The Magazine

COCKEYED OPTIMISTS

Oct 6, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 04 • By DINESH D'SOUZA
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Stephan Thernstrom Abigail Thernstrom

 

America in Black and White

One Nation, Indivisible

 

Simon & Schuster, 480., $ 32.50


Just about every new book on race mourns the lack of candid discussion of the subject, deplores the hot-tempered rhetoric on all sides, and proclaims its mission as one of rising above the shouting and eschewing the simplistic positions of both liberals and conservatives. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom begin their book in precisely this way, announcing that they are challenging the orthodoxies of the Right ("There is no racism") and the Left ("There is nothing but racism").


Oddly, however, hardly any conservatives are criticized by name. The authors proceed to identify the rightwing position with one Jared Taylor, a white-power advocate who is hardly a mainstream figure. I am unaware of a single reputable conservative who espouses what the Thernstroms call the "see no evil" view that denies the existence of racism (or a history of racism) in the United States.


What the Thernstroms are doing, in other words, is posturing. Even as they bewail the dishonesty and self-righteous rhetorical positioning of the race debate, they are performing some dainty pirouettes themselves aimed at attracting the accolades of liberal reviewers. The Thernstroms recognize the need to take other conservatives to task in order to win favorable mentions in the New York Times and the New Republic.


Still, the main thrust of America in Black and White is directed against the liberal view the authors explicitly identify with Andrew Hacker's 1992 bestseller, Two Nations. Although influential, Hacker's book reflects the most extreme position among liberals. It asserts, without offering a shred of evidence, that America is a chronically racist society and that racism is likely to remain a permanent feature of the national psyche.


The Thernstroms devote the better part of 500 pages, including scores of tables and charts, to refuting this view. They review the history of black progress in the past half-century and show that blacks have made impressive strides in education, earnings, and political power. Indeed, while the legal changes enacted during the civil rights era may have consolidated these gains, the Thernstroms point out that in many areas, black advancement was no less rapid between 1945 and 1964 than in the two succeeding decades. They also chart the trajectory of improving race relations between whites and blacks.


The Thernstroms are at their best when they are discrediting liberal shibboleths. One example is their persuasive critique of Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's book American Apartheid, which attributes many of the continuing problems of the black community to the fact that black housing patterns are roughly as segregated as they have ever been. Longtime affirmative-action critic Nathan Glazer credits the Massey-Denton book with his newfound support for racial preferences for blacks. But the Thernstroms offer strong evidence that should compel Glazer to reconsider. In 1970 only 3.6 million blacks, or 16 percent of the black population, lived in the suburbs. In 1995 that number increased to 10.6 million, or 32 percent of the black population. Even in the inner city, most blacks today live in mixed-race neighborhoods that include substantial numbers of whites, Hispanics, and Asians.


Moreover, statisticians measure residential segregation by positing as ideal a neighborhood in which blacks make up precisely their proportion in the general population. Scholars use an "index of dissimilarity" to chart departures from this norm. The Thernstroms show the limitations of this device. They cite surveys showing that most blacks prefer to live in neighborhoods with black populations around 50 percent. What all of this means is that the enforced patterns of inner-city segregation Massey and Denton allege are greatly exaggerated, and that homeowner preferences, which Massey and Denton discount, are an important factor in determining the residential distribution of groups.


Of America in Black and White, the authors write, "This is an optimistic book." Based on the historical record, the Thernstroms" hopeful outlook seems justified. But if they have done a thorough job undermining the extreme position that blacks as a group have not made progress over the past several decades, they face a more serious challenge in dealing with the more nuanced position, held by many liberals as well as conservatives, that for black America this is the best of times as well as the worst of times.