False Optimism on Race


We have all enjoyed an excellent dinner, and my job, as keynote speaker, is to leave you with some food for thought. This is not the same as dessert, which is supposed to be sweet and pleasing to the palate. Food for thought is rather intended to provoke, to challenge assumptions that may be comforting precisely because they shield us from unpalatable truths. And so, I hope you will forgive me if I puncture the festive mood of this occasion with some “unpalatable truths.” I know that this apology is unnecessary, because if you wanted to escape behind illusions, you would not have joined the NAACP.

We hear from many quarters that the United States has made great progress in solving its race problem. As a nation we celebrate the triumph of the civil rights movement, and the memory of Martin Luther King is enshrined in a national holiday, shared only with Washington and Lincoln. Undeniably, African Americans have made enormous strides during the post-civil rights era. For those of us old enough to remember the terrible conditions that fueled the black protest movement, it is obvious that race in America has undergone profound change. However, whenever I hear exuberant claims of how much “progress” we have made, I think of that inscrutable French expression, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same. It is important to acknowledge the ways in which race in America has changed for the better, but it is equally important not to be lulled into a false optimism that leaves us unprepared for the battles that lie ahead. Beware of the optimists who tell us that the glass is half-full. After three centuries on American soil, we have a right to say to them, “No, friend, the glass is half empty.”

Optimism is customarily regarded as a virtue. We are enjoined to look at the bright side, to “accentuate the positive,” and even during the worst of times, to look for a break in the clouds that admits the bright rays of sunshine. We like our friends to be optimistic, and we frown on people who wallow in despair. “I’m just a cockeyed optimist,” the character peels out in South Pacific, to the delight of audiences.

No doubt optimism provides a necessary defense against despair. No one knows this better than African Americans who, even during slavery, produced beautiful spirituals that kept alive the hope for freedom, even if it was deferred to the next world. In our personal lives, we recognize the need to give our children a message of hope and possibility, if only to motivate them to do their best. And yet optimism is no virtue if it verges on self-delusion, if it blinds us to harsh reality and renders us defenseless against the forces of racism. And pessimism is no vice if it prepares us to confront the injustices that the optimists prefer to wish away, like a wart on the body politic.

Martin Luther King struck the right balance between optimism and pessimism in his famous I Have a Dream oration. On the one hand, he held forth the vision of a world where “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King was no cockeyed optimist: he knew the difference between inspiring dream and brute reality. In the same speech, he also said: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Note that this latter passage is not the one that is replayed endlessly on the King holiday. It is much easier for white America to celebrate King for his dream of a future utopia than to deal with his uncompromising resolve to tear down the barriers that prevent us from realizing that dream. The nation commemorates King’s death, but forgets that he was killed, not for his dream, but for his fearless challenge to the racial status quo.

Today, we hear sage voices, some from within the black community, who argue that we are on the threshold of a new day and that it is time to shuck memories of past oppression. For example, in an essay entitled “The Memory of Enemies,” Shelby Steele writes: “…our oppression has left us with a dangerously powerful memory of itself that can pull us into warlike defensiveness at a time when there is more opportunity for development than ever before.” It is not clear exactly whom Steele has in mind. Presumably not the 15 million blacks, including nearly half of all black children, who still languish in poverty—yet another generation of black youth relegated to the fringes of our society. Presumably not the two million people who languish in the nation’s prisons, 70 percent of them people of color, for whom “freedom” is as remote as it was for the slaves who wrote and sang those Negro spirituals. Presumably not the countless men, women, and children who crowd the nation’s shelters, hospital wards, asylums, soup kitchens, welfare centers, drug treatment centers, and other places of refuge for the pariahs of our society. Presumably, Steele is thinking of middle-class blacks like himself who have secured positions of respectability and who no longer wear the badge of inferiority. Not that even these privileged individuals do not have to worry about glass ceilings at work, and racial profiling as they return to neighborhoods and communities that are still segregated.

