- Historic Sites
The End Of Racism?
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
This career path very much shows in D’Souza’s work. His new book, The End of Racism, published by the Free Press, sets out to be a blend of the kind of serious, wide-ranging inquiry somebody on a permanent fellowship has the luxury to undertake, but then it keeps going to ground as agitprop. D’Souza despises organized liberalism—its pieties, its morally superior tone—and he tends to lay all the world’s evils at its feet. He’s obviously used to dealing with an audience that shares his complete focus on liberals’ misdeeds, to the point that the underlying issue can get obscured. For example, the handful of African-Americans who owned slaves get heavier play (because the liberals don’t want to talk about them!) than the millions of whites who did. Large swatches of the book consist of hauling up the kind of negative information about blacks that liberals don’t like to let see the light of day (Locke believed in black inferiority! Afrocentrists are all wrong!) or saying things in the most provocative, unempathetic way possible because it’s daring (“… black rage is largely a response not to white racism but to black failure”). D’Souza writes as someone who has not spent much time in the company of liberals he respects and sees no need to find common ground with the other side. He has lived his adult life in an intellectual environment that is wonderfully nurturant and also enclosed.
What I tried to do in this interview was to factor out liberalism and get D’Souza to lay out his line of argument about race in America: where his interest began, what his premises are, and what he thinks should happen now. What struck me was the way in which, when challenged on a point, he tended to agree, instantly and amiably, and then return to the more comfortable ground of material from the book. What seems to me to be the main issue concerning the book is this: D’Souza passionately dislikes affirmative action and multiculturalism, but his stated main goal is something loftier: the building of a better country for blacks and for race relations. Has his intense historical reading led him to a genuinely new conception of how to achieve this, or did it merely provide fresh ammunition for the struggle against the hated liberal programs? Read on and decide for yourself.
What was the road that led from the end of Illiberal Education to the beginning of this project?
Well, as I traveled on campuses, talking about Illiberal Education , I found that many people who were sympathetic to my general argument—particularly a lot of black students—said, “You’re basically right, but you don’t know history.” I’m a first-generation immigrant, and I wasn’t here and alive for some of the civil rights movement. So I wanted to do that. The second point is that the public debate about multiculturalism hinges upon a deeper premise: that in some fundamental sense America is a racist society, and, moreover, that in some way the interests of nonwhite immigrants are linked with those of American domestic minorities like blacks and American Indians. So I realized that you can’t talk about multiculturalism without investigating that deeper question. This book was an attempt to do that, to ask the basic question, Is America a racist society, and does America work for those of us who are not members of the white majority?
Is there anybody in particular who got you going on this? Anyone you spoke to in the aftermath of Illiberal Education ?
No single person. I think my publishers tossed me the idea of doing a piece on America as a multiracial society. But I think they had in mind a book that would be more about immigration.
So you could have written a book that would havesaid, “America works pretty well as a multiracial, multiethnic society.” Instead you ended up focusing on what doesn’t work. Why?
I came to realize as I began to look into the subject that for all the multiple hues of American society today, the race problem remains fundamentally a black problem. People may not like Hispanics, regarding them as lazy, or not like Asians, regarding us as clannish, but they don’t think that we’re inferior. It is the belief in intrinsic inferiority that is at the heart of racism. And I think that suspicion—what writers at The New Republic some years ago called “rumors of inferiority”—persists. Ultimately, my argument in The End of Racism is that racism will not end until blacks are competitive with other groups.
What we’ve had are a lot of reasons given for why blacks are not competitive. And these reasons have become more elaborate and I think less plausible over the last couple of decades, so that we now have a revival of suspicions of black inferiority. The Bell Curve gave that a degree of scholarly respectability. What we need is not more reasons for black failure but more evidence of black success. Racism can be discredited by removing its empirical foundation.
Let’s work through the theory of the book, beginning with this: What is racism?
Historically racism has been, and I think still is, a doctrine of biological inferiority. So to be a racist, you have to believe in races. You have to believe that there are human groups that are distinguishable biologically. Second, you have to believe that these races can be ranked on some kind of scale. Third, you have to believe that these rankings are intrinsic, or natural, not merely accidental. And fourth, you have to use this hierarchy as a basis for segregation and discrimination. If you satisfy those four requirements, then you are a classic racist.
