The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Black and White No Longer

American society is neither post-racial nor stuck fast in a racist past, but fantasies of monolithic racial communities are distorting our national conversation on race and public policy.

Published on August 10, 2012

African Americans were once united and to some extent even defined by the experiences of slavery, Jim Crow and the quotidian humiliations dealt out by an overtly and habitually racist society. But today overt racism is almost universally condemned, and Americans grow more racially tolerant with each generation. African Americans now occupy some of the nation’s most coveted and prestigious positions. Black culture, once treated with contempt, now produces much of the nation’s most celebrated popular music and many of its most emulated celebrities. Although racism is an enduring feature of American society, for a growing cadre of successful and well-positioned blacks it is more an annoyance than a serious threat to personal well-being. By contrast, today’s poor blacks endure social conditions that are arguably worse than those of the era of Jim Crow-style racism. For members of the black underclass, broken families, malnutrition, joblessness, crime and entanglement with the criminal justice system are endemic and devastating problems; opportunities for upward social mobility are arguably more limited today than at any time since Reconstruction. But is this because of racism, or other institutional deficiencies?

This divergence in experiences and life chances now divides the black community as sharply as the color line once divided Americans. The fracturing of the black community is a challenge to conventional ways of thinking about race, identity and social justice, even as it opens some new possibilities for human flourishing and for a more just society. Although we still typically think in terms of a single black experience, a unified black community and a common black identity, these assumptions ever more starkly spite the facts of daily life. Our failure to come to grips with the new realities of race in America has distorted our analysis of social problems and undermined our efforts to find viable solutions. Increasingly desperate attempts to cling to outdated ideas of racial identity and solidarity have bred a fundamentally dishonest racial conversation that warps individual psychological development and confounds cross-racial understanding. 

Police in New York City stopped more than 680,000 people last year; 84 percent were black or Latino. The overwhelming majority (88 percent) of the stops did not result in an arrest.1 For young men in New York’s tougher neighborhoods, police stops are a regular occurrence. One young man told a New York Times reporter he was stopped more than sixty times before he turned 18 years old.2 And although some officers are courteous in their questioning and respectful in searches, all too often the stops include insults, threats and physically rough treatment. For instance, when two Latino teenagers stopped by police in Queens complained and asked why, the officers shouted expletives and told them to “shut up”: “Say one word and I’m going to make your parents pick you up in jail. You guys are a bunch of immigrants”, one officer barked.

New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy is the new face of racial profiling. Of course, police deny that they target people based on race. Instead the stops focus on high-crime neighborhoods (where a disproportionate number of minorities live) or on specific suspect descriptions (a disproportionate number of which specify a minority race). Police also have probable cause to stop and question anyone they reasonably suspect of committing a crime, such as carrying a concealed weapon or narcotics. Many of the reasons police cite for such suspicions are vague, to say the least: “furtive” movements is the most common. Dress and demeanor also certainly play a role. Young men in baggy pants, basketball shoes and hoodie sweatshirts fit the profile, so to speak, although more conventional attire is no guarantee of immunity. There are good reasons to believe that stop-and-frisk policies reduce crime, to the benefit of the disproportionately minority residents of high crime neighborhoods. But there is also no doubt that the costs of the practice fall disproportionately on innocent minorities living in those neighborhoods, a fact of which the courts are increasingly taking notice.3

The face of racial profiling looked very different three years ago, in the summer of 2009, when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. returned home after an overseas trip and found his front door was jammed. He forced it open with the help of his driver. One of Gates’s neighbors saw the men forcing the door and called the police to report a burglary. Cambridge police officer James Crowley responded to the call and demanded (or “asked”, depending on which account of events you believe) that Gates come outside to answer some questions. Gates refused and a confrontation ensued, which ended in Gates being placed under arrest for disorderly conduct. Predictably, many commentators described the incident as a case of “racial profiling”, connecting it to the controversial traffic and pedestrian stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities. But the clash between Gates and Crowley was very different in both its causes and its effects than the stops conducted in poor minority neighborhoods by New York police and countless other police departments. Describing them both as instances of “racial profiling”—with the clear implication that the main cause of both encounters is simply police racism—encourages misleading diagnoses of both kinds of incidents.

