America in Black and White


Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, by Andrew Hacker, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 266 pages, $24.95

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 169 pages, $14.95

There were two major surprises for me in reading these two books. First, I did not previously believe I would ever read anything by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that would not offend me to the depths of my libertarian being. Second, until reading Andrew Hacker's book, I did not believe that any single volume could compact into itself almost all of the smugness, scruffiness, asininity, self-righteousness, historical hysteria, and platitudinous, base, loutish, laughable, and mind-boggling image juggling that has come to be the scrofulous trademark of what most of us think of when we think of modern, Big Brother-Big Government liberalism. Hacker, who teaches political science at Queens College in New York, handles it neatly.

To cut to the chase: Schlesinger believes that the American melting pot works. His entire book is a paean of praise for this remarkable American accomplishment, the making of Americans out of the most diverse population on earth, while still offering plenty of elbow room for separate or even idiosyncratic cultural identities and practices. Now there's a liberal you could learn to love.

The liberal you should learn to loathe sees America as a failed experiment in which non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants "are allowed entry on the condition that they serve as cheap labor and live unobtrusively. Many will tell you that, now, as in the past, they find their religions scorned, their customs ridiculed, and their features caricatured." Now listen, the whole damned book is like that!

Heard anything nice about Asians lately? Well, "right now it is science and technology where Asian talents are being co-opted." Co-opted? Like poor Mr. Wang and his exploitable little company?

Remember the bad old days when Soviet "historians" were claiming that everything from basketball to aviation was invented, actually, in the USSR? Hacker has his own version of this sort of fantasizing, a version reminiscent of the claim that Beethoven was a German-African because he resembled one. Hacker's crazed addition is based on the notion that, since Alexander Graham Bell worked with an Afro-draftsman named Lewis Howard Latimer, Latimer "should be recognized as the coequal inventor of the telephone."

Or try this one: "The fact that some Pre-Columbian sculptures have what could be seen as Negroid features strengthens the supposition that it was Africans who first sailed across the Atlantic to America."

Or did you think that South Africa was the end of the racist line? Hah. "America's version of apartheid, while lacking overt legal sanction, comes closest to the system even now being reformed in the land of its invention."

Or did you think that the European heritage merely "imposes" the disciplines of science, the music of the classical era, and other oppressive stuff like that? Well, you are partly correct. But to hone Great Truth to its sharpest Hackerian edge you must consider that "if the European heritage imposes the regimens of standardized tests, the African dream inspires discursive storytelling celebrating the soul and the spirit."

Is there hope? Not really. "What other Americans know and remember is that blacks alone were brought as chattels to be bought and sold like livestock. As has been noted, textbooks now point out that surviving slavery took a skill and stamina that no other race has been called upon to sustain. Yet this is not what others choose to recall. Rather, there remains an unarticulated suspicion: Might there be something about the black race that suited them for slavery? This is not to say that anyone argues that human bondage was justified. Still, the facts that slavery existed for so long and was so taken for granted cannot be erased from American minds. This is not the least reason why other Americans—again, without openly saying so—find it not improper that blacks still serve as maids and janitors, occupations seen as involving physical skills rather than mental aptitudes."

Most of those "other American" minds, I feel, could be loosely packed into the cloaca of Andrew Hacker's hate- and spite-filled head.

Well, maybe there is some hope. But "there is scant evidence that the majority of white Americans are ready to invest in redistributive programs, let alone give of themselves in more exacting ways." This notion of redistribution is not further defined; it just lies there in this hog wallow of a book, like a great flatulence waiting to boom forth. Could it mean 40 acres and a mule? Or 400 acres and a million bucks? Or the sort of state socialism that has collapsed everywhere but in the perfervid dreams of American college professors such as Hacker? The solution of people's giving of themselves "in more exacting ways" is an altruistic vagueness that could have been written by an Ayn Rand villain.

The only realistic hope is futuristic and does not lie with the broad possibilities of human action. It depends on fecundity.

"Liberals also hold a theory about the sweep and tenor of human history. While seldom seen as a coherent philosophy, its premises occasionally become explicit. One such tenet is that the era of white dominance is coming to an end. If nothing else, birthrates dictate that the approaching century will belong to people of color…."

Come to think of it, if that's the case, why is Hacker so hacked off? He just needs to wait. Thank goodness he opted for the Ultimate White Liberal Guilt Trip—otherwise a libertarian might think that there is some natural limit to the idiocy of advanced academic, modern liberalism. There is not.

Incidentally, you can imagine what Hacker thinks about such people as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele. They, in his view, "assure [other conservatives] that blacks have played the victim too long and must be judged by the same standards as other Americans." Boy, talk about uppity attitudes!

