Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics University of Chicago Press, 2011, 232 pp., $26Intellectuals and Race Basic Books, 2013, 192 pp., $25.99Coming For to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolition to Jim Crow Rowman & Littlefield, 2011, 334 pp., $45
he central debate in black social thought from Reconstruction until the 1960s was whether the advancement of the race should be pursued through political agitation for civil rights and equal treatment or through self-help in separate institutions. The former position tended to look outward, seeing bias, discrimination and oppression combined as the major obstacle; the latter position emphasized black self-help from within to overcome deficiencies within the black subculture. Each of these warring ideologies had a towering advocate: The former position was advanced by one of Harvard University’s first black graduates, the founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois; the latter was advanced by the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington.
Today, in large part because of the success of the civil rights movement and the iconic status it now enjoys, the older clusters of commitment have broken apart and become virtually reversed: Separatists are now among the most vocal and belligerent activists, while integrationists often preach the gospel of quiet self-improvement. Today the central controversy is still whether blacks are mainly disadvantaged by bias, discrimination and a history of oppression, a moral deficiency in the political culture of the nation; or by their own lack of skills and initiative, a practical deficiency in black culture.
Two recent books carry on this debate. In Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, University of Chicago Professor Michael C. Dawson describes a political culture that consigns black people to the “bottom of the social order” and to lives of “crippling disadvantage.” Mainstream politicians and the mass media routinely disparage and stereotype blacks and belittle or ignore their concerns, reinforcing a political and economic order that exploits most Americans—especially but not exclusively blacks—for the benefit of a privileged few. For Dawson today, as for Du Bois near a century ago, the solution is a revitalized black politics that can “mobilize, influence policy, demand accountability from government officials . . . in the service of black interests.”
Nothing could be further from Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell’s argument in Intellectuals and Race. Rather like Booker T. Washington, Sowell argues that today’s racial inequalities are the fault of a black culture that encourages the most talented to squander their time and energy mastering esoteric social theories that blame others for their problems, rather than learning the practical skills that will help them solve those problems themselves. He complains that a malcontented “intelligentsia have demanded an equality of outcome and of social recognition, irrespective of the skills, behavior or performance of the group to which they belong or on whose behalf they spoke.”
Anyone familiar with the academic trends of recent decades will recognize some of Sowell’s bêtes noires. Still, one has to wonder which country Sowell is writing about, where “intellectuals can influence the way millions of other people see race.” Is it France, a nation proud of its cerebral culture, where philosophers and social theorists are celebrities? Or perhaps Germany, birthplace of modern post-graduate education, where analytic precision is built into the mother tongue? Certainly not the United States, where folksy vernacular is a sign of moral virtue and erudition is held in contempt; where the ethos of democratic egalitarianism means the uneducated citizen feels entitled not only to his own opinion, but as Tip O’Neill once quipped, to his own facts. Whatever flaws one may find in America’s racial politics—and there are many—it strains credulity to blame them on the dominance of intellectuals. And this makes one worry that Sowell is playing up to a specific audience—an audience that is eager to attack “ivory tower professors” for their supposed “liberal bias.”
Too much of Intellectuals and Race reads just this way, with overly tendentious and snide attacks on caricatured liberal theories. This detracts from the fair and often too quickly dismissed points Sowell makes. The book is a response to the common intuition that inequality between the races must be caused by discrimination or exploitation of the disadvantaged group by the better off, necessitating reparations or corrective intervention in the market economy. Sowell insists instead that differences in productive capabilities explain the differences in outcomes, a possibility that suggests a very different strategy for racial uplift.
Sowell offers a host of examples from around the world and throughout history of ethnic groups that suffered from a backward or insular culture, showing that those who overcame their disadvantages typically did so by mastering productive skills. Those who focused on political claims of injustice, he argues, wasted time and effort: “When David Hume urged his fellow eighteenth century Scots to master the English language, as they did, both he and they were following a pattern very different from the pattern of most minority intellectuals.”
Of course, this amounts to a direct attack on multiculturalism, which takes it as self-evident that all cultures are created equal and that differences in social esteem, power and wealth are the fault of bigotry and exploitation by dominant groups. For instance, many insist that non-English languages, sub-group dialects, ethnic patois and inner-city slang must be taught in school, not because doing so will speed the learning of standard English but as a reaction against the “hegemony” of standard English. One specialist in black pedagogy urged educators to accommodate supposedly “black” learning styles that include a preference for approximation over numerical accuracy, a distaste for deductive and inductive reasoning, and a tendency to be lax about punctuality, rather than try to replace such deleterious tendencies (common to many young people of all races) with useful skills and disciplined habits.
The idea of an equality of cultures goes far beyond racial politics. What might once have been class politics becomes a movement to protect the “culture” of middle American small farmers with agricultural price supports and to protect the “culture” of lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest against environmental regulations. The belligerent defense of the Confederate “stars and bars” in South Carolina’s state flag becomes “preservation of Southern culture”; advocates for the disabled complain that hearing aids and lip-reading reflect the unjust dominance of the hearing and thus undermine the “deaf culture” of sign language.
But culture is simply a bundle of norms and habits. Some contribute to success and others are dysfunctional. Any successful enterprise or society must discriminate against norms and habits that impede harmony and success and breed discord and failure. Private enterprise does so with rules governing behavior and criteria regulating entry. Societies do so with laws. In this sense cultural discrimination is not objectionable; it is both inevitable and desirable.
As Sowell is at pains to show, such discrimination is controversial only if one adopts a definition of culture that fuses it to discrete groups that merit our sympathy for other reasons. If we think of culture as an attribute of a social group instead of as a bundle of habits and norms, then to dislike “black culture” is to dislike blacks. To think spoken English is more convenient than sign language is to disdain deaf people.
It’s easy enough to see the problem with this notion if one breaks culture apart from a discrete social group. Sowell astutely does just this, when, citing his earlier book Black Rednecks, he points out that much of what has passed for “black culture” was in fact the culture of the rural American south. The American South was mired in a neo-feudal economy and social structure, with slaves replacing serfs at the bottom of a hierarchy of birth (even the routine rape of slave women by their masters was an echo of the droit du seigneur). Meanwhile the great cities of the North progressed, for better and for worse, to the mobile, competitive societies of the industrial revolution. Black slaves were the most deprived and pitiable members of a backward culture, but poor whites, denigrated as inbred hayseeds and ignorant hicks, were scarcely more esteemed in the eyes of an increasingly cosmopolitan North.
According to Sowell, when black migrants from the South arrived in northern cities, their distinctively rural habits—casual manners, lax attitude toward punctuality, crude speech, rustic diet—were disdained by white and black urbanities alike:
African slaves were brought in American society at the bottom, and concentrated in the South—a region with its own cultural handicaps that produced marked difference between the white populations of the North and South. . . . This meant that those blacks who came out of the South to live in Northern cities would be very different in many ways from the white populations of those cities. . . . [T]he mass migrations of millions of blacks out of the South beginning in the early twentieth century . . . greatly multiplied the black populations . . . [and] the new comers were seen by both the pre-existing black populations and the white populations of these cities as creating greatly increased social problems such as crime, violence and offensive behavior.
The move from a neo-feudal rural culture to a modern industrial society involved many violent displacements and injustices, but the language of rights and discrimination isn’t useful in describing them—especially not when the underlying claim is for a larger share of the material benefits of a modern industrialized economy. If races come with cultures attached, then it is inevitable that some races will be more successful than others for reasons that have nothing to do with exploitation or racial discrimination. The only way forward is assimilation—a dirty word among multiculturalists—to the habits and norms of the more advanced civilization.
