Commentary Magazine


Speaking of Race

In the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson verdict and the mass rally of black men in Washington, D.C.—the so-called Million Man March—many Americans have voiced fears that we have entered a crisis-level breakdown in race relations. In a speech delivered in Austin, Texas the same day as the march, President Clinton spoke of a racial gulf that is “tearing at the heart of America.” On the day following the rally, Congressman Charles Schumer, a Brooklyn Democrat, expressed “fear for the future of the country,” and joined a bipartisan group calling for a presidential commission similar to the Kerner Commission established in response to the urban riots of the 1960′s.

Nor is worry limited to liberal Democrats. Charles Krauthammer, a writer who has been pointedly critical of race-based social policy, was sufficiently upset by the deterioration in the racial atmosphere to propose that conservatives consider supporting a presidential bid by General Colin Powell, even if this meant putting off goals like welfare reform and the rollback of affirmative action—on the grounds that Powell is the one potential candidate capable of healing America’s racial wounds.

While evidence of a worsening racial climate has been building for some time, the perception of a mounting crisis was triggered principally by the Simpson acquittal. Or, to be more precise, by the black reaction to the verdict. The image of black workers, black teachers, black lawyers, black students, even black women who had taken refuge in battered-women’s shelters cheering the jury’s decision with an elation ordinarily reserved for winning athletic teams provoked among whites a response in which outrage commingled with utter bewilderment. Black America, it seemed, had set aside issues of guilt and innocence, not to mention basic morality, to exult in racial vengefulness.

Especially disconcerting was the attitude of some black intellectuals who hailed the verdict while acknowledging the probability that Simpson had in fact murdered his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. A typical example was a commentary in the Washington Post by Paul Butler, a professor of law at George Washington University whose credentials include a stint as a federal prosecutor during the Bush administration.

Butler reports that he forced himself to remain silent on the afternoon the verdict was announced, but at night, at home, he “danced my freedom dance, along with my sisters and brothers all over the world.” Then Butler proceeds to defend, or, more accurately, to recommend, the practice of “jury nullification” in criminal cases where black defendants are charged with nonviolent offenses. Under this concept, defense attorneys encourage jurors to ignore the law and the facts in a case and reach a verdict based on group solidarity: in other words, they play the race card. Butler, who has expanded on this argument in an article for the Yale Law Review, contends that jury nullification is “morally as well as legally right,” asserts that “African-Americans live in a police state” similar to the East European countries under Communism, and proposes that black defendants in drug cases be set free en masse.

The idea that juries should disregard wholly unjust laws has a historic place in the Anglo-American legal tradition, but what is now referred to as jury nullification was once also properly considered a shameful blot on the American judicial system when it was deployed by white jurors in the segregationist South (giving rise to the phrase, “Southern justice”). Among the more important changes ushered in by the early civil-rights revolution were, precisely, policies aimed at curbing racism and race consciousness in the courtroom. But in recent years, defense attorneys like Alton Maddox and the late William Kunstler have appealed to the racial instincts of minority jurors in a series of high-profile criminal cases, and occasionally have won acquittals or hung juries despite strong evidence of their clients’ guilt. Now it appears that a desperation tactic of radical lawyers is to be elevated to the status of legal doctrine, and “Southern justice” is being revived in reverse.

Similarly, 25 years ago, assertions that black Americans live under a semi-fascist police state were the exclusive property of fringe radicals like the Black Panthers (and their liberal cheerleaders). In the current environment, the same arguments are advanced by law professors, members of Congress, and, if we are to believe journalistic accounts, black corporate executives. Whether or not we are experiencing a “crisis,” it is obvious that something is seriously amiss when the most successful members of the black community appear so thoroughly alienated from the larger society.

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The principal aim of American racial policy has been to create a large class of college-educated, middle-class black professionals who would feel comfortable in an integrated setting and at home with the virtues of the American system. This ambitious agenda has, in fact, been more than partially fulfilled. Where blacks were once restricted to the lower rungs of the economy and excluded from the corporate world, today most professions and large corporations are highly integrated, and most black families have joined what is roughly regarded as the middle class.

What then accounts for the disconsolate state of the best and brightest of black America? Some point to the instances of petty and not-so-petty harassment and insult which black men suffer daily at the hands of policemen, cab drivers, and shop owners; others, to continuing residential discrimination; still others, more broadly, to the prospect of an end to affirmative action.