Race still matters in casual encounters, long-term relationships, job opportunities and run-ins with the law. But increasingly the way race matters differs depending on one’s wealth, social standing, education and acculturation. The once iron law of racism is now a mesh of flexible guidelines, full of loopholes and exceptions. Yet almost everyone—from politicians to civil rights advocates to academic commentators—continues to think of race as a simple trait and racism as a unified phenomenon. Instead of looking with fresh eyes on the new and more complex racial problems of today, we analyze today’s problems using the ideas, diagnoses and prescriptions of the past. So racial disparities in criminal sentencing and incarceration are a “New Jim Crow” and voter ID laws are like “poll taxes.” Not only do we reflexively think of new racial problems as nothing other than subtler versions of old ones, we also think that all racial problems flow from a singular cause: racism. That’s how a police officer responding to a report of a break-in becomes a case of racial profiling.

The Gates case, of course, did not involve “profiling” at all: The police were responding to a call reporting a possible burglary at Gates’s address. Perhaps Officer Crowley assumed the worst because Gates is black, and maybe he would not have sought to arrest a white man under similar circumstances. But that account doesn’t square easily with the fact that Crowley had been hand-picked by a black police commissioner to teach recruits how to avoid racial profiling.

Moreover, it’s well known that many police demand deference and submission from anyone they encounter while on duty and find reasons to arrest those who challenge them, regardless of race. Those who dare to question or disagree with an officer are held “in contempt of cop” according to the common argot among police and civil libertarians. This is a serious civil rights violation: Police are not entitled to arrest anyone who disagrees with them. All too often they do it anyway, but it is very different from racial profiling, and very different from the type of police racism residents of inner-city neighborhoods confront on a regular basis.

The resentment engendered by traffic stop and stop-and-frisk practices stems from the dysfunctional relationship between police and minority communities. Decades of blatant and pervasive racial discrimination, poor urban planning and failed economic and labor policies have left blacks disproportionately jobless and trapped in poor ghettos across the United States. Faced with few opportunities and sustained by few positive role models, disturbing numbers of people in those neighborhoods turn to gangs and crime for money, protection and esteem. Rather than improving those neighborhoods and helping the people who live in them join the prosperous mainstream, we as a society have given the police the dirty job of quarantining them from the rest of us. Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised if bigots and power-hungry sadists are drawn to a job with such a mandate. Moreover, even otherwise decent, fair-minded officers, faced with the day-to-day task of controlling some of society’s most isolated, desperate and angry populations, might develop some ugly racial generalizations. In a sense, police racism is as much a symptom as a cause of the larger injustices faced by disadvantaged blacks.

As a result, poor blacks living in inner cities suffer numerous tense and humiliating encounters with police, each run-in made worse in turn by the cumulative effect of past run-ins and by the knowledge that any encounter might end in arrest, violence or death. Contrast this with Professor Gates’s world: It would be surprising if he ever had another negative encounter with the police. And that’s not just because the scandal over the Crowley incident will deter racist officers; it’s because Gates doesn’t live in the kind of neighborhood where most police abuses occur, and because he doesn’t demonstrate the demeanor that provokes police suspicion.

In the retelling, the Gates-Crowley confrontation somehow became a social justice parable crossed with 1970s cinéma vérité, with Gates, played by Sidney Poitier, the dignified African American high achiever, who despite his accomplishments and status faces harassment at the hands of a bigoted cop; or, alternatively, Crowley, played by a young Michael Douglas or Clint Eastwood as an honest, plain-spoken and hard-working public servant besieged by mau-mauing opportunists and cowardly, politically correct politicians. But these morally loaded archetypes don’t describe the most serious racial problems.

