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Race Does Matter

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

The death of C. Vann Woodward in December 1999 removed from our presence the intellectual who had made the greatest contribution to improving Americans’ understanding of our historic problem with race. Through his books, most notably The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and his essays, we learned that racism and racial division had taken Americans on a tortuous path historically, a route that got easier or rougher depending on the time and place. Two of his main ideas were that relations among race and ethnic groups were never fixed—as so many of his fellow Southerners had maintained they were up to the initial publication of The Strange Career of Jim Crow in 1955—and that human relations in this country were subject especially to the influence of politics and politicians. In the post-civil rights era, Americans have suffered from the absence of Woodwardian wisdom about what we have experienced, and why, since 1965 when the last great reform action, the Voting Rights Act, went into law. American race relations have continued to evolve and our engagement as a people with the issues connected to race have often been nearly as intense as they were 36 years ago. Our understandings of recent times, however, have lacked the clarity that Professor Woodward provided us for events through 1965. To be sure, there has been an outpouring of works that have attempted to explain things, including two works discussed in detail below, but little approaching a consensus understanding has emerged.

There is a basic disagreement among American intellectuals about whether race matters still. Furthermore, among those who think it does matter, there is a sharp division between writers who fix responsibility for continuing differences on African Americans themselves or on American society’s persistent discrimination against them. In The Bell Curve (1994), Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein used analysis of intelligence tests to suggest that race matters still because some racial groups are demonstrably less intelligent than others. Because it is so much at odds with the liberal environmentalism that has been accepted in intellectual circles since Franz Boas’s research took hold in the 1930’s and 1940’s, The Bell Curve apparently persuaded few, though it no doubt provided comfort to those already disposed to believe its conclusions. Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism (1996) blamed the higher degree of poverty and crime among African Americans on their failure to adapt sufficiently to the cultural norms imposed by European-Americans on our society. D’Souza’s insistence on racial significance was part of his attack on modern education, which in his view has caused blacks and other minorities to overemphasize minority traditions at the expense of traditional European values. He saw multiculturalism as both an attack on traditional values and a vacuous replacement for Western values which ultimately account for success in American society. D’Souza’s conclusion was that race would not matter so much if minorities embraced the canon.

A wide variety of works over the past 36 years has concluded that the legacy of slavery and white supremacy keeps race as the most salient reality in the lives of African Americans and other minorities. The sociologists William Julius Wilson and Christopher Jencks each have written several persuasive books on the gap in “life chances” between blacks and whites in American society. Wilson’s 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, was in fact poorly titled for the book revealed that, in spite of good progress among middle-class African Americans, the black poor confronted huge structural obstacles to joining the American mainstream. The political scientist Andrew Hacker’s 1992 book, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, made a vigorous, comprehensive argument that little progress had in fact been made toward ending the significance of race. In these works lay a fundamental agreement that the Civil Rights Movement benefited mostly middle-class blacks, and that the movement separated the middle class spatially, and to some extent culturally, from poor blacks. The resulting distance meant that the poor blacks left in the ghetto missed the leadership that previously they had from higher-status African Americans, and thus the means and the discipline to improve oneself was harder to come by. Especially for those trapped in the ghetto, race remained the primary social reality of their lives.

Intellectuals focused on politics and policies also discovered that race still mattered. Gary Orfield produced several works that have showed the failures of the school desegregation, most recently recounting the rapid judicial retreat from continuing attempts to integrate American public education and the rising levels of segregation in U.S. schools. The legal scholar Randall Kennedy brought forth a trenchant analysis of criminal justice. The political journalists Thomas and Mary Edsall and the political historian Steven Lawson explained in various works how political behavior since the 1960’s has reflected the racial motives of black and white voters in the U.S. The journalists Nicholas Lemann, Alex Kotlowitz, and Jonathan Kozol have provided powerful accounts of individuals coping with the grinding weight of racism in late 20th-century America.

Many African American writers insist that race still matters, and the voices range from Afrocentrists to those, like Wilson, who look at the vastly different racial statistics to say that it does. The philosopher Cornell West’s Race Matters (1993) provided a compelling declaration that it is still all about color. The literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has moved widely across media to render humanely the persistent reality of race in America; his Colored People (1995) is quite brilliant in the way it connects civil rights changes to ongoing African-American concerns. Also important are the various “black rage” writers like the journalists Ellis Cose, Brent Staples, and Nathan McCall and the legal scholars Derrick Bell and Patricia Williams, most of whom are middle class and who use their own life’s experience to say, and often demonstrate persuasively, that it is morally wrong to deny the authority of race.

With all this intellect arrayed on one side, it is difficult to figure why the “race doesn’t matter” argument seems to me to be winning—at least in the marketplace of public opinion, and often even among intellectuals. Part of it comes from the growing popular belief that racial identity is irrelevant. An opinion poll taken in April 2000 found that 77 percent of all respondents—and 64 percent of blacks—answered “no” when asked if the census taker should ask their racial identity. Another part of the answer lies in the deep hostility among so many Americans to government’s role in our lives. Americans sometimes fail to see how much government has grown since World War II, at all levels, and to distinguish between opposition to that structural fact and the hard feelings against those who are often characterized, usually falsely, as the largest beneficiaries of government intervention. Since the 1960’s the debate over government’s role in American society has often been carried out in a kind of proxy fashion in a disagreement over whether government has or has not helped blacks. Many whites associated, rightly or wrongly, the expansion of government, its rising expense, and the sense that it is ineffective with black dependence on government. Most African Americans, on the other hand, have historically viewed the U.S. government as their friend and deliverer. That was their historical experience during the Civil War, and it was reiterated in the 1960’s. Perhaps underlying African Americans’ faith in government is a stronger commitment to collective action than whites have as a group.

Conservative intellectuals began challenging specific government policies in the 1970’s, led first by neo-conservatives like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz in the pages of Commentary and Public Interest and Nathan Glazer, who attacked affirmative action policies in Affirmative Discrimination (1975). In Losing Ground (1980), Charles Murray argued vigorously that the various poverty programs had actually caused dependency among African Americans. His book became the intellectual rationale for cuts in social welfare pushed through by the Reagan administration. In the 1990’s the legal scholars Andrew Kull, Richard Epstein, and Clint Bolick have challenged affirmative action policies in one form or another as unnecessary, unconstitutional, or immoral. Along the way a number of black intellectuals have joined in the effort to show that race does not matter or to argue that it is unhealthy socially to act as if it did. The economist Thomas Sowell has written prolifically since the 1970’s in books and newspaper editorials about the wrongs resulting from government action on behalf of minorities. Glenn Loury and Walter Williams, also economists, have joined the black conservative chorus, as has Shelby Steele, a literary scholar and memoirist. The conservative black intellectuals received much attention in part because many believed their positions reflected their courage to stand against most African-American intellectuals and civil rights activists.

Perhaps most influential of the “race doesn’t matter” works in recent years has been Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible (1997) which offered an overview of race relations since the 1960’s that emphasizes the progress among African Americans toward full assimilation into American life. They explicitly rejected the race-matters arguments from The Bell Curve to Hacker—whom they address directly with their book title—to the black rage writers. Blacks have steadily become more prosperous, more powerful, and more integrated since World War II, the Thernstroms argued, and they made skillful use of statistics to demonstrate the glass-half-full point time and again. At the same time, they included hard analysis that fixed responsibility for the disproportionate crime and poverty among African Americans since the 1960’s on a breakdown of family and morality on blacks themselves—and not on structural economic problems as did Hacker and Wilson. In their view, the assimilation of blacks into American life, though incomplete, has been clear enough in its positive trajectory to rely on the normal processes of democracy and capitalism to overcome past injustices. Thus they find unnecessary such affirmative action policies as minority set-asides, “racial gerrymandering,” and preferences in school admissions and hiring. More important in the Thernstrom’s view, those attempts to make up for past wrongs have been divisive and destructive of the larger unity that traditionally underlies American society.

Two recent books address the persistent question about whether race matters, and each answers with a resounding “yes,” though with mixed degrees of persuasiveness. Each also responds to the literature surveyed above, with special attention to the Thernstroms. The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (Chicago, 1999) by Philip A. Klinkner with Rogers M. Smith, surveys American race relations from 1619 to the present to address the question, “Under what circumstances has the United States made significant progress toward greater racial justice, toward more equal and meaningful opportunities for all its inhabitants, no matter how society classifies them in racial or ethnic terms?” J. Morgan Kousser, in Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (Chapel Hill, 1999), shows “how changing judicial interpretations shaped and continue to shape electoral regulations, which have a crucial impact on racial democracy in America” in the hope that the lessons learned “can lead us to a more egalitarian society, one where discrimination against members of minority groups is less oppressive than at present.”

