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Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics.

I first learned what the word "race" meant when I was about six. That would have been 1964, the year identified by Thomas and Mary Edsall (*) as the moment when northern white support for the civil rights agenda reached its high watermark. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed a civil rights bill that for the first time prohibited racial segregation in all public facilities and brought the full weight of the federal government down on employers who refused to hire people then known as Negroes. Later that year, Johnson won a landslide presidential victory--the only Democrat to do so during my lifetime.

I remember LBJ's trouncing of Barry Goldwater, but I took no notice of the Civil Rights Act. Still, the word "race" must have been in the air in the uppermiddle-class section of New Rochelle, New York, where we lived, because one day I asked our housekeeper, Sophie, what the word meant. Sophie explained that race was a way to describe the color of your skin. She belonged to the Negro race because her skin was black. I belonged to the white race because my skin was white, I said I though race meant whoever runs faster wins, and Sophie matter-of-factly replied that black people and white people were in a race, and the white people were winning.

We were a liberal Democrat family in a liberal Democrat community. Then, as now, the whites most ardently in favor of expanding opportunities for blacks tended to be the same sort who could afford to employ a black live-in maid. (Today the domestic is more likely to be Hispanic, but that has less to do with changing mores than changing demographics.) Race was an increasingly visible aspect of our lives, and my family responded with the jittery, befuddled urge to do right that was typical of northern suburbanites of that era. When a middle-class black family moved onto our street--from Minnesota, of all places--we bustled about to make them feel welcome. My grade school principal was a black female Ph.D. whom we respectfully called Doctor, and several of the teachers were black, too. The pupils were mostly white, but that was mitigated somewhat by the busing of black kids from New Rochelle's vaguely raffish downtown.

These were the days when children were still taught that the suffering of blacks was entirely the result of southern oppression. The Mississippi killings of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schewerner, white New Yorkers, drove home the point that southern bigots were a menace to us all. The disdain with which we northern suburbanites viewed the mid-sixties white southern power structure was captured perfectly in the movie In the Heat of the Night. The Bull Connor-esque sheriff played by Rod Steiger was the very soul of southern bigotry; that the black detective played by Sidney Poitier was the sheriff's moral and intellectual superior was demonstrated most vividly by the fact that he didn't have a trace of a southern accent.

Civil whites

Of course, political events over the next quarter-century showed how smug we northerners really were, as busing, affirmative action, and Willie Horton gave racial conflict a national franchise. Even in 1964, race relations up north were not quite as pacific as they seemed. In what amounted to a trial run of his 1968 and 1972 presidential bids, George Wallace ran in three northern Democratic primaries in 1964, winning 30 percent of the vote in Indiana, 34 percent in Wisconsin, and 45 percent in Maryland. Goodwill really started to unravel after the Watts riots of August 1965. A poll of northern whites taken four months before the riots found 71 percent approved of President Johnson's civil rights policies. Immediately after the riots, that figure dipped to 64 percent, and one year later, after rioting spread eastward to Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere, it sank to 48 percent. By 1972, when George Wallace's third presidential run was cut short by a would-be assassin, the redneck southern sheriff was no longer a national symbol of bigotry. He'd been replaced by Archie Bunker of Queens.

New Rochelle was a long way from Queens in just about every sense but the geographic; nobody I knew growing up ever supported George Wallace. But in retrospect even New Rochelle's sixties' glow of racial brotherhood looks pretty fragile. At the time, I liked to think that the grand drama of intergration playing all around me was stage-managed by northern citizens who wanted to do what was right. In some cases--for example, the hiring of a well-qualified black principal in the days before affirmative action--it probably was. But in many other instances, it probably wasn't. It surely wasn't coincidental that the black family from Garrison Keillor country arrived on my street only after Congress outlawed certain practices real estate agents used to maintain the "traditional" character of affluent neighborhoods. As for the bused-in black children, I had a vague idea that the doors to my grammar school had been voluntarily flung open to the less fortunate in some sort of grand civic gesture. It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that these children were in fact the beneficiaries of an early and bitterly fought northern court decision on busing.

But some hard realities didn't escape me, even then. We white kids from the wealthier part of town got along all right with the few middle-class black kids in school, but we never seemed to mingle satisfactorily with the the tough black kids from downtown, especially as we got older. Over the years, it became obvious that the bused-in black kids were more likely to lag behind in reading and arithmetic drills. By the time they became adolescent, many of these kids became bullies--to be sure, not the only bullies in school, but more conspicuous bullies because of their skin color. By junior high, many white kids were afraid to use the school bathrooms, a trauma that contributed to my parents' eventual decision to send my older sister to private school. About the same time, radical-chic Norman Mailer was proclaiming himself "tired of Negroes and their rights."

Chain links

Minus the personal details and the upper-middle-class slant, this is the narrative, more or less, of Chain Reaction. As the Edsalls see it, Americans came together on race for a brief moment in the mid-sixties, but their buried misgivings and disagreements soon began to tear the country, and especially the Democrats, apart. That political division now risks rigging presidential elections permanently in favor of the Republican party. Indeed, practically the only good news the Edsalls have to offer in this profoundly depressing book is that in the 1992 presidential campaign the nation may be spared Willie Horton-style racial themes--but only because this time the Republicans may not need them. The Edsalls note that 1992 "will mark the first time that suburbans and exurban voters cast an absolute majority of ballots."

Thomas Edsall, the principal author of Chain Reaction, is a Washington Post reporter whose specialty is the influence of race and class on national politics. His strength as a political writer is his rigorously unsentimental view of how these forces play out in national elections. Indeed, Edsall's compulsion to back up all his political analysis with detailed poll data and economic statistics makes Chain Reaction seem more like the work of an academic than a newspaper-man. (Edsall's father-in-law is the Harvard political scientist Karl Deutsch.)

