Getting Beyond Racism

America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 704 pages, $32.50

Bill Clinton is a profoundly silly and trivial man. To come to this conclusion, you need not believe Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, The New York Times, and the vast right-wing conspiracy that funds them, controls them, and brings them coffee. All you need to remember is how Bill Clinton arched his eyebrows, deepened his drawl, and wagged his finger at Manhattan Institute scholar Abigail Thernstrom last January at the University of Akron. In that celebrated exchange, part of the president's national "conversation" on race, Clinton--impersonating Geraldo Rivera on a bad day--asked participants whether they supported affirmative action in higher education. Thernstrom interjected, correctly, that the real question was whether racial preferences, not some vague concept of "affirmative action," ought to continue.

"Abigail," said the president in mock familiarity, towering over her as she sat in her chair, "do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell?" When she hesitated, he pressed on. "Yes or no?" he demanded. "Yes or no?"

Thernstrom refused to take the bait, and began: "I do not think that it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell...."

"He thinks he was helped by it," the president interrupted.

This is, apparently, the kind of conversation that the president would like to foster on race: superficial, bullying, and misleading. That Thernstrom wouldn't play along will come as no surprise to readers of America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, the new book she wrote with her husband, Stephan, a Harvard historian. America in Black and White is long (704 pages with notes), detailed, and full of numbers. It is also one of those books likely to end up dog-eared, worn, and kept within the easy reach of journalists, policy analysts, and others interested in these issues. It's a magnum opus that, one might hope, will do for issues of race what Losing Ground did for welfare policy or Capitalism and Freedom did for free market economics--that is, move an important issue out of elite discussion and into public view, helping to shape attitudes and opinions over time.

If it's about race, it's in here. The Thernstroms examine affirmative action, desegregation, busing, college admissions, redistricting, employment, poverty, housing, and culture. While the picture they paint of race relations and racial progress is complex, it is ultimately rosy. The gap between blacks and whites has shrunk dramatically in many areas, from incomes and living standards to educational attainment. This fails to comport with the world view of worrywarts, liberal and conservative, who view the racial divide as yawning and possibly unbridgeable. Many problems remain, of course, but the Thernstroms persuasively argue that to deny the past five decades of progress is to prevent serious debate about what remains to be done.

As a compendium of statistics and trends, the book is unsurpassed in its breadth and depth. Indeed, the only quibble that I have with America in Black and White is that, in some places, the intensity and complexity of the argument seemed like overkill. I felt as if, having already been pinned on the mat, I was being pummeled about the face and neck with a seemingly ceaseless flurry of jabs. Of course, I hadn't put up much of a struggle in the first place. Surely other readers need convincing a lot more than I do--and if their minds are open, the Thernstroms will persuade them.

As I read the book, I marked nuggets of unique insight about the sometimes surprising course of race relations, particularly as it intersects politics. The Thernstroms begin with an excellent history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the details of which still have the power to shock us today. One interesting fact they report is that while Southern hotel operators and (after some early resistance) bus and streetcar companies acquiesced to segregation--the power of white social consensus overcoming the search for profit--gas stations never did (except in their restrooms). "Filling up the tank was such a transitory and impersonal experience that service station operators would not sacrifice profits in order to indulge their prejudices," they write. Indeed, the advent of the automobile in the 1920s threatened much of the segregationist order, leading many cities and towns to attempt to impose "racial rights-of-way" at intersections and on lanes. It never really worked--reflecting, if you think about it, the natural tendency of the automobile to promote personal freedom in contrast to mass transit's susceptibility to social or political control.

Throughout the book, the Thernstroms challenge simplistic assumptions about the political and economic history of race. I didn't know, for instance, that right after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a Gallup poll found that black Americans were almost evenly split as to the wisdom of school desegregation, many either resentful of the "proximity theory" that black kids could learn only with white kids nearby or suspicious of efforts to dismantle the black public schools that had long been important institutions, and employers, in black communities.

Similarly, the Thernstroms discuss black ambivalence toward Roosevelt's New Deal. Though it coincided with increased black support for the Democratic Party, in many cases the New Deal harmed black economic interests--for example, by imposing a minimum wage that led to massive unemployment in the Southern tobacco industry. The black press even referred to the National Recovery Act, which may have thrown half a million blacks out of work, as the "Negro Removal Act." Even so, the black voting population that had backed Herbert Hoover in 1932 had by 1936 become one of Roosevelt's strongest bases of support. The authors ascribe the change more to the liberal views of FDR's advisers, such as his wife, Eleanor, and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, than to the economic policies they designed and carried out. Also helping to change attitudes was the president's tacit policy of increasing employment of blacks in federal agencies.

Still, the political allegiances of many prominent leaders of the emerging civil rights movement remained complex. When Jack Kennedy ran for president, he met with Martin Luther King Jr. to solicit his support. King's father was a Republican, and the younger King said that he could not see "that there was much difference between Kennedy and Nixon." He declined to endorse either. But subsequent events proved Nixon's downfall. A couple of weeks before the election, a Georgia judge threw the younger King in jail for a traffic violation. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his sympathy, while Bobby Kennedy persuaded the judge to spring him. Nixon, meanwhile, chose to remain silent, resisting the entreaty of baseball great Jackie Robinson, a Nixon supporter. "On election day Martin Luther King, Sr. voted for Kennedy, and so did hundreds of thousands of other African Americans," the Thernstroms write. This represented a modest jump in black support for the Democratic ticket--about nine percentage points--but enough to account for Kennedy's slim margin of victory.

Of course, the flip side of growing black support for Democrats was increasing Republican strength among whites. Southern white voters began the trend in the early 1960s, but as the decade progressed, and in particular after the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965, many Northern whites grew uneasy about federal policy, too. In February 1964, only 28 percent of Northern whites thought the administration was moving too fast on integration, but by September 1966 more than half thought so. While Kennedy had received 61 percent of votes cast by white unskilled or semi-skilled workers, Hubert Humphrey received only 38 percent of such votes, the remainder going to Nixon or George Wallace. By 1972, even traditionally Democratic union members chose Nixon over George McGovern.

There were other issues in these races, of course, but disaffection with policies such as forced busing clearly hurt the Democrats among whites. Fortunately, these race-based political trends have begun to burn out, according to the Thernstroms. Majority-white cities and states are now electing black mayors or governors, and some Republican statewide candidates are polling well among blacks (Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio got about 42 percent of the black vote in his last bid for reelection).

The Thernstroms are at their best in marshaling economic and social science research to disprove the nostrums of modern racial liberalism: that blacks haven't made much progress in the past three decades, that the progress that has been made was because of racial preferences, and that racial discrimination is the most important explanation for continuing gaps between whites and blacks in income, wealth, education, and other measures of social well-being. For example, the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 30 percent in 1970, and by 1995 had slipped further to 26 percent. This remarkable change can hardly be ascribed to anti-discrimination laws or affirmative action policies that weren't implemented until the late 1960s.

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