Klinkner and Smith, who are political scientists, argue vigorously that race reform has come after times of war—first with the American Revolution, then the Civil War, and finally with World War II and the Cold War, all of which were times “when the nature of America’s enemies has prompted American leaders to justify such wars and their attendant sacrifices by emphasizing the nation’s inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic traditions.” During these times African Americans and their allies mounted protest movements “willing and able to bring pressure upon national leaders to live up to that justificatory rhetoric by instituting domestic reform.” Klinkner and Smith survey the whole of American history to show that we have improved our race relations during times of war but then we backslid into alienation and white supremacy in times of international peace, with the strong suggestion that the period since 1965 has been one of the regressive times. They conclude their study with a long list of needed reforms, most of which echo the reform agenda supported by William Julius Wilson and Andrew Hacker. They explicitly reject the Thernstroms’ shallow nostrum for good race relations—”that which brings the races together is good; that which divides us is bad.” Klinkner and Smith reply that “black progress has brought division and white resentments. In fact, if the Thernstroms rule had prevailed throughout American history, it would have most likely prevented nearly every advance in black rights.”

In these postmodern times, one must admire the ambition of Klinkner and Smith to read so much history and attempt to put together a readable, sweeping synthesis that speaks directly to what they and many Americans—though obviously not the race-doesn’t-matter majority—still believe is our nation’s primary domestic problem. In that sense it is a Woodwardian effort. Unfortunately, it is not quite up to the late professor’s standards of logical execution.

Klinkner and Smith make an acute observation about the connection between Americans’ heightened nationalist sensibilities during times of war and our ability to reform human relations. Certainly the democratic values embraced during the American Revolution resulted in unprecedented slave emancipations and restrictions on slavery’s spread. The Civil War brought the end of the peculiar institution and the promise of full citizenship to African Americans. World War II and the Cold War forced many white Americans to confront the hypocrisy between our democratic creed and the way blacks were treated and to see that racism was a liability to our national survival. In each historical instance, African Americans used the national crisis to press for changes in their status, and good results often followed. But the authors sometimes make facile or questionable interpretations to force historical events into their scheme, and they occasionally fail to acknowledge the evidence that does not fit with their thesis. Nor do they examine critically enough why it was that big wars brought changes in American race relations.

Americans have justified our momentous military engagements by promoting American nationalism, which historically we have understood is based less on centuries of shared experience than our embrace of democratic values—liberty, democracy, and equality. We committed to those values in the American Revolution; Abraham Lincoln exalted and re-defined them during the Civil War; and the United States military might in World War II and afterward protected and expanded them. When Americans’ nationalist fervor was fueled, the possibilities rose for expanding the scope of democratic values to uplift African Americans. But heightened nationalism did not automatically lead to race reform, because nationalist fervor has been channeled to illiberal, anti-democratic purposes. For example, Klinkner and Smith explain the fact that World War I failed to expand black civil rights because of the relatively insignificant black contribution to the war effort. In fact, the nationalist feeling arising from the war unleashed strong cross-currents that battered the cause of race reform back and forth. On the one hand, African Americans were spurred to wartime mobility that raised possibilities and expectations of overcoming the caste system. On the other hand, World War I elicited often-violent repression of thought and action that could be interpreted as justifying lynching black soldiers or rioting against black migrants to northern cities.

Klinkner and Smith invest great significance in the Cold War’s influence on the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This emphasis reflects their belief that race still matters and their commitment to explain why it does. Their answer is that America still faces great racial problems because in recent times we have lacked the pressure for domestic reform that the Cold War supplied during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In order to make this argument work, they insist that the Cold War was a primary motivation—and indeed they often make it sound like the primary cause—for the Civil Rights Movement. To that end, they marshal a wide array of evidence from domestic and foreign opinion-makers in the 1950’s and 1960’s that U.S. race relations had to be improved to uphold Western power in the Cold War. Here they have taken the war-yields-race-reform logic too far. As with World War I, the Cold War cut both ways in affecting race reform by justifying on strategic grounds both racial change and conformism to current American norms. In the postwar years, civil rights activists black and white and left-wing labor organizers who had promoted racial equality in the 1930’s and early 1940’s found themselves the object of investigation and harassment by commie-hunting governments at all levels. Anti-communism became the easy, omnipresent justification for white opposition to virtually any challenge to segregation in the South.

