An American Tragedy
The legacy of slavery lingers in our cities' ghettos


The United States of America, "a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," began as a slave society. What can rightly be called the "original sin" slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nationa's soul. A terrible price had to be paid, in a tragic, calamitous civil war, before this new democracy could be rid of that most undemocratic institution. But for black Americans the end of slavery was just the beginning of our quest for democratic equality; another century would pass before the nation came fully to embrace that goal. Even now millions of Americans recognizably of African descent languish in societal backwaters. What does this say about our civic culture as we enter a new century?

The eminent Negro man of letters W. E. B. Du Bois predicted in 1903 that the issue of the 20th century would be "the problem of the color line." He has been proven right. At mid-century the astute Swedish observer of American affairs, Gunnar Myrdal, reiterated the point, declaring the race problem to be our great national dilemma and fretting about the threat it posed to the success of our democratic experiment. Du Bois must have relished the irony of having a statue named Liberty oversee the arrival in New York's harbor of millions of foreigners, "tempest tossed" and "yearning to breathe free," even as black Southern peasants--not alien, just profoundly alienated--were kept unfree at the social margins. And Myrdal observed a racist ideology that openly questioned the Negro's human worth survive our defeat of the Nazis and abate only when the Cold War rivalry made it intolerable that the "leader of the free world" should be seen to preside over a regime of racial subordination.

This sharp contrast between America's lofty ideals, on the one hand, and the seemingly permanent second-class status of the Negroes, on the other, put the onus on the nation's political elite to choose the nobility of their civic creed over the comfort of longstanding social arrangements. Ultimately they did so. Viewed in historic and cross-national perspective, the legal and political transformation of American race relations since World War II represents a remarkable achievement, powerfully confirming the virtue of our political institutions. Official segregation, which some southerners as late as 1960 were saying would live forever, is dead. The caste system of social domination enforced with open violence has been eradicated. Whereas two generations ago most Americans were indifferent or hostile to blacks' demands for equal citizenship rights, now the ideal of equal opportunity is upheld by our laws and universally embraced in our politics. A large and stable black middle class has emerged, and black participation in the economic, political, and cultural life of this country, at every level and in every venue, has expanded impressively. This is good news. In the final years of this traumatic, exhilarating century, it deserves to be celebrated.

Today's Race Problem
Nevertheless, as anyone even vaguely aware of the social conditions in contemporary America knows, we still face a "problem of the color line." The dream that race might some day become an insignificant category in our civic life now seems naively utopian. In cities across the country, and in rural areas of the Old South, the situation of the black underclass and, increasingly, of the black lower working classes is bad and getting worse. No well-informed person denies this, though there is debate over what can and should be done about it. Nor do serious people deny that the crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, and general decay in these communities constitute a blight on our society virtually unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found elsewhere in the industrial West.

What is sometimes denied, but what must be recognized is that this is, indeed, a race problem. The plight of the underclass is not rightly seen as another (albeit severe) instance of economic inequality, American style. These black ghetto dwellers are a people apart, susceptible to stereotyping, stigmatized for their cultural styles, isolated socially, experiencing an internalized sense of helplessness and despair, with limited access to communal networks of mutual assistance. Their purported criminality, sexual profligacy, and intellectual inadequacy are the frequent objects of public derision. In a word, they suffer a pariah status. It should not require enormous powers of perception to see how this degradation relates to the shameful history of black-white race relations in this country.

Moreover, there is a widening rift between blacks and whites who are not poor--a conflict of visions about the continuing importance of race in American life. Most blacks see race as still of fundamental importance; most whites (and also many Asians and Hispanics) think blacks are obsessed with race. This rift impedes the attainment of commonly shared, enthusiastically expressed civic ideals that might unite us across racial lines in efforts to grapple with our problems. The notion of the "beloved community"--where blacks and whites transcend their differences and cooperate in universal brotherhood to foster racial integration--has never achieved broad appeal. As sociologist William Julius Wilson stressed 20 years ago in his misunderstood classic, The Declining Significance of Race, the locus of racial conflict in our society has moved from the economic to the social and political spheres.

