The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Debate
by Orlando Patterson
Perseus Counterpoint. 240 pp. $24.50
Once touted as a centerpiece of the Clinton administration’s second-term agenda, the President’s race-relations initiative has come under heavy fire in the few short months of its existence. His first televised “town-hall” meeting was widely regarded as a rambling gabfest, and his national commission on race has been lambasted for drawing its members primarily from the professional civil-rights establishment, a group notorious for resisting fresh thinking. Both efforts, as critics have observed, have revealed a notable reluctance in the President and his advisers to give a hearing not only to conservative opponents of affirmative action but also to the handful of liberal thinkers who dissent from today’s orthodoxies.
Orlando Patterson certainly qualifies as a liberal dissenter. A professor of sociology at Harvard, born in Jamaica and educated at the London School of Economics, Patterson is the author of a study of freedom in Western culture that won the National Book Award in 1991, and he has also written highly regarded works on slavery and the nature of ethnic chauvinism. As we see from The Ordeal of Integration, a quirky, loosely organized, and often polemical study that ranges over issues like desegregation, professional race advocacy, the IQ controversy, and affirmative action, Patterson utterly rejects the unspoken premise that underlies the President’s race-relations initiative—namely, that America is a racist society in need of a cure.
On the contrary, Patterson asserts,
there does not exist a single case in modern or earlier history that comes near to the record of America in changing majority attitudes, in guaranteeing legal and political rights, and in expanding socioeconomic opportunities for its disadvantaged minorities.
Not only is America the most tolerant multi-ethnic society in the world, but blacks here are better off now than at any time in our history.
Patterson goes even further. In the harshest terms, he denounces the current generation of black political leaders for instilling a conviction in poor, inner-city blacks that no matter what they do in an irredeemably racist America, they cannot get ahead. He also rejects the theory, elaborated by the sociologist William Julius Wilson, that black economic inequality is driven by the de-industrialization of American cities. Instead, Patterson sides with Daniel Patrick Moynihan in tracing inner-city poverty to the breakdown in black family structure; the vilification to which Moynihan was subjected for expounding this thesis in the mid-1960’s, Patterson notes bitterly, set back our comprehension of black poverty by decades.
All this, of course, stands in the sharpest contrast to today’s liberal pieties about race. It therefore comes as something of a surprise that Patterson emerges in this book as a committed supporter of affirmative action and racial preferences. To be sure, he eschews the usual argument that such measures are necessary to compensate for white racism. And, though a confirmed believer in integration, he does not rest his case on the ground that America needs more “diversity” in the workplace and in schools.
Rather, Patterson’s support for racial preferences is based on his conviction that the legacy of slavery has seriously impeded blacks from fully participating in the economy, depriving them of certain basic skills and cultural tools. Thus, in Patterson’s view, the proper purpose of affirmative action is not to counterbalance prejudice but to contribute to the creation of a black middle class, secure in its place in American economic life. Just as the government intervenes to regulate the environment or to break up monopolies, it has every right to take measures on behalf of the black poor.
Although The Ordeal of Integration is for the most part rigorously argued, the case Patterson makes for affirmative action is by far the weakest part of the book. For one thing, his insistence that racial preferences are just another attempt to smooth out the rough edges of the economy is simply not convincing. By denying there is anything extraordinary in a policy by which the state steps in to select winners and losers on the basis of skin color, Patterson enters treacherous intellectual terrain—especially for a scholar familiar with the calamitous results of such policies in other multi-ethnic societies around the world.
Furthermore, Patterson never comes to grips with why so many Americans object to racial preferences. He ascribes the upsurge of anti-affirmative-action sentiment to a sensation-seeking press that amplifies the voices of a few disgruntled white males and a chorus of conservative demagogues. This explanation is hardly persuasive.
If anything, the press has looked kindly on affirmative action, turning a blind eye to what it entails; serious investigative reporting on how such programs actually work is all but nonexistent. Moreover, discontent with affirmative action is far more widespread than Patterson concedes. Opinion survey after opinion survey shows a majority of Americans opposing racial preferences; the policy, the polls reveal, violates their sense of fairness and their conviction that Americans should be regarded first and foremost as individuals, not as members of a racial or ethnic group.
Patterson’s dogmatic arguments in defense of affirmative action and the fierce rhetoric in which he couches them—he goes so far as to equate the social scientist Charles Murray with the white supremacist David Duke—leave the impression of a thinker anxious at all costs to distance himself from the conservatives with whom on so many issues he clearly agrees. His failure to address seriously the arguments of affirmative action’s critics detracts from what is otherwise a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. It also deepens the well-grounded suspicion that good counterarguments on behalf of affirmative action simply cannot be found.