Commentary Magazine

America in Black and White by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom

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

Suppose you were on a trip to London, Jerusalem, or Nairobi, and were asked by a friend there to describe race relations back home in the United States. You are neither an academic specialist nor a government official; you are, rather, a typical white American with an ordinary range of knowledge and reasonable intelligence. What would you say?

You would, I think, say that blacks and whites in America still have problems getting along, but that these problems are much less severe than they once were. There are blacks where you work, where you shop, and where your children go to school. You know many middle-class blacks and often visit with them. Not only are blacks prominent in sports, they play a great variety of roles—mostly, in your opinion, rather attractive ones—in television and the movies. There are many elected black politicians. No one can survive publicly by telling jokes that degrade blacks, or win any significant elective office by catering to anti-black feelings.

But, you would continue, large problems do remain. Some whites remain racist in both attitude and action. They have to operate quietly, but they can—and do—try to undermine legitimate black claims to opportunity. There is a large black underclass that is still mired in drugs, gang life, and lawlessness. Blacks are overrepresented among people who commit violent crimes and go to prison. There has been a sharp rise in the proportion of black children raised by their unmarried mothers. Unemployment, especially among inner-city young people, remains high. Too many blacks (for that matter, too many whites) have developed a long-term dependency on government welfare.

Your foreign friend then asks what can be done about these problems. You reply that you do not really know, but since there has been so much progress in the last several decades, you are cautiously optimistic that more will be coming in the decades ahead. You have some pet ideas as to what might be tried, but you do not have a general plan based on much more than intuition.

Your friend might then say: in that case, the story is really pretty bad, isn’t it? To which you would respond, no, the main story is a good one. American practices toward people of different races, especially blacks, have undergone a huge transformation. America today is not at all like America a half-century ago. In fact, blacks and whites get along much better than Israelis and Arabs, Germans and Turks, Chinese and Tibetans, Iraqis and Kurds, Indians and Pakistanis, Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish, or Kikuyus and Kalenjins.



So much for your trip abroad. On your return to America, you read the new book by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White. Scarcely anything in it surprises you. It tells, in great detail and with the aid of many tables and footnotes, essentially the same story you have told your foreign friend.

There has indeed been a vast change in American race relations, especially in economics and politics. In 1940, the Thernstroms remind us, there was hardly anything like a black middle class; now, nearly half of all blacks consider themselves middle-class, and have the incomes to prove it. In 1940, a married black family earned only a small fraction of what a comparable white family earned; today, the former earns 87 percent of what the latter earns. In 1940, very few blacks lived in the suburbs; today, nearly a third live there, and over 40 percent own their own homes. In 1940, there were few elected black officials, and then only in mostly black districts; today there are over 8,000 such officials, many in places where blacks are a small minority. In 1963, fewer than 1 percent of all marriages were between whites and blacks; by 1993, that number was over 12 percent.

The Thernstroms hardly slight the remaining problems. Poverty, crime, unsatisfactory school achievement, the gap in performance on standardized tests, and the rise of single-parent families are all described in considerable detail. The conclusion they reach from their mixed story is that although there is much to be sorry about in American race relations, there is much to be proud of as well.



Then you read the reviews of the Thernstroms’ book, and you wonder what planet you are living on. Nicholas Lemann, writing in the New York Times Book Review, begins his critique by pointing out in a damning tone that the Thernstroms got money for their project from conservative foundations. He goes on to “explain” that Stephan Thernstrom, who is a professor of history at Harvard, was once the object of “black student protests” because of something he said in his classroom. Finally, Lemann complains that unlike Gunnar Myrdal, the author of An American Dilemma (1946), the Thernstroms fail to offer any “sweeping, inspiring new vision of how to solve the problem of race in America.” (Myrdal offered no such plan, either, other than to call upon Americans to live up to their American creed.)

Christopher Edley, a professor of law at Harvard, also finds nothing to like in the Thernstroms’ book. It is, he charges in Harvard Magazine, a “convenient compendium of attacks on post-Martin Luther King, Jr. civil-rights orthodoxy,” and one of its authors, Abigail Thernstrom, is a “conservative policy provocateur.” (She is in fact the author of the award-winning study, Whose Votes Count?, and among other things a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.) Edley is especially upset at the authors’ discussion of civil-rights case law and their analyses of schooling, voting rights, and “countless other topics.” But he never says what is wrong with any of these analyses, or even hints at it. To him, this is simply a bad book, and since life is short he will spend no time detailing its alleged weaknesses.

A reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle complains that the Thernstroms’ view of past racial progress takes no account of our current “backsliding,” evident in the decision of the University of California Board of Regents to “shut the door to all but a relatively few black applicants to some of the state’s medical and law schools.” The reviewer must be referring to the 1996 decision to require that all applicants to the university meet the same intellectual tests, instead of allowing some to claim access on the basis of ethnicity or skin color. This—ensuring equal treatment—is an odd way to “shut the door.”

To be sure, the book has also received quite favorable reviews: from Thomas Sowell, Kenneth S. Lynn, Jim Sleeper, Linda Chavez, and David Frum. In addition, balanced reviews have been written by Alan Wolfe in the New Republic and by Glenn Loury in the Atlantic. Wolfe praises most of the book but finds some things to criticize; Loury admires the authors personally and agrees with much of their evidence, but describes their views as “too narrow, too inflexible, and too ideological” because they are fixated on “refuting liberals.” On the whole, however, the reviews line up in a predictable pattern. The favorable ones are by conservatives and (with the exception of the Wall Street Journal) have appeared in publications of relatively limited circulation; the negative reviews are by liberals, and have appeared in the mainstream press.



Now we are at the heart of the problem. An author of a book on race relations today, no matter how many statistical tables he includes, no matter how lengthy or exhaustive his footnotes, no matter how balanced his account, cannot escape one simple reality: racial discourse in this country has become politicized, and for many people, particularly for those who supply our public commentary, there is only one correct position. To such people, the Thernstroms’ subtitle, “One Nation, Indivisible”—a phrase from our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance—has become an empty hope. There cannot be one nation; we are at odds; race divides us, and always will, deeply and permanently.

In 1960, virtually all American intellectuals supported the end of segregation and looked forward to an age of racial comity. At last, they said, people would be judged as they should be judged: no longer according to their color, but as individuals. Today, one has to look hard to find a book by an American intellectual, black or white, endorsing the principle of individualism. Randall Kennedy has written one in Race, Crime, and the Law; so, in part (but only in part), has Orlando Patterson in his new book, The Ordeal of Integration1 As far as most other writers are concerned, you are either for blacks as a group, or against them as a group. If you believe in affirmative action, you are for them; if you oppose it, you are against them. If you think the police are a bastion of racial injustice, you are for them; if you think the police are trying to do a reasonable job, you are against them.

Now, it is in the nature of intellectuals to question and to argue. I argue a lot myself. Argument intensifies differences, in order, ideally, to clarify them. But what is striking in the current situation is the discrepancy between the opinions on racial matters held by intellectuals and upper-status Americans, both black and white, and those held by ordinary Americans.

Consider the distribution of opinion among blacks. One of the few good polls along these lines was conducted during the Reagan administration. In it, two-thirds of the black public reported that African-Americans were making progress—but only about one-third of black leaders agreed. Forty percent of the black public reported experiencing racial discrimination—but fully three-fourths of black leaders said they had suffered from it. Only a quarter of the black public—but three-quarters of black leaders—supported preferential treatment for minorities seeking admission to college. And so forth.

A similar dichotomy exists among white Americans. As Paul M. Sniderman has shown, those with less schooling or lower incomes tend to judge people as individuals, applauding blacks who work hard, remaining skeptical of those who do not, and expressing strong reservations about the efficacy of government programs. By contrast, upper-status whites, like upper-status blacks, speak easily of endemic white racism and want categorical government programs to address it (if with growing doubts as to whether they will make a difference).

Among ordinary folks, indeed, there seem to be few unbridgeable differences of opinion. Though blacks tend to be more liberal in politics and whites to be more conservative, they share many social and cultural outlooks. (For example, a majority of both blacks and whites supports prayer in the public schools and favors the death penalty.) They may disagree about political parties; they may have had different experiences with the police. But beyond their different perceptions there are broad areas of convergence, and not only on racial matters. The people believe in one nation, indivisible, even when they disagree about particular policies; a large part of our chattering classes do not believe in it at all.



One great mystery here is why better-off blacks, in particular, should be more likely than ordinary blacks to harbor a sense of having been personally oppressed. Perhaps it is, as some have speculated, the effect of college education—colleges and universities being the great incubators of the “adversary culture” and of an oppositional attitude toward society. According to Jennifer Hochschild in Facing Up to the American Dream, for example, about two-thirds of college-educated blacks (as opposed to one-quarter of those with only a high-school education) believe that the government actually or probably makes drugs available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people.

There may be something to the idea that education reinforces this feeling of personal oppression, though after several decades of teaching I am not convinced that college makes so lasting an imprint. In any case, another explanation is that better-off blacks expect to be treated like better-off whites, and when they are not, or think they are not, they are more vulnerable to feelings of resentment. Many middle-class blacks, for instance, have indignantly reported being stopped by the police as they are innocently driving a nice car or walking in a white neighborhood. The Thernstroms cite a well-known Boston Celtics basketball player who was detained in a fancy white suburb where he was considering buying a home. This is a real and continuing problem.