According to the Edsalls, race is not only a divisive issue in itself, but also the divisive subtext to a number of other issues. When politicians propose a tax increase, the authors argue, many voters are liable to see it as a plot to take money away from working (white) two-parent families and distribute it to unwed (black) mothers on welfare. Similarly, the expansion of legal rights for criminal defendants is resented not just as a color-blind infringement on victims' rights, but specifically as a boon to the Willie Hortons. In both cases, fear and distrust of blacks are mixed up with more legitimate concerns about the erosion of traditional values.

Much of Chain Reaction is dedicated to investigating the grim statistical reality behind such fears. Blacks are much likelier than whites to be on welfare or to be criminals. Although in absolute terms, the number of whites and blacks on welfare is roughly equal, whites on welfare make up only 2 percent of the overall white population; 15 percent of the overall black populatioin, according to 1988 data, is on the dole. Crime statistics are even more dispiriting. The Department of Justice found in 1987 that 60 percent of all robberies were committed by blacks.

What about the impressive advances blacks have made into the middle class since the sixties? The Edsalls cite 1980 figures (which I assume are the most recently available) showing that more than half of all blacks in managerial and professional jobs work for the federal, state, and local government, compared to 27.5 percent of whites. Thus, when whites rail against the size and inefficiency of government, the issue can easily get mixed up with race. When Ronald Reagan said in his inaugural speech that "Government is the problem," to many whites (and to many blacks in government) he may just as well have been saying, "Blacks are the problem."

Of course, blacks have made major advances in the private sector too. But the cost, in many instances, has been white resentment, especially among blue-collar workers, against affirmative action policies. Among the consequences of affirmative action has been the restriction of ability tests for employment; the Edsalls cite studies concluding that blacks score substantially below whites, even when the blacks and whites have the same level of income and education. In an attempt to correct for this disparity, courts have in some cases allowed ability tests only if they are normed against other results within the same ethnic group, a practice that caused outrage this year when it came to the attention of Republicans who opposed the 1991 civil rights bill. (House Democrats quickly responded by attaching a provision to the bill banning so-called "race-norming.")

Gulf warriors

The Edsalls deserve praise for facing up to many of the not-so-pleasant facts about race. Unfortunately, they do not make enough of an effort to critically examine the often sizable gap between these dismal realities and what the white majority often makes of them. Antitax Reagan (and Bush) Democrats may tell themselves they'll be damned if they're going to pay more taxes to put black mothers on welfare, but the fact is that before the current recession began, welfare rolls were shrinking. Much more than welfare, tax increases throughout the eighties funded increases in middle-class entitlements such as Social Security--a program whose regressive tax levy and wasteful showering of cash on both rich and poor never seems to offend anybody's traditional values of equity and thrift. Another major growth area is criminal justice: Especially at the state level, more and more tax dollars are being used to build prisons--so many that prison guards are the fastest growing category of state workers. The Edsalls themselves note that the prison population has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years. Is a prison-building binge any way to coddle criminals?

To be fair, most of what turned voters against the race, rights, and taxes agenda predates the eighties. Even here, though, the Edsalls seem to want to paint reality a shade gloomier than it is. For example, much is made in Chain Reaction of how the expansion of defendants' rights during the sixties was accompanied by a terrifying increase in violent crime that accelerated white revolt against civil rights. No doubt the more liberal climate helped create a breakdown in social restraint. At least as significant, however, was the simple fact that the baby boom greatly expanded the number of young males--the group most likely to commit crimes. Obviously, there's no pig-in-the-python explanation for the new violent crime epidemic that began in the late eighties. (In this case, the culprit appears to be the rise of drug-related gang violence.) Still, to write about the increase of crime in the sixties and seventies without making more than a cursory reference to the baby boom is like explaining the advent of rock 'n' roll without giving much attention to teenagers.

The Edsalls can be faulted, on occasion, for failing to show more skepticism about what statistics and expert opinions really tell us about race. For instance, although they don't flat-out say so, they seem to agree with the National Academy of Sciences' conclusion that employment test scores are good predictors of job performance, and seem to suggest that restriction of their use under affirmative action is a bad practice. Well, maybe so. I know from reporting on this subject that a lot of industrial psycologists think so. But I also know that industrial psychologists have what strikes me as an occupational overconfidence in their ability to design a test (or modify its results) so that it is both bias-free and perfectly reflective of the skill requirements of a particular job. Rather than try to sculpt the Perfect Instrument, wouldn't they--and we--be better off recognizing that such testing inevitably has some human-factor limitations?

In the political-reality department, it's harder to question the Edsalls' sharp reading of the nation's mood. Appeals to white fear and resentment of blacks have an enormous and shameful influence. Still, the Edsalls do not satisfactorily explain how Congress has remained in Democratic hands in an era when Democrats, the party of civil rights, have become almost irrelevant in presidential politics. (PAC shakedowns, gerrymandering, and other ways Democrats exploit their longtime majority status are part, but not, I think, the whole story.) And they spend no time at all contemplating the lessons of the 1987 defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, a case that revealed that in certain circumstances cold-blooded political realities can actually dictate support for, rather than opposition to, the civil rights agenda--even, and perhaps especially, for southern politicians.

None of these criticisms is meant to undermine the basic point of Chain Reaction, which is that the gulf between races is a festering and extraordinarily pervasive national problem. I doubt that children growing up today, white or black, experience the luxury I once had in New Rochelle of thinking that racial tenstions and inequities are a problem of someone else's making. But this very good book would be better if it tried a little harder to correct, rather than simply catalogue, the misconceptions that have driven a wedge between white and black America.

Timothy Noah is a reporter for The Well Street Journal.
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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