America in Black and White is an ambitious project, at once a massively detailed review of race relations this century and a provocative manifesto for the future. As such, it demands comparison with Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), which did so much to place racial injustice at the center of American politics for decades to come. Unlike Myrdal’s, however, the Thernstroms’ book is neither a jeremiad nor a call for national self-flagellation; described by its authors as an optimistic work, it has already been widely attacked for its supposed complacency and callous racism. Yet it should be required reading for anyone interested in the national “dialogue” that Clinton has called for on race relations and that has acquired material form in his futile commission on race.
The Thernstroms’ primary challenge to established wisdom is their emphasis on the progress blacks have made this century, especially between 1940 and 1970—before affirmative action policies were fully in place. As so often in history, war was the decisive catalyst for crucial change: the long defense boom beginning in 1940 significantly increased labor demand in Northern factories, while the many millions in uniform during World War II and Korea meant that employers were forced to open job opportunities to groups hitherto excluded: above all, to black Americans, most of them from the rural South. An additional factor was the virtual elimination of immigration between 1924 and 1965, when employers were unable to meet their needs by drafting a cheap labor force from Poland, Italy, China, or India. In consequence, prospects for African-Americans improved dramatically in these years, whether in terms of income, housing, education, or health. Black progress, moreover, was overwhelmingly accomplished within the black community, under the auspices of black doctors, black clergy, black writers, and black artists. The era offers an inspiring story of self-reliance on the part of a people who had survived lynching and segregation, horrors which the authors make no attempt to conceal. The Thernstroms lead us to reconsider the impact of the urban rioting of the 1960’s, now conventionally seen as a second firebell in the night to which white America responded with critical social legislation. For the Thernstroms, riots in Watts, Detroit, and elsewhere mark the end of a triumphant phase of improvement; the causes of insurgency are discernible in a revolution of rising expectations, rather than in the hopeless poverty so often adduced. Concurrently, the end of residential segregation meant that the skilled and energetic black middle classes could now abandon the discrete areas into which they had traditionally poured their energies. By the 1970’s, developments were aggravated by the collapse of traditional patterns of manufacturing, and thus of the cities in which the older industries were based. In a tragic version of economic musical chairs, blacks, having succeeded their various white ethnic predecessors in American cities, were the ethnic group dominating the nation’s urban centers at the time when this economic disaster occurred. As a result, they suffered more directly than other groups from the consequences of social crisis, internecine violence, and epidemic drug abuse, all of which were inevitably attributed by whites to the moral weaknesses characteristic of the black race. In this way the “urban black underclass” was born, and with it the attendant myths that diverted white attention from the achievements of the black middle class, whose interests and attitudes are generally congruent with those of their white and Asian neighbors.
The story as told by the Thernstroms is certainly not one of uninterrupted progress, but neither is it a tale of incessant woe in which the black spirit has been crushed consistently by systematic white oppression. Nor is the record of government intervention an account of noble officialdom rescuing hapless blacks from the nastiest excesses of the white power structure. Why therefore do we hear so little about black achievements, and so much about the crippling climate of racism that supposedly pervades the national life? One reason is that the civil rights establishment has a powerful vested interest in projecting a grim image. As in any decolonized African state, the new black regimes in cities like Detroit or Washington justify their existence by constant reference to the brutal tyrannies from which they have rescued their subjects, preserving hegemony through an elaborately cultivated nationalistic mythology and a repository of symbols and keywords. Progress, the black leaders insist, can only be made through corporate racial solidarity symbolized by a charismatic leadership that intuitively feels and expresses the spirit of the race—assumptions which uncannily recall the European fascisms of the 1930’s. The misconception is honestly entertained, though in a few cases it certainly provides a comprehensive and nearly infallible means to escape the consequences of scandal or misdeed. The perpetuation of conceptual error is largely the work of a white-dominated media which immediately forfeit any limited critical faculties they might possess when entering the ethnic minefields—for instance, a year or so ago during the nonexistent wave of racist arson attacks on black churches, which galvanized public opinion for a few weeks and which the Thernstroms dismiss for the charade it was.
The authors’ historical learning gives them a useful perspective on historical events. They know how much and how little can be gleaned from historical statistics; at every stage the picture they present is at odds with the accepted wisdom. Their combination of multiple approaches and methods permits us to occupy the standpoint both of the social scientist and of the political historian, as the Thernstroms explore topics as diverse as the racial component in crime and criminal justice, the racial politics of the 1960’s, the role of conspiracy theories in constructing the modern black political mythology, racial differentials in SAT scores and educational qualifications, and the O.J. Simpson case. Their legal analysis, focusing on the key question of racially based redistricting as well as affirmative action policies in employment, is particularly good; undoubtedly, it provides an essential foundation for understanding cases which should be coming before the Supreme Court over the next two or three years.
Still, the Thernstroms make their most significant contribution to policy-related issues in the area of affirmative action, the history of which they describe in terms that make painful reading today. Were the early defenders of equal opportunity legislation honest in denying that the law would lead to race-based hiring, or were they being utterly cynical? The Thernstroms ultimately ask the fundamental questions which we can reasonably bet will not be posed to President Clinton’s National Monologue on Race Committee: Can stressing racial self-consciousness as the precondition for social progress result in a diminution of racial consciousness and separatism? Can the U.S. Constitution coexist with a system in which rights are derived from one’s membership in a Volksgemeinschaft rather than from one’s status as a free individual? And can a true nation be built or maintained from such separate and mutually hostile constituencies, each with its distinctive culture and ideology? The answer to each question is obviously in the negative, and until government abandons its attempts at national deconstruction, we should delete from the Pledge of Allegiance the reference to “one nation under God” and its indivisibility, since we obviously mean to promote no such thing. “It is on the grounds of individuality that blacks and whites can come together,” the Thernstroms write. “Large and important race-related problems still remain. Together, blacks and whites can address them; as separate nations within our nation, they cannot—and will not.”
[America in Black and White One Nation, Indivisible: Race in Modern America, by Stephan Themstrom and Abigail Themstrom (New York: Simon and Schuster) 704 pp., $32.50]