A New Ground Zero In The Race Debate?


One Nation, Indivisible

By Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom

Simon & Schuster 704pp $32.50

Slavery is America's original sin. It mocked young America's promise of equality and justice, and it precipitated a bloody civil war. Even now, more than 130 years after slavery was abolished and more than 40 years after Southern segregation laws began to be overturned, its lingering effects weaken and divide the nation.

Can this stain ever be washed away--and by whom? President Clinton is considering making an apology for slavery. Would this inspire whites to apologize for racism and acknowledge the historic advantages afforded the white race? And if so, what then? Will blacks swallow their resentment and pledge to carry on as if decades of inferior education, housing, and employment will have no effect on future generations? Can the two races agree on some just remedy?

Race is the key issue in U.S. domestic politics. But most politicians and self-styled civil rights leaders avoid rational discussion, employ code words to disguise their intellectual cowardice, and refuse to recognize the considerable progress that has occurred. "Elusive definitions of racism that fail to pinpoint actual harms invite remedies that provide no genuine relief," say Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. He is a distinguished Harvard University historian. She is an authority on race and American history at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. In convincing statistical detail, they demonstrate that economic and social circumstances for African Americans have improved markedly. Well-written and thoughtful, the book never stoops to the exaggeration and bombast that plague much of the current debate on race. Most controversial will be their contention that the bulk of improvement for black Americans came in the three decades following World War II--before affirmative action began hardening into a spoils system.

The Thernstroms first recount the history of racial segregation and the civil rights movement. Next, they detail an impressive record of black progress tempered by high levels of crime and by failure in primary and secondary education and in family stability. Then, the husband-and-wife team examines which racial remedies have worked and which ones have failed.

Their analysis shows that blacks have enjoyed a revolutionary advance since their large northward migration in the 1940s. "No ethnic group in American history has ever improved its position so dramatically in so short a period, though it must be said in the same breath that no other group had so far to go." For example, the percentage of black families in poverty fell to 26% in 1995, down from a horrific 87% in 1940. In 1940, just 1.3% of black adults were college graduates; today the figure is 13.2%. In 1940, 60% of employed black women were household servants. Today, that same percentage is in white-collar jobs. And the median income of black women has increased from 33% of white women's then to 90% today.

This achievement is not widely recognized, particularly by blacks, the authors note. Half of U.S. blacks in a 1991 Gallup poll said they believed that three-fourths of their number were both poor and living in inner cities. The reality: Only one-fifth are (though there are many poor blacks outside the cities). But why this lingering stereotype of failure? "It nurtures the mix of black anger and white shame and guilt that sustains the race-based social policies implemented since the late 1960s," the Thernstroms write. In fact, they report, neither Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased the pace of black economic progress beyond its already impressive rate.

Also surprising is their conclusion that the widely quoted report of the Kerner Commission, issued in 1968 following black riots in several inner cities, incorrectly stated that segregation was accelerating. Middle-class blacks, the authors report, followed whites to the less-segregated suburbs, while a flood of immigrants turned the central cities into an ethnic goulash. In the 1980s, for example, with the exception of a few cities, blacks fled to the burbs at four times the rate of whites.

Despite such positive findings, Black and White contains many cautionary notes. Black married couples enjoy a median income of $41,000, at least approaching the $48,000 earned by whites. But almost half of all black families are headed by a single female parent and have a median income of just $15,000. In 1960, two-thirds of black children lived in intact families; today, just one-third do. In 1960, 22% of black babies were born out of wedlock; today the figure is 70%, a calamity.

Educational disparities are crippling black achievement as well. "Today's typical black twelfth-grader scores no better on a reading test than the average white in the eighth grade," they write. This even though school spending is generally higher for predominantly black school districts. The gap in achievement, which had been narrowing during the 1980s, is again widening.


The authors are likely to be faulted for their lack of a succinct mega-solution to the problems of race--and they even admit to being "stumped" about blacks' declining school performance. But as the Thernstroms show, big-government solutions often bring mixed results. Consider urban renewal, forced school busing, and contract set-asides. Still, in spite of all the policy blunders they cite, the Thernstroms call theirs "an optimistic book." Not because the problems of race are disappearing. But because the history of race relations over time shows that Americans, black and white, still cherish the ideas of equality and freedom and seem determined to keep trying to locate the answers.

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