The Glass Is Not Half Full

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s overly optimistic America in Black and White.

America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible
By Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom
Simon & Schuster; 480 pages; $32.50

Two broad traditions encompass commentary about race relations in the United States. One is pessimistic, the other optimistic. Thomas Jefferson, a pessimist, maintained that blacks and whites “can never live in a state of equal freedom under the same Government, so insurmountable are the barriers which nature, habit, and opinion have established between them.” Despite the Civil War, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Revolution, an appreciable number of observers continue to assert that the United States is, and will remain, a white supremacist pigmentocracy. Hence the despairing talk about “the permanence of racism,” “the myth of black progress,” and “the coming race war.”

The optimistic tradition includes such figures as Frederick Douglass, who, in 1863, even before the destruction of slavery, averred that one day “the white and colored people [would] be blended into a common nationality, and enjoy together … under the same flag, the inestimable blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as neighborly citizens of a common country.” A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed that Americans would someday “be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom is a highly publicized contribution to the conversation on race relations that is, in certain respects, squarely within the optimistic tradition. Stephan Thernstrom is professor of American history at Harvard University and Abigail Thernstrom, his wife a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. Their book offers a history of black-white race relations since the late 19th century; discusses racial controversies in a wide array of contexts (employment, housing, social-welfare programs, electoral politics, criminal justice); and prescribes a framework within which to fashion policy.

The Thernstroms conclude that the story of race relations since the 1940s is one of “amazing” and “enormous” change for the good. America, the Thernstroms claim, is “no longer separate, much less unequal than it once was, and by many measures, less hostile.” The authors are critical of those who, in their view, exaggerate the significance of white racism, the significance of the black underclass, and the extent to which blacks remain outsiders. Instead, the Thernstroms stress the reduction in racial prejudice openly expressed by whites, “the rise of the black middle class,” and the extent to which blacks have become “major players” in American politics.

F or the Thernstroms, American racial politics took a wrong turn when the imperative simply to end discrimination ceased to govern our policies. That bare obligation, they argue, was superseded by a destructive insistence that racial minorities be included in substantial numbers (ideally, in rough proportionality) in all spheres of social life, including the most competitive. Throughout America in Black and White, the Thernstroms attack almost any initiative that steps beyond simple anti-discrimination: affirmative action, race norming in testing (under which black examinees and white examinees are ranked and judged separately), majority-minority electoral districts, busing, subsidies for purposes of residential racial integration, and so on.

The Thernstroms synthesize a tremendous amount of information, cover a daunting array of topics, and convey their findings and prescriptions in a vivid, accessible style. America in Black and White fails, however, to reach the levels of insight and carefulness that its subject demands and the expressed ambitions of its authors lead one to expect. I say this notwithstanding my affinity for their optimism. Indeed, perhaps it is partly because I share this optimism that I am particularly disappointed by this book’s rather substantial flaws.

The authors try to place themselves at the vital center of racial politics: “We quarrel with the left–its going-nowhere picture of black America and white racial attitudes,” but “we also quarrel with the right–its see-no-evil view.” In actuality, however, they unremittingly berate “the left” but rarely challenge the settled understandings of conservative or neoconservative readers. The Thernstroms say they recognize that racial discrimination, though dramatically diminished, continues to pose an obstacle to African-Americans. Yet they say little about the large extent to which key anti-discrimination provisions remain underenforced. Virtually the only sort of current racial discrimination that the Thernstroms treat at length is that which is intended to help blacks and disadvantages certain whites in the process.

Consider the Thernstroms’ discussion of the controversy surrounding the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1991. The act involved, essentially, a congressional override of several Supreme Court decisions that had narrowed, in a number of ways, the scope of earlier civil-rights statutes. The Thernstroms mainly disapprove; the “one small bit of arguably good news” about the act, they write, was that Congress outlawed race norming. But was this really the only good news? Unmentioned in the Thernstroms’ account is the Supreme Court decision on Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union that prodded Congress to take action. In Patterson, the Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 did not prohibit employers from racially harassing employees–e.g., calling a black employee “nigger.” In the act of 1991, Congress rectified this problem, explicitly outlawing such racial harassment by employers. I am certain that the Thernstroms would view that aspect of Congress’ action as “good news.” But it seems that the Thernstroms were so preoccupied with criticizing the legal system as overindulgent toward blacks that they passed over entirely this key feature of the 1991 legislation–a feature that sought to correct the very sort of anti-black bias they take pains to underplay throughout their text.

I am not criticizing the Thernstroms because they fervently oppose affirmative action. I disapprove of most forms of public affirmative action myself, on the premise that public authorities shouldn’t be permitted to allocate burdens and benefits on racial grounds in the absence of an absolute emergency. But there is something dreadfully wrong with a study of race relations in the United States that places affirmative action at the center of the drama. The imbalance is especially notable given that other significant phenomena–such as the lingering effects of racial oppression in the (recent) past, new eruptions of anti-black prejudice, and so-called “rational” racial discrimination (by which people, without malevolent intent, use black skin as a negative cue)–are relegated to the far margins of discussion.

The only time the authors attack passionately and in detail the privileging of whiteness is when such practices are located safely in the past. But even then, the Thernstroms equivocate. They do not clearly condemn as racist the actions, sometimes violent, that white ethnics in Chicago resorted to in the 1960s to keep blacks from moving into “their” neighborhoods. Rather, the Thernstroms shift attention to liberals who criticized these actions but didn’t themselves live in the contested neighborhoods. I do not object to their empathy for the white ethnics, or to their point that affluent folk often have been able to escape the harsh dilemmas posed by racial conflicts. After the explaining is done, however, judgments must still be made. It is striking, and troubling, how reluctant the Thernstroms are to condemn white bigotry, especially in light of their clear, consistent, and negative assessment of black bigotry.

Some commentators adopt a stance of racial pessimism because they fear that making concessions to the optimists will breed complacency and inhibit the efforts needed for still further progress. America in Black and White will nourish such fears through its own embrace of laissez faire optimism. The Thernstroms prescribe little to end the harms wrought by past injustices, or even to fight latent racism–except stopping affirmative action and kindred policies. This is too passive a stance. Affirmative action in its current guises is unlikely to be the best or even a good way forward; but the consequences of simply eliminating such programs are sure to be mixed. What’s more, such reforms will leave untouched injustices that seed legitimate aggrievement on the part of blacks. Through intelligent, self-conscious, collective action, we have changed much for the better in race relations. But much remains to be done to create what Jefferson wrongly perceived as impossible: an America with blacks and whites–and others as well–living in a state of equal freedom under the same government.