But Steele would have us think that it is the memory of oppression and preoccupation with white racism that are themselves the problem, deterring blacks from seizing the opportunities that lie before them. Since he is a professor of English, he is given to metaphors. “Our memory,” he writes, “makes us like the man who wears a heavy winter coat in springtime because he was frostbitten in winter.” Now, as I look out at this audience on this cold fall evening, I note that you had the good sense to check your winter coats before you entered the dining room! And I am equally sure that you recognize that this is still a society riddled with racism, and that you do not allow this cognition to deter you, as Steele assumes—without any evidence whatsoever—from making the most of your lives. Perhaps this is the point that eludes Steele—that the principles we abide by in the conduct of our personal lives are different from the ones that we apply to the public domain. We approach life optimistically, making the most of the opportunities that lie before us. But we bring an entirely different lens to society, and refuse to allow our personal fortunes to blind us to the immense wrongs that afflict others. Thus, to rivet our attention on the extent to which racism is a continuing reality in American society does not mean that we are engaging in “a cult of victimhood,” as our critics allege.

This is the charge made by John McWhorter, a young African American professor of linguistics in a recent book entitled Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. The book begins with a rosy assessment: “The signs of progress are stark, relentless, and certainly cause for celebration.” McWhorter’s main point, embedded in his subtitle, is that blacks sabotage themselves from taking full advantage of receding racism. Think about it: the problem is not white racism but self-sabotage. The rest of his book spells out three factors leading blacks to do themselves in: 1) a cult of victimology that nurtures a paralyzing victim identity; 2) a self-defeating cult of separatism that cuts blacks off from opportunity; and 3) a cult of anti-intellectualism that discourages academic achievement which is seen as “acting white.” In a concluding chapter entitled “How Can We Save the African-American Race?” McWhorter implores blacks to shed their victim complex and to stop whining about racism. Most of the chapter, though, is a polemic against affirmative action, which, he contends, only nourishes feelings of inferiority among its recipients. McWhorter ends with an exhortation to black youth: “We are the future. It’s time for us to STAND UP!!!”

Optimism is rarely politically innocent. In this case, it provides a cheerful façade for an ideological attack on affirmative action, and ends up perversely blaming blacks for their own victimization and purging white society of responsibility for addressing racial inequities. When optimists crow about the great strides the nation has made in dealing with the race problem, they usually have three things in mind: 1) the end of Jim Crow in the South; 2) the rise of a large black middle class; and 3) the prominence of blacks in the nation’s public life. In each case, as I will show, they tell only part of the story, or engage in a selective amnesia that serves their ideological position.

First, let us think about the end of Jim Crow in the South. Jim Crow was the stepchild of slavery, and its demise is certainly a historic development. Yes, we can take cheer from the fact that, in the 1960s, just in time for the nation’s bicentennial celebration of its democracy, the surrogate institutions of slavery were finally dismantled. BUT—here we face some “unpalatable truths” that are glossed over as the nation reduces the civil rights era to a morality play where good triumphs over evil.

The first “but” is that the civil rights revolution only restored rights that were supposedly secured by the Reconstruction Amendments and civil rights legislation passed a century earlier. These statutes proscribed discrimination in public accommodations and elevated ex-slaves to full citizenship, including the right to vote. Here we were, a whole century later, fighting for these same rights. If this is “progress,” it is the progress of a people on a historical treadmill.

The second “but” is that the elevation of African Americans to full citizenship—which rightly was their birthright—owes little to the institutions of our vaunted democracy. Yes, after decades of litigation spearheaded by the NAACP, the Supreme Court finally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, a legal abomination in patent violation of the democratic and humanitarian norms supposedly embedded in the Constitution. But the reason that change was forged through the courts, rather than the legislatures, was that there was no political will to address the crimes against humanity that had become encrusted in Southern legal institutions. Even anti-lynching legislation could not muster a majority in Congress. Furthermore, Brown was decided on the narrowest and flimsiest of grounds, which left the door open to decades of circumvention and obstruction on the part of elected officials, legislatures, and courts. Better late than never, better half a loaf than none at all, but there is no basis for seeing the end of Jim Crow as a vindication of American democracy.

The third “but” is that the political momentum that culminated with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 came not from elected leaders, political parties, or legislatures—nor even from the nation’s intelligentsia (as Carol Polsgrove shows in Divided Minds). The momentum for the civil rights revolution came from grassroots insurgency—ordinary people, like the malcontents assembled here—who refused to accept the racial status quo. Myth has it that Rosa Parks was a poor seamstress whose act of courage changed history. This is only part of the story. Rosa Parks was also an active member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, which was already planning a bus boycott. Change did not come “from above”—from our political institutions, national leaders, or elites—but through a grassroots movement. The spirit and substance of this movement was captured by Lorraine Hansberry in 1962:

I think that Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non- violent. That they must harass, debate, petition, give money to struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.