But of course there was a big difference between Southern blacks and whites: The former group was forced to be slaves of the latter. Sowell downplays the significance of slavery, pointing out that it is hardly unique to the United States. Throughout human history, he notes, countless groups have been enslaved and later risen to great heights of accomplishment, power and prestige—the word “slave” itself derives from Slav. Slavery, Sowell insists, as horrific and unjust as it was, is no more to blame for the present condition of American blacks than for that of Southern whites:
Such prominent writers as . . . Alexis de Tocqueville [and] Fredrick Law Olmstead . . . pointed to striking differences between the North and the South, and attributed the deficiencies of the Southern region to the effects of slavery on the white population of the South. These differences . . . were factually demonstrable in areas ranging from literacy rate to rates of unwed motherhood, as well as in attitudes toward work and violence. . . . Does the moral enormity of slavery give it any more causal weight in explaining the situation of blacks today than it did in explaining that of whites in the antebellum South?
Actually, yes. Surely it is not controversial to insist that slaves and their descendants suffer more from slavery than do their masters and their descendants. Sowell’s historical counterexamples involve groups that had centuries to recover from slavery, in environments where its stigma did not remain a permanent handicap. Slavery is not unique to America, true enough. But American slavery was unique, and it has warped the culture and politics of the nation in innumerable ways.
onsider in this light J. Michael Martinez’s history of American race relations, Coming For to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolition to Jim Crow. Martinez echoes some of Sowell’s observations but inverts their implications. According to Martinez, the defeated Confederacy developed a victimization narrative as strident and self-serving as the angriest post-colonial or Black Power screed—and with far less justification. This myth of the virtuous South, still a feature of today’s regional politics, combines a belligerent resistance to assimilation with a self-righteous ressentiment:
A powerful myth [held that the] white South was a virtuous land; its citizens remained faithful to the classical liberalism of the Founders while the corrupt North, smug and self-satisfied . . . was hell bent on infecting other parts of the country with its grubby, avaricious, ultimately decadent factory mentality. Instead of a naturally inferior black race laboring to ensure that whites uplifted society as a whole . . . the Reconstruction era would lead to everyone, white as well as black, laboring away as virtual slaves in factories.
If, as Sowell argues, both white and black Southerners suffered from “cultural handicaps” as compared to the industrialized north, then the defense of the “Southern way of life”—the impetus underlying phenomena as varied as “states’ rights”, the persistence of symbols of the Confederacy, the film Gone with the Wind and the attempted rehabilitation of the odious Paula Deen—is the worst kind of multiculturalism, deploying a fabricated injustice to defend backward customs and dysfunctional habits.
While Sowell downplays the importance of slavery, Martinez’s account suggests its far-reaching significance. The intensity of Southern resentment and rage fueled the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, undermined the redemptive project of Reconstruction, and gave birth to Jim Crow. This nation fought a war and underwent two fundamental political realignments over the issues of slavery and the status of the descendants of slaves. America’s history, its customs, its laws and its politics are inexplicable without reference to the history of race and racism.
Martinez concludes his decades-long history with a discussion of Booker T. Washington, who is in many ways Thomas Sowell’s intellectual parent. Washington was Jim Crow’s most eloquent and convincing apologist, devising the renowned and reviled “Atlanta Compromise” in an 1895 speech proposing that blacks should sacrifice social equality and equal rights in favor of a modicum of security from violent whites and the significant, if limited, economic opportunities available to them in a caste-stratified market. Martinez quotes the speech:
I fear the Negro race lays too much stress on its grievances and not enough on its opportunities. . . . The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. . . . The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.
Of course this theme was echoed by the Supreme Court only one year later in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that established the doctrine of “separate but equal” as the law of the land for the next sixty years. Despite contributing to the American economy in countless ways, often in menial and underpaid jobs that did not tap their full capabilities, blacks remained ostracized and held in contempt by unexamined custom and the force of law. Indeed, the very opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory was won only through the political agitation that Washington eschewed. Long before the civil rights movement demanded equal access to schools and lunch counters, an earlier civil rights struggle focused on the right to work, seeking access to markets that were closed to blacks by discriminatory labor unions or blocked by laws that tied blacks to the old agrarian economy of the South.
