Books: Readings

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In Days of Grace, a memoir by Arthur Ashe published after his death from AIDS last spring, the tennis champion recounts not only his experiences as one of the first African-Americans to rise to the top of that white-dominated sport, but also his thoughts as part of a generation that came of age during the civil-rights movement.

In a chapter entitled "The Burden of Race,'' Mr. Ashe gives a passionate analysis of the changing tenor of black consciousness--from Martin Luther King, to Stokely Carmichael, to South Central Los Angeles. The excerpt below sketches the outlines of what he sees as a loss of confidence and unity in the black community since his childhood in a segregated Richmond, Va.:

What happened to black America since 1954? That was the year when the black community and the nation were electrified by the news that segregated education was to end, that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional in the decision Brown v. Board of Education. First, I think it is accurate to say, we passed through a period of elation and optimism. I myself remember the day when word swept through our grammar school that we children would thereafter be going to school with whites; we would have all the rights and opportunities that whites had.

The truth was somewhat different. In the 1960's and early 1970's, a small but important group of blacks was able to take advantage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This group proceeded to move out of the old neighborhoods and leave the poorer, less educated strata to fend for themselves without the leadership and guidance that more fortunate blacks had often provided.

The national economy started to change. Blacks, who had been dependent on high-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs, were often made obsolete as workers when the economy became more oriented toward information. Masses of immigrants, ready to work harder for less, entered the United States by crossing its borders legally and illegally at every available location. In places like Miami and Los Angeles, immigrants from Cuba and Central America devastated the internal black-American economy by securing first the lowest-paid jobs, then moving upward until they had evicted black Americans almost entirely from the workplace. Single-parent families headed by women began to proliferate. The public schools began to deteriorate, as increasing numbers of students entered school without first having been prepared at home to accept the rigors of education. The cost of attending college soared. Crime exploded.

Behind all these ominous trends is, unquestionably, the cumulative impact of racism on African-American culture. The cruel denial of jobs in sector after sector of the economy, the imposition of job ceilings that keep blacks down among the lowest levels of the company structure, the exclusion of blacks from the social settings that stimulate leadership in a variety of areas--these unquestionably account for most of the decline of the African-American community.

The decline is real. However, I do not view the decline as irreversible. We are no more prone to crime, immorality, and other forms of delinquency than any other social group. But I estimate that it would take at least a generation, perhaps more, before African-American culture can regain the moral authority it once possessed. Then we would have, as we still did when I was a child, a sense of the integrity of the family, including mother and father; a sense of the value and power of education; a sense of the deep importance of religion and moral instruction; a sense of pride in ourselves as achieving, thinking human beings; a sense of our place in the community of peoples, regardless of race; a sense of our superiority to those who would deny us our rights because of the color of our skin.

Days of Grace: A Memoir, by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad. Copyright 1993. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

The Moral Sense is a far-ranging reflection on the nature of our humanness by one of the country's most respected and provocative social thinkers, James Q. Wilson, the James Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Are human beings innately moral? Yes, says Mr. Wilson, whose book tries to reconcile 50 years of behavioral research with traditional notions of morality. But the development of a moral sense, he says, is still dependent on nurturing and on supportive environmental influences. The school, which he discusses below, is one of those influences:

We are also convulsed by a debate over whether our schools should teach morality. Much of that debate is as misguided as the debate over families, because it is based on a misunderstanding of the sources of morality. Some conservatives argue that the schools should impress upon their pupils moral maxims; some liberals argue that, at most, the schools should clarify the "value'' choices the pupils might want to make. But if the argument of this book is correct, children do not learn morality by learning maxims or clarifying values. They enhance their natural sentiments by being regularly induced by families, friends, and institutions to behave in accord with the most obvious standards of right conduct--fair dealing, reasonable self-control, and personal honesty.

A moral life is perfected by practice more than by precept; children are not taught so much as habituated. In this sense the schools inevitably teach morality, whether they intend to or not, by such behavior as they reward or punish. A school reinforces the better moral nature of a pupil to the extent it insists on the habitual performance of duties, including the duty to deal fairly with others, to discharge one's own responsibilities, and to defer the satisfaction of immediate and base motives in favor of more distant and nobler ones.

Many of us worry about the effects of the mass media, and especially of prolonged television viewing, on the character of our young people. But often we state the issue too narrowly, as when we complain that violent scenes on television produce violent behavior among its viewers. The former may cause the latter under some circumstances; the evidence I have seen suggests that the causal connection is weak, uncertain, and explains rather little of the total level of violence in society.

The real problem with prolonged television viewing is the same as the problem with any form of human isolation: It cuts the person off from those social relationships on which our moral nature in large part depends. As the psychiatrist George Ainslie writes, "the mass media [in heavy doses] impoverish a society in the same way as drugs and other addictions, by draining away more attention than they return.'' Passive, individual entertainment, whether in a drugged stupor, in a video arcade, or before an endlessly running TV screen, leads to self-absorption, and self-absorption in extreme doses is the enemy of moral competence, especially that form of competence that depends on our controlling our impulses.

In all three areas--families, schools, and entertainment--we have come face to face with a fatally flawed assumption of many Enlightenment thinkers, namely, that autonomous individuals can freely choose, or will, their moral life. Believing that individuals are everything, rights are trumps, and morality is relative to time and place, such thinkers have been led to design laws, practices, and institutions that leave nothing between the state and the individual save choices, contracts, and entitlements. Fourth-grade children being told how to use condoms is only one of the more perverse of the results.

The Moral Sense, by James Q. Wilson. Copyright 1993 by James Q. Wilson. Reprinted by permission of the Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc.

Vol. 13, Issue 01

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