As to the first, there is, unfortunately, no solution to the dilemma of daily suspicion until young black men commit fewer violent crimes; even blacks themselves admit that to regard young black men warily can be a matter of common sense, not bigotry. Housing discrimination is another matter. Unlike most immigrant groups, which over a few generations disperse throughout different neighborhoods and regions, blacks have remained concentrated in racial enclaves. This is partially due to black preferences, but discrimination, or even the expectation of white resistance, is certainly a factor in the continuing pattern of separate housing.

But much more critical than either of these matters is the current fracas over affirmative action—a case, if there ever was one, of chickens coming home to roost. This vast system of racial preferences, the creation of generations of liberal policy-makers and presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican, has in fact done more to foster race consciousness in America than any single event or set of events one can possibly think of. Thanks to affirmative action, we have all been taught to count by race, and the current “crisis” in race relations is, from this perspective, but the culmination of decades of consciously implemented policy. The ultimate professed goal of that policy may have been an integrated society, but its all too predictable effects from the very beginning have been divisiveness, resentment, and polarization.

Now that sentiment is gathering in Congress and in the country at large to eliminate racial preferences, supporters of affirmative action, notably the civil-rights leadership and its liberal friends and allies, have become more insistent than ever on its propriety, and more implacably determined to impose its regime in the workplace, in the schools (where it is also known as multiculturalism), in the electoral process, and, as we see in the push for jury nullification, in the criminal-justice system. But the controversy over this policy has also begun to take on a more public form than in the past, and some of what has emerged is not pretty.

The stress on racial differences—the heart of the case for affirmative action—has of necessity brought to the fore the painful issue of black competence. Thus, during the debate over admission quotas in the California university system, the fact was widely publicized that black students at Berkeley score on average 300 points lower on admission tests than whites and Asians; newspaper articles report hundreds of whites with higher scores being passed over for hiring or promotion in order to fulfill race quotas in municipal police and fire departments; and so forth. Indeed, every time the Supreme Court ponders a case involving minority set-asides, or Congress votes on a preference program, or a Board of Regents considers the elimination of university-admission quotas, or a white parent takes legal action when his child is denied admission to a prestigious school for reasons of racial balance, it is as if a small referendum were being held on the qualifications of the entire black population of the United States.

This is unfortunate, but it was also inevitable. After all, as the black economist Glenn C. Loury has acutely remarked, those now casting a critical eye on black performance are only availing themselves of the vocabulary of racial groupings “previously anointed by the advocates of social equity.” In Loury’s words, the critics “are saying, in effect, ‘Counting by race wasn’t our idea; but since you’ve raised the subject, let’s look at all of the numbers.’” Loury has in mind here principally The Bell Curve, a study of intelligence and genetics by Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein. But his point has much broader applicability: counting by race (the title, incidentally, of an early and prescient book on affirmative action by William J. Bennett and Terry Eastland) has brought us to this sorry pass—and worse.

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In his speech in Austin, President Clinton called for a “frank and brutally honest” discussion of racial matters. When it comes to affirmative action—a policy, as its critics rightly complain, that was conceived and implemented at the executive level of the federal government with little opportunity for public debate—this might be a good idea. For one of affirmative action’s most corrosive side-effects has been to oblige everyone involved in it to participate in a massive denial of how exactly it works and what its consequences have been. Even in today’s more open climate, those who break silence about these consequences are liable to find themselves excoriated in polite society.

So at any rate learned Dinesh D’Souza, the author of a controversial new study of American race relations. A young writer of conservative leanings, D’Souza is also the author of an earlier study of campus multiculturalism, Illiberal Education—a work which, despite its polemical tone, received a measure of critical respect. By contrast, The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society1 has been greeted by almost uniformly hostile reviews, some of them scathing. Writing in Time, Jack E. White dubbed The End of Racism “one of the creepiest books in recent years.” In the Washington Post Book World, David Nicholson called it “maddening . . . in some places unspeakably vile.” Other reviewers, perhaps in unconscious tribute to D’Souza’s ability to persuade, have fretted over the book’s impact; thus, Sean Wilentz warned New Yorker readers against D’Souza’s “potentially destructive” influence, and against the “ominous” policy implications of the book’s thesis.

Ironically, D’Souza’s policy recommendations are among the book’s weakest features; this is particularly the case with his central proposal that America jettison not only racial preferences but also the basic antidiscrimination protections encoded in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. D’Souza contends that under current law, black business owners are prevented, in theory at least, from drawing their workforce from within the black community—prevented, that is, from discriminating in favor of their own race. But thousands of immigrant entrepreneurs hire more or less exclusively from within their own group, without drawing the attention of the Justice Department.