The agencies of state—from Congress to the FBI to the courts and law enforcement agencies—were not allies but antagonists in the struggle for civil rights. It is well and good that today the entire nation celebrates the triumph of the civil rights movement, but it is to the nation’s everlasting shame that its political institutions and elites provided such meager support during the most difficult years of struggle.

It is amazing to observe how the racial optimists are rewriting history to elide the role of grassroots activism. In America in Black and White, a book published with much fanfare in 1997, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write buoyantly: “The curtain came down on the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s.” What a devious rhetorical construction: in effect, the cadres of civil rights activists in the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC are treated as mere observers on the stage of history, providing applause as “the curtain came down on the Jim Crow South.”

The same rhetorical issue arises in Orlando Patterson’s The Ordeal of Integration. Again, observe the syntax as Patterson writes in the first sentence of his book: “Nearly half a century ago, America began seriously to confront the enormity of its ‘racial’ problem.” But the plain truth is that “America” did nothing to confront its racial problem until it was dragooned into doing so by the rise of black insurgency. Amazing how a turn of phrase can elide the contributions and sacrifices of the movement’s activists and martyrs!

A fourth “but”: It is true that the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 was a watershed event that marked the end of Jim Crow in the South. However, these laws addressed issues of liberty, not equality. Belatedly—and here we are speaking of two centuries—the nation conferred full citizenship on African Americans, but it came at little material cost. Nor did the granting of civil rights even begin to address the deep inequalities along racial lines that were the result of two centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow. It was not long before civil rights leaders struck a new refrain. “What good is it,” King asked, “to be allowed to eat in a restaurant if you can’t afford a hamburger?” When Whitney Young advocated programs of “compensatory hiring,” the proposal was instantly embroiled in controversy, and even liberal supporters of civil rights were vocal in their dissent. Here was an early sign that there would be little popular support for affirmative action, much less for the current reparations movement. In his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote: “Whenever the issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more.” When it comes to repairing the effects of centuries of racism, the national mood has not changed perceptibly since 1963, has it?

Thus, we can all rejoice that “the curtain has come down on the Jim Crow South,” but this feeling is made bittersweet by memories of just how much energy had to be mobilized, over such a protracted period of time, for such crucial but limited goals. Historians write glibly that the civil rights movement was a victim of its success, in that it achieved its legislative objectives. In point of fact, the movement was defeated in its next phase when it shifted the focus from “liberty” to “equality,” and sought compensation for past wrongs. Indeed, it is not clear whether the King holiday is being used to celebrate the success of the civil rights movement, or to cover up the fact that the movement for racial justice has been stymied in its pursuit of larger objectives.The second argument that the racial optimists put forward is that blacks have made tremendous strides during the half-century since the Brown decision. “The signs of progress are all around us,” the Thernstroms exult in the introduction to their book. For example, they cite figures showing that poverty among black families has declined from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960 to 26 percent in 1995. BUT, before we hop on the optimists’ bandwagon, consider this. The Thernstroms measure “progress,” not by comparing blacks to whites, but by comparing blacks today to blacks in 1940, a time when nearly the entire black population was mired in poverty. And we are supposed to cheer the fact that, half a century later, “only” 26 percent of blacks are poor, when the comparable figure for whites is 9 percent. Other data indicate that blacks still earn only about two-thirds of white income, and that there has been little improvement in closing the gap since the mid-1970s. Hardly the stuff of “progress.”

James Baldwin had it right when he said that we should not use the crimes of the past to justify the crimes of the present. After centuries on American soil, after shedding their blood in defense of American democracy, African Americans should not be compared to their subjugated forebears of a time when the nation was constituted in ways that provided inspiration to the Nuremberg Laws. If the United States is ever to remove the blot on its democracy, it will be when there is nothing less than full parity between its black and white citizens. No one has said this better than W.E.B. Du Bois. At the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry that spawned the NAACP, Du Bois wrote: “We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.”

There is a second flaw and contradiction in the Thernstroms’s celebration of “progress.” Yes, the existence of a large black middle class represents a major new development. Unlike the black middle class that Franklin Frazier lampooned in Black Bourgeoisie, the new black middle class is firmly anchored in mainstream occupational structures—in the professions, corporate management, and government service. BUT, this does not reflect a deracialization of labor markets but rather the impact of affirmative action. The crowning irony is that the Thernstroms are ardent opponents to affirmative action. Illogically, they invoke the very gains that blacks have made through affirmative action to argue that, despite the continuing disparities, affirmative action is no longer necessary.