Most of the people who used the Gates incident as an example of racial profiling did so with the best of intentions. Their hope was that the arrest of an exemplary black man—well-educated, dignified, refined—would dramatize the long-troubled relationship between police and minority communities and the much more severe problem of police abuse suffered by less fortunate blacks. If even a distinguished Harvard Professor suffers from racial profiling, just imagine how bad it must be for the typical black person! But the Gates encounter, while troubling for its own reasons, lacked almost every feature that is distinctively bad about most encounters between poor blacks and police.

In order to confront today’s racial injustices, we need to move beyond the much-too-neat and false equivalences we have inherited from earlier times. We have to confront the fracturing of the black community and question the idea that race in and of itself explains much of what ails our inner cities and the black and brown people who live in them.

When Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s first black President, a surprising number of people believed the day marked the beginnings of a post-racial society. Several racial scandals and a beer summit later, it’s clear that America is post-racial in the same way the milieu of the television show Mad Men is post-modern: We haven’t moved past race, but our relationship to it has become exaggerated and stylized. We experience racial identity—both our own and that of others—at one remove: hypercritical, affected and self-conscious. We are so afraid of complications we sense but don’t fully understand that we yearn for a script of some kind to play our part. From the predictable racial scandals that are a staple of talk radio and television news to the caricatures of black masculinity offered by professional musicians and athletes, today’s race relations are insincere in a profound but mostly accidental way. We are reciting lines written for characters we were supposed to be, wish we were or are afraid of becoming.

Consider rap music, which sells an “authentic” black experience to a largely white audience. The hip hop subculture’s obsession with racial authenticity—the relentless focus on “street cred” and “keepin’ it real”—amounts to overcompensation for what are basically contrived racial performances. Perhaps it’s enough to point out that the supposedly street-hardened hip hop gangsters telling ever grittier tales of black urban life are, in the final analysis, professional entertainers who are well compensated for selling a mystique. It would all be harmless fun, except that too many impressionable young people, particularly young black men, take the show seriously and seek to act out the romance of the urban primitive. As life imitates art, the persona of the black urban hustler effectively produces its own authenticity. If there weren’t legions of young black men living the dangerous and destructive life depicted in gangster rap music before it became the soundtrack of American youth culture, there are now.

So if the characters in the hip hop narrative are not authentic, which characters are? It’s hard to say what counts as “authentically” black on the other side of this funhouse looking glass. It’s hard even to know what the question could mean. Perhaps this disorientation began after the simple idea of biological race was discredited. Thankfully we’ve rejected the one-drop rule, opening up the possibility of mixed racial identities and some degree of individual choice in racial identification. Most sensible people now agree that race is not a simple matter of biological or genetic inheritance. Anyone who attended a decent liberal arts college or four-year university since the early 1980s has been told repeatedly that race is not a simple biological fact but instead a “social construction.”

This new complexity not only has made race relations more fluid; it has also made racial identity much less certain and thereby weakened the boundaries that defined the black community and the bonds that kept it together. It has given rise to the persistent, nagging suspicion that, stripped of its biological foundation, race is simply a pernicious fiction that we should reject outright; but would that make racial solidarity a holdover from an unfortunate chapter of the past that has outlived its usefulness? It is easy to see the benefits of debunking race as a biological fact—much easier, in fact, than to jettison the psychological stability of racial affinities.

In response to these threats to identity and solidarity, many people settled on the idea that racial identity is a question of culture. The black community is defined not by its common blood but by its common norms, practices and beliefs. But increasingly the idea of a “black culture” looks questionable, too: Given the difference between rich and poor, well-educated and culturally deprived, long-suffering descendants of American slaves and recent immigrants from the West Indies and the African continent, there are, as Professor Gates himself once put it, at least “1,000 ways to be black.” 

The new consensus seems to be that what joins these discrete and increasingly divergent black communities is the struggle against racism. For instance, the cultural critic Touré insists that, “There is no consensus on what it means to be black and never has been.” But a few sentences later he assumes just such a consensus, writing that “just because someone gets expelled from the race the way, say, Clarence Thomas has doesn’t mean they don’t continue to battle racism on a daily basis, so what does expulsion really mean?”4 Battling racism, then, is the defining and unifying black experience (even if there is no such factual thing as race).