A more serious problem in The End of Racism is its tone of unrelenting negativism toward black America. Page after page is filled with anecdotes, quotations, and statistics which reinforce a message of abject racial failure: failure to compete in the workplace, failure in the schools, failure of community, of culture, of civilization. The recitation is so pitiless and harsh, and so devoid of qualification, as to be at odds with D’Souza’s stated and patently sincere belief in the future of America as a multiracial society.

Most regrettably, D’Souza’s provocations have allowed his critics to ignore his telling indictment of black political and intellectual leaders. His main point—that the contemporary civil-rights agenda is predicated on a false myth of pervasive white racism—has been made by others (including some of his critics), but seldom with such directness or thoroughness. D’Souza offers up numerous examples to help demonstrate that as America has grown less prejudiced, civil-rights activists have become ever more obsessed with racism as the explanation for continued inequality, and ever more wedded to the expansion of government-enforced, race-conscious social policies. That these policies have not alleviated but, on the contrary, served to reinforce the dysfunctional elements in black life is a bitter and lastingly injurious legacy.

D’Souza’s argument leads to the conclusion that the most formidable obstacle to reform in American racial policy is black America’s dependence on government in general, and on affirmative action in particular. Poor blacks rely on government welfare; working-class blacks are disproportionately likely to look to the government for jobs; black students frequently enter college through admission quotas; black professionals are often reliant on racial preferences; black businessmen see government set-asides as essential to the success of their enterprises; politically minded blacks often seek careers in the flourishing race industry of diversity consultants, civil-rights lobbyists, and race-enforcement bureaucrats. These last D’Souza dubs the “race merchants”—the black political leaders with a stake of their own in the continued perception of white America as incorrigibly racist, and in the continued existence of a black underclass that will corroborate that perception. Such people can be expected to oppose not only shifts in policy, but any change in how America defines and talks about race.

Like The Bell Curve before it, The End of Racism has been attacked, as I noted above, for injecting an ugly tone into the racial debate—by which is meant ugliness on the part of whites. (D’Souza, in fact, is an immigrant from India.) It is true that recent critics of affirmative action have been considerably more straightforward and unapologetic than has hitherto been the norm in such discussions, and that in D’Souza’s case a line is recklessly crossed. But to ascribe works like The Bell Curve and The End of Racism to a recrudescent white racism is badly to miss the point.

For years now, white Americans have been told that the goal of racial equality mandates sweeping changes in many of the country’s basic institutions, and especially a shift from the thoroughly American principle of individual rights to the very un-American notion of group rights. This aberration has been justified on the grounds that it would lead to a reduction in black poverty, a revival of the inner city, and thus to an altogether more peaceful polity. But black poverty has remained static, the deterioration of the black family and of the inner city has proceeded at a disastrous rate, and race relations have gotten worse. Though The End of Racism is not the first or even the most cogently argued analysis of the catastrophic consequences of America’s recent race policies, it is the first serious attempt to examine race consciousness in its broad totality, and to locate its historic roots in American liberalism. For this alone, D’Souza’s arguments, infuriating though they may be to many readers, are ignored at our peril.

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Which brings us back to the much more blatant and more dangerous face of race consciousness today.

Even severe critics of Louis Farrakhan have acknowledged the impressive quality of the 500,000 or so men who crowded into the Mall in Washington. By all accounts, these were serious men, devoted to their families and communities, deeply concerned about their children’s future, drawn by a message of redemption and personal responsibility rather than by political pleading or race chauvinism. But theirs was not the face at the rostrum.2

Although many have urged that we honor the dignity of the participants while keeping a proper distance from the philosophy of the march’s organizer, there are solid grounds for agreeing with Farrakhan and his aides that this cannot be done. It was, after all, Farrakhan’s event: he conceived the idea, mobilized the participants, and gave the rally an identity distinct from any previous civil-rights demonstration. And because his imprint was so central, the march must be judged one of the most deplorable political events of recent memory.

Farrakhan’s own racism is well-documented. Bigotry is not peripheral to his appeal; it is central. Nor is hatred of whites, Christians, Jews, Asians, and homosexuals a phenomenon of his past. If anything, Farrakhan has become more aggressive lately in denouncing other groups, perhaps because he senses a greater receptivity among black audiences. Thus, in the course of a sermon in Chicago this past March, he praised the writings of a conspiracy theorist who claimed that international Jewish bankers financed the Nazis. “Little Jews died while big Jews made money,” Farrakhan announced. “Little Jews [were] being turned into soap, while big Jews washed themselves in it. . . . Jews [were] playing music, while other Jews [were] marching into the gas chambers.” This vile item is included in a videotape distributed for promotional purposes by the Nation of Islam.