Like other anti-racist policies, affirmative action did not come into being because the American people, through its legislatures and courts, decided that it was time to eliminate the vestiges of slavery. The unacknowledged “father” of affirmative action is Arthur Fletcher, the black under-secretary of labor in the first Nixon Administration. Fletcher revived the Philadelphia Plan that was originally designed by policy wonks within the Johnson Administration, but shelved after Humphrey’s defeat in 1968. There has been much speculation as to why Nixon gave his backing to the Philadelphia Plan. After all, this was the same Nixon who got elected on the basis of a “Southern strategy,” who opposed busing, and who nominated two old-fashioned segregationists to the Supreme Court. Some scholars contend that this was a cunning plan by Nixon to drive a wedge in the coalition between blacks, Jews, and labor unions. I think there is another explanation.

These scholars, from their lofty mount, are overlooking the role of grassroots insurgency. In 1968, when Nixon was elected, there were noisy demonstrations in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, protesting the exclusion of blacks from the construction trades by white unions. Because these were Democratic unions, Nixon had less to risk than Democrats, who tried to defeat the Philadelphia Plan in Congress. Strange as it might seem, Richard Nixon is the unsung hero of affirmative action, as is Attorney General John Mitchell, who successfully defended the Philadelphia Plan before the Supreme Court. Once it passed judicial review, “goals and timetables” were applied to all government contractors, and we had the birth of affirmative action as we know it today. I hasten to add that after affirmative action triggered a popular backlash, Nixon flip-flopped, and railed against the “quotas” he had himself put into effect.

There is an important political lesson from all this: Far more important than who gets elected and who occupies the seat of power is what political pressures are brought to bear on the reigning power. Kennedy, the liberal, tried to call off the 1963 March on Washington; Johnson, the Southerner who once opposed anti-lynching legislation, became, under pressure from the civil rights movement, a champion for civil rights; and Nixon, notwithstanding his racist and reactionary tendencies, spearheaded affirmative action policy. Indeed, most of the political gains that blacks have achieved—and this includes the ‘54 Supreme Court Decision—have been responses to political mobilization and direct action on the part of grassroots groups. Incidentally, this is a message of optimism, since it means that we are empowered to control of our destiny, and that our pursuit of racial justice does not hinge on the vagaries of electoral politics.The third development that optimists point to is the prominence of African Americans among the nation’s elites. This is conspicuously the case in sports and entertainment, but remembering Colin Powell, it is also true of politics. Much the same thing can be said about literature and other spheres of high culture. We can remember a time when there was Ralph Bunche and everybody else (and we can only reflect with sadness about how many other men and women never fulfilled their talent or received the acclaim that the deserved).

Nor do I think this phenomenon can be dismissed as tokenism. The reason that blacks were kept out of major-league baseball for so long was that their inclusion introduced a contradiction for avid sports fans who had to choose between their passion for sports and their racial animus. In the South, where it is said that football is like religion, we had the amusing spectacle of a stadium full of whites cheering for black players. Clearly, when figures like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan can evoke such an outpouring of public adulation, this reflects a sea change in white attitudes toward race. As Ellen Willis has written, “no longer is whiteness the unquestioned cultural norm.” Nor would it be accurate to say that the benefits of this new climate of tolerance redound to only a few exceptional individuals. Clearly, attitudes toward race and toward Negritude have undergone profound transformation. Indeed, this is living proof that race is not indelible after all: it all depends on what assumptions and attitudes we bring to the happenstance of skin color.

BUT! And here I will limit myself to two caveats. First, it should raise our suspicions when race becomes a reverse fixation, when what was once taboo suddenly becomes the object of desire. Today we are bombarded with sensual images of black bodies in music videos or advertisements to sell consumer products. As Eric Lott shows in an illuminating study of black minstrelsy, whites have always propagated images of black men and women that satisfy their own fantasies and illicit desires. Images of superhuman black physicality have also existed all through American history, and I’m not sure the current obsession with the black body is a mark of “progress.”

