The African American predicament /
Christopher H. Foreman, Jr., editor.
Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, c1999.
x, 216 p. : ill.
0815728808 (cloth)
More Details
Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, c1999.
0815728808 (cloth)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Rough Road

to Racial Uplift

Christopher H. Foreman Jr.

From the beginning, civil rights was a misleading term, perhaps an outright misnomer. The moral, legal, and rhetorical pursuit of collective rights of access was but an essential strategy in a multifront war for a much larger prize: the uplift of a people that had endured slavery and, afterward, the trials of subordinate caste status. Civil rights never meant just individual rights, any more than the initials NAACP denoted a National Association for the Advancement of Coherent Principles. Indeed, civil rights leaders and organizations have always known that they must pursue the vast and varied interests of their stigmatized and marginalized constituents by any available avenue. Rights were more a means than an end. If progress appears to have stalled, it is largely because the successive strategies embraced by champions of racial uplift have all encountered important practical and political limits. For the most part, these strategies have not so much failed as fallen victim to inevitable exhaustion and diminishing returns.

    Virtually everyone recognizes that the strategy emphasizing legal access, which was pursued during a heroic civil rights golden age, has long since run its course. As textbooks today routinely teach, that phase of the struggle, begun in the courts in the 1930s, shifted the trajectory toward Congress a generation later as favorable public opinion, nurtured by a disciplined plea for simple justice and bouts of segregationist violence, made such a turn politically viable. The basic access argument was simple and therefore potent. Individuals ought not to be proscribed, purely for reasons of color, from plainly quotidian activities available to other citizens: voting for mayor, viewing a movie from a seat of one's choosing, wolfing down a cheeseburger at a dimestore lunch counter. The great majority of white Americans had no particular affection for blacks but had never felt the need for separate water fountains and segregated buses. Such relatively petty outrages proved hard to defend outside the Deep South. Thankfully it has now been a long while since even most white southerners would have insisted that, say, Harvard's distinguished Afro-Americanist Henry Louis Gates Jr. ought not teach at a "white" university in the South.

    The high moral perch afforded by the access agenda, however, had stringent limits, which became apparent early. The formal doors to advancement might have been unlocked, perhaps even might have stood wide open, but how many black Americans would or could walk through them? An energetic young "Skip" Gates might march off to Yale, but how many others would follow, especially if all the university did was mail out a brochure to Harlem with a road map to New Haven enclosed? Legally desegregated schools and workplaces could not, by themselves, yield diverse student bodies and workforces, much less ensure equal graduation and promotion rates.

    Not surprisingly, as far back as the 1960s, the access agenda was giving way to rather less lofty haggles over dollars and numbers--which are still ongoing. Congress could target funds on a wide array of problems, creating new legal authorities when favorable combinations of support and indifference prevailed. A less openly democratic approach to African American uplift lay in the dull machinery of administration, amid the arcana of government regulations and guidance memoranda and subject to policing by the courts. Merely offering individualized redress to particular claimants according to each specific grievance appeared dreadfully inadequate to the scale of the social challenge--rather like restoring a beach by hauling in one grain of sand at a time. More institutionally aggressive efforts, formal and informal, seemed warranted. Thus were born goals and timetables, minority contracting set-asides, and the entire regime of both hard (formal, mandated, quantitatively monitored) and soft (informal, voluntary, improvisational, hortatory) affirmative action.

    As long ago as the mid-1960s, advocates for black uplift heard a new and disturbing thunder in the distance. Lightning struck in the form of the now-legendary government report crafted by Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Moynihan Report, as it came to be called, suggested serious tears in the black community's social fabric, which might widen with time. Neither a leadership anchored in the safe harbor of its access and affirmative action agenda nor the increasingly strident blacks gathering under the "black power" rubric were in any mood to hear some Irishman's embarrassing prattle about "Negro family structure," however plainly sympathetic and data laden. Social policy thinkers and researchers have been making up for considerable lost time as a result.

    This diverse volume reflects a vexing reality. On racial matters, the American condition is overall dramatically improved but is far more complicated than it used to seem and, in important respects, continually depressing. As Gates reminds us in his essay on the two nations of black America, a significant black middle class has emerged (and not solely through affirmative action). White racial attitudes are astonishingly transformed from where they stood during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, when the lynching of blacks was still an informally listed entrée on the menu of Deep South civic entertainments.

