The Place of Race In America

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These days, the subject of race in America is in a cycle of wide and deep unpopularity at both the grassroots and political levels. Privately and publicly, the subject is avoided, abused, shunned, and abandoned. Its contemporary relevance is denied. The nation's leading effort to produce racial equality--school desegregation--is described as a waning policy: nice try and good riddance.

It is easy to encounter this explanation of where we are as a nation with race:

The days of overt racial discrimination are behind us. The civil rights era dismantled racial barriers. The nation is more enlightened racially than at any time in its history. This is the time to abolish race-conscious instruments left over from the old days of civil rights, beginning with affirmative action in employment, minority set-asides in public contracts, the remaining state laws on racial isolation in schools, court-supervised school busing programs, race-related college-admission and scholarship policies, and redesign of voting districts to empower black voters. Our ideal should be one nation, indivisible, with liberty--and colorblind. We have overcome our racial past.

In fact, a nation-threatening anomaly is at work. While we would set aside race as no longer relevant to American policy and practice, demography propels race to an increasingly important place in the American experience. In 1900, one of eight Americans was a citizen of color. The proportion was one of seven by the 1960s, one of five by 1980, and within 25 years it will be one of three. By the midpoint of the coming century, when today's 6-year-olds will still be working, Americans of color and Anglo Americans will about equal each other in number.

Does this demographic reality suggest that race is or will become a receding characteristic of American society? On the contrary, it says that racial diversity is being etched ever more deeply into the very definition of America and what it means to be an American--and what it takes to be a good one.

The emerging demographics mean, for one thing, that race relations will become more complicated than ever. Why? Race is no longer just a black-white issue. It now in addition encompasses two growing groups of minorities: Latinos and Asians. Moreover, within each of these two groups, nationality differences are numerous and significant. Implicated by these differences are not just national traditions and different languages, but also mores, aspirations, values, perceptions, lifestyles, family structures, priorities--and prejudices between subgroups inside each racial category.

Complexity is further deepened by the fact that white Americans are entering an era in which many of them are going to be outnumbered in at least some of the venues of daily life. One cannot overestimate the profound implication of this simple coming reality for which white Americans are culturally unprepared and have no frame of historical reference. We are all culturally trained, and white Americans are culturally trained to be in the majority--always.

The outnumbering of white Americans by Americans of color will occur in different places and at different ages for different white Americans: in the hospital, the workplace, the military service, the college dormitory; on the athletic field, the board of a community organization, on line for a cab; where driver tests are given, the unemployment line, the Social Security office, the dental clinic, the airport bar.

And where not outnumbered, white Americans will come to depend on decisions made by Americans of color: for a car loan, college admission, a job promotion, a course grade, a court decision, nursing-home care, dentures, eyeglasses, correction of a credit record.

Will white Americans take to being outnumbered or dependent like ducks take to water? What will they think--how will their perceptions on race evolve? In a direction of racial enlightenment, or with a reactionary thrust?

Complexity is deepened even further by the results, ironically, of racial progress. As a result of opened doors, there is a visible black professional class in America. This isn't entirely new. But black professionals now are visible to white Americans--which ironically makes race relations more difficult. Because now, from the vantage point of white Americans, all blacks are not alike in the sense that all of them are excluded from the lunch counter at Woolworth's, all are excluded from Central High School, all must ride in the back of the bus, none can enter the University of Mississippi, and all are subject to fire hoses and police dogs.

The simple, hard-line bifurcation of the races has been replaced by a blurry, confusing scene in which white Americans sees black M.D.s driving BMWs while other blacks are stuck in hopelessness; black school superintendents running school systems that seem no better, even for black pupils, than before; blacks going to college, getting good jobs and running for the suburbs, leaving behind a ghetto more socially impoverished than ever as a result of their departure.

It becomes easy for white Americans--and some blacks also--to witness this confounding scene and to conclude that the barriers are down, some made it through, so all could make it if they cared and tried and sacrificed. The complexity is so overwhelming that it is disposed of in favor of a comprehensible explanation: Race is a dead issue.

These days, if you sit in federal courts and listen as school districts seek to end court supervision of their school-desegregation programs, you will hear experts express their opinions on the place of race in modern America. In essence, they say it has no active place.

You will hear them say, for example, that while racial gaps in student performance are tragic, they cannot be eliminated or ameliorated by schools. The gaps, they say, have origins beyond the span of impact of schools; so if blacks have lower reading scores, or higher high school dropout rates, or fewer seats in gifted programs, or more seats in special education classes, or higher discipline rates, do not hold the schools accountable, and do not expect the schools to correct such disparities.

Now, two things about this analysis are odd.

First, it casts schools not as the engine of the American dream, the genius institution that more than any other evens out the playing field of opportunity by enhancing all the human potential that comes through the schoolhouse door regardless of race or gender or family income or first language or family quality, but rather as an instrument that reinforces inequalities. In other words, this is an anti-school analysis--brought forward by school boards that employ the experts who articulate it.

Second, while such analysis passes for practical thinking in courtrooms, it is inconceivable that with it one could be selected as a school principal virtually anywhere in America these days. Imagine if one said when interviewed, "If you hire me, don't expect me to do much about educating children of color, or low-income children of any race, because the race gap and the income gap in student outcomes is environmental in origin, and schools cannot make much of a difference. You can count on my leadership to perpetuate the gap."

A visitor to America in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote of the special import of race to this developing nation. In the 20th century, Gunnar Myrdal characterized race as a dilemma for America. More recently, Cornel West has reminded us that race still matters; and Andrew Hacker has suggested that race is so pervasive in American life that "every one of us could write a book" about it.

Race is the enduring American dilemma. It will not go away, ever. Just as Americans will have to tend in perpetuity to preservation of the environment, so they will have to tend to management of their racial pluralism. Race in America is not a problem to be solved and filed, but a perpetual effort about the civility with which America's races interact, and the participation each has in the American ideal of equality.

The subject of race is out of step with the times, but it is in the mainstream of current and forseeable national significance.

What should we be doing? We should distinguish between ends and means, and keep the focus on desired ends while improving and negotiating the methods. Polls show that most people, regardless of race, express a desire for a diverse society, and for one that actually works. It is the means to the ends on which we get hung up. So we argue about quotas and busing and set-asides and gerrymandering and preferential treatment--all means. Then, exhausted and frustrated and divided, we lose sight of the intended end result on which most of us agree, throw up our hands, and abandon the effort altogether. The more facile among us declare victory and say, untruthfully, the problem got solved.

We also need more inventive methods when addressing race-related issues. Methods should reward success, make use of incentives, and be explainable. They should not offend common sense. They surely ought to work, and they ought to generate tangible proof that they work as intended.

And we need to recognize the limits of law on matters of race. Who desegregates schools, opens employment doors, lets in voters, and removes barriers to public accommodations? The institution of law. By comparison, our other institutions, specifically including public schools, have been bystanders or recipients of court orders, the institutional equivalents of deadbeat fathers. Yet for all the power of law, and all the law has accomplished, America still has ghettos, discrimination, and race gaps. This is the lesson: The law has its limits; other institutions are called to haul some water or racial divisions will widen.

Those brave enough and insightful enough to address race issues these days, especially in schools, must do so knowing that it is because the time is unfavorable and because the need is profound that acting now, to borrow old but apt language from school historian Michael Katz, is "so desperately difficult and so urgent."

Vol. 15, Issue 39, Pages 41, 52

Published in Print: June 19, 1996, as The Place of Race In America
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