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In Andrew Hacker's world, race is everything. In the real one, it's not so simple

Andrew Hacker, a political scientist not normally given to literary devices, offers the following parable in Two Nations: You are visited by an official who informs you that, owing to an unfortunate mistake, you were born white. You were, in fact, supposed to be black, and at midnight tonight you will become black, in features as well as skin, although "inside you will be the person you always were." The official represents a wealthy organization that will be happy to pay you any amount you think appropriate to compensate for this mishap over the 50 years remaining to you. How much would you consider appropriate?

Students to whom this hypothetical is put, says Hacker, tend to request around $50 million, conveying the value white people put on their own skins.

With this ingenious device, Hacker compels white readers to recognize the immensity of the gulf that separates black from white in America. Almost 50 years after Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma and almost 25 years after the Kerner Commission report, the situation of black people in America remains dire. The black unemployment rate is almost two and a half times the white rate, and the gap is growing; blacks' SAT scores are almost 200 points below scores of white students; blacks are three to five times as likely as whites to commit violent crimes-and to be victimized by them. To be black in America, Hacker writes, is "a disconsolate estate."

But most of Hacker's readers won't need to be reminded the bald facts. The real argument of Two Nations is that the racial attitude of whites is responsible for the failure of blacks-that blacks fail because whites want them to. For whites, writes Hacker, blacks constitute a psychic version of Marx's reserve pool of labor. "No matter how degraded their lives," Hacker writes, "white people are still allowed to believe they possess the blood, the genes, the patrimony of superiority. No matter what happens, they can never become black.' White Americans of all classes have found it comforting to preserve blacks as a subordinate caste: a presence which, despite all its strains and problems, still provides whites with some solace in a stressful world."

Many other groups have satisfied this need in the past. At one time our Anglo-American founders made do with the Irish, and then Southern Europeans, Eastern European Jews, and Asians. "Whiteness" was not a biological characteristic, but a set of social attributes defined by the ruling class. The gradual absorption of these groups, many of them non-white," by the American mainstream shows that skin color is not in itself the issue. "White America has always had the power to expand its domain," writes Hacker. "However, in the past and even now, it has shown a particular reluctance to absorb people of African descent."

In other words, racism has proved to be transitory with all groups save blacks, upon whom has fallen the role of subordinate caste. Only blacks were enslaved, and the ideology of genetic inferiority that justified slavery in the face of America's formal commitment to human equality endures to this day. "There remains," Hacker writes, "an unarticulated suspicion: Might there be something about the black race that suited them for slavery?"

Like most right-thinking Americans, I have been trained to admit to almost any degree of unconscious racism; Hacker even lists this trait as one of the hallmarks of the liberal. But he presumes upon liberal guilt a little too far. "Some say quite openly," he writes, "that all too many blacks should not be bearing children." I don't even follow the syntax of that sentence. I also wonder whether if by "some" he means somebody other than David Duke. In any case, if one of his students at Queens College made a statement like that, I assume that Professor Hacker would tell him or her to marshal some evidence.

Hacker's sensitivity to the causes and consequences of racism is both the strength and the failure of this book. He knows that statistics will take him only so far, and so he ventures into territory unfamiliar to most social scientists. In a chapter titled "Being Black in America," Hacker tries to shed his "subject position," as the Marxists say, and put himself inside the mind of a black person. The ensuing chapter, "White Responses," attempts to document the conservative repudiation of race-based demands and liberals' fretful accommodation.

I don't know whether other scholars will tweak Hacker for going soft, or whether blacks will ridicule his presumption; when I mentioned the passage to a black academic, she just snickered. It seems to me that the willingness to place yourself in the position of the disadvantaged party is one thing that separates liberals from conservatives. But Hacker is aware that he may be charged with cultural trespassing, and he goes to great (I think excessive) pains to prove that he is a friendly visitor. Black writers of various ideological persuasions-Patricia Williams, Shelby Steele, and Lorene Cary-have described the difficulties, the hesitancies, the doubleness, of being black in America. Hacker describes victimization.

