America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisibleby Stephan Thernstrom, Abigail M. Thernstrom
This wide-reaching survey of race relations in America over the past 50 years takes a controversial stance: that the perception of serious race divisions in this country is outdated--and dangerous.
Judging from the mass of social science data here, the authors (he's a Bancroft Prizewinning scholar at Harvard, she's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) seem never to have met a table they didn't like. The Thernstroms' reliance on statistics will strike some as a little too credulous at times (e.g., they too readily dismiss the possibility that many whites tell pollsters only what they believe to be socially acceptable). But in a debate long on pat answers and resentful rhetoric, they introduce often absent elements of thoroughness and dispassion. Countering the famously pessimistic conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Commission report that America is evolving into two societies, black and white, the authors convincingly point out that segregation by law is no longer in force, that white hostility has sharply abated, and that remaining inequalities mostly result from gaps in educational attainment, the rise in fatherless black families, and black crime. The first third of the book, recounting the history of segregation up to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, challenges the widespread notion that black economic progress did not begin until preferential race-conscious policies were implemented in the 1960s, pointing out that greater advances in the prior two decades helped make the civil-rights movement possible. Part II details black progress in the professions, residential integration, and politics, noting dismaying gaps between the races in crime rates and graduation rates. Part III examines the current climate of racial grievance. The Thernstroms conclude by calling for an end to policies and procedures such as affirmative action and the "race norming" of test scores, which they believe only polarize the races.
Likely to be seen as the benchmark scholarly study of America's current anguish over the race question.
Roger Lane The Philadelphia Inquirer On their chosen issue [the Thernstroms] have served a high hard one, a statistical missile into the other court. It will take more than rhetoric to answer them.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chairman, Department of Afro-American Studies, Harvard University This book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the state of race relations.
Linda Chavez The Chicago Tribune [America in Black and White] promises to become the standard reference book on contemporary race relations.
Thomas Sowell Forbes A very through history of contemporary race relations and racial policies in the United States....America in Black and White is a penetrating analysis, as well as a superb history. It should be "must" reading for anyone concerned about race relations in America.
David W. Reinhard The Oregenian A conversation-stopper in the best sense. The guts of this book will cause those on the left and right to stop and think before issuing the grand pronouncement or withering indictment.
- Simon & Schuster
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Preface to the Paperback Edition
Much has happened since this book went to press in early 1997. Perhaps most important, President Clinton launched an "initiative" designed to "promote a national dialogue on controversial issues surrounding race," appointing the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin as head of an advisory board.
The appointment of Dr. Franklin put the issue of racial change the central question in our book squarely on the table. "Every time people take a breath," Franklin has said, "it's in terms of color." As he described it, the brutal murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998 was "not all that much of an aberration. We have at least several incidents like that every year."
This is a view very different from our own. From the response of citizens in Jasper and across the country, it was clear that this sort of incident now evokes horror among blacks and whites alike.
Implicitly or explicitly the question of change runs through every debate on race. John Hope Franklin is not alone, of course, in his pessimism. In July 1998, Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, writing on the murder of their son, described racism as "omnipresent and eternalized in America's institutions, media and myriad entities." It's certainly easy to get discouraged, and Camille Cosby had special reason for bitterness. But such misguided despair, we believe, threatens further progress. If racism is truly ubiquitous and permanent, then racial equality a hopeless project an unattainable ideal. Gloom becomes a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy.
In fact, both deep pessimism and complacent optimism seem to us unwarranted. Americain Black and White had news, though, has been greeted with a measure of outrage that perhaps we should have expected. "Virtually the entire civil rights leadership," Washington Post columnist William Raspberry has noted, "has been hellbent on proving that both the passing of the era of oppression and the dawning of a new era are myths....It has become a virtual heresy in black America to acknowledge progress....When Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write...that the black condition, white attitudes and race relations have all improved dramatically, it is taken as an assault on black America."
It's tempting to believe that the hostile misreading to which Raspberry refers once again demonstrates how difficult it is to talk about race. But on this score, too, we are optimists. In the last year we have found ourselves in the thick of debate in a period of heartening political and ideological ferment. Today our voice is no longer that of outsiders. Indeed, last December, President Clinton invited one of us to participate in a "town meeting" on race in Akron, Ohio, and three weeks later both of us met with him and the vice president in the Oval Office. To an unprecedented degree much of the discourse on race-related matters now exhibits the more significant diversity of competing ideas.