Who invented racism?
I began this book with the belief that racism is universal. The Japanese are notoriously xenophobic. In India you have the caste system. You have tribal wars in Africa. To my surprise, I discovered, or I realized, that this concept is just not so. I was confusing racism with tribalism, or ethnocentrism. Preferring one’s own to others, or to strangers, is universal. However, seeing human intellectual and moral qualities as attaching to biology, which is the heart of racism—that’s a Western view. So racism, in my view, is modern and Western. It is a theory of civilizational superiority. And it arose because of the unique circumstances of modernity. In the ancient world you had many cultures, and no single culture had a permanent or decisive civilizational advantage. But because of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment, Western civilization became cumulatively more rich, more powerful, and more influential than all the other cultures of the world combined. Racism became a commonsensical way of explaining this large gap in civilizational development.
In the United States there were no white slaves; virtually all slaves were black. Wasn’t slavery in the United States therefore a racist institution?
Slavery in the United States, like slavery all over the world, began for economic rather than racial reasons. There was work to be done, and it was preferable to have people do it for free. The Europeans tried to enslave some of the local Indians, with disastrous results. There was already a profitable slave trade going on in Africa, with the Arabs as middlemen. So the Europeans began slavery here out of convenience. Slavery developed a racist character in the United States for a very peculiar reason. And that is that it clashed with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Spanish, for example, practiced slavery but didn’t develop an elaborate theory of racism. The reason is that there was no egalitarian ideology in Spain that slavery was radically inconsistent with. Essentially everybody was, to some degree, unfree. Spain was a monarchy, and the slave was only the most unfree person on a continuum. In the United States many people say that slave owners like Jefferson were hypocrites, because they couldn’t have believed it when they said all men are created equal. But what I argue is that precisely because they did believe it and at the same time had slavery, it became necessary for them to argue that blacks are not men, that blacks are lesser than men, inferior human beings, not entitled to the same rights as everyone else.
Why, then, were there no white slaves here even preceding the development of the American ideology of individual freedom?
Well, there were white slaves in Greece and Rome.
But why not here, in the colonial period? Don’t you think that the distinction between indentured servitude and slavery was racially based?
Well, there’s some evidence that the earliest blacks who came here came not as slaves but as indentured servants and that there was almost a metamorphosis from indentured servitude to slavery.
Then why didn’t white indentured servants make the same metamorphosis?
Well, one reason was that white slavery had virtually vanished from Europe considerably earlier. During the Middle Ages what you had was a replacement of slavery by serfdom, whereas in Africa slavery was flourishing. So the early Americans made no radical modification of these institutions. They were able to purchase free whites for a limited period, as indentured servants, and they did. For that period whites were treated like slaves, in the sense that they were property. They could be bought and sold, they could be gambled away, and they were. However, the blacks purchased from Africa could be bought for life, and I think people just took advantage of that.
And that’s not a racist distinction?
In its initiation it’s not. I’m saying it evolved into a racial institution as the contradiction between the American egalitarianism and slavery became clear.
Let’s talk next about segregation. I was struck in the book by your saying that segregation was invented by patrician whites in the South to protect blacks. I wonder if you could explain that and tell me what role you think racism had in legal segregation?
The story of segregation is a complex one. You had two groups in the South: first, the radical racists, epitomized by the Klan. This is the group that believed blacks are fit only to be slaves, and if they’re not slaves, they should be either sent back to Africa or brutalized, lynched, hanged, or exterminated. If this group had been the ruling group in the South, it is difficult to see how the black population would have survived, because its agenda was one of ruthless extermination. But this group was a minority in the South. It might have had a brief period in which it could essentially run amok, or rule unmolested, between about 1890 and about 1910, the heyday of radical racism in the United States. However, the ruling class in the South, 1 argue, was Bourbon, patrician, and conservative, and it regarded blacks as inferior—it was in agreement with the radical racists on that point—but it was willing to live with the result of the Civil War and recognize that blacks were not going to disappear, and it felt that the kind of routine brutality that the Klan epitomized was against the values of both Christianity and chivalry. So it established segregation, on the one hand as an expression of black inferiority …
So segregation was racist, by your definition?