Hacker goes on to show why he doesn't bother with arguments contrary to his own. "Real issues like employment and welfare can be deflected into a debate over Charles Murray's formulations versus those of William Julius Wilson…." Therefore, the reader is asked not to expect Hacker to advance "proposals for reducing discrimination and ending prejudice." He leaves it to "others to mention measures they feel can break down racial barriers, and bring more amity and equity to the racial sphere." These others will have a hard time of it, however, because "racial tensions serve too many important purposes to be easily ameliorated, let alone eliminated or replaced."

Now, let us turn to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., swimming happily upstream against the toilet tide of Hacker's hopelessness. I hereby swear that, henceforth, no matter how loony the details of any Schlesinger statement on public policy, I will remember this slim volume and its primal understanding of the American melting pot, and I will give him the benefit of any possible doubt and even a hurrah or two.

To Hacker it is essential to teach African culture to every American. (Whites, he says, do not need such special attention because "they are already privileged [and] their separate stories do not need special recognition.")

To Schlesinger, making such a big deal out of multicultural history is "underdog history, designed to demonstrate what Bertrand Russell called 'the superior virtue of the oppressed' by inventing or exaggerating past glories and purposes. It may be called compensatory history."

Hacker feels that the human race originated in Africa. He skirts the notion of civilization, which seems to have taken hold most dramatically in the Middle East. As Schlesinger puts it: "Many historians and anthropologists regard Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilization….If there were as many Iraqi-Americans as there are black Americans, we would no doubt have a campaign for an Iraqocentric curriculum—a campaign that could mobilize more substantial historical evidence than Afrocentrists have produced."

Where Hacker is beguiled by African soul and spirit and ways of learning, Schlesinger is offended. "But unless one is to yield to biological determinism and accept that the possession of a dark skin creates a unique black mentality and character, it is hard to see what living connection exists between American blacks today and their heterogeneous West African ancestors three centuries ago. And biological determinism…is of course just another word for racism…exactly the same theory apologists for slavery used in the American South before the Civil War. It is ironic to hear blacks using the same theory today."

Schlesinger quotes Frederick Douglass on much the same matter: "No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward the colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home. It is that wolfish idea that elbows us off the sidewalk, and denies us the rights of citizenship."

As to whether a multicultural, or Afrocentric, education would improve the self-esteem of black children, Schlesinger says, "there is no scientific study showing any correlation between ethnic-studies programs and the self-esteem of ethnic groups."

Schlesinger continues, "The New York curricular-revision task force [a favorite of Hacker] claims that the monocultural Eurocentric bias has 'a terribly damaging effect on the psyche of young people of African, Asian, Latino, and Native American descent.' The idea that Europe has produced one homogeneous culture seems rather weird. What is so 'monocultural' about the wild mix of people from Reykjavik to Athens and from Lisbon to Omsk? Can Henry Adams and the person he once described as 'a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs' be usefully regarded as products of a single culture? Churchill and Hitler, St. Francis and Machiavelli, Pericles and Dracula—monocultural?"

Far from improving self-esteem, an Afrocentric education will likely have a damaging effect. "If some Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he would not be likely to come up with anything more diabolically effective than Afrocentrism."

Schlesinger suggests how multiculturalism can expand and get totally out of hand by citing the case of the Harvard historian Stephen Thernstrom, who gave up his population-history course because of a firestorm ignited by his "racist" use of the term Indians, instead of Native Americans, and his reference to "Oriental" religion, which was seen as "colonial and imperialistic" in a six-page student denunciation of the professor. "The episode reminds one," Schlesinger writes, "of the right-wing students who in Joe McCarthy's days used to haunt the classrooms of liberal Harvard professors (like me) hoping to catch whiffs of Marxism emanating from the podium."

A sad end of all this, he concludes, is that "the cult of ethnicity defines the republic not as a polity of individuals but as congeries of distinct and inviolable cultures. When a student sent a memorandum to the 'diversity education committee' at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her 'deep regard for the individual,' a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges [sic] the 'individuals' belonging to the largest or dominant group.'"

To Schlesinger, bless his almost classically liberal heart (certainly in comparison to hopeless, intolerant Hacker), there is hope:

"The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins. It has done so because democratic principles provide both the philosophical bond of union and practical experience in civic participation. The American Creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based on inviolable ethnic communities. The Constitution turns on individual rights, not on group rights. Law, in order to rectify past wrongs, has from time to time (and in my view often properly so) acknowledged the claims of groups; but this is the exception and not the rule.

"Our democratic principles contemplate an open society founded on tolerance of differences and on mutual respect. In practice, America has been more open to some than to others. But it is more open to all today than it was yesterday and is likely to be even more open tomorrow than today. The steady movement of American life has been from exclusion to inclusion."

Karl Hess is a writer living in Kearneysville, West Virginia, while he awaits a heart transplant and works on an autobiography.