In a way, Hacker is trying to explain why so many non-poor, non-militant blacks seem drawn to mythologies and conspiracy theories. How would you feel, he implicitly asks the white reader, if you knew that you couldn't move into a white neighborhood even if yours were a hard-working, middle-class family? How would you react to being treated as if you were the carrier of a contamination, a $50 million taint? You wouldn't have to be crazy to wonder, as Hacker writes, "Can this nation have an unstated strategy for annihilating my people?" The sense of dispossession is real, even if the conspiracy theory is a phantom.

But therein lies a cul-de-sac. The belief that everything is the result of racism may not be patently incredible, but it's certainly wrong. Not only is it wrong, it's dangerous as a guide to action. The ideology of victimization, as Steele writes, is "the tragedy of black power in America today.... Social victims may be collectively entitled, but they are all too often individually demoralized. Since the social victim has been oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative." He becomes fodder for the next Al Sharpton.

And is it really the case that racism governs all outcomes for black people? If so, then why are West Indians so successful? Conservative black economist Thomas Sowell has calculated that West Indian average family income is only slightly less than the national norm, while blacks earn only a little over three fifths of that standard. When I wrote an article about this phenomenon 10 years ago, I was struck by the fact that Jamaican or Trinidadian shopkeepers and undertakers to whom I spoke were well acquainted with racism, but did not consider it an insurmountable obstacle to success. Like other immigrants, they thought of themselves more in national than in racial terms. They behaved like other immigrant groups, and they succeeded more or less as others did.

It would be too much to say that Caribbeans, like Asians or Arabs, have been accorded "white" status; racial prejudice is clearly too strong for that. But by behaving in the ingratiating manner associated with immigrants-by working much harder, and at less pleasant jobs, than other Americans, by being more disciplined and caring more about schools-they've gotten their piece of the American dream. American-born blacks, answers Hacker, aren't immigrants and shouldn't have to behave like them. That may be so; but the unwillingness to accept the possibility of progress, and the eagerness to accept Sharpton's siren song, only contribute to the problem of racism.

Two notions

In fact, the inner city is now teeming with new immigrants, most of them dark-skinned, many of them likely to be granted the honorary white status that Hacker describes; the whole model of "two societies" is becoming obsolete. Hacker not only recognizes this phenomenon, but wrote a piece that appeared on the cover of The New Republic in March entitled "The Myths of Racial Division." Though Hacker reiterated his argument that racism, rather than something else, accounts for the difference in black-white achievement, he described a growing de-racialization brought about by the new immigrants. "Asians and hispanics and others who want to make it on their own have seen the harm that being 'racial' can do," he wrote. That's dead-on; and it's a convincing refutation of large portions of Two Nations.

Hacker almost always moves beyond the conventional interpretation of data, and he has a special gift for chipping away at those fragments of good news that optimists cling to. He notes, for example, that while the proportion of black households earning $50,000 a year or more has risen 46 percent over the last 20 years, very few black men or women earn that much. "So while there is a much larger black middle class, more typically, the husband is likely to be a bus driver earning $32,000, while his wife brings home $28,000 as a teacher or a nurse. A white middle-class family is three or four times more likely to contain a husband earning $75,000 in a managerial position, which allows him to support a nonworking wife. It is not easy to visualize these couples living on the same block, let alone becoming acquainted with one another." Nor is it likely that the same black couple will enjoy the same sense of prosperity as the white couple.

But Hacker's ultimate purpose is still to substantiate his argument that racism is the cause of black economic failure. He says, for example, that the growth in female-headed households among black families, usually cited as an index of social disintegration, has been misinterpreted. While it's true that the percentage of such households among all black families has grown from 17 percent to 56 percent over the past 40 years, he notes, it's also true that among whites the figure has risen from 5 percent to 17 percent. Thus "the biracial ratio has remained remarkably stable throughout the 40-year period." Hacker finds this somehow reassuring.

He argues that the same forces have pushed the rate up among blacks and whites. "Men's liberation" has removed the stigma attached to abandoning your family; "the right to reproduce" has removed the stigma from bearing a child out of wedlock, or without the prospect of an involved father. In addition to those forces, the pool of "marriageable" black men has been reduced by jail, drug abuse, chronic unemployment, and even death. Even within the middle class, says Hacker, "the strains that come with being black put extra burdens on a marriage."