Exactly. Segregation was an expression of Southern racism, to be sure. But it was an expression of the moderate wing of Southern racism, in contradistinction to the radical wing. Essentially the segregationists argued, “Yes, blacks are inferior to whites. Yes, we are justified in discriminating against them and segregating them. On the other hand, why don’t we let them have their own barbershops and their own schools so that they can develop to their own limited capacity?” So I don’t deny that segregation was a racist institution, but I’m arguing that it was an expression of some paternalism.
I grew up in the segregated South, and it seems to me that your picture of segregation is too rosy. Blacks had no recourse to law. The patricians knew that a lot of physical brutalization went on, and there was a winking attitude toward it, a sense that as long as it didn’t get out of control, you know, it happened, and there wasn’t much you could do about it. Second, there was no real desire on the part of the patricians for there to be black institutions that were strong and vigorous. There were very severe limits on what institutions blacks could and couldn’t run.
The reason I try to present the portrait of Southern paternalism, the notion of blacks as inferior and of being able to survive if not flourish under conditions of separation and limited institutions, is to lay the groundwork for the later part of my argument, which is: Where are the old positions of the race debate? 1 argue that, in a sense, contemporary liberalism is beginning to embrace some of the tenets of the old paternalism. Not with the same explicit ideology of inferiority, and not in the same way, but by saying, “We can’t segregate blacks by making them live in a separate world from whites, but even though blacks and whites live in the same world, go to the same schools, and work in the same jobs, they will be judged by two sets of standards.” You have something resembling the old argument, although the reasons for it are said to be radically different. The effects of it may not be radically different.
Let me go back and pick up the historical line. Wouldn’t you agree that if you’re black, most likely everyone in your family line, from arrival in America up until some time in the fifties or sixties, was living under racism? Everyone would have had a lower status based on being black, based on presumptions of biological inferiority. Is that fair to say?
I think it is fair to say. In the main it certainly is true. But I think it’s important to point out differences of degree. There’s an important difference between being ruled by Hitler and being ruled by the British colonialists. My parents and grandparents lived under British colonialism. It was a kind of subjugation, but it was a long way from extermination. Although your world was circumscribed and limited, it was one that you could endure. In the case of slavery I think many of the horror stories of systematized brutality are exaggerated—not because the masters were compassionate per se (some were) but because the slave owner had an interest in his property. People usually don’t go around bashing their property. Nevertheless, slavery did involve the complete subjection of one’s body, and to some degree soul, to the master’s whim. And segregation was not slavery. So, yes, I agree with you in general, but I would just italicize the differences of degree. The condition of blacks in 1940 was vastly different from what it was in 1910, and vastly better in 1910 than it had been in the 1830s.
Most people would say that what brought an end to race-based separate status for blacks in America were two big landmarks, the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964. As I read your book, you don’t agree with either one of those. Am I reading you wrong?
No, you’re reading me right. Even though in documentaries like Eyes on the Prize one gets a vivid sense of the civil rights struggle, the number of casualties, for any kind of revolution, is fairly light. You really only have one side arguing. King is attacking the Southern segregationists, and the Southern segregationists appear to have no counterarguments. Nobody’s fighting back. You have Bull Connor, you have hoses, you have dogs. But, essentially, by the time King articulated his arguments a revolution had already occurred. Earlier in the twentieth century surveys of race relations showed the belief in black inferiority to be extremely widespread. Most Americans were strongly opposed to intermarriage. This began to change in the thirties and had changed already by the fifties, so the atmosphere was right for the NAACP in the Brown case, and King had tremendous support, particularly in the North.
Make the case, though, if you would, against the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act.
I don’t make a case against those things. I do think it is fair to say that if I had been around then, it would have been difficult to see an alternative course of action. But both those decisions contained important flaws, although in different ways. Today we are living with the fruits of those flaws.
What were the flaws?
In the Brown decision the flaw was that the result was color-blind but the reasoning was not. This is important, because the Supreme Court builds upon prior reasoning. By explicitly disavowing color-blind reasoning, the Court opened the door to the later abandonment of color-blindness; it opened the door to busing and to race-based school assignments. Although many people understand Brown to have cemented the color-blind principle, it did not. In fact it’s probably fair to say that the Supreme Court has never embraced color-blind reasoning unequivocally.
Had you been on the Court when that case came up, how would you have voted?
I would have voted the same way, but I would have argued that the government should be strictly race-neutral. If that argument had been cemented then, not only would it have represented the greatest victory of the civil rights movement, but it would have set a precedent. It probably would have helped slow down, if not prevent, much of the racialization of our society that has subsequently occurred with the blessing of law.
With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with Martin Luther King’s agenda, generally I have two quarrels, one minor, the other major. The minor quarrel is that there was no thought given to the distinction between private and public behavior. In a free society we have a right to be treated equally under the law. We have a right for the instruments of government to treat us as individuals. In the private domain that’s less true, and in some cases it’s not necessarily true at all. If I want to hire my nephew to work in my store, I am departing from the principle of merit. Is it the job of a government in a free society to tell me I can’t do that? Probably not. And if that is so, why isn’t that range of discretion extended to the area of race? In other words, I think that there was not enough attention paid in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the distinction between outlawing private conduct and outlawing public conduct.
The second and far more important issue is this. In a debate that erupted in the early part of the century between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, and which laid the foundation for the subsequent course of civil rights in this country, Du Bois argued that blacks faced one major problem, white racism. Washington argued that blacks faced two major problems, white racism, on the one hand, and black cultural or civilizational deficiency, on the other. Washington agreed with Du Bois that this was not the result of genetic deficiencies or natural flaws but rather the consequence of a history of oppression. Nevertheless, Washington said this cultural deficiency existed, and it strengthened white racism because it gave white racism an empirical foundation. Therefore, Washington argued, it was just as important, within the circumscribed world of segregation, to improve black cultural standards, so that blacks could compete effectively with whites, as it was to repeal the Jim Crow laws—perhaps even more important. This agenda has essentially been neglected for more than a generation.
If you had been in the Congress when the 1964 Civil Rights Act came up, would you have voted for it or against it?
I would have voted for it and then regretted it twenty years later. I wouldn’t have regretted voting for it; I would have regretted some of the negative consequences of what I had voted for.
Wouldn’t you instead have taken the position that Southerners in Congress like Sam Ervin did, and said, “I could vote for this if they would get rid of the public accommodations title and the enforcement title. But since those are in there, I’m going to vote against it.” It seems to me that that’s the position you’re outlining now. What you’re talking about was exactly what the whole debate was about over the bill.
Well, let me put it this way. I am in favor of the government’s being strictly race-blind but of the private sector’s being free to discriminate, both in favor of blacks and against blacks.
If Harvard Law School wants to impose a racial double standard in admissions, should it be legally barred from so doing, or should it be allowed to as a private institution?
Harvard Law School, as a private institution, should be allowed to have not only racial goals and timetables but quotas if it wants to. I’m in favor of the private sector’s being able to discriminate for or against blacks, with virtually no restrictions on that. In the South the problem was that private discrimination was supported by the state structure. I would have supported strong-arm measures in the fifties and sixties to kick in a closed door, to bash an unjust system. Having said that, I would recognize that that sort of tactic was exceptional, was a strong-arm tactic, was a bully tactic, and was a tactic inconsistent with a free society, so that I would not want to normalize it. I think this is where most Americans are. They feel that emergency measures were necessary. They were taken. It’s a generation later, and we need to do things differently now.
If the chairman of General Motors said, “I’m going to practice what Dinesh D’Souza calls rational discrimination and not hire any more black people at General Motors ever again,” should that be legal or illegal?
Legal. But it wouldn’t happen, because the chairman of General Motors wouldn’t be the chairman of General Motors very long if he did that. I would venture to say that there would be a nationwide boycott of General Motors products and an outrage the likes of which we’ve never seen if any such decision was made. Second, as I show in the book, even if this could be done covertly, in a society where only some people discriminate the cost of discrimination falls on the discriminator. Imagine what would happen to a baseball team if it refused to hire blacks.
What about Honda? You point out in your book that it chose to locate in an area that has very few black people in it. Honda’s not paying much of a price.
That’s right. What Honda is doing is trying to get around affirmative action. Honda is trying to get around a rule that says that if you have a plant in Washington, D.C., you have to make sure that roughly 80 percent of your employees are black. Honda is exemplifying the way in which antidiscrimination laws have perverse side effects. If the government didn’t have such a rule, there probably would be more blacks working for Honda.