But is it? As late as the 1980s it would have been reasonable to insist that all black people—even the wealthiest and most powerful, suffered from racism “on a daily basis.” But frankly, it’s hard to imagine that in 2012 most wealthy and socially privileged black people—much less an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court—find much in the way of overt racism to battle. When they do encounter racism, it is typically of the subtle, ambiguous and relatively inconsequential variety—mild slights, snubs or concealed contempt. We can be certain that no bigoted potential employer will deny Clarence Thomas a job, no bigot will call him a nigger, no power-hungry police officer will rough him up for sport, no paranoid vigilante will shoot him as he walks home from the convenience store. These kinds of injustices and indignities, once the defining features of the black experience, are now familiar only to a portion of African Americans.

Today’s race relations are a good news, bad news story. The good news is really pretty good: Since the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, life has gotten much better for blacks with the resources, skills and socialization necessary to enter the American mainstream. Racism has consistently and steadily declined, and opportunities for well-educated blacks have expanded even more quickly than a rapidly expanding economy. American racism is in steady decline as the aging white supremacists influenced by Birth of a Nation or Father Coughlin are replaced by a generation raised on The Cosby Show and Oprah Winfrey. Legally enforced segregation is a thing of the past: Today the law prohibits race discrimination by government, employers and landlords. Wall Street banks, white-shoe law firms and ivy-league universities aggressively seek out minority race applicants. For well-educated blacks, acculturated to the norms of the prosperous American mainstream, racism is rarely a serious impediment to success, esteem and well-being. Yes, there are still the vexations caused by petty insults and slights, but for many blacks the once ubiquitous iron law of white supremacy is now an occasional and petty hindrance; the once arrogant and terrifying bigot is little more than a pathetic annoyance; the menacing Jim Crow has been reduced to an irritating mosquito.

The bad news, as already suggested, is that things have actually gotten worse for those blacks without such advantages—just as, by the way, they have gotten worse for whites without the resources, skills, socialization and education to stick to the mainstream. But it has been worse for poor blacks in large part because the exodus of the more successful blacks left poor blacks without economic capital and positive role models. A changing economy shed many of the once plentiful, well-paid, blue-collar jobs. The War on Poverty morphed into a war on the poor: social welfare programs yielded to a “tough love” that slashed benefits and pushed millions into homelessness and abjection, and a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement led to the incarceration of unprecedented numbers of black men. Many of America’s cities are as racially divided as they were during the era of southern Jim Crow segregation, racial discrimination in employment and housing stubbornly persists, racial stereotypes are a staple of popular culture, and hardly a month goes by without a new race scandal to occupy the intense if fleeting attention of the mass media. Racist cops, prejudiced employers and bigoted landlords seem to have little trouble knowing whom to discriminate against. In these and many other respects racism and race seem as blatant and implacable as ever.

Yet today “racism” does not describe a single attitude or phenomenon but a number of distinct and often unrelated social problems. The joblessness, isolation and despair that afflicts poor blacks in inner-city ghettos is different in kind, not simply degree, from the subtle bigotry, ambiguous slights and “soft” exclusion encountered by black people lucky enough to write books, teach at elite universities or serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The success of the blacks who can tell the good news story does not suggest any improvement in the dire circumstances of the blacks who must live out the bad news story. Nor are the benefits of policy reforms designed to help the former group likely to trickle down to the latter group. The idea of a single American black community is an anachronism. Today there are at least two black communities that are joined by a shared history—no small thing—but increasingly divided by lifestyle, values, norms of behavior and life prospects. 