Thus, former New York congressman Floyd Flake, a man with impeccable civil rights credentials, has become an impassioned advocate for school vouchers that would allow inner-city parents to make educational choices traditionally reserved for the economically better off. In response to a June 1998 newspaper article that minimized black educational progress, William H. Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund, accused the repo rter of paying "more attention to the vestiges of a past era of oppression than...to a dawning of a new era of hope, opportunity and measurable progress." The editorial page of the Boston Globe is a bulwark of traditional liberalism, and yet on 31 July 1998 it praised a speech by Justice Clarence Thomas as displaying "not only the courage to confront his detractors but also a lucidity that is all too rare in the nation's political discourse." "We may not agree with the road Thomas has taken," the editorial explained, but "we support his fight to take a different view, and we share his faith 'that whites and blacks can live together and be blended into a common nationality.'"
The winds of intellectual and political freedom are blowing. And yet ugly divisiveness remains the norm when it comes to one question: that of racial preferences. Why this should be so is a topic for another day, but even on this deeply polarizing issue, there is, we believe, the potential for common ground.
"Where race is concerned, it is time for facts to win out over rhetoric," Alan Wolfe argued in his review of our book in The New Republic. And indeed, the tendency to wade in a swamp of feelings is a central problem in discussions of race. We would like to see Americans get beyond race, and beyond emoting about race. If we can agree on the facts, we can work together to solve the problems. The point applies to the issue of preferences: move the debate from feelings to facts, and perhaps we can break the emotionally laden intellectual stalemate.
It is, for instance, an undeniable fact that the dropout rate of preferentially admitted students at highly selective schools has been very high. And indeed , in an April 1998 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, we calculated that the number of University of California black and Hispanic students who would actually complete a four-year degree was likely to go up with the end of preferential admissions. In the short run fewer will attend Berkeley; more will go to Riverside. But a larger number will graduate, which has important implications for long-run earnings. A hard look at data, in other words, conveys some good news to those who worry that the end of preferences will be devastating for non-Asian minority students.
The dropout data make another important point: the real issue (as Hugh Price of the National Urban League often says) is not admissions to institutions of higher learning, but black education in the elementary and secondary school years. Close the racial gap in academic achievement (a gap we discuss at length in Chapter 13), and the entire issue of preferences disappears. If we look together at the facts, surely many of us can agree: K-through-12 education must become the civil rights cause.
Closing that gap will take deliberate and well-conceived educational policy. But the most divisive issue of all that of preferences may melt away even without the all-out effort that our youngsters deserve. Cynthia Tucker, an African-American editorial writer for the Atlanta Constitution, has a Mexican-American brother-in-law; "Blaxican" is how she described her soon-to-be-born niece in July 1998. This past year, in the University of California system, more than one in seven students accepted for admission refused to check the racial classification box on their applications.
Half of all Asians are now marrying non-Asians; by the third generation half of all Hispanics are also marrying outside the ethnic group. The black intermarriage rate is slowly but steadily rising. The categories "Hispanic," "Asian," and "white" (always questionable) are fast becoming a positive anachronism, and even "black" is a label that is fraying at the edges. Cynthia Tucker's family is not an anomaly.
Is America moving beyond race? Billy Martin became a chief legal strategist for Monica Lewinsky in the days before she testified before the grand jury. "I was brought into a major case and delivered the kind of services that were needed, and no one mentioned that I was an African-American," said Mr. Martin, who added that race was never an issue. And of course one of the men closest to the president himself has been Vernon Jordan, whose race is also simply irrelevant. But more important, ordinary Americans black and white are working together, dining together, living next door, forming interracial friendships, and dating members of the other race. Nearly nine out of ten black teenagers now say racism is either "a small problem" or "not a problem at all" in their daily lives.
Racial progress is a train that left the station fifty years ago and has been chugging along ever since, this book argues. Moreover, there is no going back. But if doom is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so is hope. The ongoing struggle for racial equality requires faith in ourselves. Martin Luther King and the entire civil rights movement understood our capacity for fundamental moral change, and built a movement upon that conviction. In writing this book we hoped to encourage our readers to recapture their faith in America. And we like to think that, in this import ant respect, we have had a bit of success.
Copyright © 1997 by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom
Meet the Author
Stephan Thernstrom, the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University, is the editor of The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups and the author of several other books.
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