    Tenacious ills remain, for which neither the pure right of access nor affirmative action is satisfactory medicine. One such problem is educational: significantly lower cognitive skills and test scores among minority youngsters, a problem explored with unprecedented care in the remarkable volume from which the chapter by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips is drawn. Scholars disagree about the influence of systemic resource disparities in creating and sustaining the gap in skills and scores. While Jencks and Phillips acknowledge some role for funding and other resource inequities, they also contend that this omits too much of the causal story, including preschool and out-of-school experiences. Alternatively, Linda Darling-Hammond strongly emphasizes the structure of educational opportunities offered by school systems. Darling-Hammond, Jencks, and Phillips agree on the salience of at least one key resource disparity: on average, black students tend to be taught by less-qualified teachers than white students. How would affirmative action remedy this problem? Indeed, one can easily anticipate the argument that affirmative action helps to sustain it. Frustration on this front has led to calls for making schools compete for students, a development that Paul Peterson and Jay Greene view favorably.

    Other long-term challenges include teenage pregnancies (although recent trends inspire cautious optimism) and the vastly disproportionate involvement of black males in the criminal justice system. With a keen appreciation of how the values that underlie behavior are forged and sustained, John DiIulio pleads (with eloquence, passion, and considerable data) that we attack such problems via the kind of faith-based institutions that have historically anchored black civic life. Although DiIulio is optimistic about the present and potential capacity of such institutions to transform minority residents (and thus their communities), his unstated premise is that the fates of these residents will play out mostly within existing locales. Nathan Glazer's pessimistic report on the persistence of residential segregation describes a primary underlying constraint facing anyone aspiring to improve quality of life, and life chances, among African Americans.

    Clearly, employment (or the lack of it) remains central to the disparity in life chances between poor African Americans and other citizens. As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out, black employment prospects began looking up a long time ago, well before the affirmative action era. Among the worst-off blacks, those whom William Julius Wilson famously labeled "the truly disadvantaged," unemployment is still rampant and is often manifested in almost complete disengagement from the world of work. Job training and job-readiness coaching are often promoted and widely attempted; but they work unevenly, and least reliably, among the low-income youths who should have the most to gain from them. On the other hand, job training has the considerable political virtue of remaining popular among blacks and whites alike.

    The widely touted unpopularity of affirmative action notwithstanding, Orlando Patterson offers two novel data-based arguments in its behalf. One is that it helps compensate for deficiencies in the social networks vital to sustaining employment (and other social) opportunities. The other is that affirmative action in practice actually proves to be more popular than in the abstract.

    Even if affirmative action were noncontroversial, various disparities between the races (in accumulated wealth, for example) would endure for a long time to come. Whatever white racism lingers today does not cause most of these difficulties. Moreover, the view that "nothing has fundamentally changed" on America's racial landscape is insupportable. In their book America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible , the Thernstroms opine that such a flat-earth view of white attitudes "can only be held by those who believe that social science evidence is worthless." Actually, as they know, that is too simple an explanation for the widespread reliance on the rhetorical hammer of the term racism .

    For many African Americans, the term may be an intuitively appealing way to make sense of a complicated and disturbing social milieu. Resort to this term (manifested most starkly in popular belief that antiblack conspiracies abound) appears symptomatic of a frustrated groping for answers to questions triggered, ironically, by the vanquishing of the old racial order and by the failure of newly open doors to reveal reliable pathways to equality. The burial of Jim Crow accompanied the emergence of problems that scarcely existed earlier, and this may help persuade some African Americans that a malicious chicanery must be afoot. In the bad old days, after all, a man with no schooling beyond the primary grades could far more easily feed his family. No one's worst nightmare would have included crack cocaine or gun-wielding children.

    For advocates and the intelligentsia, "racism" offers obvious political leverage, a way to seize the moral high ground and press hard for social change. Although racist attitudes have dramatically abated in recent decades, more than enough manifestations of racism remain to offer both a plausible explanation for the black masses and a convenient advocacy fulcrum for black leadership. (NAACP board chairman Julian Bond's insistence that his organization battles "white supremacy" is mere inches away rhetorically.)