Let’s change the subject slightly. Where are we now in America in race relations? What’s the situation today?
It’s a moment of tremendous confusion, uncertainty, gloom, and crisis.
Let me interrupt you quickly. It seems to me you’re on both sides of this particular issue in the book. Mostly you say what you just said, that things are very bad. And then sometimes you say what you said a minute ago in the interview, that things are much better now.
I would reconcile those two points by saying that the danger as I see it is that the older generation is poisoning the younger generation. You have an older generation, characterized by people like the liberal intellectuals Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell, who are still mired in old battles. So, for example, if I said that private discrimination should be legal, they would regard me as indistinguishable from Bull Connor. They would argue that I want the old regime back. But it’s precisely because I realize that the old regime is dead that I can make this kind of bold proposal. I would never make it in 1940. I’m making it today because I realize that the world has changed.
If there is a racial crisis now, how would you define it precisely? What does it consist of?
It essentially consists of three things. The racial crisis arises out of the fallacy of the civil rights movement, which assumed that because all groups are basically equal in ability, equality of rights for individuals should produce equality of results for groups. The problem is this: If you administer a test, virtually any test, in virtually any subject, to a randomly selected group of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, in any part of the country, at virtually any age, you seem to get the same result. Asians and whites at the top, Hispanics in the middle, blacks at the bottom. This is confirmed by countless measures of academic and economic performance—by everything from the test given to seven-year-olds to the Scholastic Assessment Test and the firefighter’s test and the police test. It’s conceivable that one or another of those tests might be flawed or biased, but it seems unbelievable that every one of them could be.
What accounts for the gap then?
What accounts for the gap is that groups do not bring the same set of cultural orientations and skills to the race. Specifically, American blacks have developed a culture that was long adaptive to historical circumstances, including historical oppression, but that is in concrete ways dysfunctional today.
You say there are three possible causes for the blackwhite gap: biological, cultural, and discrimination, or racism. I just want to walk through those one by one. Do you believe there are any biologically derived differences between the races?
There certainly are physical differences between the races. Whether there are intellectual differences between the races, I don’t know. I suspect that there are not. I think that the main reason for black failure in America today is not genes, and is not discrimination, but is rather cultural dysfunctionalities in the black community.
Let’s say Charles Murray comes up to you and says, “How can you dispute what I say in The Bell Curve ? I’m right.” What’s your comeback to him?
My comeback would be on several fronts. One would be that there have been studies of groups that are comparable in IQ at an early age but then in later years have substantial differences in their test scores. One reason for this is that some groups study harder than others. A lot of Asian and white kids test the same at a young age, but then Asians do better in school later. I think this is because of tighter family structures, doing more homework, attaching a greater importance to getting into Berkeley, things like that—cultural factors. Second, the real problem faced by blacks today is not that there are not enough black computer scientists or astrophysicists. It’s that there has been a civilizational breakdown in the black community, characterized by high rates of crime, extremely high rates of illegitimacy, and the breakdown of community. That is a recent phenomenon. It’s a product of the last generation. It’s manifestly not the product of genes, or racism, because the gene pool has remained roughly constant, and racism used to be far worse.
Another place where I detect you being on both sides at once is on the question of whether The Bell Curve is a threat. You say at one point that Charles Murray is waiting in the wings. But also you seem very angry at people who have attacked The Bell Curve . Is the book a useful addition to the debate or not?
I have a weird reaction to The Bell Curve . I hate The Bell Curve ’s conclusions. They offend me morally. And yet it’s a serious book with a lot of evidence. The arguments against it have been for the most part weak. They have been straw-man arguments. It’s a serious book, and it’s a dangerous book because it challenges the notion that we can live in a pluralistic and inclusive society rather than a racial-caste society. I don’t want to live in a racial-caste society, so I would like to prove The Bell Curve false. I can’t do it. I think the strongest argument for The Bell Curve , and it has remained essentially unanswered, is this: The black-white IQ gap of fifteen points has remained roughly constant for almost a century.
Not true. Look at the Army Alpha test during World War I: It’s much bigger than fifteen points, and today it continues to drop. As you say in the book, the SAT is a proxy IQ test, and while the black-white SAT gap is considerable, it has dropped steadily over the years.
