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

by Stephen Steinberg (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); 276 pp.; $15.00 paper

--reviewed by Louis Gesualdi

Stephen Steinberg's Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy examines social science writings on race relations over the past half century. The author shows how mainstream social science, except during the 1960s, failed to confront racism and champion civil rights. He also indicates how many social scientists were and are not willing to place responsibility for America's racial problems on political and economic institutions.

The book criticizes social science research that attributes racial inequality (particularly poverty) to different value systems. It notes that ethnic and racial groups do differ in their aspirations and values, but these cultural differences are the result of historical and economic factors. Steinberg demonstrates that socioeconomic conditions create and maintain cultural values, and that these values are not the primary factors in explaining behavioral characteristics. He argues that cultural values are more a dependent than independent variable.

Steinberg points out that, in the United States, the essence of racial oppression is "a racial division of labor, a system of occupational segregation that relegates most blacks to work in the least desirable job sector or that excludes them from job markets altogether. " He argues that blacks were restricted to the agricultural sector during the most expansive period of the Industrial Revolution in America (from 1880 to 1930), were evicted from rural America as a result of the modernization of agriculture, and arrived in northern cities at a time (after World War II) when manufacturing was beginning an irreversible decline. He notes that racism, which restricted the access of black workers to jobs in declining industries, has also restricted black entry to new jobs in the expanding service sector.

Indicative of this is the fact that the number of blacks below the poverty line has steadily increased over the past twenty years. Steinberg notes that "blacks, who are 12 percent of the population, account for 29 percent of the poor, the same proportion as in 1960" and that nearly"half of all black children under age 18 are being raised in families below the poverty line, as compared to 16 percent of whites."

Not only has racism restricted blacks' access to jobs, but Steinberg demonstrates how the United States' economic and political system during the last 130 years has failed,for the most part, to address racial inequality. He notes four lost opportunities in which this county could have wiped out social division and conflict.

First, the promise of Reconstruction (forty acres and a mule promised to former slaves after the Civil War) was not kept. The situation for African Americana in agriculture would have been different if they had had the opportunity to establish themselves as independent owners rather than as sharecroppers or tenant farmers.

Second, between 1880 and 1920, "the nation missed a unique opportunity to incorporate blacks into the mainstream of the economy at a time when there was rapid growth and a dire shortage of labor." During this time, 24 million immigrant) arrived in the United States and very few blacks from the South migrated to the North where the industrial jobs were. According to Steinberg, the reason for this lack of northward migration was that a "color line, maintained by employers and workers alike, barred blacks from virtually the entire industrial sector."

Third,with the advent of World War II, northern labor markets opened up to blacks, stimulating migration from the South. While many Americans expected blacks to be rewarded for their services during the war, the federal government was not, in Steinberg's words,"a champion of black rights during the postwar period" (that is, the 1950s).

Fourth, Steinberg says the United States failed "to follow through on the momentous changes wrung out of white society by the civil rights movement" of the 1960s. He notes that even now, after the passage of civil rights acts, racism still exists as "blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of major social indicators." Specifically, gaps between blacks and whites in terms of incomes and living standards have widened in the last thirty years as an outcome of America's political and economic institutions. In short, the United States has failed to incorporate African Americans into the economic mainstream during the thirteen decades since the abolition of slavery.

Steinberg successfully shows that, throughout most of its history, the United States has failed to address the racial divisions and inequalities that are the legacy of slavery. Turning Back is an important contribution to the understanding of race and racism in America and deserves attention. I strongly recommend that this work be read by social scientists interested in race and ethnic studies, as well as by educators and social policymakers.

Louis Gesualdi is an associate professor of sociology at St. Vincent's College of St.John's University in Jamaica, New York.
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Author:Gesualdi, Louis
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:813
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