From the New York Times, "The Persistence Of Inequality," by Tom Wicker published on 8 March 1992: WAS Tocqueville right, as he was in so many of his other perceptions, when he wrote a century and a half ago: "The danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream"?
Not many contemporary whites know who Nat Turner was, and perhaps few could say with accuracy what John Brown's raid was all about. But to one who watched buildings burning and blacks looting in downtown Washington on the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, Tocqueville's insight seems perceptive indeed.
Most of the depredations in Washington and in other cities during the long, hot summers of the late 1960's were suffered, as well as committed, by blacks. But that day in Washington, the endless lines of cars choking the streets, evacuating the city, heading lemming-like for the suburbs, were driven by whites. The rage was black; the fear was white.
On far more detailed and conclusive evidence of the racial situation in America today, Andrew Hacker writes in "Two Nations" that the fear sensed by Tocqueville still haunts not just Americans' imaginations, but "all phases of current life, from party politics to violent crime."
Thus, "to many white voters, the Democrats now look sufficiently 'black' to make them think twice about supporting its candidates," and "the Republicans have been happy to build on these beliefs." As for "further sacrifices on behalf of the nation's black minority," "about the only funding the public approves is for more police and prisons."
Mr. Hacker teaches political science at Queens College and has written prolifically on race and other American social problems. He devoted five years of study and writing to the compilation of statistical and other evidence to support the thesis of this challenging book -- that "from slavery through the present, the nation has never opened its doors sufficiently to give black Americans a chance to become full citizens."
Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
But the real value of his book, despite its wealth of data, is in Mr. Hacker's calm, analytical eye, his unblinking view of American history and his unwillingness to accept cant and "common sense" as facts. Equally important is his compassion for the plight and sensibilities of those from whom white Americans ask "an extra patience and perseverance" that the same whites "have never required of themselves."
MR. HACKER is well aware that most whites see their country "beset with racial problems they feel are not of their making" and believe that they "bear neither responsibility nor blame for the conditions blacks face. Neither they nor their forebears ever owned slaves, nor can they see themselves as having held anyone back or down." In fact, Mr. Hacker concludes, "Most white Americans believe that for at least the last generation blacks have been given more than a fair chance and at least equal opportunity, if not outright advantages."
Therefore, in Mr. Hacker's view, few whites "feel obliged to ponder how membership in the major race gives them powers and privileges." But, he asserts, being white is the greatest privilege any American can have, for "no matter how degraded their lives . . . they can never become 'black.' " And the black presence "as a subordinate caste . . . despite all its pain and problems, still provides whites with some solace in a stressful world."
On the other hand, to be black -- not to be white -- is to be perceived by whites, in some cases unconsciously, more often deliberately, as "a degraded species of humanity." Mr. Hacker pulls no punches as to why he believes this is so:
Homer Plessey the poster-boy for the US Apartheid Law of "Separate But Equal"
"Being 'black' in America bears the mark of slavery. Even after emancipation . . . blacks continued to be seen as an inferior species, not only unsuited for equality but not even meriting a chance to show their worth. . . . There remains an unarticulated suspicion: might there be something about the black race that suited them for slavery?"
Why else, he asks, do other Americans still find it fitting that blacks serve so often as maids and janitors, but seldom as chief executives, senators, newspaper editors, brain surgeons or baseball managers?
So, despite Tocqueville's observation that black and white Americans "are fastened to each other without intermingling," Mr. Hacker argues that white Americans "show little inclination toward giving full nationality to the descendants of African slaves." Rather, he maintains, "It is white America that has made being black [ in America ] so disconsolate an estate. Legal slavery may be in the past, but segregation and subordination have been allowed to persist. Even today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth."
"Two Nations" offers ample evidence of where that stigma leads. For only a few examples:
- * Black Americans are 12.1 percent of the tabulated population, but they got only 7.8 percent of the $3.6 trillion total personal income received by everyone in 1990.
- * Among men with four years of college, blacks earn $798 for each $1,000 of income earned by whites at the same level of education; black college men earn only a few dollars more than white men who went no farther than high school.
- * Nearly half -- 44.8 percent -- of black children live below the poverty line, compared to only 15.9 percent of white children.
- * "For as long as records have been kept, in good times and bad, white America has insured that the unemployment imposed on blacks will be approximately double [ that ] experienced by whites."
- * One of every five black American males will spend some part of his life behind bars -- perhaps not least because blacks in the most crime-prone age group (25 to 30) have a median income of $14,333, while whites in the same age group earn a median $20,153.