Indeed, standing at the end of the 20th century, one can almost see Du Bois's "problem of the color line" shifting before one's eyes. An historic transformation on race-related issues in the United States is taking place. Arguments about black progress are but one part of the broader endeavor to recast our national understanding of racial matters--an undertaking of enormous importance. It has been a very long time since the civil rights movement constituted a force able to mold the nation's moral sensibilities. A struggle that succeeded brilliantly to win legal equality for blacks after a century of second-class citizenship has for the most part failed to win a national commitment toward eradicating the effects of this historical inheritance. The civil rights approach--petitioning the courts and the federal government for relief against the discriminatory treatment of private or state actors--reached its limit more than a decade ago. Deep improvement in the status of many blacks has taken place, even as the underclass has grown, and there seems to be no politically effective way of mobilizing a national assault on the remaining problems.

What is more, there has been profound demographic change in American society since the 1960s. During this period, nearly 20 million immigrants have arrived on our shores, mostly from non-European points of origin. Hispanics will soon be the nation's largest ethnic minority group. Asian-American college students and urban entrepreneurs are more numerous and more important in the country's economic and political life than ever before. This development is making obsolete the old black-white framework, though blacks must occupy a unique position in any discussion of the nation's ethnic history. But nowadays, as a political matter, to focus solely on the old tension between blacks and whites is to miss something of basic importance.

It is against this backdrop that statistical analyses of the status of African Americans are being conducted. Assessing how much or how little progress has taken place for blacks, and why, is one of the most fiercely contested empirical issues in the social sciences. For years, liberal advocates of blacks' interests tried to deny that meaningful change was occurring. That assessment has always had problems, in my view. In any event, it is no longer tenable. Now the dominant voices on this subject come from right of center. They seem decidedly unfriendly to black aspirations. With great fanfare, these conservatives declare the historic battle against racial caste to have been won. They go on to say that, but for the behavioral dysfunction of the black poor and the misguided demands for affirmative action from a race-obsessed black middle class, our "problem of the color line" could be put behind us. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, with their new book, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, offer a prime example of this mode of assessment. This line of argument should not be permitted to shape our national understanding of these matters. Permit me briefly to say why.

Rooted in History
A social scientist of any sophistication recognizes that societies are not amalgams of unrelated individuals creating themselves anew--out of whole cloth, as it were--in each generation. A complex web of social connections and a long train of historical influences interact to form the opportunities and shape the outlooks of individuals. Of course, individual effort is important, as is native talent and sheer luck, for determining how well or poorly a person does in life. But social background, cultural affinities, and communal influence are also of great significance. This is the grain of truth in the conservatives' insistence that cultural differences lie at the root of racial inequality in America. But the deeper truth is that, for some three centuries now, the communal experience of the slaves and their descendants has been shaped by political, social, and economic institutions that, by any measure, must be seen as oppressive. When we look at "underclass culture" in the American cities of today we are seeing a product of that oppressive history. It is morally obtuse and scientifically naive to say, in the face of the despair, violence, and self-destructive folly of these people, that "if they would get their acts together, like the poor Asian immigrants, then we would not have such a horrific problem in our cities."

The only decent response in the face of the "pathological" behavior of American history's losers is to conclude that, while we cannot change our ignoble past, we must not be indifferent to the contemporary suffering that is linked to that past. The self-limiting patterns of behavior among poor blacks "which some commentators are so quick to trot out" are a product, not of some alien cultural imposition upon a pristine Euro-American canvas, but, rather, of social, economic, and political practices deeply rooted in American history. We should not ignore the behavioral problems of the underclass, but we should discuss and react to them as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends. This is an American tragedy, to which we should respond as we might to an epidemic of teen suicide, adolescent drunken driving, or HIV infection among homosexual males--that is, by embracing, not demonizing, the victims.

The problem with talk about black culture, black crime, and black illegitimacy, as explanatory categories in the hands of the morally obtuse, is that it becomes an exculpatory device--a way of avoiding a discussion of mutual obligation. It is a distressing fact about contemporary American politics that simply to make this point is to risk being dismissed as an apologist for the inexcusable behavior of the poor. The deeper moral failing lies with those who, declaring "we have done all we can," would wash their hands of the poor.

It is morally and intellectually superficial in the extreme to begin and end one's argument with the observation that the problems of the underclass are due to their high rates of criminal behavior and out-of-wedlock births, and not to white racism. But this is what political discourse assessing the status of blacks has come to. The highly ideological character of racial debate in America makes nuance and complexity almost impossible to sustain. For while it may be true that the most debilitating impediments to advancement among the underclass derive from patterns of behavior that are self-limiting, it is also true that our history has dealt poor blacks a very bad hand. Yes, there must be change in these behaviors if progress is to be made. But a commitment of support will also be required from the broader society to help these folks help themselves.

