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Dividing Lines

7.1.97

These books could not be more timely. In the fifth year of his presidency, after months of internal White House debate, President Clinton has finally launched an effort to fashion a legacy on "racial reconciliation." The centerpiece seems to be a "national conversation on race"--a phrase made popular by Lani Guinier, the University of Pennsylvania law professor whom the president nominated in 1993 to serve as the nation's top civil-rights enforcer, but then abandoned. Now, critics on the left grumble that Clinton's "conversation" is too little, too late--given the rollbacks in voluntary affirmative action, court-ordered school desegregation, and social safety-net programs thought to be critical for minority advancement. On the right, one hears suspicion that the conversation will merely broadcast the orthodox views of those assumed to be the president's core political constituents.

 

Beyond their timeliness, are these books helpful? Their contributions are of a very different sort. Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy at Harvard, and Amy Gutmann, Rockefeller University Professor at Princeton, offer separate but complementary essays, each a deeply reasoned, conceptually rich account of race and color as they shape identity and suffuse civic discourse. There are also prescriptions congenial to those of us who share their commitment to democratic deliberation and equality, and to the "substantive" view of justice-as-fairness implied by that commitment. Their enterprise is one of ideas, which they hope will influence broader political discussion. And political discourse will in turn shape our ideas about color--one of the points in an elegant introductory essay by my Harvard Law School colleague David B. Wilkins. "Our success in grappling with these complex questions," he writes at one point, "ultimately depends upon the strength of our commitment to democratic values in general and reasoned deliberation in particular."

Something roughly opposite seems true of the book by Winthrop professor of history Stephan Thernstrom and social commentator Abigail Thernstrom. They begin with a series of historical chapters, from nineteenth-century Reconstruction and Jim Crow forward, and then turn to a set of chapters on the major social-policy battlefields of today--poverty, crime, voting rights, access to higher education, and so on. Despite the authors' attempt to project a neutral, descriptive voice, this section of the book--its core--is relentlessly, and not always subtly, partisan.

Both books are "political," in the sense of displaying a point of view about a matter of great significance. But America in Black and White reminds me of nothing so much as the notebooks I helped compile to prepare candidate Michael Dukakis for the 1988 presidential debates. We were charged with assembling carefully selected facts and quotations that could be projected as part of a strong, hard-edged "message." The goal was not to help the nation resolve difficult issues, except insofar as one advances peace by sharpening the weapons employed by one's own side. So, too, the Thernstroms.

Fair disclosure: I am not neutral in this debate. I am an African American, with fairly liberal views on most matters. While on leave to serve in the Clinton administration, I directed the White House review of affirmative action in 1995. The Thernstroms' book is critical of my work and of policies I helped develop. I have appeared opposite Abigail Thernstrom on television, and have been on the receiving end of some of her op-ed pieces. But I believe in searching for the kernel of truth in what the other side is saying, in probing the substance of our disagreements about racial justice, and in trying to do something about them.

 

 

In Color Conscious, Appiah and Gutmann tackle a thicket of intractable yet critical conceptual issues, and treat them with nuance. Their essays explain that "race" and "color" are not immutable biological constructs, but social categories that contribute to individual identity, and to the structure of civil life and civic discourse. They reconcile claims for diversity with a rejection of racial "essentialism" and mechanical stereotypes. Throughout, this is a work of careful exegesis, wrestling with conundrums that confuse debates not only in academe, but also in the councils of political and judicial power. I think particularly of Appiah's discussion of group identity despite intragroup cultural differences, and Gutmann's explanation that there usually is no "uniquely correct interpretation of what must count as qualifications for a particular job," so that both setting and measuring qualifications reflect discretion: "Those critiques of preferential hiring that identify the preferential status quo with 'meritocracy' are therefore wildly misleading."

Most valuably, Appiah and Gutmann don't conceal their honest bouts of ambivalence--and so demonstrate intellectual integrity in a way that an advocate's brief cannot. They come by their passion honestly, and express it that way.

A key point made by Gutmann is that we should not treat color blindness as an end in itself, but rather as one plausible proposal for how to achieve our true goal: justice. She goes on to argue that, viewed as a proposal, color blindness fails her purposive test because the world is imperfect and it is unjust to rely on an inherently impractical standard:

[I]t is in our context, not the ideal one, that we must ask whether all employers are morally bound to color blindness. Suppose we begin by agreeing that in a just society, public policies would not distinguish among individuals on the basis of their color. This is our common ground, and it is critical to recognize it before we proceed into more controversial territory. A commitment to nondiscrimination underlies any publicly defensible response to racial injustice. The controversy over preferential treatment persists in this country because, despite a widely shared commitment to nondiscrimination, the United States in the 1990s does not satisfy the premise of a perspective that makes color blindness the obviously correct interpretation of what nondiscrimination--or justice as fairness--among individuals demands. We should also be able to agree that color blindness itself is not a fundamental principle of justice; nondiscrimination or fairness among individuals is.

This seems right, at least to me, and she helps further by offering a sense of what "nondiscrimination" and "fairness" mean to her. The effect is of sitting down with a reasonable discussant who says, "Here is what I believe and why, what my values suggest will constitute progress; now you decide what you believe." Not all the intellectual heavy lifting can be done in one essay or short book, of course, and readers will find much tantalizing material here that will pull them toward Gutmann's other work.