"Two Nations" also demolishes some of the familiar stereotypes whites cherish about black Americans. Some examples:
- * Black women do have more children than white women, but from 1940 to 1988 the ratio of black births to white remained about the same. Black women had children about 1.33 times more often than white women in 1940, and only 1.38 times more often in 1988.
- * Approximately half of all black single mothers, moreover, are fully self-supporting, not welfare recipients. And Aid for Dependent Children families are not dens of fertility; almost three-quarters of such families number only one or two children, and only a tenth of them have as many as four children. Fewer than a tenth of the parents have received Aid for Dependent Children for more than a decade, and no wonder -- the national average annual cash allowance for families receiving such aid is only $4,644, or about a seventh of the American average annual family income.
- * Between 1969 and 1989, opponents of affirmative action say, blacks were being given jobs, opportunities and promotions that white workers deserved. If so, why did the average earnings of black men, relative to white men, increase by only $22 per $1,000, with only $1 of that increase coming in the decade 1979-89? And why did black college men's earnings decline by 11 percent from 1979 to 1989, while those of white college men increased by 11 percent?
Young black men now engage in violence on such a scale, particularly among themselves, that homicide has become for them the leading cause of death. Few white Americans would accept any responsibility for this "self-inflicted genocide," as Mr. Hacker aptly calls it. Yet, he argues, these violent young blacks suffer "a despair that suffuses much of their race. These are young men who do not know whether they will live another year, and many have given up caring."
It may seem contradictory that such a "subordinate caste," occupying such clearly inferior status, can inspire in the national life the fear of racial conflict that Mr. Hacker finds so prevalent. Besides, as he points out, "The United States is not South Africa, where whites are heavily outnumbered by indigenous blacks, who might mobilize their strength to dominate society."
BUT as Tocqueville noted in the 19th century, Americans of that period could rationalize the evils of slavery only by convincing themselves that Africans were inherently inferior and suited for bondage. If, as Mr. Hacker believes, that conviction has persisted long past emancipation, so has white fear of the world turned upside down -- of blacks taking power and exercising it, "the dread that blacks will treat whites as whites have treated blacks."
"Two Nations" runs strongly against what appears to be the temper of the times. Affirmative action programs are under heavy attack (suggesting, Mr. Hacker believes, the fear that they "will diminish the benefits of being white for those who have always believed that they could take that advantage for granted"), no Democratic Presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson has won a majority of white voters, and the great object of concern for this year's aspirants, in both parties, seems to be the middle class rather than the underclass.
Andrew Hacker offers no antidote, no palliative, no 10-point program, not even rhetorical relief. He only looks at the nation's racial situation with a cold eye and finds it unworthy of American boasts about justice and equality. "The reader," he warns in a preface, "should be advised not to expect this book to end on an optimistic note."
The reasons for this bleak picture of two nations "separate, hostile, unequal," he concludes, "rest with a past that has shaped our present; and a present that makes use of that past. Race has made America its prisoner since the first chattels were landed on these shores. . . . A nation that has done so much to stress racial divisions should not be surprised if the result is not compassion and fellow feeling, but withdrawal and recrimination." 'UNCOMFORTABLE WITH TRADITION'
Over a lunch of mussels and beer near Queens College, where he has taught since 1971, Andrew Hacker reflected on the genesis of "Two Nations." "It's been almost 50 years since Gunnar Myrdal wrote his study of the races in America, and hardly anybody reads him anymore. It seemed time to take another look at the subject. A very beguiling editor at Scribners was convinced that I should be the one to take that look. But Myrdal was given $350,000 and had a research staff of over 70. I was on my own. It took him four years to complete his work; it took me five."
A respected social scientist, Mr. Hacker considers himself a historian in the classical sense, "where you see humanity as history, just as Balzac and Dickens did -- as something to be observed and understood."
"People don't often ask themselves what it means to be white," he noted. "It's taken for granted. They don't often ask themselves what it's like to see if they have their sight -- only if it's taken away. What, then, would it mean to have our whiteness taken away?
"Of course, there's a black culture, a whole black literature, that must be left to others. This book is written by a white person, but at least I am prepared to tell you, just as I do with my black students, this is what America really thinks about you."
"Few of us are really Democrats or Republicans anymore," Mr. Hacker said. "We're all spectators. We're a nation uncomfortable with tradition, and that's a strength as well as a weakness. We're constantly looking around to see what's new. New immigrants in my class will quickly become Americans. But even with this influx, African-Americans are still being left behind. No one is coming in under them. The legacy of slavery persists." -- LYNN KARPEN (source: The New York Times)
Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal