Racism Today: Hard Data Versus the `Soft Facts' of Culture

By , K. Anthony Appiah teaches Afro-American studies and philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including 'In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.'

AT the heart of the politics of race in America are questions about affirmative action, discrimination, welfare, and crime. Too much public debate on these questions is poorly informed about the facts. How much does racial discrimination continue to harm black Americans? How many white Americans have been passed over for jobs or promotions by less competent black candidates? For that matter, how much has affirmative action actually benefited blacks and women? What role does poverty play in explaining bla ck crime?

Answers to these questions are hard to calculate. Everybody agrees that there is continuing racial bigotry in the United States and that false racial stereotypes affect the life chances of decent black Americans. But how important is racism of this sort in explaining, for example, that, in 1989, black men with one to three years of college were paid $825 per $1,000 of income for their white counterparts? Or that, in 1990, black unemployment rates were 2.76 times white ones?

Both Andrew Hacker, in "Two Nations," and Christopher Jencks, in "Rethinking Social Policy," make skillful and intelligent use of the available statistical evidence to answer such questions. Unfortunately, the available evidence often doesn't warrant any confident conclusion. Does discrimination explain some of the difference between the incomes of black and white men with comparable educations? After reviewing a lot of evidence, Jencks, who is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Illin ois, says, "... we must allow for the possibility that it played [a] ... role."

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Still, he is not sure. He points out that blacks have lower average test scores than whites (though the gap has declined since the early 1970s). Jencks suggests that some of the black-white income difference can be accounted for this way. Maybe, he suggests, the rest can be explained away too. Perhaps black workers are less valuable because they express less satisfaction with their jobs than whites do, a trait that is widely believed to be correlated with poor job performance; or because, since blacks ar e more prone to crime, they may also be "more likely to break company rules."

These look like old stereotypes of black workers, of course, but Jencks wants to consider the possibility that they are true; and, if true, that employers will know and act on them. But if, as he says, he can't find "hard data" to support these claims, why should we think that companies know better? The standard answer would be that relying on false information puts you at a competitive disadvantage. As he notes, however, that is only true if other companies are relying on the truth. And the prevalence o f these racial stereotypes makes it quite likely that most companies operate on similar assumptions.

Jencks seems better at imagining rebuttals to claims of discrimination than at suggesting new ways to combat it. In short, he presupposes a picture of the social world at odds with the perceptions of most black people; his social prescriptions will likely be met with skepticism by blacks. This is a pity, since his final chapter (written with Kathryn Edin) combines a clearsighted analysis of the realities of life on welfare with some positive proposals for helping the working poor.

Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, N.Y., is happier with the old liberal assumptions. And he captures very well the view of many black people in a fascinating chapter on "Being Black in America."

The problem is that he risks collapsing the vast diversity of African-American life into a single black experience. When he writes, "... you feel frustration and disgust when white America appropriates your music, your styles...," he is dangerously close to stereotype. (The following chapter stereotypes whites even more.)

In the book's second half, Hacker takes up the facts about income, education, welfare, and crime, making good use of some key statistics to paint a bleak picture of the bleak facts. He, too, finds that the data do not answer the hard questions. The nearest he comes to a conclusion is that "A suspicion cannot help but arise that some of the racial earnings spread among men [who are lawyers] stems from the fact that black men are given fewer opportunities to rise to better-paid positions."

Thus, though both books offer useful summaries of the data on black-white differences in income, in crime, in education, when it comes to explanations they are disappointingly thin. In fact, when they get to explanations much of what they say is not about quantifiable issues but about what they call "culture" or "consciousness."

Jencks, for example, argues persuasively that no simple economic causes explain the increasing rate of out-of-wedlock births to black women. The black "illegitimacy ratio," the proportion of children born outside marriage, has indeed risen between 1960 and 1987 from 23 to 62 percent. But teenage motherhood actually declined for both blacks and whites, and out-of-wedlock births to adults rose only a little. The big change is that married couples are having fewer children. The point is that the rising "ill egitimacy ratio" is an American phenomenon, not a racial one, and it is the result of a changing moral climate.

JENCKS shows that, while the effects of the moral change are worse in the ghetto, moral change is not a uniquely ghetto phenomenon. Once we reach the domain of culture, though, he has fewer social-policy prescriptions.

Hacker invokes culture, too. He argues that the disparity between white and black educational test scores reflects the fact that America's black cultures have not achieved a " 'modern' consciousness." And he is clear that this consciousness is not "white." He writes, "Much of Asia and Latin America have become modernized to degrees few would have predicted a generation ago.... So 'modern' now stands for the mental and structural modes that characterize the developed world." The idea is that the segregati on of even middle-class blacks maintains them in a cultural world that is not exposed to modernity.

It is an interesting idea. But it would take a different kind of evidence to confirm such a picture. And a good deal more detail is needed to flesh out what Hacker means by modernity. Like Jencks, once Hacker identifies something as cultural, he has little to say about what we can do about it.

One lesson from these two books is that we need to understand not only the "hard data" but also the "soft facts" of how culture shapes our racial dealings. For that reason alone, Studs Terkel's latest conversation with the American soul, "Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession," may be just what the professors ordered.

Terkel has a wonderful way of drawing people out, often capturing things they feel they shouldn't say on his tape recorder. "I hate to admit it," carpenter Dennis Carney tells him confidentially, "but I wouldn't write off a white guy, who gets away with things, as quick as I'd write off a black guy."

After reading Hacker and Jencks, it is refreshing to be reminded that Americans, ordinary and extraordinary, black and white, know a great deal that is worth hearing about race.

Over and over, black and white people say that they don't know each other very well. Those that do know members of "other" races often say how it has changed them. And many of those who have suffered most for America's racial sins - like Mamie Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, whose words begin Terkel's book - have been able to exercise the moral strength to go beyond hatred. "My friends," she says, "cross every color line."

Terkel's message is that a large part of our problem is that we still don't know each other very well. Books like his are surely the beginning of a solution.

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