My second “but” is that traditional racial stereotypes coexist with positive attitudes, often reflecting intra-ethnic class differences. For example, distinctions were made between “shanty Irish” and “lace-curtain Irish,” and between “downtown Jews” and “uptown Jews.” As a response to the changing realities of race and class during the post-civil rights era, whites have learned to stratify their perceptions and images of blacks, taking social class into account. Perhaps this marks “progress” over a time when there were blanket stereotypes that applied to all blacks, regardless of their status or their achievements. This stratification of stereotypes—between “the bad ones” who conform to racial stereotypes and the “good ones” who are seen as exceptions—may well be a phase in the breakdown and transformation of a racist system. However, the flip side is also true: that the good fortune of privileged blacks does not necessarily mean that their lower-class cousins do not still encounter old-fashioned racism as they apply for jobs, seek a place to live, and otherwise navigate through a predominantly white world. Ironically, the very existence of prominent black elites has made it difficult to convince white Americans—and, as we have seen, some African Americans as well—that “race” and “racism” are still problems to be reckoned with.

My message so far is that we did not achieve as much through the civil rights struggle as the optimists would have us believe. Nor is there much reason to be optimistic about the future. Indeed, we are currently in a period of racial backlash that threatens to reverse many of the gains of the post-civil rights era. How can we sustain optimism when the three pillars of anti-racist public policy—affirmative action, school integration, and racial districting—are all being dismantled? Let us examine each briefly.

First, affirmative action. As you know, affirmative action has been eviscerated by a series of decisions on the part of a Supreme Court stacked with Republican appointees. Recently a district court issued a favorable ruling on an affirmative action plan at the University of Michigan, and there is the ominous possibility that the Supreme Court will use this case to drive the final nail in the affirmative action coffin. If it is true, as I argued earlier, that affirmative action accounts for many of the occupational gains that blacks have had over the past several decades, then the gutting of affirmative action is a setback of enormous magnitude.

Second, it is generally conceded that school integration has failed as policy. Roughly 70 percent of all black students attend schools that are predominantly black, and schools in the North are even more segregated than those in the South. As with affirmative action, a series of Supreme Court decisions have drastically cut back the scope of school integration, so much so that Gary Orfield, the preeminent scholar of school desegregation, contends that we are moving back toward segregation. In the future, schoolchildren will celebrate Martin Luther King Day in schools that are increasingly segregated.

Third, in Miller v. Johnson the Rehnquist Court reversed a previous decision mandating the creation of majority-minority Congressional districts. This means that it will be possible again for state legislatures to draw up Congressional districts that break up black communities and distribute black voters into predominantly white districts. The danger is that black representation in Congress will be reduced, thus curtailing the size and clout of the Black caucus. Even though this has not happened yet, it is worrisome that the key safeguard against diluting the black vote has been rescinded.

As Gunnar Myrdal wrote in An American Dilemma, the history of race in America has observed the pattern of two steps forward and one step back. Indeed, this is an apt description of the half-century following the ‘54 Court Decision. The dismantling of Jim Crow and the end of the reign of terror in the South, the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, the implementation of affirmative action and other anti-racist policies, the emergence of a large and proud black middle class, the increasing prominence of blacks in the nation’s public life—these are the marks of genuine progress.

On the other hand, the present period amounts to “one step backward.” Many of the gains wrung out of white society by the black protest movement are in jeopardy. Instead of dismantling Jim Crow, we are witnessing the dismantling of anti-racist public policy. Instead of abolishing the vestiges of slavery, we are abolishing affirmative action, and school integration, and racial districting. Already we read about plummeting black enrollments in colleges and professional schools in states like California and Texas that have revoked their affirmative action programs. Finally, there is the large underclass—ghettoized blacks living in abject poverty—who have reaped few, if any of the gains of the half-century. With the declining economy and the repeal of welfare, these families are in deep crisis. Is this a statement of pessimism or cold realism?

I would like to conclude by saying to the malcontents assembled here that we do not have to apologize for being “pessimists.” If we look back over the long history of black struggle in America, it becomes clear that history has never been moved forward by optimists—those who “live by the myth of time,” as King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Rather, history has always been moved forward by those implacable pessimists—those irascible malcontents—who refuse to lapse into complacency; who will not be satisfied so long as blacks have “one jot or tittle less” than full rights and complete equality. Only when this goal is achieved will it be possible to consign “racism” to the cold storage of history. Only then will we have the luxury of optimism, and a Freedom Fund dinner that dispenses with “unpalatable truths” and culminates with a sweet dessert.