Racism and Race-Conscious Remedies

When I assert that many white Americans have turned not against blacks, but against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities, I do not have in mind those who support racist or white supremacist views. To be against a strategy that emphasizes programs narrowly targeted to minorities does not automatically make one a racist. The white Americans I have in mind are those who could be potential members in a progressive political coalition to fight inequality, especially if the coalition's policy agenda would reflect not only the important concerns and interests of racial minorities, but the real interests and concerns of these non-minorities as well.

My article "Race-Neutral Programs and the Democratic Coalition" is not an attack on race-specific programs, as Professor Tollett asserts. Rather, it emphasizes the limitations of such programs in confronting the enduring problems of minority poverty. Moreover, I do not propose that race-specific programs be replaced by race-neutral initiatives. Rather, I argue that for the 1990s greater emphasis should be placed on programs that are clearly race neutral. Furthermore, I do not argue that race-neutral and race-specific programs cannot be pursued at the same time. Rather, I try to emphasize the relative importance of one over the other as we enter the decade of the 1990s not only for ameliorating the problems of minority poverty but also for developing a progressive political coalition to address these and other important domestic problems.

In short, unlike neoconservatives whose antipathy toward activist government policies is the fundamental basis for criticizing race-specific programs, my article calls for activist government policies that would focus more on race-neutral programs to address some of the most troubling domestic problems in the late twentieth century. The real challenge is to develop programs that not only meaningfully address the woes of disadvantaged minorities but that confront problems of inequality that plague other groups in society as well.


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Professor Tollett argues that the way to overcome white racism and white supremacy is "not to acquiesce or capitulate" by avoiding race-specific policies, but to appeal forcefully to the American Dream and to indicate "how targeting the problems of the black underclass will ultimately serve the interest of the entire society as well." However, the race-neutral strategy to address the difficult problems of poverty and joblessness was not proposed in my article because of concerns about the pervasiveness of white racism or white supremacy. Indeed, I would recommend this strategy even if racism were no longer a problem in American society. The point that the late black economist Vivian W. Henderson raised more than fifteen years ago still rings true today, namely "If all racial prejudice and discrimination and all racism were erased today, all the ills brought by the process of economic class distinction and economic depression of the masses of black people would remain."

A similar point was made by the perceptive black columnist, William Raspberry, who stated in 1980, "There are some blacks for whom it is enough to remove the artificial barriers of race. After that, their entry into the American mainstream is virtually automatic. There are others for whom hardly anything would change if, by some magical stroke, racism disappeared from America."

Accordingly, strategies are needed to confront problems that originated in racist practices but that will not be solved by solely eliminating these practices. As I argue in my article, such strategies have to go beyond affirmative action, court-ordered busing, or anti-discrimination lawsuits to address many of the woes that plague the minority poor. Indeed, I state that race-specific programs "clearly helped to bring about a sharp increase in the number of blacks entering higher education and gaining professional and managerial positions. But neither the policies based on the principle of equality of individual opportunity, nor policies that call for preferential group treatment, such as affirmative action, will do much for less advantaged blacks because of the combined effects of past discrimination and current structural changes in the economy. Now more than ever, we need broader solutions than those we have used in the past."

Professor Tollett views such statements as unwarranted criticism of programs like affirmative action. I view them as calling attention to what existing race-specific programs can actually or realistically accomplish so that attention can be given to the pursuit of other initiatives to fight minority poverty, joblessness, and other social dislocations. It is, therefore, difficult for me to see how my arguments can be construed by Professor Tollett as "trashing or undermining the benefits and beneficiaries of affirmative action."

Moreover, even if all racism were eliminated, efforts to redistribute resources to help disadvantaged groups would still encounter opposition from members of the dominant white population if their own economic situation is precarious. Regardless of appeals to the American Dream, as Lester Thurow has observed, "In periods of great economic progress when [the incomes of the middle classes] are rapidly rising they are willing to share some of their income and jobs with those less fortunate than themselves, but they are not willing to reduce their real standard of living to help either minorities or the poor." Indeed, one of the reasons why appeals to the American Dream were effective during the 1960s was because the demands that accompanied the protest (such as "end discrimination in voting") were not only consistent with the prevailing ideals of democracy and freedom of choice but, more important, did not call for major sacrifices on the part of whites.


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In the last several years, however, there are clear signs of declining income not only for the poor but for the working and middle classes as well. If this trend continues, and all the economic indicators suggest that it will, the latter groups will become increasingly less receptive to abstract moral appeals to the American Dream that require real or perceived personal material sacrifice to help the disadvantaged. Nor will the working and middle classes be persuaded by abstract cost-benefit arguments that maintain that keeping the "underclass" off welfare, out of prison, and reducing their asocial behavior through targeted programs will somehow benefit them in the long run, especially if they do not live in the central cities and have little direct contact with inner-city ghetto residents.

I believe, however, that the white working and middle classes will more likely respond to political messages concerning inequality in society if those messages are perceived as relevant to their own immediate concerns and anxieties. This is the point that I tried to make in The Truly Disadvantaged, and it is perhaps appropriate to conclude this reply to Professor Tollett's thoughtful response with a quotation from that book:

"I am reminded of Bayard Rustin's plea during the early 1960s that blacks ought to recognize the importance of fundamental economic reform . . . and the need for a broad-based political coalition to achieve it. And since an effective coalition will in part depend upon how the issues are defined, it is imperative that the political message underline the need for economic and social reforms that benefit all groups in the United States, not just poor minorities. Politicians and civil rights organizations, as two important examples, ought to shift or expand their definition of America's racial problems and broaden the scope of suggested policy programs to address them. They should, of course, continue to fight for an end to racial discrimination. But they must also recognize that poor minorities are profoundly affected by problems in America that go beyond racial considerations. Furthermore, civil rights groups should also recognize that the problems of societal organization in America often create situations that enhance racial antagonisms between the different racial groups in central cities that are struggling to maintain their quality of life, and that these groups, although they appear to be fundamental adversaries, are potential allies in a reform coalition because of their problematic economic situations."

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