And so, too, for Appiah. He presents a crisp and instructive discussion of our use of "race" and racial categories over time, drawing from disciplines as diverse as history, philosophy of language, and law. In my own work, I have struggled unsatisfyingly to grapple with the tension between group and personal identity. Reading Appiah was like finding a hearth in a wilderness. Here, in one of his punctuating summations, is something that helps me: "Racial identity can be the basis of resistance to racism; but even as we struggle against racism...let us not let our racial identities subject us to new tyrannies." (By this he means the danger that group identity will burden individuality and self-expression.) Appiah's elegant prose is exciting because the analysis is refreshingly unpredictable. This is not a linear brief, but an imaginative exploration.

As a confirmed policy wonk who often dabbles in the crass world of politics, I found stretches in both essays during which I wondered, impatiently, whether this was going to help with the current near-crisis struggles in California, Texas, and many other places where civil-rights gains are in mortal danger. In the end, however, my answer was resoundingly affirmative. I have been enamored of Ben Wattenberg's phrase and book title, "Values matter most." But Appiah and Gutmann remind me that, no, ideas matter most.

 

 

I am not an historian, so I acknowledge that any subtle historiographical contributions in the Thernstroms' account of race issues in America were hidden to this lay person's eyes. The territory seems well trod. The significance of America in Black and White lies in the book's second half, the policy chapters. Here we find a convenient compendium of attacks on post-Martin Luther King Jr. civil-rights orthodoxy; the criticisms have been cleaned up to resemble argument, with dollops of data and descriptions of legislative history and litigation.

The connection between the history and the policy chapters has less to do with the conceptual structure than with the marriage of the authors: Stephan the professional historian, Abigail the conservative policy provocateur. Perhaps the early chapters have a deeper purpose, in that the extended recounting of America's sinful past will be taken by some to establish the authors' moral bona fides. This may make the unstintingly unsympathetic analyses of liberal civil-rights doctrine in the later chapters more persuasive to newcomers to the debate.

Instead of a subtle social and intellectual history exploring the transmutation of yesterday's racial caste system into today's color-coded American dream, the Thernstroms' history-with-a-purpose seems designed to make a comic-book simple point: things used to be really bad, and civil-rights liberals have led us astray by failing to recognize the important progress that has been made. So, for example, their third chapter, "Remarkable Change," ends its recounting of the 1940s and 1950s by foreshadowing the authors' critique of today's policies:

History is an obsession [in civil-rights circles] and yet the historical record is too often distorted.

Take the issue of affirmative action. Almost all advocates assume that the status of blacks changed very little until the 1960s, and that most black economic advance is the result of the race-conscious, preferential policies that have been widely adopted... over the past quarter of a century [emphasis added]. "Everybody who is a person of color in this country has benefited from affirmative action," the mayor of Atlanta said in June 1996. "There's not been anybody who's gotten into a college on their own, nobody who's gotten a job on their own, no one who's prospered as a businessman or businesswoman on their own without affirmative action," he went on. But that is not the case. Immense progress was made by black Americans before the idea of racial preferences was seriously entertained by anyone. By some measures, in fact, the pace of black progress was more rapid in the 1940s and 1950s than it has been since.

...Policies mandating segregation had made enormous differences in the lives of ordinary people. And so, too, did the reversal of those policies in the 1950s and 1960s.

This passage is typical. It is both incorrect and insulting to accuse "advocates" of ignoring the gains of the 1940s and 1950s. This is, after all, about our very lives, and those of our parents. Nor would anyone argue seriously that affirmative action has been more important than the antidiscrimination laws, court rulings, and executive orders of that earlier period. Some readers may well believe that the Thernstroms' opening claim about "almost all advocates" is adequately documented by citing the Atlanta politician's hyperbolic claim. But consider the context. Shouldn't it matter that the statement was made in the heat of a battle, in response to equally hyperbolic claims about the utter uselessness of affirmative action? The authors seem focused on readers who already agree with them. What contribution does this make? Doesn't it simply equip partisans in the political debate with a juicy quotation from a black mayor to use to score points?

The real argument lies elsewhere. The disagreement about civil rights today concerns not the historical record, but the needed pace of progress now. Civil-rights advocates can fairly be charged with a passionate impatience for justice--but not with ignorance of their own story. The hard intellectual task, never engaged by the Thernstroms, is to sort out and evaluate our differing degrees of patience.

Someone of my general persuasion will read this book and have the following experience literally dozens of times: You read two or three seemingly reasonable paragraphs, and then you hit something that just boils your blood because it strikes you as a mischaracterization or distortion or half-truth. Jarred, you wonder whether there was something wrong with the preceding paragraphs, something you missed because the writing flows so well. Do you go back and reread, or do you worry about how short life is?

It is the almost unrelenting lack of sympathy to the other point of view that is most vexing about the Thernstroms' book. Their analyses of case law will drive lawyers to distraction. The claims of the put-upon reverse-discrimination plaintiff or the over-regulated corporate defendant are presented as though there were nothing to be said for the other side. They do the same with policy arguments concerning schooling, voting rights, and countless other topics. But their method is most obvious in court cases because we know that the open-and-shut issues rarely make it to the Supreme Court. Yet in the Thernstroms' telling, their opponents have nothing to offer.

The James Carville school of politics is, "I'm right, you're wrong." The Thernstroms are not helpful when they apply that philosophy to the national conversation on race. President Clinton and the rest of us must avoid and even castigate that approach if his racial reconciliation initiative is to bear fruit. Better for all of us if, like Appiah and Gutmann, we honestly expose the difficulties that divide us. Only then can we build a bridge across that divide.