After Reconstruction, Southern farmers and Southern state governments worked together to keep blacks on plantations in conditions that mirrored slavery. Sharecropping became the new involuntary labor regime of American agriculture. During World War II, when Southern blacks moved north in droves to find employment in wartime industries, Southern states detained them under the pretense of 19th-century vagrancy laws and new wartime “work or fight” laws that empowered police to arrest jobless people and forcibly put them to work.1
Economic opportunity and political agitation were thus not separate and mutually exclusive paths to equality, but complementary ones. Political demands for equality cannot overcome real deficiencies in skills and socialization, but political impediments can block the success of even the most talented and industrious. It was this realization, not a vain ambition to rub shoulders with whites or put on airs at the opera house, that led activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois to mobilize for civil rights. They succeeded in eliminating formal barriers to racial equality in what has been called the Second Reconstruction: the constitutional transformation that started with the landmark civil rights decisions of the Warren Court and culminated with the omnibus civil rights legislation of the 1960s. These changes completed the aborted process within the development of the American political economy of bringing the South into modernity, opening its labor markets and its political institutions to the full participation of all its citizens. Thanks to these fundamental political changes, those who followed Booker T. Washington’s counsel, developing marketable skills and cultivating the values and habits of the bourgeoisie, were able finally to enjoy the privileges he anticipated. One can’t help but wonder whether Du Bois and Washington would have been able to look at the decades that followed them and acknowledge each other’s contributions to a common objective.
As we look back on those decades today, it is clear that the civil rights struggle was remarkably successful in eliminating outright discrimination and overt prejudice. Race discrimination in restaurants, theaters and hotels was quickly and thoroughly eliminated by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Discrimination in employment, while still a problem, has been dramatically reduced and is widely and roundly condemned when dragged into the public light. Public figures who make overtly bigoted statements now typically suffer widespread contempt and often lose their jobs and prestige. As a result of these welcome developments, each successive generation is less bigoted than the preceding one.
But many of today’s most serious social injustices are not caused by bias or bigotry, and they post-date the era of legalized slavery. In the context of race, they rather stem largely from residential segregation. They are a legacy of past racism—albeit not, by and large, the result of ongoing discrimination—and the many disadvantages that follow from living in isolated, economically depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Civil rights litigation and activism have hardly made a dent in these formidable obstacles.
In other words, the nation has solved the problem that obsessed us for so long, and having solved it too many suppose everything ought to be all right now. But it isn’t, and we don’t know why. As a result, enthusiasm for racial activism is waning, and the energy that remains is somewhat unfocused. Celebrity activists like Al Sharpton chase the latest miscarriage of criminal justice or police brutality scandal and organize mass protests, but the outrage flares and then flames out, never coalescing on a sustained policy agenda. Stalwart civil rights lawyers continue the litigation strategies of past decades, but conspicuous instances of discrimination are increasingly rare, and decades of restrictive interpretation of the law by conservative judges have made it harder to validate a claim based on inferences or statistical disparities. Academics and policy wonks focus on specific issues: criminal justice, neighborhood segregation, joblessness. They write articles, host conferences and send out press releases. But there is little will among the political class to address any of these thorny and complex problems, and the general public is apathetic or has given up hope.
his reframing of the situation brings us back to Professor Dawson, and to Thomas Sowell as well. Dawson takes up the challenge, calling in Not In Our Lifetimes for a revitalized racial justice activism. He offers a clear picture of a nation divided by race and in desperate need of new direction. He cites widespread indifference to the plight of poor blacks, the rise of a “carceral state” that quarantines a significant fraction of the black population, and the vitriol of “birthers” and Tea Party conservatives toward President Obama as evidence that the racial politics of today’s America is not as far removed from that of the late 19th century as many would like to imagine. Worse, because anti-racist politics is in many ways more fragmented and confused than at any time in since the beginning of the Abolitionist movement, there is little resistance to this thinly veiled racism.