Whatever the reason may be, the fact remains that blacks in high-status positions are much more likely than those one meets at baseball games to feel beleaguered, to suspect the motives of whites with whom they deal, to strike an adversarial stance. And that is not how things were supposed to work out; in fact, it is the opposite of how they were supposed to work out. In 1960, my guess is, most people would have predicted that, being the first to benefit from progress, higher-status blacks would quickly reattach themselves to the American dream, while lower-status blacks, who had to contend with poor living conditions, hostile trade unions, and indifferent local authorities, would suffer the most and be the last to change. In fact, lower-status blacks, angry as they may be about neighborhood conditions and job availability, do not feel very oppressed, while upper-status ones feel more deeply aggrieved and alienated.



The polarization between elite and mass opinion, both black and white, follows several sharp fault lines. For at least: one critic of the Thernstroms, namely Glenn Loury, the core problem is that too many Americans, including the Thernstroms themselves, are insufficiently attentive to the ways in which race has shaped, and still shapes, American society. Loury does not want to offer a “brief for color-conscious public policies,” or indict American society “for being irredeemably racist.” Nevertheless, he thinks (quoting a famous line by Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1978 Bakke case) that in order to “move beyond race, we must first take race into account.” Unfortunately he does not indicate just how we are to move beyond race by first taking it into account, or how we can be more attentive to race in an intellectual atmosphere polarized by rival slogans about, precisely, the role of race.

For most critics other than Loury, the core fault line has to do with affirmative action. Here the central question is whether the government is doing “enough.” By enough, elites mean results. And by results they mean measurable ones—getting more blacks into jobs, colleges, graduate schools, and government contracts.

The Thernstroms bring four challenges to the view that the problem is an insufficiency of government action.

First, economic progress among blacks began long before race-preferential policies were announced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and put into effect later in the decade by Richard Nixon. The real change began in the 1940’s and 1950’s, spurred by the migration of blacks to northern cities, the demands of the war effort, and the steady weakening of overt racial prejudice.

Second, the gains of affirmative action have been largely restricted to upper-status blacks; the proportion of blacks with incomes below the poverty line has remained more or less constant since affirmative action began. The middle class may have been helped, but poverty was not reduced.

Third, as most of the scholarly work on affirmative action reveals, the gains themselves, even for the middle class, have been quite modest in scope. John J. Donahue III and James Heckman have been able to show almost no effect on black wages between 1963 and 1987 outside the South (which was excluded from their study). Farrell Bloch, in Antidiscrimination Law and Minority Employment, comes to an even more skeptical conclusion.

Fourth, it is far from clear that quotas, or “targets,” or “goals” are essential to overcome some pervasive pattern of discrimination in employment. So-called audit studies—sending matched pairs of blacks and whites to look for jobs, and comparing the results—have produced contradictory findings. In these studies, white applicants in Washington, D.C., did indeed fare much better than blacks, but in Chicago blacks and whites were treated identically in 86 percent of the cases, while in Denver there was no statistically significant difference at all. Systematic evidence of employment discrimination is so sparse as to give little support, in the Thernstroms’ judgment, to the idea that massive government intervention is needed.

Their critics disagree—and that, I think, is the reason for their sharp antagonism to this book. The antagonism is not based on a dispute over the evidence. The Thernstroms’ arguments are drawn largely from published, nonpartisan studies. Their critics, for the most part, ignore these studies. In their view, what is wrong with the Thernstroms’ book is not its factual basis—something to which they scarcely refer—but its “tone.”

Perhaps here and there the Thernstroms, like all authors, express unwisely their exasperation with something they regard as outlandish. They certainly show little sympathy for the jury that acquitted O.J. Simpson, or for the Atlanta mayor who claimed that, without affirmative action, hardly any black would have a job, a business, or a contract. To their critics, this may suggest that the Thernstroms just do not understand what it means to be black. But the real imputation, I suspect, is that they do not understand what it means to be an upper-status black. For it is these blacks who on the one hand have been the chief beneficiaries of government programs, and who on the other hand feel most keenly slighted by the misperception on the part of white society that they are connected to a criminal underclass.

The Thernstroms’ book is a bottle-with-a-message thrown into the churning waters of contrary opinions. Tossed about in the turbulence, knocked from shore to shore, it has been treated (with exceptions) more as a symbol than as a work of scholarship. That is most unfortunate. Tone is not the issue; facts are. This is a work of excellent scholarship, and one that supports, with facts, what most people really believe.



1 I reviewed the first of these books in COMMENTARY (September 1997), the second in the New York Times Book Review (November 16, 1997).


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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