The evidence is not quite as you state, because there are a number of tests. You can’t look at a single test.
The Army Alpha came up with a two-standard-deviation difference, and now it’s down to one deviation.
But there were tests that showed one standard deviation then, and there’s some evidence that tests today show more than one standard deviation. I don’t claim to be an expert on this part of The Bell Curve by any means. But the authors actually argued that there’s a dysgenic effect, that over time what’s happening is that the black-white IQ gap may be getting bigger. This is not my main concern. I’m not arguing the minutiae of the issue. What I’m arguing is that there’s a large gap. White kids who come from families earning less than twenty thousand dollars a year score better on the SAT than black kids who come from families earning more than sixty thousand dollars a year. It is very difficult for me to see how either racism or poverty could explain these gaps. That’s why culture is what I turn to.
Do you think discrimination accounts for any of the black-white difference today? Do you see discrimination as any kind of present danger? There’s a chilling scene in the book where you go to a racist group’s convention and they say all sorts of scary things. Is that something that we shouldn’t be worried about today?
As people like David Duke, Mark Fuhrman, and Jared Taylor show, racism continues to be a problem, and it’s something that we should be worried about. Even though groups like the Klan are a pale image of their former self, a few fanatics can do a lot of damage, as the Oklahoma City bombing showed. Moreover, there is rational discrimination, discrimination that makes sense: the cabdriver who is reluctant to pick up young black males. This kind of discrimination will persist in a free society. I’m unhappy about it, and it’s not clear what one can do about it, but it is a problem, and it does exist. I’m most concerned about the law-abiding black who is trying to play by the rules, who’s trying to be a productive member of society, but who is nevertheless treated as if he were not—not because whites are raving bigots but because he belongs to a group whose statistical pattern makes that kind of judgment rational. It’s a terrible paradox. On the one hand, the judgment is rational. On the other hand, the young black male has the right to feel that he’s being treated unjustly and immorally.
If you were running the country, what would you do now?
What we need now is a color-blind public policy combined with a serious effort at cultural restoration. What we need to do is focus on strengthening people’s skills, strengthening families. The government can play only a limited role in this kind of civilizational project, but it can play some role.
You say in the book that although the black middle class grew dramatically in the last generation, it is economically dependent on government employment and affirmativeaction programs. If so, where do all those middle-class blacks go after the economic infrastructure that supports their being middleclass is taken away?
I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll try to zoom in on this point. The British in India set up their headquarters in Bengal. That’s where the civil service jobs were. So many of the smart Bengalis went into the civil service. They became intellectuals. The other groups—the Parsees, the Gujaratis—were not favored by the British, and they went into small business. They set up little shops.
Here’s my point. When the British went home, where did the Bengalis go? The answer is they had to fend for themselves. They had to scramble. They had a problem. True. One of the reasons that the Bengalis didn’t go into small business is that they had the superstructure of the colonial system providing ready-made jobs. In America the combined effect of rapid desegregation and affirmative action was to undermine the fragile institution of black entrepreneurship. Too many black businesses today are dependent on government. So I think we’re in a difficult transition. The transition from government dependence to self-reliance will take probably twenty to thirty years.
Why would it take that short a time? Don’t cultural patterns persist for much longer than that? Could you bootstrap an entrepreneurial tradition in black America in twenty years?
Black America did have an entrepreneurial tradition. It was repressed and circumscribed under segregation, but it did exist. In fact it was arguably more vital under segregation than subsequently.
But even under segregation the smart kid was encouraged to become a preacher or a teacher, not an entrepreneur. That was one reason for the phenomenon of the Jewish merchant in the ghetto, who has now been succeeded by the Korean.
So you didn’t have an essentially entrepreneurial black culture.
I take a cautiously optimistic view about culture. There are some people, like Thomas Sowell, author of Race and Culture , who argue that culture is the product of the distilled experience of generations, if not centuries. The Germans are mechanistic today because the ancient Teutons were that way. That’s not my view. I see around the world many cultures, especially the Asian cultures, that were hierarchical, feudal, and militaristic and have undergone within a single generation a tremendous transformation. Culture changes. We’re seeing it under our eyes. We’re seeing it all over the world.
