Racism Today: Hard Data Versus the `Soft Facts' 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?Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.)