If the Cold War was such a powerful incentive for race reform, why wasn’t segregation outlawed in 1947 or 1951, instead of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act passed under President Truman rather than Lyndon Johnson? Klinkner and Smith answer that Truman was an inept politician, which may be part of the answer, but it does not discount fully the Cold War imperative that they emphasize as primary. Why weren’t such Cold War warriors as Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy more committed to civil rights? Why among all the strong anti-Communist voices from the South was there no strong pro-civil rights advocate? The over-emphasis on Cold War motives comes at the expense of seeing that African-American protest was the main engine of race reform. To be sure, Klinkner and Smith rightly observe that black protest always pushed for the change during wartime. But their text leaves the impression that Dean Acheson or Dean Rusk had as much to do with the momentum for civil rights as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Fannie Lou Hamer. Furthermore, by focusing so tightly on foreign relations, they fail to see that the inconsistency between segregation and democratic values could also be invoked in purely domestic contexts, as did King often and Lyndon Johnson in his best moments. In the end, their thesis for why race still matters is not persuasive.

J. Morgan Kousser’s work is more satisfying because he sees what many Americans have missed about the time since 1965: post-civil rights race relations have frequently been about a conflict over the meaning of equality—how broadly equality will be defined. Broadening the accepted understanding of equality, especially in public policy terms, usually meant recognizing the rights of blacks as a group. American law generally has favored individual rights over group rights, though whites enjoyed far superior group rights in the white-supremacist society prior to 1965. Most white Americans in the post-civil rights years have flatly rejected the idea of group rights when they have been extended to minorities. Another way of understanding this is as a conflict among our democratic values: individual liberty has been cast in opposition to group recognition, thus making broader equality the enemy of liberty. The race-doesn’t-matter intellectuals privilege liberty over equality.

Examining in fine detail the history of voting-rights disputes in five places—Los Angeles, Memphis, and the states of Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia—Kousser demonstrates that electoral forms have been as important as the simple right to go to the polls in extending democracy to minorities. A student of Southern politics and the author of an earlier seminal work on disfranchisement, he explores how gerrymandering, at-large elections, and a variety of other “dilutive” devices historically have been deployed by one group—he mainly covers white-supremacist efforts to minimize the influence of African Americans and Hispanics—to undermine the potency of another group’s ballots. He then explains how the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and its subsequent revisions were used to address and overcome the vote-dilution devices, paying particular attention to the federal judiciary’s protections of minority power through the Warren and Burger courts and then its rapid reversal by the Rehnquist court. He dwells at length on the case of Shaw v. Reno (1993), in which the court found that a North Carolina congressional district had been created unconstitutionally for the purpose of electing a black person. Subsequent decisions reinforced and strengthened the court’s determination to disallow racial considerations in creating electoral forms.

Kousser provides a blistering critique of the Shaw jurisprudence with intense scrutiny focused on Justice O’Connor, who he believes mainly reflects Republican partisanship, and Justice Thomas, who in the author’s view is an arrogant casuist who willfully ignores the historical background that he ought to bring to such matters. Kousser’s challenge also encompasses Judge Thomas’s favorite intellectual, Abigail Thernstrom, whose positions against vote-dilution protections were published before the work discussed above. For all its intelligence and reasonableness on many questions, the Thernstroms’ work is obtuse and polemical when it comes to voting-rights issues. They seem to think that stopping legal disfranchisement was as far as the Constitution and morality could allow Americans to go to extend democratic rights to black people when there are mountains of historical evidence to show that groups with power have always manipulated electoral forms to maximize their power and minimize their opponents’—including especially powerful whites intent on preventing minorities from getting the full authority implied in the 1965 law. Kousser exposes the weak commitment of the Rehnquist court and intellectuals like the Thernstroms to a broad, truly American definition of democratic values and to such first principles of the Republic as the “consent of the governed.” If the North Carolina legislature, acting to redistrict as the Constitution mandated, believed that it was justifiable to create a district that made it possible for an African American to win one of the twelve congressional seats in its racially-polarized electorate, then we should presume that they acted honestly for the good of the people they governed. Kousser’s examination of the cases leading up to and following from Shaw offers eloquent proof that race does still matter, perhaps especially among some of those so determined to make us believe it doesn’t.


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