The conservatives deny this. They rationalize the nasty, brutish, and short lives of a sizable minority of the black population as reflecting blacks' deficiencies, rather than revealing any flaw in "our way of life." Nowhere is the ideological character of this stance more clearly revealed than in the conservatives' celebration of immigrant success, over and against native black failure. That nonwhite immigrants succeed is taken as a vindication of the system; that blacks fail is said to be due entirely to their own inadequacies. This is obscenely ahistorical. Frankly, I remain optimistic about the prospect that black teenagers, given greater opportunity, might respond with better behavior. What makes me pessimistic about our future is the spectacle of politically influential American intellectuals grasping at these cultural arguments as reason to abandon or ignore their moral responsibilities to those who are least fortunate in our society.

Color Is Not Irrelevant
The debate over affirmative action has also become quite ideological in tone. I have been a critic of affirmative action policies for more than 15 years. I was among the first to stress how the use of racial preferences sheltered blacks from the challenge of competing on the merits in our society. I argued strenuously against the inclination of blacks to see affirmative action as a totem--a policy assumed to lie beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism, symbolizing the nation's commitment to "do the right thing" for black people. However, in the wake of a successful ballot initiative banning affirmative action in California, I now find it necessary to reiterate the old, and in my view still valid, arguments on behalf of explicit public efforts to reduce racial inequality.

The current campaign against "preferences" goes too far by turning what before Proposition 209 had been a reform movement into an abolitionists' crusade. In my view, race-based allocations of public contracts, explicit double standards in the workplace, and large disparities in the test scores of blacks and whites admitted to elite universities are unwise practices, deservedly under attack. But the U.S. Army's programs to commission more black officers, the public funding of efforts to bring blacks into science and engineering, and the goal of public universities to retain some racial diversity in their student bodies are all defensible practices that should be retained. The mere fact that these efforts take race into account should be not disqualifying.

Affirmative action, however prudently employed, can never be anything more than a marginal instrument for addressing the nation's unfinished racial business. But the proponents of colorblind policy who bill their crusade against "preferences" as the Second Coming of the civil rights movement display a ludicrous sense of misplaced priorities. They make a totem of ignoring race, even as the social isolation of the urban black poor reveals how important "color" continues to be in American society. Argument about the legality of the government's use of race only scratches the surface, because it fails to deal with the manifest significance of race in the private lives of Americans, black and white.

In the brave new dispensation, "color" is supposed to be irrelevant, yet everywhere we look in America, people are attending assiduously to race. The U.S. Census revealed that, among married people 25 to 34 years old in 1990, 70 percent of Asian women and 39 percent of Hispanic women, but only 2 percent of black women, had white husbands. Racially mixed church congregations are so rare that they make front-page news. So culturally isolated are black ghetto teens that linguists find their speech patterns to be converging across geographic distances, even as this emergent dialect grows increasingly dissimilar from the speech of poor whites living but a few miles away. Childless white couples travel to China in search of infants to adopt, while ghetto-born orphans go parentless. This is not to say that American society is irredeemably racist, but merely to illustrate how deeply imbedded in the social consciousness of our nation is the racial "otherness" of blacks. No accounts of contemporary race relations should minimize this fact. Yet that is precisely what the colorblind crusaders do.

Consider the commonsense observation that, in this country, an army where blacks are one-third of the enlisted personnel but only 3 percent of the officer corps is likely to function poorly. The U.S. army cares about the number of black captains because it needs to sustain effective cooperation among its personnel across racial lines. That the racial identities of captains and corporals sometimes matter to the smooth functioning of a military institution is a deep fact about our society that cannot be wished away.

But monitoring the number of blacks promoted to the rank of captain and formulating policies to increase that number are activities that inherently involve taking account of some individual's race. So radical critics of affirmative action must oppose this. Yet depending on how such activities are undertaken, they need not entail the promulgation of racial double standards, nor need they seem to declare, as a matter of official policy, that racial identity is a determinant of an individual's moral worth. As the military sociologist Charles Moskos is fond of pointing out, the Army is the only place in American society where large numbers of whites routinely take orders from blacks. So the irony is that the moral irrelevance of race, which the colorblind absolutists take as their highest principle, may be more evident to the members of the U.S. Army than elsewhere in our society precisely because the government has been allowed to use race in the conduct of its military personnel policies.

Loury is director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University