    In the volume's final section, Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines urge a quite different strategy of "reaching beyond race" to defend public policies helpful to African Americans. Drawing on a series of intriguing experiments, Sniderman and Carmines suggest that opposition to race-specific policies (even among racially tolerant whites) is anchored not in racism but in genuine moral misgivings about purely racial justifications. They want to sustain racially progressive policies with a more durable political coalition, and they believe it can be done. Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith offer a more pessimistic assessment, grounded in their reading of America's dense racial history. Black progress and regress, they argue, is historically patterned, with identifiable social and political conditions favoring one or the other. Unfortunately, they suggest, conditions favoring progress are diminished or absent, while those leading to regress appear to be on the rise. Jennifer Hochschild ponders looming volatility in interethnic politics, with its prospects for both coalition and competition. Will African Americans advance in concert with other groups? Or will nascent tensions between blacks and other minorities blossom, hindering mutually beneficial alliances?

    We need hard and courageous thinking about the complex array of troubles that plague the black community and the nation, but we do not suffer for lack of chatter about race. A careful empirical study of the amount of attention accorded race in both the electronic and print media would surely find an impressive amount of race-related news as well as opinion from every conceivable viewpoint. We may not always be completely forthright with one another, but the subject is never very far off any sentient citizen's radar screen. As Donald Horowitz remarked not long ago, Americans today may be enduring a serious case of "race fatigue."

    We do lack both crucial knowledge (about how to produce various positive policy effects) and the political consensus essential to making available dramatically increased resources for any number of policy initiatives. As Glenn Loury suggests, we may lack something more profound: the sheer capacity to think about the problems of the black poor with the combination of complexity and sympathy they deserve and require. For Loury, America's history, its very way of life, is deeply implicated in a malaise from which many would too easily distance themselves. Possibly the worst effect of all the furor over affirmative action (whose main beneficiaries are middle class) is to shift the spotlight away from the most disadvantaged African Americans, those whose fates merit the most attention and the hardest thinking of all.

Copyright © 1999 The Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved.

This item was reviewed in:
Reference & Research Book News, February 2000
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Unpaid Annotation
As the 20th century ends, the fate of the African-American community remains a central and hotly contested focus of our national political discourse. Although American race relations, and the structure of opportunities facing most African-Americans, have dramatically improved in recent decades, daunting challenges and questions remain. This book examines the vexing reality of racial conditions in America today: improved overall, but far more complicated than they used to seem, and in important respects continually depressing. Thirteen provocative and timely essays--by some of the most highly respected experts in the nation--present thoughtful, and often-competing, assessments of African-American progress and of the prospects for its further enhancement. The authors examine the educational achievement disparities and education policy choices confronting black America; the track record of faith-based organizations in improving poor inner-city communities; the continuing impediments to residential integration;,and data-based arguments for continuing affirmative action programs. The final chapter discusses the feasibility of "reaching beyond race" to build stronger political coalitions for racially-progressive policies. In addition to the editor, the authors include Edward G. Carmines, Linda Darling-Hammond, John J. DiIulio, Jr., Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Nathan Glazer, Jay P. Greene, Jennifer L. Hochschild, Christopher Jencks, Phillip Klinkner, Glenn C. Loury, Orlando Patterson, Paul E. Peterson, Meredith Phillips, Rogers Smith, Paul M. Sniderman, Abigail Thernstrom, and Stephan Thernstrom.
Table of Contents
The Predicament
The Rough Road to Racial Upliftp. 3
The Two Nations of Black Americap. 10
The Legacy of Slaveryp. 17
Affirmative Action
Black Progressp. 29
Affirmative Actionp. 45
The Black-White Test Score Gapp. 63
Race, Education, and Equal Opportunityp. 71
Vouchers and Central City Schoolsp. 82
Impediments to Integrationp. 97
Black Churches and the Inner-City Poorp. 116
American Racial and Ethnic Politics in the Twenty-First Centuryp. 143
The Unsteady March toward Racial Equalityp. 152
The Moral Basis of a Color-Blind Politicsp. 175
Contributorsp. 203
Indexp. 205
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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