Most middle-class blacks of my generation were taught that all blacks are joined in unavoidable struggle against a common enemy and that we had both a personal interest and a moral obligation to keep faith and solidarity with other blacks, especially the less fortunate. “There but for the grace of God go I”, we said whenever a black person suffered an injustice that we had been spared. This ethos had the considerable virtue of encouraging emotional empathy and political solidarity with the less fortunate. But it also encouraged a distorted image of the contemporary racial landscape. It suggested that it is wise and virtuous to emphasize potential racial threats and, conversely, naive and blameworthy to downplay them. And the imperative of solidarity requires us not only to sympathize with other blacks but also to see our social situation as continuous with theirs, to see their plight as our plight and their injuries and deprivations as our own. This keeps our attention relentlessly focused on the perils of life in a racist society and on the victims of that racism. So we effectively define the black experience as one of constant peril and in terms of the suffering of the most disadvantaged, victimized and unfortunate blacks: poor blacks living in violent inner-city neighborhoods, victims of police harassment and brutality, gang members, criminal recidivists. 

At best, this is a useful fiction that encourages us to work to improve the plight of the disadvantaged. But at worst it’s a way of staking a claim to sympathy for injuries suffered by other people. Consequently, public policy too often addresses only the problems faced by the most vocal and influential members of minority groups. For instance, preferences for minority-owned businesses and affirmative action in higher education are thought to help “disadvantaged minorities”, but few of the benefits of these policies trickle down to poorly educated and low-skilled minorities. If such policies are to be defended (and I believe many should be), they must be justified in terms of their true effects and their true beneficiaries—not in terms of “the disadvantaged” or “racial justice” generally. Meanwhile, the truly disadvantaged are in desperate need of policies closely tailored to the unique problems they face. 

In the 1970s sociologist Nathan Glazer argued that the black experience was best understood in comparison to the experiences of other distinctive ethnic groups in American society, such as the Irish, Italians or Jews.5 Like blacks, these groups were the targets of pervasive discrimination and prejudice, and yet they eventually assimilated into the prosperous mainstream of American society and have largely shed the stigma they bore in the past. With the benefit of civil rights legislation, the hypothesis went, blacks too would take their place in this nation of minorities, and the distinctive stigma of black race—W.E.B. DuBois’s badge of insult—would fade to insignificance. Time has not been kind to this hypothesis. Indeed, some three decades later, Glazer himself repudiated it: “[E]ven after taking account of substantial progress and change, it is borne upon us how continuous, rooted and substantial the difference between African Americans and other Americans remains.”6

But maybe Glazer’s thesis wasn’t mistaken, just incomplete and premature. Today Americans are learning to distinguish between elite blacks, whom they increasingly treat like members of any other ethnic group, and the underclass, whom they continue to treat as a despised and inferior race. By and large, today’s successful blacks are those who assimilate (or, increasingly, those, like the President, who never picked up distinctively black affectations in the first place.) The patterns of speech, posture and dress of the black underclass, according to Glazer, “suggest the possibility of trouble to the dominant caste” and hence can inspire negative reactions in employers and police officers who might react favorably to blacks with more bourgeois cultural styles.

Ironically, the affectations of poor urban blacks are also the coveted indicia of cool young men of all races, thanks to the popularity of black popular music. The style of society’s most stigmatized and underprivileged group sells luxury goods. It’s the soundtrack of choice on haute couture runways, in exclusive clubs and at fashionable parties. The top rap musicians are among the highest paid celebrities in the world and enjoy the lifestyle once reserved for A-list Hollywood stars, captains of industry and European aristocrats. 

All this is despite the fact that much of the point of gangsta rap is to suggest trouble to the dominant caste. Rap lyrics chronicle and often glamorize crime, violence and rough treatment of women; the most popular rap artists emphasize their criminal backgrounds in a competition for all-important “street cred”; rap fashion sense is deliberately rough, slouchy and unrefined; and rap artists are responsible for popularizing the playful use of the racial epithet “nigger”, reminding us of an ugly and overt racism that many people would prefer to forget. Rap’s crowning post-racial victory has been to sell this angry countercultural fantasy image to the mainstream. The black elite and even more so the striving middle classes typically avoid any underclass affectations like a disease, but the clothing and speech patterns of gangster rap are studied and emulated in the leafy suburbs of the privileged classes. 

