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Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.

Stephen Steinberg. Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. Boston: Beacon, 1995. 276 pp. $25.00.

In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made much-quoted statements about children and the future of the American dream. In the same speech he made a sharp statement about the likely revolutions to come: "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." Unfortunately, few, especially white Americans, remember or heed these words. Stephen Steinberg, a white professor at the City University of New York, is not one of these, for he concludes his book with this very quote.

The purpose of Steinberg's book is to track since the 1940s the halting movement of the United States toward that "bright day of justice." After some ruminations on his personal experiences teaching racial/ethnic relations courses, Steinberg stakes out his main theme: the linkage between the oscillations in the nation's attempts to confront the legacy of slavery and the efforts and actions of the nation's top intellectual and political classes. He begins with a critical look at Gunnar Myrdal's famous tome An American Dilemma, which moved U.S. intellectual thought away from earlier biologically racist paradigms in dealing with African Americans toward a perspective accenting environment and white prejudices. Drawing on major reviews of this book, Steinberg demonstrates how Myrdal's focus on the racial/moral dilemma facing whites as individuals was in the end a politically conservative approach. A call for individualized ethical changes does not challenge racist political-economic institutions. Indeed, Myrdal's volume did not even call for civil rights legislation to make African Americans first-class citizens.

Steinberg documents yet another paradigm shift when most white analysts of U.S. racial relations reacted to the protests of the 1960s by moving in the direction of perspectives accenting institutional racism or internal colonialism and civil rights legislation. This perspective did not last long, as a white backlash led by white intellectuals and politicians was brewing even during the 1960s. At the heart of this reactionary backlash were leading social scientists like Harvard's Nathan Glazer, who developed one of the early attacks on Affirmative Action in the mid-1970s. After the conservatives began the retreat from a racism perspective, they were soon joined by many liberal whites in the 1980s and 1990s--and even by some moderate black analysts.

Even prominent black analysts like Cornel West who have attempted to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals end up with a sophisticated blame-the-victim perspective that takes the racist society off the hook by focusing heavily on the "spiritual and leadership" crisis in black communities themselves. The heavy accent on the so-called "black underclass' among liberal analysts like William J. Wilson and conservative writers like Shelby Steele is another example of a renewed blame-the-victim perspective. Historically, the liberal perspective--in earlier versions, the views of Southern white moderates or, in modern versions, the views of white politicians or even Cornel West--puts a "kinder and gentler face on racism" and subdues "the rage of the oppressed" by shifting the responsibility from white institutions more or less back to black communities. Harsh criticism of Affirmative Action, once the province only of white reactionaries, has spread to most white liberal circles and is yet another sign of the backing away from the an institutional-racism analysis and from the ideal of racial equality.

Steinberg suggests that "in this way elements of the left unwittingly join the right in evading any reckoning with America's greatest crime--slavery--and its legacy in the present." This is an underlying theme of Steinberg's book, although he never gives it the central analysis it deserves. He does show how research on the black middle class, such as that of Sharon Collins and my own book Living with Racism, indicates the present effects of slavery even in the alleged prosperity and equality of that supposedly growing middle class. Collins found that black entrepreneurs are mostly in segregated niches serving black customers and that black managers often serve in segregated niches such as "Affirmative Action offices" within corporations. Even African American professionals, such as those in black law firms, find themselves dealing with black-related issues and contracts with black firms--that is, a "new class of `Negro jobs' has been created."

While Steinberg seems conversant with most of the recent research supporting his provocative analysis of national backtracking on commitment to civil rights and their enforcement, he does leave some holes in his analysis. For example, he only briefly touches on recent research documenting persisting patterns of anti-black discrimination in employment and does not deal at all with research on discrimination in housing, public accommodations, policing and the criminal justice system, and education, including that at traditionally white colleges and universities. There are no major references to the seminal work of Lois Benjamin, Kesho Y. Scott, Philomena Essed, Melvin P. Sikes, Hernan Vera, or Ellis Cose. More attention to this important and growing literature on discrimination and white racism would have made Steinberg's case for the persisting legacy of slavery even stronger.

Steinberg concludes by arguing that the nation will likely see increased movements for black liberation. Racial oppression is not just the creation of working-class whites, but has been guided by top leaders in business and politics. However, "the irrepressible forces for black liberation have always sprung from the bottom." Until the United States faces the legacy of slavery in its current patterns of racial oppression, there will be periodic crises and revolts against oppression.
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Author:Feagin, Joe R.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:923
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