If you take away the things that have spurred the growth of the black middle class over a generation, what do you really end up with? Don’t you end up increasing pain and suffering in black America, rather than planting the seeds of a new entrepreneurial renaissance?
If I knew of a way to achieve an economic renaissance without creating any discomfort or pain in the short term, I would support it. But I don’t know how you get middle-class people who are habituated to earning fiftytwo thousand dollars a year sitting in the Department of Education doing nothing to go out and open a store. There is no way to do it. We have government reliance that extends from the middle class to poor blacks. Poor blacks are dependent on the government for welfare, for government provisions. And middle-class blacks are dependent for government jobs. You have dependency throughout the black community. The government is just simply not going to be a long-term provider in a society with a free and limited government, particularly when the mood is one of pruning, cutting, and scaling back.
Other groups, like the Irish, have used government as their way of getting from poverty to truly established middle class. Some groups go the entrepreneurial route; others don’t. What’s the big difference?
I agree with the scholars on the left who argue that American blacks are not replicating the immigrant experience. The new immigrants are doing what immigrants have always done, leapfrogging over blacks. American blacks are being left behind. You can begin to change something if you recognize a problem. The real problem is that you have a black leadership and a black intellectual class, even some black conservatives, that refuse to admit that there is a cultural problem and who continue to blame all black problems on society. As long as you have this intellectual and moral evasion, the project of civilization restoration cannot even begin.
To put it more to the point, do you think that black America would be better off if everybody in it moved down a notch? You refer somewhere in the book to the natural hierarchy of groups. Do you think that that would be more in accord with the natural hierarchy of groups?
I don’t think that there is a natural hierarchy of groups. We have a hierarchy of groups because of differences in culture. Asians do better than Hispanics not because Asians are repressing Hispanics but because Asians work harder, save more, and have a set of cultural orientations more conducive to success today. Once that’s granted, then the argument becomes: Do you want to live in a society in which we have, as we now have, affirmativeaction subsidies built into the fabric of American life? That’s option number one, to continue to live in a racialized society. Option number two is to limit affirmative action to blacks. That would be an improvement, in my view, over option number one. It would recognize the unique situation of black America. It would acknowledge a historical debt that America doesn’t have to immigrants from Paraguay and Bombay. And it would preserve many of the gains that have been made over the last couple of decades. However, it’s not viable in the long term.
Let’s look at a separate problem, which is the situation in the ghettos, where there is catastrophic violence and family breakdowns. What would you do about that?
I think what we have to do is three things. The first is security. People say there are no businesses in the inner cities, and the poor pay more, and so on. Well, one reason the poor pay more is the high cost of crime and insurance against crime. The first duty of government is to provide security for its citizens. So, for me, the first order of business would be to devote enormous resources to shutting down the criminal elements in the ghetto. That would require an enormous investment of resources, but it can be done. That’s the first step.
You are, then, willing to call for government action that would cost lots of money, if it would solve these problems?
But you were just saying government can have no role.
I’m not a libertarian. I would like to see the government play a limited but constructive role in helping strengthen cultural and civilizational forces in our society. I’m not against the government’s doing limited but prudent things to make people’s lives easier.
What are the other two things after security?
The second thing would be to provide external opportunity, by which I mean incentives for investment. What blacks need are not social workers but condos and co-ops and jobs. The third point is that young blacks, particularly young black males, have got to be prepared, socially and culturally, to take advantage of opportunity.
A very difficult question if you’re talking about the current generation. You have a generation of blacks in the underclass, and it’s very hard to see how these young people, who have developed routines of incivility, promiscuity, and violence, can be habituated to living the kinds of lives that most people take for granted. I’m not sure what can be done in the very short term. I am much more hopeful about the younger generation of black kids, who are eight and nine years old. Yet too many of these youngsters will also go awry if something isn’t done now.
Again, do you think government has a role here?
Government has a very limited role. How is the government going to regulate socialization patterns in the black family? The government isn’t going to be able to tell single black mothers how to raise their children. The government’s role is going to be small.
What is the mechanism then?
The only way for it to happen is for the lead to be taken by the leaders of the black community—if not this generation of leaders, then a new generation. The project of cultural restoration has to come from within. Society can help, but the leading role has to be played by blacks. My own greatest hope lies with inner-city black preachers, who I think are doing the most to try to provide at least enclaves of decency within the inner city.