This takes us a long way beyond the usual reading of these figures, but I find it hard to believe that the stability of the "biracial ratio" is more telling than the gulf between the races. Isn't it a disaster that the majority of black children are growing up without a father? The rise of what Hacker neutrally terms "other configurations," like the multigenerational household, is a sign of how a community copes under stress, but it's not an answer to the problem, as Hacker claims. He notes censoriously that "mothers now on AFDC"-the principal welfare program-"are seen as bad models for society as a whole and their children in particular." Most mothers on AFDC I know don't view themselves as good models.

I work with formerly homeless families in Harlem, and two of the most demoralizing aspects of their life stories are how many of them represent second-generation female-headed households, and how many daughters and nieces are replicating the pattern. Their salvation is often the indomitable grandmother who lives nearby. But grandma isn't enough. Once a teenage girl drops out of school or work to have a child and then becomes that child's principal source of support, it will take real heroism on her part to avoid the clutches of welfare.

Hacker agrees that having a child early in life, out of wedlock, is highly correlated with future poverty, at least among blacks. But he views the choice as being a matter of individual, rather than social, psychology. Perhaps, he writes, a girl chooses to get pregnant and carry the child to term because she lacks confidence in herself and in her future; a girl with more self-esteem, or a willingness to listen to good advice, might decide otherwise. That must be true, but the lack of a sense of the future is one aspect of a larger problem: self-destructive behavior in the ghetto.

Skin flux

The unnamed enemy of Two Nations is the "family-breakdown" or "culture of the underclass" theory. This theory, first broadcast to the public in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 study, "The Negro Family," argues that family breakdown and welfare dependency among the urban black poor have become selfperpetuating, so that blacks are largely unable to seize opportunity as other minority groups have in the past. It is not current discrimination but the legacy of generations of racism and oppression that ensures the persistence of black poverty.

For many years this was the theory that dared not speak its name; Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, was practically martyred for trying to base national policy upon it. Few men have relished their martyrdom as Moynihan did, and he lived to see himself vindicated. I remember being startled when I got my annual fundraising letter from the NAACP in 1983, and there was Benjamin Hooks talking about a study designed to look at the ongoing problems of the black family. Yesterday's heresy was today's research project. The most recent book to prominently advance a form of Moynihan's argument is Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land.

Many blacks find the theory deeply insulting, though Moynihan made a point of citing such black scholars as W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Kenneth Clark in his report. For Hacker to countenance such a theory would be to violate the effort of sympathy, or identification, that underlies Two Nations. Hacker's deep aversion to the idea causes him to put a distinct spin on family-composition figures.

Moynihan was accused of "blaming the victim," and those who came after him were similarly charged. But it's not blaming the victim to say that centuries of hateful and discriminatory treatment, followed by a mass migration of unprecedented speed from a rural to an urban setting, have produced conditions that cannot be banished by a change in attitude on the part of white America. It seems more like common sense. The real argument is over what sort of policies can break what Clark called "the institutionalized pathology" of the ghetto.

But it is true that these theories serve as a convenient pretext for political leaders and ordinary citizens to avert their gaze from something they'd rather not contemplate in the first place. Hacker argues that this is exactly what's happening now, and it's not a difficult case to make. He is tart not only on the subject of Republican race-baiting, but on those white liberals who, through exhaustion or disaffection, have just turned the dial. He notes that a concern for the environment has replaced civil rights as the chief preoccupation of many such folk. It may not be coincidental, Hacker observes, that fur-bearing animals "never grumble or turn resentful or ungrateful. Nor is it likely that dolphins will present themselves one day and proclaim that they henceforward wish to assume control over their own struggle." Touche.

Clearly, the elimination of black poverty is becoming yesterday's cause. Residential and school desegregation efforts are largely played out. The Democratic candidates for president appear to have a tacit pact to mention the words black7' and "poor" as infrequently as possible. And yet Hacker argues persuasively that some of the apparent signs of black economic progress are illusory or transitory. Things are getting worse, not better. Whether or not you agree that racism is the exclusive cause of persistent black poverty, it's becoming increasingly apparent to blacks that many whites couldn't care less whether or not they succeed.
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Title Annotation:Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
Author:Traub, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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