Farrakhan has made it clear that he will neither apologize for nor abandon his hate preachments. And why should he? They are clearly one major source of his strength in the black community. Moreover, as often happens with demagogues, his defiant attitude has had the effect of disarming at least some of his critics, who rationalize his racism as something that he “needs” for political purposes but that can be set aside or ignored in light of the “larger picture”—presumably his message of self-help. Thus is bigotry excused, and a veil of silence cast over Farrakhan’s role in inciting racial hatred.

Polls already show blacks, by strong majorities, believing that the government “deliberately makes sure that drugs are available in poor black neighborhoods,” and “is deliberately allowing the black community to be destroyed.” Farrakhan stokes these fires, as well as the animus of blacks against groups who either live adjacent to black neighborhoods or operate businesses in the inner city. It is not too much to imagine his words being interpreted as a sanction for the pillaging of Korean-American stores by blacks, such as occurred during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, or even the murder of Jews, such as occurred during the 1991 troubles in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section.

Although in his speech at the march Farrakhan was careful not to go too far, others were less inhibited. Thus, former Congressman Gus Savage, well-known mainly for his anti-Semitism and race chauvinism, urged his listeners from the podium to stand up “in defiance of Jewish interests,” and asserted that while blacks had fought for Jews in World War II, for South Koreans in the Korean war, and for Vietnamese in the Vietnam war, now these three groups “have come into our community to enrich their own.”

As for the “larger picture,” it is true that Farrakhan encourages blacks to exercise discipline and to become small capitalists. But he also contends that black economic ambitions are forever being thwarted by the rapaciousness of “bloodsuckers,” as he referred to Jews, Koreans, and others a few days before the march. He thus provides a ready-made excuse for failure by reinforcing the perception that America is a society where everything is rigged against black success. Indeed, according to Farrakhan, blacks should reject integration into American society, and should regard themselves as a colonized people trapped in the midst of a great imperial power. Before the march, he announced that it was being held in Washington because that “is the home of our oppression.”

Whether or not participants in the march were drawn to the uglier elements of Farrakhan’s ideology, it is naive to think these elements did not resonate in the air. And even if open appeals to race hatred were relatively rare at the event, appeals to racial resentment were not. From Jesse Jackson’s depiction of contemporary America as “one-half slave and one-half free” to Farrakhan’s own statement that blacks cannot “integrate into white supremacy and hold our dignity as human beings,” the march featured a nightmare vision of America that is as divorced from reality as was the rhetoric of Black Power a quarter-century ago. Today, in a pattern that has become familiar, this vision is the stock-in-trade of a major black leader.

In that quarter-century, our society has become increasingly invaded by an insidious race consciousness, sanctioned and enforced by our own government. Louis Farrakhan, who claims to detest our American arrangements, is also an emblem of what one American arrangement—counting by race—has wrought.

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Is there any way back from this precipice? Should we, indeed, take up President Clinton’s proposal for a “frank and brutally honest” debate on race relations? In the aftermath of the Million Man March and the response to the O.J. Simpson verdict, one is almost tempted to suggest the opposite: Americans, it seems, could well benefit from a period of less talk about race—about racial feelings, racial differences, racial slights, racial traits, racial stereotypes, and all the rest. To borrow a phrase once invoked by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (for which, needless to say, he was promptly and savagely rebuked), when it comes to racial discourse we could probably all use a period of “benign neglect.”

But that cannot be—at least, not yet. The most pressing and urgent task before us, if we are ever to climb out of the morass we have fashioned for ourselves, is to tear down our absurd, counterproductive, and incendiary system of group classifications and preferences, and to reassert the doctrine of race neutrality. This will not happen without a struggle. The hysteria which has already attended the first, hesitant steps toward the de-racialization of government policy is but a sign of things to come. In the light of this response, some critics of racial preferences have even been prompted to suggest a prudent stepping-back from the effort. To anyone who still clings to the rapidly vanishing ideal of interracial harmony, no worse advice can be imagined.


Footnotes

1 Free Press, 724 pp., $30.

2 The crowd was also not a typical cross-section of black America, or of America in general. According to a Washington Post poll, 70 percent had attended college; the marchers also earned higher incomes than most Americans, and were less likely to have been divorced.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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