Why can’t the wider society be more involved? Why does it have to come from within?
Part of the reason is ethnocentrism. People’s circles of sympathy begin with themselves, then focus on their families and then their neighbors. It’s very difficult to get people to act toward strangers in the same way they act toward their relatives. I think most people would be willing to give something in the form of private charity and in the form of taxes and might be willing to give something in the form of voluntary work. But if you’re saying that you want people to adopt the inner city, this is ridiculous. It’s not going to happen, and any social policy based on that expectation isn’t going to go anywhere.
Toward the end of the book, you go through a kind of litany: Liberals must, liberals must, liberals must, liberals should. What should conservatives do?
Conservatives, many of them, are not that interested in the issue of race. Blacks are not an important part of the Republican coalition. While there’s some ritual obeisance made to winning the black vote, it’s very unlikely, because blacks are to the left of the Democratic party. How conservatives are going to win the black vote, except through symbolic things like putting Colin Powell on the ticket, is beyond me. I think that if you’re going to have a movement that addresses these problems, it’s going to come from liberals.
It seems to me there’s a tendency among conservatives to say, “We cry, we weep, over the racial disaster in America,” but then as soon as it looks as if various unpopular social programs and affirmative action are going to be taken away, the attitude changes to “Okay, fine. There is no racial problem anymore.”
There is a minority of conservatives who are against government. These strict libertarians in a sense come in a camouflage guise, because they realize that if they wrote articles calling for people to take out stop signs, and so on, they would be regarded as lunatics. So they adopt a more tactical approach. But that is their agenda. They will essentially, when push comes to shove, oppose every government program. I don’t think this describes the conservative majority. Most conservatives don’t have that view. They certainly oppose government programs that don’t work, and government programs have empirically proved to be a disastrous failure, at least many of them, and many of them in this area. Perhaps other middle-class programs have worked better; that’s a debatable point. You have an alliance between the antigovernment libertarians and the prudent conservatives, who I think are the majority. I think if you could show that there were Head Start programs that were dramatically improving test scores, you would have support for that.
Is there a sense of moral urgency in the conservative movement about any of these issues, other than getting rid of racial preferences? Is there a sense of moral urgency about the disaster in the ghettos, the suffering there?
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.
My concern here is this: You just a few moments ago described to me, in a nuanced and empathetic way, the arguments within the conservative community. In the book, though, the arguments within the liberal community, which are ferocious on all these issues, get lost in an atmosphere of liberal bashing. Your message is that liberals caused all these problems, and they really don’t have anything to offer.
Well, there’s a lot of liberal soul-searching, but still the two basic premises of liberal race policy, proportional representation and multiculturalism, have remained relatively intact.
What I’m questioning is whether these are in fact the two basic premises of liberal race policy.
Sure. If you have a firm, the government will say, “Why are Hispanics 4 percent of your firm when they’re 8 percent of the surrounding population?” That affects people’s daily lives. Now, Christopher Jencks’s book Rethinking Social Policy had a lot of second thoughts in it, and there’s a lot or discussion now about issues like welfare reform and affirmative action, but essentially, until very recently, affirmative action was unquestioned. Even the Supreme Court is, despite all its retrenchment, basically committed to the idea that race matters. The liberal orthodoxy today is Cornel West: Race matters, race is a social reality, and we have no choice but to institutionalize it. I am downplaying liberal conflict because the liberal conflict is on one side of the divide. You have the guys who want to live in a society where race matters and race is a basis for public policy, and you have the guys who don’t believe that. That’s the dividing line.
What do you think will happen over the next ten or fifteen years in American race relations?
In the short term we are in for more problems, because many blacks are going to interpret opposition to affirmative action as a form of resurgent white racism. Black leaders are likely to see race neutrality as bigotry in disguise. Blacks are likely to misunderstand the motives of well-meaning whites who oppose race preference for good reasons as being no different from those of the old bigots. This is going to make blacks more nervous about dealing with whites, and well-meaning whites more polarized and more irritated at blacks for reacting this way. In the short term I see more problems. On the other hand, I see a much greater acceptance of social equality among young people. So I’m optimistic about the next century, but I’m not optimistic about the next ten years.