The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in November 2008 marked a paradox in the long history of race in America that has not been much noticed: The installation of the first black President in American history—black, that is, as Americans define black, despite his white mother and his non-American, African father—coincided with the almost complete disappearance from American public life of discussion of the black condition and what public policy might do to improve it. There was a time not so long ago when we had trouble having a dispassionate, constructive discussion of these matters in public; now we seem unable to have any discussion at all.
Not one issue having to do with American blacks was on the explicit agenda of either major political party during the 2008 campaign, or on the agenda of the Obama Administration during the first year of his presidency. Neither the continuing crisis of black unemployment; nor the continuing crisis of public education for blacks in the inner cities; nor the crisis of black imprisonment; nor the related abandonment in most American cities of efforts to integrate black students in schools with substantial numbers of white and Asian classmates; nor the cyclical and structural “problems of the inner cities”, a euphemism for all of these problems and others suffered mainly by blacks—none of these issues has formed any significant part of public discussion now for years, including the years marking the political ascent of Barack Obama. As Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, perhaps the leading analyst of the black condition in our inner cities, has written in his important current book, More Than Just Race:Through the second half of the 1990s and into the early years of the twenty-first century, public attention to the plight of poor black Americans seemed to wane. There was scant media attention to the problem of concentrated urban poverty neighborhoods in which a high percentage of the residents fall beneath the federally designated poverty line, little or no discussion of inner-city challenges by mainstream political leaders, and even an apparent quiescence on the part of ghetto residents themselves.1
How is this to be explained, and what does it mean? Certainly, as Wilson notes, the disappearance of these issues from major public discussion cannot be explained by the successful end of the race issue in American history. Progress there has been in the fifty years or more since a major Supreme Court decision signaled the end of the legal segregation of blacks into an inferior position, but even so, some aspects of the problem have grown worse. The juxtaposition is jarring, confusing, and evidently silencing.
On the one hand, two major pieces of legislation in...