To some extent this is the old story of the glamour of the outlaw and the charisma of the troubadour. Just as Al Capone charmed law-abiding citizens nationwide from a Chicago courtroom, so rapper “thugs” seduce the impressionable with ostentatious wealth, swagger and bravado. And just as young men once copied the style and panache of Rat Pack crooners and rock and roll stars, today’s kids want to be like rappers and ballers. Kids look up to Jay-Z and 50 Cent because they’re first-rate entertainers—like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and John Lennon before them.

That’s show business. But for the young person in search of identity and belonging, it creates an environment filled with mixed signals. On the one hand, mainstream authority figures—teachers, parents, police—discourage such affectations. On the other hand, the media sends the opposite message: The affectations of the ghetto are cool, high status and symbols of wealth, prestige and privilege. For blacks, ghetto cool comes with distinctive risks. The focus on “street cred” and authenticity leads the credulous and the impressionable to try to live out the gangsta lifestyle. Indeed, as economist Roland Fryer has shown, young black men self-consciously cultivate the gangsta image because it offers social status and popularity—ironically, “keeping it real” often begins as a contrived affectation, a deliberate put-on.

Here, perhaps, we have an illuminating gloss on the now well-known phenomenon that black students ostracize and ridicule their high-achieving peers for “acting white.” One explanation for this disturbing trend holds that blacks, convinced that discrimination would render their educational accomplishments largely irrelevant, develop an “oppositional culture” in reaction to white racism. A competing explanation, however, is that blacks, aware of the humiliating under-performance of their race, engage in a self-destructive form of “therapeutic alienation” from mainstream white society and its norms. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has offered a new and more convincing explanation, one that focuses on the fracturing of the black community: The “acting white” insult is an embattled group’s implicit strategy for disciplining members most likely to abandon the group.7 As anti-discrimination laws and the decline of racial prejudice opened new opportunities, blacks with educational credentials and acculturation to mainstream norms could find jobs, housing and companionship outside the group. Assimilation and educational achievement effectively send two signals to two different audiences. For employers, landlords and potential neighbors, the message is, “I am a person who is capable and willing to work hard and conform to mainstream expectations—a good employee, tenant or neighbor.” But to the racial group, many of whom are likely to remain stuck in poverty, the message is, “ I am preparing to leave you behind in favor of better opportunities.” The “acting white” insult discourages blacks from investing in the skills and acculturation that will lead to success and esteem in mainstream society by making those skills a mark of shame within the racial group.

Fryer’s account explains some otherwise puzzling features of the “acting white” idea. For instance, the “acting white” problem is most pronounced in racially integrated public schools. This is hard to understand if the problem stems from an oppositional culture or from therapeutic alienation, both of which should be most pronounced among the most desperate and isolated blacks. But it makes perfect sense if the problem stems from the possible defection of talented members of the group, for it’s precisely in integrated settings that the risk of defection is greatest and most apparent.

These phenomena are not subtler versions of some familiar racial injury that finds in roots in slavery or Jim Crow; they are as much the result of the decline of racism as of its persistence. Black gangsta culture is cool in large part because it has been accepted and embraced by the mainstream. Jay-Z and Kanye West can drink champagne in Paris and wear designer clothing in the company of beautiful women because they are popular with a multiracial audience—an audience that barely existed for black artists in mid-century America and that existed only for a highly assimilated and unthreatening few until very recently. 

The defining feature of cool is the ability to transgress but remain just inside the mainstream, to threaten but not truly destabilize, to be intriguing and titillating rather than actually menacing. Gangster rap can strike this balance because racism is still prevalent, but also in decline, because the racial stereotype of the black thug is still in circulation, but is less universally believed in and less thoroughly reviled. Also, of course, at some level everyone understands that it’s all for show: The gangsta rapper offers a controlled and domesticated thrill without real danger, like an amusement park roller coaster or a roaring lion in a circus. But for the unfortunate kids who emulate gangster rappers, the delicate balance is thrown off: They are simply threatening and off-putting living embodiments of a still powerful stereotype that gangsta rap helps to perpetuate.

