- Historic Sites
The End Of Racism?
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
I think there is a sense of moral urgency about the breakdown of civilized institutions in American society. The breakdown of the black community is the most dramatic example of that. So if you ask, “Do conservatives have a special place in their heart for blacks?” I would answer no. Not in the way that liberals do. In that sense I admire the liberal commitment more. On the other hand, the conservative approach, which is toughminded and committed to adopting race neutrality, is one that in my opinion would be a desirable social policy for the country as a whole. It’s not a policy that makes any special deference to blacks. It is a policy that treats blacks like everyone else. That’s where we are. The debate now is about whether blacks should be, in the eyes of the law, treated like everyone else or treated as special. That’s progress. We were in a society where the two positions in our debate were the position that is now the conservative position, which was the far-left position, and the position that blacks should be treated as inferiors, as second-class citizens.
I want to argue with you about another area of the book. You talk about the anthropologist Franz Boas and the development of the culture theory as a riposte to biological racism. But then you go too far in saying that all the intellectual children of Boas are cultural relativists or even, at one point, “fanatical” cultural relativists. Let me sketch out a tradition that you basically ignore in the book: people with a cultural orientation going into poor black America and being horrified by what they saw. I would put in that tradition such people as W. E. B. Du Bois himself, in The Philadelphia Negro and in the chapters about the sharecropper system in The Souls of Black Folks ; Oscar Lewis, whom you mention briefly, in his writing about Puerto Rico; Kenneth Clark, whom you treat dismissively in the book but who was the first person to apply the word pathology to innercity ghettos, in his book Dark Ghetto ; E. Franklin Frazier, who makes arguments very similar to the ones you do about cultural adaptations that make sense in one setting but make no sense in another setting; even Richard Wright, in his novels and in Twelve Million Black Voices . There’s a liberal tradition of culturalists looking at poor black America and saying, “There’s a problem here. Something needs to be done.” It’s out of that tradition, an ameliorative tradition, that a lot of the government programs come. So the idea of government programs aimed at race relations is not poisoned at conception by having a culturally relativist approach, because there’s a nonrelativist, interventionist, ameliorative tradition. How do you respond to that?
Cultural relativism is a house with many mansions. I was interested in tracing that brand of cultural relativism that supplied the legal expectation and the educational assumptions for proportional representation and multiculturalism. Today the two pillars of our race policy are proportional representation, in law and employment, and multiculturalism as the basis for American identity and for American educational policy. Where do those two notions come from, and what are their underpinnings? I’m interested in the way in which cultural relativism has played out. It could have played out in other ways, including the one that you describe. That was the whole idea of Kenneth Clark’s Harlem project in the sixties. It was saying, “Can we take poor black kids and make them adopt a set of norms and values that are more similar, perhaps, to those of middle-class white kids?”
It hasn’t worked out very well, and one of the reasons is that the problem has always been viewed as an external one. Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities , describes schools in East St. Louis. Graffiti on the walls, toilets broken, textbooks ripped up, and he points out almost parenthetically that the schools in East St. Louis are spending more per kid than schools in the suburbs. Then he says, very revealingly, “But, this means nothing, because these kids need more, and parents should be willing to spend more.” Now this is the pie in the sky. You find me parents who are willing to spend more on somebody else’s kids than they are on their own. It’s unlikely. Then you have to ask a prior question. Who is tearing up the schools? Who is writing on the walls? It’s not the administrators. The schools weren’t built that way.
There’s no recognition in that book that you have a cultural problem, which is to say that you have a set of values and orientations that are producing these destructive effects. Similarly, William Julius Wilson’s work, which I do admire, emphasizes the effect of external structures in producing cultural dysfunctionality. But he does not emphasize the impact of cultural dysfunctionality in producing external disadvantage. I’m emphasizing that side of the coin.