Dawson’s call for a revitalized black politics is precisely the kind of thing Sowell attacks in Intellectuals and Race. Not in Our Lifetimes is full of calls for “demands on the state.” Statistical disparities are evidence of “exploitation.” And the book is peppered with fancy-theory neologisms: Dawson celebrates the accomplishments of black “counterpublics” and lambastes the “neoliberalism” of contemporary America. The word “democratic” seems to denote a narrow set of political movements and coalitions that Dawson favors instead of an ideologically neutral political system. This muddies Dawson’s otherwise lucid analysis. It’s not clear, for instance, how a “counterpublic” differs from a garden-variety political movement, nor what traits make entities as diverse as the Obama Administration, the mainstream media and the Halliburton corporation “neoliberal.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) these excesses, Not in Our Lifetimes is a perfect counterweight to Intellectuals and Race. Sowell’s bootstrap conservatism offers valuable pragmatic counsel to those paralyzed with rage against an implacable racial order: Cast down your bucket where you are. You are more likely to draw water this way than if you throw it at a police car. But he downplays the toll that American racism has taken, not only on black fortunes but on American civic culture and politics. Dawson accounts for that toll. The rift opened by black slavery not only divided black from white; it also allowed the poisons of racial anxiety, resentment and paranoia to seep deep into the national psyche, where it nourished the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, the Dixiecrats, the Republican Party’s race-baiting “Southern strategy”, and now the anti-Obama birther movement and the bigoted fringes of the Tea Party.
Dawson exaggerates when he claims that “racism is emerging in a new virulent form” that combines “the worst aspects of the hidden racism of the 1980s with the openly white supremacist racist politics of the first seven decades of the twentieth century.” It is much more likely that birtherism and the open racism of the Tea Party’s fringes reflect the ancien régime’s last gasps, a desperate lashing out against the inevitable changes in attitudes and demographics that brought the first non-white President to power. Still, a drowning man can drag others down with him: The developments to which Dawson points have distorted American democracy, making it harder to achieve consensus on what should be ideologically uncontroversial goals such as sound environmental policy and a humane social compact that protects the most vulnerable Americans from penury and misery.
Many of these policy failures affect vulnerable black communities most severely, and so it is natural to close the circle, as Dawson does, by concluding that today, as in eras past, a racist social and political order deliberately hurts blacks. But it is neither useful nor accurate to premise an analysis on a monolithic “neoliberal” order pre-programmed to exploit minority groups or ignore their concerns. And it won’t do to say that the racism of today is simply “hidden”—as if root causes today are identical to those responsible in the past for the Klan or Jim Crow, just harder to find. Indeed, much of the crisis of contemporary racial activism lies in its attachment to the analytics of the past. Today’s racial injustices are much more complex than those of the past: formal race discrimination is rare and the effort to shoehorn problems such as residential isolation, joblessness and a dysfunctional culture of poverty into the definition of “discrimination” has made it harder to analyze and address these problems. The concept of discrimination is too abstract to capture the specific injustices that blacks and other stigmatized groups suffer, and it is too malleable to distinguish real social injustices from hardships owing to bad luck or historical accident.
Ultimately, both Dawson and Sowell overemphasize racism and discrimination, albeit in different ways. While Dawson assumes that America’s undeniable racial schism must be attributable to the force of racism in society, Sowell concludes that in the absence of overt bigotry or intentional discrimination, the only explanations for black disadvantage are the shortcomings of black people themselves. Martinez’s history suggests why both conclusions may be inaccurate: Race has certainly warped and perverted American politics and culture so that today even innocent decisions and neutral policies can unwittingly perpetuate racial inequality. The civil rights policies of the 21st century must address these deformations underlying overt racial controversies and persistent inequalities. These include the destructive consequences of slavery, segregation and racism for the culture and habits of many blacks, as well as for the attitudes of many whites, and the politics of the nation writ large.
In refurbishing the antique debate begun after Reconstruction by Washington and Du Bois, Sowell and Dawson have given us two well-maintained and highly polished Victrolas in the age of iTunes. They both still play songs well worth the listening, but one yearns for something a bit more up to date. Today, the pressing question is no longer whether racial uplift will come from gradualism and self-improvement or impatient political activism. Instead, it is about how politics can encourage black self-improvement by removing the real as opposed to the imagined obstacles to its realization.
1See Risa Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights (Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 154–6.