. And yet the most extraordinary abuse has been hurled at us by, among others, the president's point man on affirmative action, Christopher Edley, your colleague at the Harvard Law School. Two months before our book came out, Edley dismissed us as unfit for participation in the national racial dialogue--a view that the president happily ignored. More recently, Edley has labeled one of us a "high priestess" of "racial counterrevolution" and our book "a crime against humanity."
       What price do those who engage in such dishonest, ugly rhetoric pay? None, because those who are viewed as part of the civil-rights community can still draw on the moral capital accumulated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. They have a free ride, even when they distort a work of scholarship beyond recognition and attempt to sully the public image of two authors whose disdain for those who are ignorant of the history of black suffering and indifferent to ongoing discrimination is obvious. (The distortion of our work in general is mind-boggling. Franklin Foer in Slate suggests we have failed to keep the integrationist faith and believe integration hasn't succeeded. We have kept the faith and argue precisely the opposite--by numerous measures America has become remarkably integrated. What is he talking about?)
       Nowhere do we say that all government effort is doomed to futility. Better public schools are fundamental to the drive for racial equality. But entrepreneurs are the key to good jobs--not the government. And (as the Institute for Justice has been so effectively arguing) too many government regulations inhibit entrepreneurship--that of blacks and whites alike. On the matter of "governmental effort," you say we are "very, very, very, very, very wrong." With five verys you have gone into emotional overdrive, at which point you cease to be a scholar and become an impassioned political polemicist. Surely, this is not an issue on which either side is totally wrong.
       We are sorry that you continue to fret over our sparse use of the phrase "black crime," for we do make your point, clearly and forcefully. This is what we say on Page 259: "We speak of 'black crime' as a convenient shorthand, hard to avoid. And yet, unlike 'black poverty,' it is a loaded phrase, implying some sort of innate predisposition to engage in illegal activity. As such, it seems to echo racist assumptions about blacks as a primitive people, gripped by passions, more likely to commit crimes unless controlled by white authorities. In fact, of course, crime is an individual failing, and the statistical generalization that blacks are disproportionately both perpetrators and victims must never obscure the vital fact that most black citizens are law-abiding."
       In other words, you have a point, and we made it. But for goodness' sake, keep it in perspective. When people use the phrase "white racism," are we to assume they think all whites are racists? Of course not.
       Two final points: We are not going to bore Slate readers with an argument over the Patterson case. And we believe that your charge that we paid too little attention to white racism is unfounded. But, yes, unlike Andrew Hacker et al., we do not view white racism as the central problem confronting blacks today, and we were heartened to see the results of a recent CNN-Time poll that shows nine out of 10 black teen-agers agree with us. If you want to argue about the level of white racism, then provide data. Otherwise, we're back to useless, anti-intellectual, counterproductive emoting.

Abby and Steve

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.