Similarly, the “acting white” slur emerges as a reaction to expanded opportunities for blacks. It’s only when the more successful blacks might be able to leave the less successful behind that there is the need to reinforce distinctive in-group behavior. Even in today’s unfavorable economic climate, blacks with a good education and socialization to mainstream norms have more and better opportunities than ever before. But those who, through bad luck and bad decisions, don’t have these crucial assets don’t want their more impressive peers to abandon them. 

This suggests a remarkable opportunity and a serious challenge for American race relations and racial policies. 

The opportunity: For the first time in American history, it’s plausible that a solid majority of Americans actually wants a racially just society. Of course there are many serious disagreements about what that would mean and how to achieve it. But the hard-core racists—those who will fight to defend a social hierarchy based on race—are a rapidly dwindling minority. Many have overestimated the significance of Barack Obama’s election as a barometer of race relations, but just as many have underestimated it. Obama’s election does not suggest that racism is a relic of the past, but it does prove that racists no longer have a stranglehold on American politics as they did during the long ascendency of the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”, which successfully undermined Democrats by associating them with civil rights and racially tinged social welfare policies. 

The challenge: The fracturing of the black community means that simple analyses, policies and prescriptions focused on a monolithic evil called “racism” will not do. A black kid stopped and frisked by aggressive police in Queens is facing a largely different problem than a black professor confronting an overzealous cop near Harvard Square. The success and esteem enjoyed by black rappers tells us very little about the reception that the black high school student who mimics them is likely to receive. The typically subtle and ambiguous racism that well educated and acculturated blacks confront is not of a piece with the racial injustices that keep poor blacks caught in a cycle of poverty, isolation and crime.

We need new ideas based on the more complex and varied nature of racial injustice today. These ideas need to confront the specifics of varied forms of racial inequality rather than painting them all with the same broad brush as simple racism and proposing the familiar but often unworkable civil rights solution of prohibiting “discrimination.” For example, if employers shun and police target young black and Latino men who adopt gang-banger fashions and affectations, there are at least two potential solutions. One is to prohibit the predictable reactions of employers and police as forms of racial discrimination. The other is to try to change the social pressures that lead young men to make self-defeating decisions. So far we have only tried the first approach, with limited enthusiasm and even more limited success. Fryer’s analysis suggests that the latter approach, while more arduous, is much more likely to succeed. But of course looking at the problem in terms of the complex social dynamics of an underprivileged group would undercut the simple solidarity narrative that insists all blacks are united by a struggle against a common enemy, and it would pull the rug out from under the comfortable moral story that blames mean-spirited racists for all racial inequality.

It’s harder than ever before to say what it means to be black in America today. Or more precisely, there are many different answers, which have less and less in common with each passing day. For a black community that has long defined itself in terms of the injustices it has suffered collectively, this threatens an identity crisis, even as it promises new freedoms and broadened horizons. 

1Julie Dressner and Edwin Martinez, “The Scars of Stop and Frisk”, New York Times, June 12, 2012.

2Dressner and Martinez, “The Scars of Stop and Frisk.”

3Russ Buettner and William Glaberson, “Courts Putting Stop-and-Frisk Policy on Trial”, New York Times, July 10, 2012.

4Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (Free Press, 2011), p. 24.

5Glazer, Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy (Basic Books, 1975).

6Glazer, “In Defense of Preference”, The New Republic, April 6, 1998.

7Fryer, “‘Acting White’: The social price paid by the best and brightest minority students”, Education Next (Winter 2006); Fryer and Paul Torelli, “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White’”, Journal of Public Economics (June 2010).

Richard Thompson Ford is George E. Osborne Professor at Stanford Law School and author of several books, including Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality and The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse.