black and white

Draft: 11-10-12
Douglas B. Diamond
I. Introductory Issues
Race relations remain an important piece of unfinished business in America. Yes, there has been
a significant reduction in racial tensions since the urban riots of 1968 (about 2 generations ago).
And yes, enough white voters (43%) voted for Barack Obama to make him America’s first black
president. But there are still many divergences in perspectives and divides in lived experience of
blacks and whites in America. 1 These are the topic of this essay.2
My personal awareness of race relations goes back to the late 1950s, when, as a child, I read in
the newspaper about agitation against restrictions on blacks patronizing a local amusement park.
My reaction was probably typical of most whites then, namely, that the owners of the park
should have the right to choose who could come in. There was no trace of the black perspective
on the situation, no awareness of the pain and degradation implied, nor of how these sorts of
actions were a continuation of long efforts by many in the white population to cast blacks as
generally inferior. So inferior, in fact, that enslaving them was acceptable for almost 200 years
and systematic discrimination was still acceptable for another 100 years.
In retrospect, that lack of balanced awareness captures the reason for writing this essay. It is an
attempt to elucidate the factual history that lies behind the general perspectives of blacks and
whites in American today on some major points of friction or division between these population
sub-groups. It then delves into a number of key issues in black-white relations, including
affirmative action, residential segregation, school integration, and the “black underclass.”
Informed by the historical facts and by critical review of the scholarly literature, it attempts to
take a look ahead to how this racial divide might eventually be mended or superseded in the form
of a truly post-racial society.
There is also a major divide in the material. The first 30 pages or so covers the history of race as
a concept, slavery as a practice, and black-white relations in America, as well some additional
framing issues (e.g., the controversy over IQ differentials). Readers short on time may want to
skip these and move on to the present and future issues, but the author believes that there is much
Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, commented soon after being sworn in that “this nation has still not come
to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is
fated to have.” See
The author has chosen to use the terms “black” and “white” to differentiate broadly between those with European
vs. African ancestry. As noted below, this terminology is very imprecise, with many, if not most, people of both
groups having a mixture of these or other “racial” elements. Moreover, many individuals covered by this
nomenclature may prefer other terminology, such as African-American. However, the author believes that common
parlance and journalistic practice in the US supports this usage.
to be learned about the present by first studying the past in more depth than the usual cursory
Race: Meaningless Yet Full of Meaning
At all times of recorded history, social groups have made great distinctions between “their”
group and all other groups. It is clear that an identity simply as a human being is not sufficient
for societal dynamics. Most of these distinctions seem to have been adequately captured by the
tautological concept of tribe, i.e., a tribe is those who identify themselves and others of the tribe
as sharing some sort of distinct identity, usually some sort of blood relationship.
Groups of clans or tribes might share a larger identity based on shared cultural norms, language,
or religion. But as the region encompassing a grouping grows in size, an important feature of the
human species intrudes, namely, that due to migration, evolutionary selection, and climatic
differences, differences in physical features across humans become fairly pronounced over larger
distances. When compounded with variation in cultural practices (due to historical accident and
those same differences in the natural environment and other factors), the idea that groups differ
significantly across some combination of physical, cultural, perceptual, and maybe even moral
dimensions seems quite natural.
This seems to have led ancient people to have strong notions of different “peoples,” but probably
not the same idea that modern Westerners have of “races”. The Latin term for place of origin,
natio, certainly implied a set of physical and temperamental characteristics but seemingly not
inherent biological inferiority or superiority. 3
It seems that only as global exploration and colonization proceeded in the 16th century did race
as an indicator of biological differences begin to become a major labeling system. At the start
of the period, race was a term referring just as much to the large ethnic differences perceived
across European groups as to differences between Arabs and Swedes. Italians and Irish people
would have been considered different “races” by the English.
But with the large scale interaction with even more radically different peoples, including
indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere (referred to as Native Americans henceforth),
sub-Saharan Africans, South Asians, and Chinese, and, most importantly, with the massive role
of black slavery in developing the New World, the nature and role of race in differentiating
people took a quantum jump. By the late 19th century, the concept of racial differences as
correlates with biological and moral distinctions was strongly held by both the common people
and the intelligentsia of Europe.
The idea of race seems to have been limited to the visible facial insignia of people of different origins. This seems
surprising, since many dominant ethnic and national groups (e.g., Greeks, Persians, Romans) would seem to have
everything to gain from labeling others as intrinsically inferior, not just members of “inferior” cultures. Moreover,
dress and cultural practices would have been even more radically different across societies, thus reinforcing the
sense of intrinsic heterogeneity. However, expert opinion seems to be that, in ancient times, although origin
strongly determined cultural and facial traits, it was believed that all humans shared a common biology. (Both
Hippocrates and Aristotle considered Hellenic peoples to be superior, but because of their culture, attitudes and
skills being shaped by a tough environment, not because of some inheritable distinction).
Scholars have traced a significant evolution in the concept of race in Western Europe starting
about 1600 and continuing over the next 300 years. 4 It was not long before the concept of a
limited number of distinct races (in contrast to a large number of ethnicities) appeared. The first
comprehensive classification of humans into distinct races is believed to be François Bernier's
Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l'habitant ("New division of
the Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it"), published in 1684.5 Bernier
distinguished four races: Far Easterners (Asians), Europeans, Africans and Lapps.6
In the 1700s, “racial” differences among human groups became a focus of scientific
investigation. By 1800, there were at least 12 scholarly classifications of race, defined at the
global scale. The father of physical anthropology, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in 1795 invited
his reader to consider the competing schemes of human taxonomy and “choose which of them he
likes best.” Three of his authorities designated two races; one designated three races; six
designated four races; one designated six races; and one designated seven races. All were based
a combination of skin color, skull measurements, and considerations of “beauty.”7
Notably, Blumenbach himself rejected a racial hierarchy of intellect and emphasized the unity of
mankind. However, that did not prevent him from placing “Caucasians” (as he dubbed white
Europeans for the first time) as the first among similars, based on the prevailing view that
Georgian people had among the most beautiful features and also that the Caucasus was the area
that Noah’s Ark had come to rest, and thus was the source of all humankind. Black Africans (or
Ethiopians, as these classifications usually called them) were ranked lowest, partly due to the
adoration that Romanticists of the era had for pale skin. (Notably, the prevailing view was that
all other races were modifications of the original race, which was the whites from the Ark.)
Most of these delineators of human races in the 18th century were operating within the context of
Linnaeus, the famous creator of classifications of plant and animal species. They were seeking a
method of taxonomy or classification with which to group humans. It was only in the 19th
century that these ideas of beauty and differences in physiognomy were conflated with observed
differences in economic development and used to support biological hierarchies of intellect and
social value.8
For example, there is an extensive effort at deciphering what the concept of race means in Shakespeare’s plays.
Scholars note that London at that time would have had significant presence of “exotic” peoples, and so many of
Shakespeare’s plays take place in exotic locales. One writes: “In Shakespeare’s time, what notions of race the
Elizabethans had were hopelessly confused, as they routinely combined Africans with Arabs, [and] Indians [with]
south Asians and pre-Columbian Americans ... Indeed ... blacks and Indians were necessarily interchangeable in the
Elizabethan popular mind.” Imtiaz Habib, Shakespeare and Race, University Press, 1999.
Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. 1963, p. 32-33.
He was unsure which of his four races Native Americans belonged to. In this case, he anticipated the discovery
much later that they were descendants of Asians. As for the Lapps, they simply were a puzzle genetically at the time
and still are.
Painter, Neil Irvin, “Why White People are called ‘Caucasian’,” from the proceedings of the Fifth Annual Gilder
Lehrman Center International Conference, Yale University, 2003.
One convenient way of encapsulating this distinction is the difference between “racialism” (the belief that race was
an identifiable marker of inherent differences) and “racism” (the belief in a distinct hierarchy of social value by
race). See
This evolution was intimately bound up with the rise of colonialism and spread of capitalism and
European culture over this same period. Essentially, by 1900, European power was imposed
over nearly all the land mass of the Earth (about 85% at its peak in the 19th century, counting the
ex-colonies ruled by European-derived elites). This process almost insisted on a theory of racial
differences and certainly supported the idea that Europeans (now seen as a distinct race, much in
contrast to earlier ideas of many European races) were ruling the globe due to inherent
Nineteenth century scientists generally made three claims about race:
- First, that races are objective, naturally occurring divisions of humanity;
- Second, that there is a strong relationship between biological races and other human
phenomena (such as forms of activity and interpersonal relations and culture, and by
extension the relative material success of cultures); and
- Third, that race is therefore a valid scientific category that can be used to explain and
predict individual and group behavior.
Races were distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and size, texture and color of
hair. Most importantly, races were almost universally considered to reflect group differences in
moral character and intelligence.10
Many commenters today ascribe the adoption of these beliefs to their usefulness to Europeans as
rationalizing their domination of the world. However, although this implication undoubtedly
made such beliefs attractive, this retrospective judgment may be overly cynical. These views
were a logical follow-on to earlier taxonomies and were also based on the same “scientific”
premises as phrenology (links between personality traits of the individual and the shape of his or
her skull), belief in which also peaked in the same period. Links between physical traits and
personal characteristics were also utilized in other contexts, such as the Theosophical movement.
So it is not clear that such scientific racism gained prominence simply because of a need to
defend why Europeans should run the planet.
In any case, a variety of sources suggest that the conventional view among “white” populations
in the early 20th century was that some races (meaning bloodlines, not ethnicity) were superior in
specific ways to others.11 These implications of the biological perspective of race reached an
This is somewhat ironic, given that there had been many large scale surges of colonial and imperial activities in
earlier eras (Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Turkic, Arab, Bantu) but 19th Century Europeans did not credit these
peoples as being intrinsically superior to the peoples that were subjugated in these empires.
See For example, a progressive scientist such as
Thomas Huxley, who believed that all humans were one species, presumed a hierarchy of innate abilities, writing in
1865 that the "highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky
cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.”
These views were fluid. For example, it seems that the general white American public considered the Irish to be
biologically inferior in the mid-19th century, then the Chinese to be so in the early 20 th century, as well as blacks
infamous apogee with the delineation by the Nazis of the superiority of the “Aryan race” (as a
sub-group within the Caucasians), supposedly most purely resident in the Germanic countries.12
But in the early 21st century, the term “race” has almost fully receded from use in scientific
contexts. Scientists have emphasized that, in capturing biological differences, race is nearly
meaningless. This shift in views is also in tune with current political circumstances. Extreme
views of racial superiority were discredited by the barbarism (as well as the defeat) of the Nazis.
Moreover, almost all former colonies have gained independence and many are leading the world
in economic growth, despite being governed by people of these “inferior” races.
Upon reflection, the weakness of race as a biological concept is perhaps self-evident. The
biological distinctions that usually define race are always in a continuum, whether in skin tone,
shape of skulls, noses and lips, or types of hair, and come in a variety of packages (e.g., there are
large sub-populations with dark skins and long, straight hair). This should not be surprising,
given the amount of interbreeding across “races” over time and the large variation and
continuum of climatic and other environmental conditions that presumably supported the
evolution of distinct external features over time.13
The end result is that, although a set of physical characteristics may be used to define specific
races, the labels will be very imprecise. To see this, just try to determine where, in the arc of
very distinctive facial types from Ireland through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Iran,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and down through India to Sri Lanka, one race ends and another begins.14
Moreover, if surface human characteristics are so tightly linked with “superior” and “inferior”
aspects of human abilities and behavior, then physical features should be a powerful correlate in
a multiple regression with IQ or other dimensions of “racial inferiority or superiority,” aside
from ethnic or other social characteristics. But they are not.
II. Historical Background of Slavery
Slavery in the Ancient World
The term “Aryan” was initially only used as a label for users of the Indo-European group of languages. The Nazis
diverted it from that to describe a group of proto-Europeans that presumably had the purest forms of the superior
traits of Europeans in general.
In “The Descent of Man,” Charles Darwin articulated both the presumption that there exist distinctive races
(although not sub-species) of men and great uncertainty about how to classify them. He noted the great range of
classifications and concluded that “th(e) diversity of judgment ….shows that they graduate into each other, and that
it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.” (See
To a degree probably not recognized in melting-pot America, people in other countries make finer distinctions as
to race. Indeed, even relatively small sub-populations do have fairly distinctive features, especially facial ones. A
week or so spent being with a traditionally distinct ethnic groups, such as Estonians, Albanians, Armenians, Maltese,
Saudis, Rajasthanis, Cambodians, Koreans, Uzbeks, etc. will leave the observer quite aware of how the full-blooded
members of that “tribe” appear quite distinct from nearby tribes (e.g., Cambodians vs. Vietnamese or Thai, Koreans
vs. Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolians).
The discussion so far has been solely in terms of the concepts of race and the concomitant
creation of racial stereotypes and hierarchies. Based on this alone, blacks in the US can be seen
as laboring under a long history of presumed inferiority. Nothing has been said about the second
and perhaps much larger burden they carry, the legacy of slavery. We turn to that now.
Slavery in its broadest form has been part of the human landscape from the start of recorded
history.15 In ancient times, it primarily took the form of captives after a military victory being
taken into enforced labor by the conqueror or being sold off to private individuals for their use as
they saw fit. Generally, these people lost all civil and personal prerogatives, although it appears
that their abuse or murder may have been restrained in some cases. Since wholesale slaughter of
captives was considered to be an acceptable alternative, those enslaved may have perceived their
fate as the least bad alternative.
Convenient examples include the Biblically-recorded enslavement of the entire “nation” of Jews
by Egypt in around 2000 BCE. Within better recorded history, 100,000 Jews (many of whom
themselves had owned slaves) were enslaved by the Romans after the failure of the Jewish revolt
in 70 CE. Enslavement was routine during the expansion of the Roman Empire, with hundreds
of thousands recorded as being put into servitude and forming the backbone of workers in
agriculture, mining, and household service.16 These were not rare situations, but the situation
was frequently muted by socially prescribed limits on the abuse of slaves and often freedom for
their offspring.
This situation may have directly evolved into the practice of serfdom in medieval Europe. But in
addition, many serfs may have started as free men, but the contingencies of famine or war or
simply brigandage forced them and their descendants into contractual bondage to a lord who
provided security and a minimum of food in return for essentially partial enslavement.17
Serfdom in Western Europe came largely to an end by the 15th century, because of changes in
the economy, population, and laws governing landlord-tenant relations in Western European
nations. The enclosure of manor fields for livestock grazing and for larger arable plots made the
economy of serfs’ small strips of land in open fields less attractive to the landowners.
Furthermore, the increasing use of money made tenant farming by serfs less profitable; for much
less than it cost to support a serf, a lord could now hire workers who were more skilled and pay
them in cash. Paid labor was also more flexible since workers could be hired only when they
were needed. Labor was also needed in growing urban sectors.18
A fluent discourse on this can be found in Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford University
Press, 1994. It should be noted that slavery existed in all known major civilizations of the past, including in Africa
and pre-Columbian America.
One source states that it has been estimated that, during the first two centuries of the Roman
Empire, three out of every four persons living on the Italian peninsula were slaves. (Beckles, 2002)
Still today, there exists a significant amount of such slavery. Anti-Slavery International, headquartered out of
London, includes in the term all forms of indentured servitude and labor forced through coercion. It also includes
girls and women given in forced marriage or servitude to pay debts, as well as those forced into prostitution after
being lured into migrating.
Another historically important dimension of more modern slavery is the Arab slave trade. The
Arab world drew slaves out of both the north (mostly Slavic countries) and the south (East
Africa, including Somalia and Nubia, and West Africans going to Moorish Spain). The African
trade was both across the Sahara and the Red Sea and operated at a significant level for over
1000 years (roughly 800-1900), cumulatively possibly involving more slaves than the
Transatlantic trade, but never approaching the same annual volumes. Notably, the general record
is that female slaves tended to predominate for use in harems and household production.
Whatever the details of the various perpetrators and victims of slavery throughout the ages from
pre-history up to the 19th century, there can be no denying that it was considered normal for most
of that time, including for the first 200 years of the transatlantic slave trade.19 Most importantly,
it was originally not considered to be racially based. True, most slaves were drawn from
defeated peoples, who were usually considered culturally and economically inferior by the
conquering peoples. But in the absence of theories of systemic racial inferiority, enslavement
was equal-opportunity and a matter of unfortunate circumstance, not based on race or intellectual
Slavery in the New World
Given the nature of slavery in the ancient world, the initial occurrence of it in the context of the
development of lands in the New World is unremarkable, although reprehensible from a modern
perspective. The important question here is whether the transatlantic trade out of West Africa
and especially the slave-owning practices in the American South were especially pernicious and
additionally are they especially damaging to the status of slave descendants today.
The answer partly derives directly from the previous section on racism. The Transatlantic Slave
Trade (TST) started off as a matter of convenience of securing slaves from West Africa relative
to other traditional sources, such as Eastern Europe and East Africa.20 However, as the
magnitude of the trade expanded, the social structures in the New World institutionalized
differences between slave groups and masters. Combining with, and feeding back into, the
evolving views about racial hierarchies, the end result was strong associations between
Africaness and inferiority. These associations are one of the main and most widespread residuals
of the TST.
The TST was already effectively started before the first voyage of Columbus. Its template had
been set when the Portuguese found that the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores were
Lewis (op. cit.) tells the following story. “In 1842 the British Consul General in Morocco, as part of his
government's worldwide endeavor to bring about the abolition of slavery or at least the curtailment of the slave
trade, made representations to the sultan of that country asking him what measures, if any, he had taken to
accomplish this desirable objective. The sultan replied, in a letter expressing evident astonishment, that ‘the traffic in
slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam . . . up to this day.’
The sultan continued that he was ‘not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this
question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.'
Europe as a source of slaves had been in decline for several centuries (other than along the border between Islam
and Christianity) and East Africa was a much greater distance away. Thus Europeans seeking labor for the New
World tapped into existing slave sources in West Africa, where slavery existed in ways parallel to those traditional
in the ancient world (mostly war booty).
good places to grow sugar cane, needed a large workforce to do so, and the islands had few or no
indigenous people. They tapped into the existing supply of slaves within West Africa, an area
they had already partly explored and had obtained “legal” title to from the Pope.
The potential for sugar cane production in the Caribbean was already clear by the time of
Columbus’s second voyage, when he brought such plants to Hispaniola. As European diseases
devastated the populations of indigenous peoples in the Americas, it became a matter of
economic urgency to import Africans to cultivate and process the sugar cane. The first African
slaves arrived in the West Indies in 1512.21
The supply side for slaves developed in response to the growing demand. As a result, the nature
of slavery and enslavement changed radically in Africa, moving from an institution incidental to
warfare and not treating slaves as non-human chattel towards a large scale of “recruitment” raids
and an economically important enterprise in a commodity just like the gold and ivory that had
long been traded.
There has been much debate about the political and economic conditions in West Africa that
permitted the wholesale deportation of so many West Africans into the TST.22 For our purposes
at this point, it is sufficient to note that it appears that most of the strong African empires had
been in the interior and the coast had generally been ruled by a large number of smaller
kingdoms which could be encouraged to prey on each other. In addition, political fragmentation
of the major interior empires in the 14th and 15th centuries was another coincidence that favored
the success of the Portuguese in developing a large scale slave trade.
More warfare and political fragmentation were encouraged by the provision of cannons and
firearms to those rulers willing to provide slaves. There was a feedback effect whereby the
greater supplying of slaves increased the supply of armaments which further increased the
capacity for warfare to expand the supply of slaves. Those who did not agree to supply slaves
faced the high likelihood that they would be attacked and enslaved by those who did. Over time,
the supply system became quite highly developed, mixing three major sources, war booty, results
of kidnapping raids, and selling of criminal prisoners, but apparently was stressed to the utmost
when the slave export business went into high gear after 1700.
In fact, the 16th and 17th century Portuguese slave trade (the Spanish had to work through
Portuguese traders because Portugal had been granted dominion over Africa in the Treaty of
Tordesillas in 1494) was on a much smaller scale than the 18th and 19th century trade. By the best
estimates available (but considered conservative), out of a total of 10-12 million Africans
enslaved and exported over 350 years, only about 14% were exported in the first 180 years (i.e.,
before 1700), at an average annual rate of about 8,000 a year. In contrast, the average annual
rate from 1750 to 1800 was almost ten times, at 75,000 a year.
All of this was further encouraged by the Catholic Church, which endorsed slavery as a step towards the
conversion of the heathen Africans.
An extensive and balanced discussion can be found in Beckles.
In these peak years, the TST was a major European economic enterprise involving traders from
almost all major powers.23 Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Danish, Swedish,
Norwegian, German and American slave merchants were participating. Major private sector
joint stock companies were set up in England, Holland, and Scandinavia to exploit it. Over the
350 years, the single largest player was Portugal (about 46%), both because it had the initial
monopoly on the supply in Africa and because its colony in Brazil took the largest number of
slaves (about 38%). But Britain had the largest market share from 1700 to 1800, 41%, partly
aided by their superior manufacture of trade goods at the time.
Relatively few of the early slave “cargos” were destined for North America, which was seeing a
boom in tobacco and rice cultivation. Cumulatively over the 350 years, the data suggests that, in
addition to Brazil with 38%, the British and French Caribbean each took 17%, Spanish American
in total used another 17%, and the much smaller Dutch, Danish and Swedish colonies received
6% in total. The British colonies that became the United States took a mere 6% of the total
Much more can be said about the TST, and the interested reader is directed to the overview by
Beckles.25 But what may be most pertinent to our task here is to note the psychological and
social trauma associated with the TST.26
At the societal level, there was social and political instability and insecurity among large portions
of the population in Africa. At the individual’s level, there was the trauma associated with
capture and enslavement in Africa, forced journey to the coast and other departure points,
“storage and packaging" for shipment, the transatlantic crossing (usually between 50 and 70 days
under horrific conditions), sale and dispersion in the Americas, and finally seasoning/acclimation
in their final destination. The whole process might take over 6 months, during which time it is
likely that 20% or more of a cohort of captives would have died from the stress and
maltreatment. In addition, of the 80% that might make the transition, it appears that 10-15% of
them died within 2 years of arrival.
The survivors must have been deeply scarred by this experience. Moreover, although
presumably the fittest were most likely to survive, a striking aspect of the slave trade was that,
over time, much of it became an attempt to maintain the same working population in the
The trade itself involved large sums of capital to build and outfit the ships, provide for trade goods (about twothirds of the total cost), and purchase insurance against loss of the ship and cargos (at a 10-20% premium), all for an
expected return on investment of about 15%. An interesting side note is that about half the value of the goods used
to pay for the slaves was for fine textiles, much of which was being imported into Europe from Asia, primarily
India. It is a bit humbling to realize the extent of globalization of trade even in the 18 th century.
Beckles, p. 95. These numbers simply reflect the locations of the underlying demand, not the nationality of the
traders. The great bulk of the slaves were utilized in Caribbean and Brazilian sugar cane production and processing,
with significant numbers also employed in mining, mostly in Brazil and Bolivia.
Her 272-page report is well-structured and well-written and can be downloaded at
As Beckles says, “African enslavement in the Americas cannot be seen simply as an extension of Old World
practices; rather, the experience of the Middle Passage alone meant that New World slavery was a break with
tradition, ushering in an hitherto unimaginable level of human degradation. Furthermore, the Middle Passage was
far more than being simply a transatlantic journey for millions of enslaved Africans; on the contrary, it was also a
symbol of the social divisions that came to separate the peoples of Africa and Europe. ” (p. 105)
Americas. The actual numbers of slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil barely rose during the 18th
century, despite the rapidly rising influx of additional slaves. Beckles observes that “Unbalanced
sex ratios in the islands, the debilitating impact of sugar-plantation work on the black female
population and an inability to reproduce under such conditions, resulted in low birth rates and
high infant-mortality rates, which meant negative population growth on most of the Caribbean
The use of slaves in the TST was also quite different from earlier contexts. The great majority of
those taken to the Caribbean and Latin America worked on large plantations under very
physically, psychologically, and socially difficult conditions. Earlier slavery had meant loss of
personal freedoms, but even the galley slaves of olden days had many “days off” from severe
work. It appears that slaves on large sugar plantations were seen as simply a production input to
be used up and replaced.27
With this observation, we turn to the experience of slavery in the North American colonies and
the United States before the Civil War.
Slavery in America: pre-1800
So much could be said about the experience of slavery in the US that one is hard pressed to know
where to start. Moreover, almost all of it would be subject to controversy, often heated.
Fortunately, for our purposes, we need to focus primarily only on those aspects that have strong
implications for black and white perceptions today of themselves and of the other. And I will
argue below that those perceptions are based more directly on the post-Civil War experience of
both groups. If so, the discussion of the colonial and antebellum eras can be kept relatively
Originally, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies. In the northern ones, it took the form that it
usually took in Britain, as household help and farm hands. Many such positions were also filled
by indentured persons drawn from the lower English classes, as well as Ireland and even
Germany, who bonded themselves to indentured servitude for a period of time to pay for their
transport to America.28 In this sense, “slavery” was not as racially based. In fact, there is
evidence that the early Africans in Virginia were considered to be only indentured also.
The transformation from indentured servitude to racial slavery happened gradually. And the
progression of slavery differed greatly between the various colonies. Notably, none of the
colonies had outlawed it before the Revolution, but Pennsylvania and all of New England did so
in the 1780s, followed by New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804. This could be credited to
the efforts of abolitionists, but their appearance and their success probably were more directly
Notably, only in the southern portion of what later became the United States was the black slave population ever
able to reproduce itself during the 18th century.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, approximately 85 percent of the white population was of English, Irish,
Welsh, and Scottish descent. People of German origin represented 8.8 percent of the white population, and those of
Dutch origin represented 3.5 percent of the colonists. It is estimated that as much as half of the original immigrants
came as indentured servants.
related to the absence of the plantation system of farming, that required large number of workers
doing very strenuous labor. In contrast, all of the colonies (and later states) south of
Pennsylvania, where farming was mostly on a broad coastal plain, were heavily engaged in such
agriculture (and, not coincidentally, not experiencing much abolitionist sentiment).29
Virginia colony, although established in 1607, only thrived after the cultivation of tobacco
started to bring prosperity. Tobacco was an ideal plantation crop, and slaves soon became the
main source of plantation labor. There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia's
history. But in 1662 Virginia passed a law stating that any children of an enslaved mother would
follow her status and automatically be slaves, no matter if the father was a freeborn Englishman.
This institutionalized the power relationships and confined the possible scandal of mixed-race
children to within the slave quarters. The Virginia Slave codes of 1705 further defined as slaves
those people imported from nations that were not Christian, as well as Native Americans who
were sold to colonists by other Native Americans.
Maryland and Delaware had similar tobacco-based economies. The other southern colonies got
started later than these, and most also specialized in plantation crops.
The Carolinas were first organized when migrants to Virginia and their descendants no longer
had access to bounteous vacant land. Originally granted as private property to some wealthy
British aristocrats in 1663, they were divided into North and South Carolina in 1712 and
eventually converted into normal colonies in 1729. Development was slow (partly because of
some devastating Indian wars), but as it progressed in the 18th century, African slaves became
ever more important as the flow of indentured workers from Europe slowed with rising
prosperity there.
The last of the original 13 colonies, Georgia, was not even created until 1733. The colony's
corporate charter was granted to James Oglethorpe (and other British philanthropists) to create a
colony for debtors. Oglethorpe envisioned the province as a location for the resettlement of "the
worthy poor,” with a population of "sturdy farmers" that could guard the border with Spanish
Florida. Because of this, the colony's charter prohibited slavery, a provision that the migrants to
Georgia managed to overturn in 1750.
Within the context of both colonization and slavery, the southern British colonies were relatively
late to the scene. Partly because of this, as noted, they received no more than 6% of the flow of
enslaved Africans, less than 700,000, through the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s.30 As
of 1800, the Census counted 1.1 million blacks or about 20% of the total US population, 900,000
of whom (17% of total population) were slaves (and revealing that 20% of the black population
was “free” at that time).
A good indication of how little the northern colonies relied on slave labor is that the census of 1790 showed that
the number of African-Americans in Pennsylvania, the southernmost non-slave state, was about 10,000 (only about
3,700 of whom were still slaves) out of a total of 434,000 residents..
The British, the dominant naval force at the time, forbad the slave trade as of 1807 and the US Congress banned
their importation in 1808 (though Americans could participate in the triangular trade). The Portuguese picked up
from the British and maintained a high volume of slaves destined for Brazil and parts of the Caribbean. Illicit
trading into the US went on, but there does not seem to be much data on the volume.
Almost all of these slaves lived in the southern states, primarily Virginia, North Carolina, and
South Carolina. Overall, they made up 34% of the South’s population. In other words, about
one out of three residents of the 7 Southern states as of 1800 were black slaves. As of 1800, it
may have been just barely conceivable that, under some circumstances (e.g., a decline in
plantation agriculture and continuing restrictions on access to voting), the white populations of
these states might have countenanced the gradual ending of slavery. But the events of the next
50 years were to make such a possibility ever more unlikely.
Slavery in America: 1800-1860
The economics of plantation agriculture were shifting in the early 1800s. The expansion of the
British textile industry and the invention of the cotton gin (1793) created an enormous market for
cotton production. This required not only large contingents of field workers in oppressively
tropical conditions, but new land more fertile than that decimated by years of tobacco production
in the original southern states.
The result was a massive movement westward and southward of settlers and slaves out of the
older tobacco-growing states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) and into the new areas of
Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. To make a long story short, the end result was an
enormous growth in the economic and political attractiveness of slavery from 1800 to 1860.
This can be seen in the results of the Census of 1860 (all in thousands).31
(New states)
% Slave
US TOTAL: 31,443
These are critical numbers for understanding the solidification of political and social attitudes
towards slavery in the southern region from 1800 to 1860, and also how this situation may have
differed from that in the Caribbean slave-based colonies. With the boom in cotton, the economy
of the South became even more slave-dependent, with 43% of the population of the newer (and
cotton-oriented) Southern states being slaves. This meant that any move towards abolishing
slavery, much less providing for voting rights to the former slaves, would greatly alter the social
and political power structures. While abolition might be a satisfying moral position in the
(slaveless) North, and possibly debatable in the border states of Maryland and Virginia, it was a
matter of huge consequence to the white populations in the “Deep South.”
Thus, these white populations had a very large incentive to keep the black population enslaved.
Not only can it be argued (but remains controversial) that this was important to their economic
prosperity, but most strata of white society, including small holder famers and artisans of all
types, as well the slave-owners and political elites, would have been greatly impacted by
abolition. If the emancipated slaves were ever allowed to vote, they could easily become the
dominant political power in many areas (something almost inconceivable for those deeply
imbued with the tenet of black inferiority, as most whites, North and South, accepted ). Even if
voting prerequisites (e.g., land ownership) were imposed and the power of white political elites
endured, the shifts in economic relations would threaten the status of the large white working and
small-farmer classes.
In all these respects, the southern US was different from the slave-dependent Caribbean sugar
cane growing colonies. As of late 18th century, the population of the British Caribbean colonies
was over 90% slave. These colonies operated more as off-shore production areas for the
European motherlands than as fully outfitted independent societies. 32 Ownership of the
plantations was often with absentee landlords in Europe, and most of the local white populations
were managers associated with the plantations. When Britain decided to abolish slavery in such
places in 1834, there was not great upheaval. The slave population became a peasantry and a
skilled artisan class, but did not immediately challenge the social structure (the whites being
mostly very much above such groups) nor the political structure (since most political power
remained with Britain until independence in the 20th century).
From this point of view, the US Civil War was inevitable. Indeed, it seems that many people
thought as much throughout the period. The slavery question dogged US politics from the
For example, when slavery was abolished in Jamaica 1834, the population was 4% white, 1.0% free black, and 95
% black or mixed race slaves.
Constitutional Convention onward. Enormous efforts were devoted to maintaining a balance of
political power in the Senate as new states were added (the balance in the House of
Representatives continuously drifted towards anti-slavery forces as the North boomed with
industrialization and Irish immigration). But world opinion was continuously turning against
slavery, first through prohibitions on the Transatlantic Slave Trade (including by the US in 1808)
and then emancipation, first in the British and French colonies and then in the Spanish colonies
as they achieved independence. The only major slave society to hold out much later than 1860
was Brazil (1888).
It is a fascinating counterfactual to wonder what might have happened if Southern white society
had accepted the inevitable and organized to voluntarily emancipate their slaves. The author’s
guess is that the result would have been just what indeed did happen in these states after the end
of Reconstruction. In other words, the white population would have systematically obstructed
the political enfranchisement of the blacks and otherwise successfully maintained the existing
social and economic status quo, perhaps even more effectively than it did, since it could have
maintained the threat to secede if the Congress meddled too much in these matters.
But as it was, the South did not seem to “see the writing on the wall” and instead revolted against
central authority, primarily in order to maintain their autonomy in this area. There are arguments
to be made that Southern political powers saw the rising power of the industrializing north as
inimical in many ways other than just slavery. Perhaps slavery was just the most prominent and
easy to articulate among many. In any case, effectively the path to war was started the moment
that Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in a four-way contest, where he was the candidate
supported by all of the most Northern and industrial states.
Secession from the Union was initiated almost immediately by the seven states with the highest
share of slaves, averaging 48% of their populations. Clearly, the Deep South states did not see
any future without maintaining full discretion on how they managed their slave-based societies.
Then the more borderline states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas had to
choose sides when hostilities started in earnest, and all voted to defend their regional autonomy.
Reconstruction: 1863-1877
The inevitable result, the formal end of a totally bifurcated society, arrived in some border areas
as soon as they were subdued by Union forces. Lincoln had started a process of what was called
“reconstruction” in these places before his assassination in April 1865, but almost all of the
important details of the legal and formal process of reconstruction were still hotly debated
throughout the term of his successor, Andrew Johnson.
These issues included:33
What rights and protections were to be recognized and guaranteed to the former slaves (now
called Freedmen), recognizing that before the war, none of the free blacks living anywhere had
See for a concise summary of many of the issues
and events of the Reconstruction era. This discussion is based on this material.
even been recognized as US citizens? What rights, practically speaking, would the Freedmen
have? How could violence and intimidation be prevented? Would ex-slaves hold local and state
office, where black majorities existed, perhaps even when they had almost no formal education
or sophistication?
One of the most pressing problems was the question of what work would be available to former
slaves and on what terms. Much of the South was devastated, with no public schools to speak of,
with little or no social infrastructure, and where the only employment was agriculture. There
was much debate about redistribution of the lands of the planters. Sharecropping and tenancy
were in fact first introduced by the Freedmen’s Bureau as an emergency structure. But they took
hold and land redistribution never did occur on any significant scale. The Freedmen became a
class of often-indebted disenfranchised peasants, much as the former slaves in the Caribbean.
The 14 years of Reconstruction saw the beginnings of a black political class and greater black
land ownership and economic power. Efforts were made to institute the linchpin of black social
and economic progress, a system of free public education. But white society was organizing to
defeat these moves and soon after the end of Reconstruction, most southern states experienced
something similar to what might have been if there had been voluntary abolition instead of the
Civil War.
A striking irony was that, by accepting the 15th Amendment, which granted black men the vote
as well as counting all slaves fully in apportioning power in the House of Representatives
(previously, slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person), the Southern states strengthened their
power at the Federal level. Their increased voting power, combined with the imposition of
restrictions on the effective access to voting by blacks (and many poor whites as well, also
impacted by literacy and other requirements) meant that the Southern white elites gained the
ability to squash any efforts in Congress to give teeth to the 15th Amendment.34 The Supreme
Court, perhaps as a reflection of the general racism of the times, also failed to defend those
At a more local and practical level, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan immediately after the war meant
that social relations between whites and blacks continued to be based on subordination and
intimidation. Not only were many violent acts committed against any blacks who overstepped
the conventional border of black-white relationships, as well as against Northern interlopers
(“carpetbaggers”) or Southerners who sided with the Northern perspective (“scalawags”), but
white control of the criminal justice system meant that legal redress was improbable at best. The
presence of Federal troops provided some protection, physical and political, but that ended with
the withdrawal of the troops by Rutherford Hayes that was part of the deal that gave him the
Presidency following the highly disputed election of 1876.
Jim Crow: American Apartheid
These forces also created a group of Southern Senators and Congressmen who were consistently re-elected and
used their longevity to gain control of many key committees in Congress. Their power as a bloc is difficult to
Even before the Federal troops were gone, white society in the South had set about socially and
economically repressing the black population. This effort involved social sanctions and physical
intimidation, but was also codified in the form of legislation generally referred to as Jim Crow
laws.35 These drastically reduced access by blacks to the vote (usually through a combination of
poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, white-only primaries), thereby installing the
white elites back into power. The elites further consolidated control as these same laws often
disenfranchised poorer whites as well (although some places provided exceptions for the
descendants of those eligible to vote before 1865).
With political and economic control back in the hands of the white elite, the prospects for
advancement of the children of former slaves were severely curtailed. In the 100 years from the
Civil War until Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were abolished in the 1960s, four
generations of slave descendants were systematically denigrated and undereducated in the South.
Public education for black children became notoriously under-funded36 and opportunities to learn
or exercise management skills were minimal. These institutionalized limitations on black
economic prosperity and political influence strongly reinforced stereotypes of racial inferiority
(among blacks as well as whites) through everyday experience of their relative ignorance and
All of these trends were exacerbated in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v.
Ferguson. The Plessy decision highlights all of the legal and social developments swirling
around the full acceptance of African-Americans into the mosaic of predominantly European
ancestries. The 14th Amendment, which assured “equal protection of the laws,” had been
enacted in 1868 (while the Southern states remained under “reconstruction”) partly in reaction to
Southern states creating laws putting onerous restrictions on the freedmen. However, it was
significantly neutered when the Supreme Court determined in 1886 that it applied only to
governments and not to private individuals, who were thus free to discriminate by race.
Subsequent to that, there evolved the idea that even governments could discriminate as long as
treatment was “separate but equal.”
Plessy was a direct attack on this premise. Homer Plessy was a light-skinned man of mixed
parentage who was supported in an arranged act of civil disobedience in 1892 by a group of
leading black and mixed-race elites in New Orleans, primarily descendants of freemen from
before the Civil War. They were confronting a Louisiana law that overtly adopted the “separate
but equal” approach to segregating rail transport. They expected the case would go to the US
Supreme Court and it did four years later, in 1896.
The Supreme Court voted 7-1 that governments did have the right to require separate but equal
treatment. This decision now provided a strong basis for even more explicit segregation laws
Wikipedia reports that “the phrase ‘Jim Crow’ has often been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow", a song-and-dance
caricature of African Americans performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in
1832. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" had become a pejorative expression meaning ‘African American’ by
1838, and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws.”
In some fairness, it should be noted that the differential in expenses was modest until fiscal stringency in the poor
economic conditions from 1890 onward encouraged cutbacks on black education to fund white education. The
argument appears to have been that the blacks were already getting more back in services than they paid in taxes.
and practices than had existed previously. Thus, 30 years after the Civil War, the second-class
citizenship of African-Americans, both of slave and free descent, was formalized.37
This stage in race relations in the US can simply be ascribed to white Southerners wanting to
defend their privileged position in their areas. But a more accurate reading must be that it
reflected the influence of scientific racism as described earlier. It appears that the majority of the
justices, as certainly the majority of Americans, accepted at this time that races were inherently
distinct (commonly believed to have evolved separately) and that requiring their social
integration was “unnatural.” It is from such a perspective that it is easy to understand why seven
justices, all but one from Northern states, found in favor of segregation. Although the lone
dissenter in the case, John Marshall Harlan, stated then that the laws must be “color-blind,” even
he denounced in a later case “the presence within our territory of large numbers of Chinese
laborers, of a distinct race and religion, remaining strangers in the land, residing apart by
themselves, tenaciously adhering to the customs and usage of their own country, unfamiliar with
our institutions and religion, and apparently incapable of assimilating with our people.”
Mid-way to Full Civil Rights: 1895-1910
Jim Crow laws dominated life in the South until invalidated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But
during that time, there were many significant events and trends that laid the road to social
emancipation. After the civil war, a large number of colleges were established to provide
(segregated) higher education for African-Americans (a few existed in the North prior to the
war). Many of the early schools were established by white Northerners to begin the process of
educating the freed slaves by training teachers for black schools.38 At the beginning, most such
colleges were run and largely staffed by whites, but gradually they became a place of opportunity
for some of the first and second generation of post-slavery black educated elite. Although these
schools produced many black teachers and leaders within the black community, they also
reinforced the segregation of blacks from mainstream white society, business and culture (not
that such segregation could have been avoided if the black colleges had not existed).
There are many other events that could be highlighted over this period of institutionalized
repression, but only a few will be noted here that may be useful for understanding the
contemporary situation. These include the dueling ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.
Du Bois and the Atlanta race riot. Following these came the Great Migrations of blacks out of
the South and eventually the success of the Civil Rights movement.
It is within the political context of Plessy that the debate between Booker T. Washington and
W.E.B. Du Bois must be understood. In a speech in Atlanta in 1895, while Plessy was heading
towards the Supreme Court, Washington, born a slave in 1856 but now head of the Tuskegee
Notably, the court held that “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the
assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this
be so, it is …solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." It took three generations
before this perspective was reversed.
A surge in such colleges came when Congress determined in 1891 that states that excluded blacks from the “landgrant” schools must set up “separate but equal” colleges for blacks.
Institute, articulated the view that “in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the
fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He basically accepted
social segregation as a given (at least for the moment) while strongly arguing for acceptance of
blacks as productive members of society, indeed for much increased support for the development
of their productive capacities.39 He implied that blacks want to and should earn their acceptance,
not just demand it as a given of citizenship or as humans.
For the next 20 years, Washington was a major figure in the country, the main interlocutor
between Northern whites and Southern blacks, especially the upwardly mobile educated and
business classes. In this role, he had access to national leaders in politics, philanthropy and
education. He encouraged and facilitated the support of wealthy philanthropists, which helped
raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of
higher education for blacks throughout the South. He also favored vocational over liberal
education for blacks, as providing the best first stepping stone towards economic strength.
However, this view was challenged by W.E.B. Du Bois starting in 1903, with the publication of
his book, Souls of Black People. Du Bois, the son of mixed-race, free-born parents and mostly
raised in a white community, strongly rejected a second-class social status for blacks. A brilliant
and prolific academic, he spoke for an emerging black elite who sought to overturn directly the
racism of the day. In 1909, he was one of the founders of the NAACP and remained active for
the next 50 years in many efforts to assure civil rights and other social justice issues.40 His
perspective of changing the system is usually contrasted with that of Washington’s, which is
portrayed as changing the people organically. Du Bois also strongly favored liberal arts over
vocational education.
As of 1900, Washington’s approach was dominant, with accommodation of segregation and
second-class services in the South, significant philanthropic Northern support and some steady
progress in developing the basic skill sets of the traditionally poorly- educated black population.
After 1910, however, Du Bois’ approach eventually became dominant, with the ascendancy of
many civil-rights activist groups, such as the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and their eventual success
in the form of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However,
it still rankles some blacks today that a group such as the NAACP, largely founded by white
liberals and long funded and governed primarily by white Jews, played such a dominant role in
these events, rather than blacks themselves being the primary drivers of their own selfimprovement.41
The Atlanta race riot in September 1906 was an important background for Du Bois’ success. It
was just one of many such riots during this period, some centered around labor strife, some
between immigrant ethnicities, but many focused on continuing white-black friction. The
Atlanta riot was significant because that city had been relatively successful in promoting
cooperation between the races and in the development of a coalition of interests between lowerOne line reads…. “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the
opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.”
He was also controversial for being a life-long Communist, of the old-school which saw Communism as a route to
greater social justice.
See for such a perspective.
income workers, whether white or black, that made more practical sense than the racial politics
that kept the white elites in power. Indeed, it appears that a source of the racial tension was the
relative growth of social and economic power of the black population in Atlanta, especially the
black elites.
The riot was triggered by a steady stream of sensationalist reporting of alleged black-on-white
crimes by local newspapers whose principals were seeking the governorship and campaigned on
the position of fighting against black political power. It lasted 3 days and resulted in up to 40
deaths. Most importantly, it confirmed both the fears of working class whites about blacks and
of black elites about being associated with poor blacks, and moved the attitudes of the black
elites towards Du Bois’ perspective. Although Atlanta continued to be a Southern city with
greater opportunities for black advancement, black elites apparently shifted towards solidarity
with white elites and black lower classes were further physically segregated and suppressed.42
The Great Migrations: 1910-1930, 1940-1970
Up until 1910, about 90% of the 10 million African-Americans lived in the former slave-owning
states, about the same proportion as at the end of the Civil War. Yet these were the home of
stringent Jim Crow laws and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks, as well as of greater threat
of physical violence against blacks. The 10% who lived in the North experienced the general
racism of the period, but also had greater opportunity for skilled work, public education, and
political influence. In the 45 years since the end of the war, this situation had not changed. But
starting in 1910, there were two waves of migration outward from the South, in total dropping
the share of the black population located in the South to 53% sixty years later, in 1970.
The first wave accelerated after 1915, as World War I both created greater demand for industrial
labor in the North and cut off the flow of European immigrants (which had averaged almost
900,000 per year from 1910-1914, an incredible 1% of the US population annually). Agents for
Northern companies actively recruited in many areas, offering “free” rail tickets to be repaid
later out of wages. The major metropolises of the time, including New York, Chicago, Detroit,
and Cleveland, drew the largest numbers. The flow was further encouraged by the emergence of
the boll weevil as a scourge of cotton-growing sharecroppers in the 1920s.
Coming so soon after the massive inflows of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, this
migration met stiff resistance in the neighborhoods and industries where foreign immigrants
competed with these domestic immigrants. The blacks were also usually coming from rural
backgrounds with minimal education and little acclimation to big city life. This fertile
environment for racial conflict brought forth a second flowering of the Ku Klux Klan between
1915 and 1925, this time primarily in areas of recent in-migration of blacks, such as Texas and
Although black migrants did not necessarily raise their economic and social standing when
moving from Southern shacks to Northern slums, they did start to become more visible in the
national culture, both with each other and in white culture. The black presence in mainstream
American music had already been firmly established when Scott Joplin burst onto the musical
scene in 1899 with the Maple Leaf Rag, and it was now reinforced by the ascendancy of jazz in
the 1920s, and by literary output from the Harlem Renaissance.
From 1910 to 1930, the share of all US blacks living outside of the Southern region almost
doubled from 11% to 21%, implying that 1.4 million more lived outside the South, primarily in
big cities, than if the regional patterns had not changed. Blacks had become a visible and
politically significant group throughout the country, on par with the large scale migrant groups
(Irish, Italians, Germans). Moreover, while they often experienced extensive discrimination
wherever they went, most of these migrants were now free of the strongly repressive Jim Crow
environment of the South and freer to expand their educational and political horizons.
This pace of migration paused during the Depression, as the share living outside the South crept
up only by 2% to 23% in 1940. But popular culture gradually let go of its embrace of scientific
racism (and its close relative, eugenics) and the prospects for securing greater civil rights through
the courts or the vote were getting stronger. In the face of continuing segregation in the Armed
Forces, including generally restricting blacks to only service roles, blacks became an important
source of both industrial labor and office workers during the war, especially in public services.
This contributed to another big outmigration from the South, raising the share of blacks living
outside of the South presence by 9% to 32% in 1950.
Despite the exigencies of war time, Roosevelt could not push de-segregation and civil rights
because he was too dependent on the Southern Democrats, who held so much power in
Congress.43 However, the war and the migrations gave greater momentum to softening the
acceptability of institutionalized racism. The need to demonize Hitler’s extreme racism made
American hypocrisy in the area that much clearer. Scientific racism faded away from popular
consciousness. The experience of blacks away from the rigid and demeaning social environment
of the South gave them new grounds for presumptions of full equality. 44
These laid the ground for Truman’s Executive Order in 1948 banning racial discrimination in
civil service employment and in the Army. As importantly, social norms were being transformed
in non-legalistic ways, such as with Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers and prejudice against
Jews (and, by implication, blacks) being vilified by Gregory Peck in the movie, Gentleman’s
Agreement, both in 1947. Ultimately, these trends played out when the Supreme Court
unanimously condemned racial segregation in public education in Brown v. Board of Education
in 1954 (see below).
The pace of outmigration from the South stayed high from 1950 through 1970, when the share of
blacks living outside of the South peaked at 47%. But two important shifts took place during
those last 20 years. First, blacks joined in the general migration towards the West, especially
Some cracks started to appear in the façade of segregation, however. The Tuskegee airmen served with
distinction and black nurses were sent to care for white servicemen, despite pushback from those with
segregationist perspectives.
The hopeful conclusion of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma was that, as of 1942, “Not since
Reconstruction has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in American race relations…”
California. The share of the US black population living in the West jumped from 1% in 1950 to
8% in 1970. It was this last period of migration that brought San Diego its first substantial black
population and its first mainly black communities.
Second, the end of most Jim Crow practices (though not attitudes) and the rise of black electoral
power in the South brought a confidence to the blacks remaining in the South that there was a
future for them there. The Great Migration ended around 1970 as abruptly as it had started 60
years before.
Indeed, the battleground over racist practices had switched from the South to the North and
West. Residential and school segregation had come into sharp focus. It had first been
implemented by racial residential restrictions (i.e., city statutes declaring areas off-limits to black
settlement), but, after 1917, when the US Supreme Court declared these ordinances
unconstitutional, it was encouraged through racial restrictions embedded in individual deeds. A
typical covenant, including the one on the deed to the author’s home, reads in part: “. . .
hereafter no part of said property or any portion thereof shall be . . . occupied by any person not
of the Caucasian race, it being intended hereby to restrict the use of said property . . . against the
occupancy as owners or tenants of any portion of said property for resident or other purpose by
people of the Negro or Mongolian race.”
Basically, up until the late 1940s, the courts and the real estate institutions supported strict
residential segregation. In 1948, the US Supreme Court found that the covenants were legal, but
could not be enforced by governments, since that would contravene the 14th Amendment.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of other mechanisms enforcing residential segregation. FHA
mortgage insurance guidelines rated a neighborhood's suitability for insurance based on racial
composition and encouraged or mandated racial covenants as a condition for insurance. As late
as 1950, the National Association of Realtors code of ethics stated in part: “The realtor should
not be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood …members of any race or nationality or
any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the
neighborhood.” All involved knew what that meant.
It was at this time that race started to become confounded in the minds of white Northerners with
neighborhood decline, slums, and crime, as poor Southern black migrants moved into 19th
century housing being vacated by previous black migrants who moved into areas being vacated
by whites joining the post-war move to the suburbs. This shift led to the formation of the
contemporary black urban underclass, as will be discussed below.
The Quest for Civil Rights And Social Emancipation
Soon after WWII, there were a series of local court decisions requiring actions of school boards
to remedy gross inadequacies in black schools in the South. However, they were generally
ignored in practice by those boards. In addition, the Supreme Court had required graduate level
law education to be integrated on the grounds that segregated legal training was inherently
inferior due to intangible aspects of such education. But the Brown case was aimed directly at
segregation per se in all education.
And the Court chose to address it on those grounds, probably reluctantly. The Court first made
an extra effort to establish whether historical record on the adoption of the 14th Amendment in
1868 showed that it was intended to prohibit segregation in public education. In 1952, it asked
both sides to re-argue the case after researching that specific issue so that perhaps they could
decide the case on that point. In 1954, the Court concluded that the evidence either way was too
weak, but noted that this was probably because public education at the time was a rare thing in
the South in 1868.
Emphasizing that public education was today one of the main functions of state and local
governments, it concluded that the 14th Amendment did apply to it, and most importantly, that,
contrary to the perspective taken in Plessy, state-sponsored exclusion of blacks was inherently
inferior. It explicitly extended its earlier logic about the importance of intangible social factors
in education, stating that “To separate (children) from others of similar age and qualifications
solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community
that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
The Court did not overturn Plessy. As usual, it decided the case as narrowly as possible,
emphasizing that the 14th Amendment was aimed at state-provided services, and that education
was a major such service. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights
Act of 1965 that general discrimination and segregation based on race was prohibited, finally
truly overturning 100 years of judicially approved racial discrimination.
The last major piece of civil rights legislation was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which, as a
matter of law, finally made illegal all race-based practices. Of course, the actual behavior of real
estate professionals and institutions was not so easily changed, and subtler forms of
discrimination continued as long as there were preferences of whites not to live near blacks. We
will discuss later the current state of residential segregation.
But the effort to pass the Civil Rights Acts and the history of attempting to enforce both Brown
and the Civil Rights Acts reveals how unprepared most of the white population in the South, and
to a great extent also in the North, was to embrace a truly non-racial co-existence, despite the
century elapsed since slavery. It seems generally accepted that the passage of the Acts over
Southern Congressional resistance was due to the sympathy and shock brought forth by the
assassination of John Kennedy and the accession of a gifted politician and strong backer of Civil
Rights, Lyndon Johnson.45
Despite the continuation of race-based cultural undercurrents, black access to all facets of
American society has expanded steadily since the 1960s, with Congressional representation
going from 13 in 1969 to 41 in 2008, and the title of “first black” being applied to everything
Johnson had earlier maneuvered through a Civil Rights Act of 1957, a weak bill but the first such legislation since
Reconstruction. The Acts of 1964 and 1965 were much stronger. Such laws almost certainly would have passed
within another 10 years or so, but the power of the Southern Democrats, due to number and seniority, was such that
it was going to take great effort at any time. The seniority power only came to be diluted with the ending of the
strict seniority system in the House of Representatives in the mid-1970s and the increased contestation of
Congressional seats in the South in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act.
from CEOs to Miss America to President of the United States. For the first time since the start of
slavery in the US, blacks are mainstream in all parts of American society.
The Continuing Role of Race in America
The Black-White Racial Distinction Will Persist
The scientific discussion of race as a biological correlate and determinate of visible and invisible
features of an individual has come to a halt after a 200-year heyday in the 18th and 19th
centuries.46 Yet, even as the academics have debunked race as a useful genetic distinction, the
societies that have long embraced it as a social construct continue to do so.
Admittedly, there does seem to be a steady shift towards linking race back towards cultural
differences, as captured by notions of ethnicity, rather than genetics. In fact, race and ethnicity
seem to be compounded in the minds of many people. But they may also function quite
separately as long as there are distinctive differences in the appearances of population groups.
Presumably, identification by race or ethnicity is based on visible aspects of a person’s face,
language, and cultural practices. For example, a first generation Albanian or Afghan immigrant
to the US will usually be thought of as being of that race or ethnicity due to their accents and
cultural habits. But a third generation offspring, even if of “pure blood” descent, would probably
be perceived as simply a non-ethnic American, assuming lack of accent, general Caucasian
features, a mainstream education, and apparent adoption of American cultural norms. Only if
they still have a distinctive ethnic appearance (or perhaps a distinctive ethnic surname) would
they still be classified in the minds of others (and thus also more likely in their own minds) as a
different race or as having a distinctive “ethnic” aspect.
The unstated “elephant in the room” is that, if designation by race continues to be tied closely to
physical appearance, in the long run in the US it will probably tend towards applying primarily
to African-Americans. Descendants of other “races” tend to assimilate visually as well culturally
over time spent in the US.47
This can be seen from a few statistics. In the 2000 Census, Hispanic or Latino is not accepted as
a race, only an ethnicity.48 The non-black “races,” namely Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native
Americans, only added up to 5% of the population, and many of them will “blend in” with the
In 1950, soon after the end of WWII, a panel of scientists and others, writing for the UN in “The Race Question”,
formally denounced and debunked “scientific racism” and promoted the use of the term “ethnicity” to capture
differences across groups.
Some readers may resist this perspective, thinking that skin color visual cues of “us” and “them” are less
important than other aspects of experience and the stereotyping that naturally occurs based on it. But the evidence is
that very young children make such “tribal” distinctions and are sensitive as to which “tribe” they belong to. As
long as people can easily label others according to black or white (and the claim here is that almost all other “racial”
groups, even the current “browns,” will tend towards being seen as “white” over time), blacks will suffer some
disadvantage simply by being viewed as of another “tribe” in many contexts by the broadly defined “whites.”
Despite this, about 40% of Hispanics put themselves down as “other” in the racial category, an indication of their
self-perception as not being “white.”
“white” community over time. Not only do some groups of Asians (especially Indians) start to
“look more European” (at least Southern European) when fully assimilated culturally, but
intermarriage rates with “Whites” among Asians and Native Americans are much higher than for
For example, a 1998 Washington Post report found that, among married couples, 36% of Asian
or Pacific men born in the United States were married to white women and 45% of U.S.-born
Asian or Pacific women had white husbands, and a majority of Native Americans marry
“Whites”.49 In contrast, only 5% of African-Americans were married to a white partner in 2006.
As important, many, if not most, children of black/white marriages will be socially classified as
The pattern and trend for Hispanics is even more important for the future of racial identities.
Among all newlyweds in 2008, US-born Hispanics were far more likely to marry a non-Hispanic
than foreign-born Hispanics: 41% of US-born Hispanic men out-married compared to 11% of
foreign-born Hispanic men; 37% of US-born Hispanic women out-married compared to 12% of
foreign-born Hispanic women. (Foreign-born excludes immigrants who arrived married.)51
Hispanics have another advantage over blacks and also Native Americans. The latter grow up
aware of a history of wariness if not antagonism between their “group” and the white majority.
This will tend to subtly color their interactions with whites, as well as vice-versa. This comes
across in some situations as a “chip-on-the-shoulder” attitude or at least a certain awkwardness.
Second generation Hispanics may feel that they fall outside of “white society” but do not have a
long history of tensions.52 (However, first generation Hispanics, whether documented or not,
will feel the modern anxiety about immigration.)
If racial designations continue to come with baggage related to 19th century stereotypes with
respect to intelligence, athletic abilities, and other physiological characteristics as well as moral
and cultural norms such as work ethic, honesty, and so on, there will continue to be a racial
stereotyping burden primarily only for African-Americans.53 And racial stereotyping may be
much more insidious than ethnic stereotyping. 54 Ethnic stereotyping can be mitigated by
“Interracial Marriages Eroding Barriers,” by Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post, December 28, 1998; Page A1. Racial identification among these groups will probably evaporate over time, much as ethnic distinctions in the
white population have. The same article states that the 1990 Census found only 20% of white marriages were
between same ethnicity partners.
Fryer, Jr., Roland G. (Spring 2007). "Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner? Trends in Interracial Marriage over
the 20th Century," Journal of Economic Perspectives 21 (2): 71–90. There can be no better illustration of this
situation that Barack Obama is always described as being black, despite his 50% white parentage and mostly white
middle-class acculturation. Also see on how whites tend to react to inter-racial children.
Indeed as the societal dominance of European-white descendants decreases, blacks may find that this tension
subsides if the “brown” population is not felt to be the scions of the historical oppressors.
A simple example should suffice to show the power of racial stereotyping. Common parlance seems to ascribe
the documented academic superiority of Asian-American students to cultural differences, while some will readily
believe that documented inferior performance of African-American students is due to “racial” differences.
A recent academic book on ethnicity is even more pessimistic on this score. “ Nonracial antagonisms are
potentially curable….But racism is not a transient thing. Its superficial symptoms may be papered over, yet its
observing the presence or absence of the supposed ethnic habits, appearance, or norms in an
individual and perhaps the group as a whole as they assimilate. Racial stereotyping in the sense
of intrinsic differences cannot be as easily counteracted since it assumes that each person of that
race carries with them the tendencies of that race and that they will tend to persist in the face of
cultural assimilation.55
A Thought Experiment
Having said that, the author perceives that the burden of such stereotyping based on facial and
other bodily characteristics is receding from earlier levels. A subtle thought experiment may be
useful for separating out the burden of stereotyping from the broader burden of the past treatment
of blacks in America.
The question is: How badly would you want your appearance to change so that you were treated
as someone from a different racial or ethnic group? The subtle part is that the assumption is that
you yourself, with all your background and current status, all your baggage, good and bad, would
stay the same. Just the labeling would change. Instead of being Jewish (if you are identifiably
Jewish in name or features), would you prefer to look Hispanic and have the name of Gonzales
(but you would not suddenly be good at Spanish)? Or, more relevantly, if your features were
such that you were usually identified as “black” or African-American, would you strongly prefer
to have the visage of a generic European-American?
Another subtle part of the question is that it is trying to abstract from issues of “beauty.” Many
Jewish women get “nose jobs” not because of trying to look more “goyish” but to adhere more
closely to societal norms for beauty. Similarly many black women (and perhaps some men)
would prefer to have lighter skin not in order to “pass” as white but because lighter skin black
women seem to considered more beautiful (or are they just presumed to be of higher status?)
than those with darker skin. The same can be said about straightened hair among black women.
These cosmetic preferences need not be based on preferences or dis-preferences for racial
It seems likely to the author that, in 1850, most, if not almost all, black slaves would have chosen
to cloak themselves in a European skin, because it would have allowed them to go on their way
as free people. It even seems likely that nearly as large a share of free blacks would have made
the choice to look English instead of African (although by assumption still as poor and
uneducated as before). The point is that they would likely get better treatment in almost all
social and business circumstances (but not that much better; they would still not be able to vote if
essence penetrates so deeply into conscious and subconscious thought…that prospects for eradication are remote.”
From pp. 10-11, Wilbur Zelinsky, The Enigma of Ethnicity, University of Iowa Press, 2001. He notes that racism
became entrenched over 300 years, and will take a long while to be erased. My point is that, within the US, it gets
weakened rapidly for those who have few visible identifiers of a “non-white” “race,” but not so for those who are
quite evidently members of such other “races.”
An interesting exception to the general condemnation of racial stereotyping is the tendency among bi-racial
children or cross-racial adoptees to seek some knowledge of and identification with the culture of their
“appearance,” not willing to settle for the culture of their upbringing. This seems to apply just as much to Korean
and Chinese children adopted by white Americans as it did to Barack Obama.
they didn’t own land and they may still be treated poorly if they were not dressed and educated
to look and sound respectable).
Hopefully the share of blacks who would have a strong preference for such a change in racial
identity dropped after the end of slavery, but once Jim Crow practice came to full force in the
South, it seems likely that a good majority would have once again jumped at the chance to be
treated as “white”. The Great Migrations of blacks out of the South in the 20th century reveal
just how badly many blacks wanted to escape the burden of Jim Crow.
Would that still be the case today? My guess, from my white perspective, is that a majority of
black Americans feel that they personally would still be treated “better” by the non-black
portions of society if they were Caucasian looking. How heavy a burden such a situation is is
harder to know. If one voluntarily spends most of one’s non-work, non-shopping time in black
social, cultural, and recreational settings (and it seems likely that that is true for most blacks),
that part of one’s life is not burdened by race; indeed, it may be highly valued, since in this
thought experiment, one would retain all of the cultural proclivities of one’s original self, and
most blacks would miss many distinctive aspects of black culture if their new Caucasian looks
closed off some of those avenues.
The question seems to boil down to what that “better” treatment might entail today. Better
educational, housing, or job prospects, just for looking white? Fewer hassles from police?
Greater comfort when moving residence into white areas of town in order to seek better
amenities or schools?
There clearly remains a degree of racial animosity or suspicion of the black population among
the non-black populations (and vice-versa). Whether this is based on stereotypes or inherited
prejudices, there are some areas where Caucasian looks would help with one’s life activities.
How much? What seems likely is that the burden of race in this very narrow sense is much,
much less than it was even 50 years ago.56
Moreover, it seems to the author that this burden continues to decline over time. Talented
blacks, whether rich in personality or academic, athletic, or artistic skills, may already have
almost as much opportunity for advanced education at all levels, career advancement, and
political achievement as a white of exactly the same background (which usually implies that they
act culturally in a “white” way). In other words, their physiological racial characteristics are not
a major detriment to achievement and acceptance in the white world. Their burdens are probably
much more subtle than they had been, such as not being treated quite the same in the creation of
social and professional friendships and networks, perhaps due to a remaining sense of tribalistic
“us and them” that may permeate these structures.57
The recent case of Trayvon Martin epitomizes all of these aspects of race relations. He would not have been
killed if he had looked white, but the facts that his father was not excluded from the gated community and that the
general public was horrified that he was killed because of his race reflect the progress that has been made.
An excellent example of the complexities here is that informal networks are often fairly specific to a race or
gender, the “old boys” networks being the classic example. Blacks (or women or Chinese) have their own networks,
presumably fairly closed to whites (or men or non-Chinese), but these networks usually come with fewer valuable
connections that similar white (and male) networks (Chinese networks may actually be more valuable, since
If so, that would be a huge achievement, one that could be (but probably won’t be) celebrated by
blacks and whites. Careful analysis should now be made as to how to measure and minimize the
last elements of that burden. (It will likely never disappear, since blacks are an identifiable
“ethnic” group and social networking and stereotyping will continue to take such into account,
just as it does for Latinos, Vietnamese, Arabs, and others. The only way for the burden to
disappear entirely would be for blacks to gain the socially and economically dominant position, a
numerical impossibility .)
In any case, the purpose of this thought experiment is to separate the impact of race per se on the
life prospects of a black child from the impact of the cumulative effects of the history of race
relations on the social and economic circumstances in which the child starts out life. The
proposition (which many may disagree with) is that the burden of the past is today much, much
more serious than the burdens of residual racism.
The claim here is that the cumulative effects of US racial history are more harmful to a black
child born today than the burden of their racial appearance or identity.58 This simple statement
has huge implications for social policy. Many race-relation policies are built around the notion
that racial discrimination is what is keeping blacks “down.” If it is not so much discrimination or
racism today, but rather the burden of past discrimination (including what is called “institutional
racism”), then the policy prescriptions should emphasize various versions of reparation or
compensatory policies. This is a much more politically volatile topic.
Just what are some of the major disadvantages faced by black children? And which of those
“burdens” might be ascribed to events that happened 50-300 years ago? These are issues we turn
to later. Next, we look at IQ as a summary measure of the disadvantages.
Race and IQ: Cause or Effect of Poverty?
One simple but extremely controversial way of assessing these disadvantages is IQ.59 IQ tests
consistently find that average IQs of blacks are at a level significantly lower than the average for
whites. The numbers used in the infamous book, The Bell Curve, were that the average IQ of
African Americans was 85 and Whites was 103. This may seem like a small difference, but on a
bell curve distribution, it is quite large. An implication is that only 20% of blacks have an IQ
above the average for whites.
“connections” are more important in Chinese culture). So whiteness per se may be of significant value, even in a
society without any substantive racial discrimination but still social segmentation by race.
This perspective very much echoes that in the powerful and prescient report prepared for the Johnson
Administration in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” This
policy paper within the Department of Labor notes that, even after passage of the Civil Rights Acts, “Negroes will
encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation.” But the most important long-term issue is that
“three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people.”
A sampling of the controversies surrounding IQ is available on Wikipedia at, with just about every aspect of it and its uses commented on.
Does IQ matter for either economic success or personal “life success or satisfaction?” The
evidence is that IQ is strongly correlated with income and other measures of success, but hardly
totally determinate. IQ explains no more than 25% of the cross-individual levels of any such
measures of success. Still, that is huge, when one recognizes that this is before accounting for all
the aspects of personality or character or habits or family connections that have large influences
on “success.” For example, the average family income of those with IQ between 110 and 125
points was almost twice the income of those with IQ between 75 and 90.
IQ is also strongly correlated with many other aspects of “life success,” including educational
level, unemployment, criminal activity, and out-of-wedlock births. Basically, it seems to be
positively related to most of the indicia of relatively better-functioning living . To the extent that
blacks have systematically lower IQs, this can be viewed as an indicator of the significant
disadvantage they operate under relative to whites and a cause of the underclass status of so
many blacks.
But is socioeconomic status and familial dysfunction the cause of the lower IQs or the lower IQs
the cause of these shortfalls? Obviously, it is some of both. If a child comes from a family that
is dysfunctional in many ways, the child is likely to have a lower IQ (assuming, as is asserted
below, that measured IQ heavily involves learning, not just intrinsic capacities), which in turn
makes it more likely that the child will face a variety of disadvantages and dysfunctions. Many
other factors affect economic success and economic success is only a part of “life success,” but
having lower general intellectual capabilities will affect most of these other factors as well.
Presumably generally being “quicker” or “brighter” will make it easier to navigate through the
complexities of modern life.
So perhaps this gap in IQs can be taken as a summary indicator of the disadvantages facing a
black child. The next question, whether this disadvantage reflects the past and present
disadvantages in the social, physical, and economic environments of blacks or something more
intrinsic, such as racially-related genes, was the biggest flashpoint in the controversies
surrounding The Bell Curve. The authors raise this point and suggest that such genetics is part of
the story, although an indeterminate portion.
Without wading into the details of the debate, for the author, there is much prima facie evidence
that ethnic and racial differences in IQ are largely a result of past history and its impacts on
parental status and many other aspects of the social and cultural situation of a child. The key
evidence is the differences themselves in measured IQs of other ethnic groups, such as Latino
(90), Asian (106), and Jews (113). These all align with generally perceived cultural (not genetic)
tendencies in these groups, both towards emphasis on cognitive development and towards family
environments supportive of such development.60
It is possible that the causal route is the reverse, that some cultures evolved towards an emphasis on intellectual
achievement because of the higher innate IQ of the members, but that seems far-fetched. Instead, external forces
pushed the culture in such ways and the results of hundreds of years of “environmental” factors make Asian and
Jewish cultures relatively intellectually oriented, and leaves Latino (in the US) and African-American groups
relatively cognitively underdeveloped on average.
In other words, this general correlation between generally recognized norms of culture/nurture
and IQ suggests that IQ is not just a measure of abilities at birth. It almost certainly does not
measure only something that is innate (nature), completely separate from nurture. (Even in this
regard there are subtleties, since environmental factors such as pre-natal and early post-natal
nurturing might affect the expression of genes and thus the seeming innate capacities of a young
child or adult.) This view is supported by the long-term trend towards higher performance on IQ
tests, presumably as education and income rises over time.
At the same time, IQ measures probably do capture certain inherited, physiologically based traits
of individuals. High IQ parents are much more likely to have high IQ children. But if a
significant portion of IQ also reflects “nurture” and if “nurture” differs strongly between groups,
then average IQs will differ strongly across groups without any of that difference being due to
the inherited component. In other words, the black-white IQ differential can be fully explainable
by environmental/cultural/nurture differences if these are significant enough, without any
reference to some sort of genetic sources.61
Of course, the IQ tests themselves may be flawed because the questions are culture-biased.
Supposedly, great efforts have been made to remove culture bias in the formulation. Indeed, if
the theory is that they are biased towards European white cultural norms, then why do Asians
and Jews do so much better than non-Jewish whites? And why do women do as well as men,
despite men dominating the question writing process? In any case, it is just as likely that
whatever cultural norms that are embedded in IQ tests in fact do matter for effectiveness in an
environment where white cultural norms set the “rules.” Thus a deficit or advantage in measured
IQ may still be a strong predicate of “life success,” even if the measure is culture-biased.
Major Issues in Contemporary Race Relations
Given that black-white distinctions are not going to disappear soon, it is worth exploring the major
flashpoints in black-white relations in the US. The author sees these as including social and
residential integration, public school integration, and affirmative action.
Social and Residential Integration
Group differentiation is relative and contextual. Thus, the same person may be a Welshman
relative to an Englishman, a Britain relative to a Frenchman, and a European relative to an Asian.
Similarly, black Americans from the West Indies will distinguish themselves from Americanborn blacks but be grouped with them by most whites.
A good illustration of this is frequent claims that black men are disproportionately represented on pro basketball
teams for genetic reasons. But they are actually less likely to be over 6’3” tall than white men are. Environmental
factors such as inner city upbringing and limited tracking into non-athletic careers can be enough to explain the
difference, just as the traditions of academic ambitiousness and religion-related questioning and analysis among
Jews can explain their disproportionate presence as doctors and lawyers.
What is notable in the US is what distinctions enter in what contexts. In normal business
interchange today, the author perceives that little distinction is made as to the racial background
or clothing or gender or other identifiers in dealing with a retail customer or check-out clerk.
Most clerks and customers simply do not feel that these matter in the situation. This may even
be largely true today of most corporate business place interchanges. But in other situations,
these differences do matter.
One of those situations appears to be religion. Notably, ethnic-related churches are still
prevalent in the US. Whatever the reason, Sunday morning is probably the most racially and
ethnically segregated time of the week, not just as Martin Luther King meant it with respect to
race, but also by many less distinctive cultural differences. 62
The fact is that birds of a feather do flock together for some things and not others. What things?
Things that involve values and practices and communication styles, the heart of cultural
Where does community residence fit into this? Historically, blacks did not have much of a
choice with respect to the racial and ethnic composition of their residential neighborhood. They
were heavily segregated residentially, by many discriminatory practices. Presumably, that
mostly reflected the strong preferences of a majority of whites (or at least enough to drive the
practices) to not live in close proximity, as well as socioeconomic patterns rooted in
discrimination and educational disadvantages.
These practices were legally banned only in 1968, a little more than 40 years ago. Those
practices clearly did not disappear at that time, but today there does not seem to be anywhere
near the prevalence of a strong preference by whites to not live near blacks (at least those of a
similar or higher socioeconomic status). Even if such a preference persists among a significant
number of whites, there are fewer and weaker barriers to blacks moving into any specific
Residential integration is happening as the impact of past de jure segregation wanes, in the
gradual pattern that one might expect given past practices and the slow pace that neighborhoods
normally turn over. The 2010 Census shows a significant amount of dispersion of black families
into the general suburbs, continuing a trend that started in 1970 that has resulted in a large
cumulative reduction in the share of blacks living in highly concentrated black neighborhoods in
most metropolitan areas.63
This includes not only the strongly distinct strands of black vs. white churches in general, as well as the relatively
few explicitly ethnic churches (e.g., Korean, Polish) but also the “mainstream” sects. Anglican congregations tend
to be WASP, Lutheran churches are full of those of Scandinavian or German descent, and white (or black)
Southerners tend to go to Baptist churches.
For example, 92 of 100 large metro areas showed greater integration from 2000. Just 2 percent of the black
population growth in the last decade occurred in counties that have traditionally been black population centers, while
20 percent has occurred in counties where only a tiny fraction of the population had been black. See &emc=tha2. An interesting twist on the
“white flight” of the 1950s is the stresses caused by white gentrification of solidly black areas. In Washington DC,
this in-migration of gentrifying whites has just tipped the scales back to a white majority. See
The author would not expect this trend to continue to the point that blacks are distributed
randomly among whites, even just whites of similar socio-economic situations. There are the
obvious reasons, including any remaining discriminatory actions by real estate professionals,
blacks assuming that such a move will encounter significant “hassles,” even if not strong
barriers, or simply the desire for people of similar cultural norms to live near each other (see
below).64 There are at least two less obvious reasons.
One is that living in a predominantly black area may give a black greater access to or
representation by the local political establishment. For many reasons, politicians and even the
bureaucracy in black areas will much more likely be black and may be perceived to be more
responsive to black residents. If politics is not color-blind (and it clearly isn’t), concentration by
a racial or ethnic group may influence location preferences of both that group and other groups.
Another is that, due to the reality of differences in black cultural norms, or simply due to the
accumulation of experience in living in, say, a less desirable area, a black household may not
value quite as highly (monetarily) as a white household the “amenity” package that comes with,
say, a white suburban community (lower crime, better schools and recreational facilities). If that
is the case, they may not be willing to pay as high a premium for it, either in the form of house
price or property taxes. In strictly economic terms, if one group is more expert at dealing with
low amenity levels (e.g., hazards of inner-city living) or it values high amenity levels less than
another group, the first group will end up not wholly mixing with the second group.
In any case, there is much evidence of the change in attitudes. Whites have been moving into
many black inner-city areas in what is known as gentrification, and middle-class blacks are
moving into white suburban areas, often into ones close to or with large numbers of other blacks,
possibly to retain access to black cultural and political amenities. (A notable difference from the
1960s and 70s is that such movement is probably not viewed as a precursor of neighborhood
Does this residential integration matter? As far as reducing racial stereotyping and tensions,
residential integration must be a plus, especially to the extent that it also brings with it
integration in the classroom (i.e., the childhood environment). But it seems far from a
requirement, in a world where races and ethnicities freely mix in many other important contexts.
The goal of efforts to police against housing discrimination should be to ensure that past thinking
is eradicated and to maintain the sense of dignity and fairness between races. It should not be to
ensure that residential areas are integrated.
One noteworthy aspect of American life that is unlikely to fully integrate any time soon is the
social and cultural sphere. It is remarkable that, at almost any social or cultural event in San
It may be presumptuous on the author’s part, but he perceives that racial discrimination is low in the upper-middle
class areas but greater in the lower-middle socioeconomic groups and thus the risk of hassles with neighbors and
others for blacks in these latter housing strata might be severe enough to deter normal integration.
This could be ascribed to a decline in racism, but probably much more important is the fact that blacks moving
into white areas are no longer driven by the demographic pressures created by the Great Migration. In the 1920s
through 1960s, the inflow of Southern blacks was constantly pushing outward the perimeter of the black
Diego that we attend or are involved in, there are either no or very few blacks or, when it is more
of a “black” event, very few other whites. Blacks and white move in quite different social and
cultural spheres in our experience. Notably, the same can be said for most other groups not
assimilated into European culture, whether Latino, Chinese (whether from mainland or Taiwan),
Vietnamese, Chaldean, Filipino, Somali, or any other distinctive ethnic group. Indeed, most of
these same groups of recent immigrants tend to socialize almost exclusively with similar people.
Such a degree of social separation cannot be explained by residential patterns in San Diego.
Freeway access is so easy throughout large parts of the region that huge portions of the white
population and the black population are within 10-15 minute drive times of each other’s cultural
events. It can be partly due to different socioeconomic statuses, but the differences are not
always that large and there are many overlaps in the population groups involved.
The likely explanations are (1) the cultures are different enough that there is not much crossover
interest (e.g., classical music vs. gospel choirs) and (2) there is a preference for being able to
interface (on a personal level) primarily with members of one’s own group. This should not
come as a surprise after having considered the self-segregation of ethnic groups by religious
congregation. Presumably, it is because casual social interaction is easier/more pleasant with
those from a similar background, as defined by age, gender, socioeconomics, occupation,
political views, love of sports (and which sports), and so on. Such commonalities are highly
correlated with having shared values, knowledge, experiences, presumptions, expectations, and
many other ingredients in shaping social communication. (Just look at the male/female
separation that occurs at most social functions!)
Public School Integration
Desegregation of public schools was the first area of significant and clear-cut progress in ending
American apartheid and also the first area for this effort to reach a standstill. Here is a brief
history, as described by a long-time scholar of civil rights-related social policy.66
The 1954 Brown decision outlawing de jure segregation was both a key cause of the civil
rights movement, announcing that Southern apartheid was unconstitutional and
illegitimate, and a principal goal of the movement, beginning a long process of bringing
the power of government to bear on the social arrangements of the South…. From l954
until 1964, the enforcement effort faced almost uniform local and state resistance in the
South. A handful of civil rights lawyers, most of them from the NAACP Legal Defense
Fund, sued local school boards trying to force the initiation of desegregation in courts
presided over by conservative federal judges. When President Johnson asked Congress in
1964 to prohibit discrimination in all programs receiving federal aid, 98% of Southern
Blacks were still in totally segregated schools.
“Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” by Gary Orfield, Harvard University,
abridged from
The peak of the effort to desegregate the schools came in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The only period in which there was active, positive support by both the courts and the
executive branch of the government was the four years following the enactment of the
l964 Civil Rights Act. … During this period desegregation policy was transformed from a
very gradual anti-discrimination policy to one of rapid and full integration.
It was in this period that the South moved from almost total racial separation to become
the nation's most integrated region. The l968 election that brought Richard Nixon to the
White House was a turning point, leading first to a shutdown of the enforcement
machinery of the education office, and then to a change of position in which the Justice
Department urged the Supreme Court to slow down or reverse desegregation
requirements. Nixon's appointment of four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court set the
stage for key 5-4 decisions against desegregation across city-suburban lines and against
equalizing finances among school districts.
When education officials moved to revive school desegregation enforcement under the
Carter Administration, Congress took the authority away from them, although the Carter
Justice Department did initiate a number of important lawsuits, seeking to find ways to
win city-suburban desegregation in special circumstances and to coordinate the
desegregation of housing with school integration policy.
The Reagan Administration brought a rapid repeal of the federal desegregation assistance
program and a shift in the Justice Department to a position of strong opposition to
desegregation litigation, opposing even the continuation of existing desegregation plans.
The Administration developed theories that desegregation had failed and that existing
desegregation orders should be canceled after a few years. The Justice Department began
to advocate such a policy in the federal courts in the mid-1980s.
The long battle to change the Supreme Court by the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush
administrations succeeded in creating a court with a fundamentally different approach to
civil rights by the late 1980s. …. The Rehnquist Court concluded that positive policies
taking race into account for the purpose of creating integration were suspect and had to
demonstrate both a compelling reason and prove that the goal could not be realized
without considering race. These policies led some lower courts to forbid even voluntary
action for desegregation, such as magnet schools with desegregation policies for
There has been no major push to integrate schools since the early 1970s. The courts,
Congress, and the executive branch all reduced enforcement a generation ago. Significant
federal aid aimed at helping interracial schools succeed ended in l981. Many states have
quietly abandoned the offices, agencies, and policies they set up to produce and support
interracial education.
What is at stake here? Originally, schools seemed the perfect target for desegregation efforts.
Breaking barriers there could produce visible progress immediately, in ways that reducing
barriers to residential location or employment would not (because of the inherently gradual
adjustment processes). It also would assert that whites would no longer be permitted indulging
in explicit segregation, at least in an arena paid for from the public purse. This rejection of past
arrangements would start with the younger generation, those best positioned to change their
attitudes. Finally, it would presumably lead to black children receiving exposure to possibly
better teachers in much better facilities than previously.
However, as it evolved, school desegregation became much more problematic than housing or
employment desegregation. It could be avoided by enrolling children in private schooling (often
one of the wave of “Christian Schools”). Both integration and the resource redistribution
associated with it (i.e., spending as much on black children from poor families who pay little in
taxes as on white children from middle-class households) could be largely evaded by moving to
white suburbs.67 As long as residential and socioeconomic desegregation lagged behind, school
desegregation involved burdens, mostly on black children, of being bused significant distances to
school as well as the prospect of being treated within the school as a suspect minority,
compounded by cultural differences between black and white communities. Finally, it became
politically unworkable as a goal in Northern and Southern urban areas where residentially
segregated jurisdictions, combined with declining white child-bearing, ensured that
desegregation would involve imposing minority status on white children.68
Although of great symbolic importance, what is the value of having significant numbers of white
and black children in the same classroom? Certainly in the early days of desegregation of
society in general, this value was probably very high. The legacy of scientific racism and Jim
Crow was a high wall to be surmounted by the next generation. But the benefits of forcibly
moving children into mixed race settings seem to no longer be worth the costs.
There has also been much debate and study about the benefits to classroom performance of
mixing low performing children with high performers, with all of the potential for both declining
to the lowest common denominator or rising to the higher standards. The argument seems to be
unsettled. In general, it is notable that traditionally underperforming immigrant groups of the
past worked their way into middle-class assimilation without any such special arrangements.69
Though thoroughly understandable under the circumstances, it was probably unfortunate that
public policy devoted so much effort and political capital towards the aim of reducing the
segregation in public schools rather than in focusing substantial extra resources on the
educational opportunities of black children. Overall, it was part and parcel of the view that
This avoidance of resource redistribution was significantly reduced by the adoption of state-wide school funding
in many states in the 1980s and 90s, a shift much related to the effort to finance better education of black children in
poorer jurisdictions.
It seems likely that this outcome, spreading a minority of white children over majority-black schools, would not
be nearly as acceptable to the white parents as accommodating a 10-25% black student population. Aside from any
underlying racism, the negative perception of white parents of black cultural norms with respect to educational
achievement would support this perspective. On the other hand, this might not have been an issue if the liberal
minority on the Supreme Court who backed forced metro-area wide desegregation plans had not been overruled by
the Nixon-appointed conservative majority.
On the other hand, many of these groups, being Catholic (Irish and Italians), were educated primarily in parochial
schools, which functioned with some of the advantages of private schools. Jewish and Asian children benefited
from cultural norms more highly valuing educational achievement than other groups.
current discrimination was the most pressing problem. While this was probably true in 1965, it
seems no longer true today, over two generations after explicit societal segregation was ended.
Today, any racist beliefs among white children seem to be much less of a major barrier to black
equality.70 More importantly, black children in urban areas are suffering from the general crisis
in public education. In addition, their educational context is heavily undermined by exactly the
family “pathology” issues that Moynihan emphasized in 1965, which, in the view of the author,
are the consequence of past discrimination (more on this below). It seems no coincidence that, at
a nearly all black high school in Memphis where President Obama spoke at commencement,
their success in raising graduation rates from 55% to 80% in three years was based on “a family
atmosphere that (the principal) has tried to instill since taking over in 2005.”71
Affirmative Action: Workplace and University Integration
In contrast with school integration, where enforcement proceeded fully through the courts, there
is a large and complex body of federal regulation designed to force racial and gender integration
in the workplace and higher education. It is generally referred to as Affirmative Action.
(Notably, neither school integration nor affirmative action have ever been a direct subject of
Congressional legislation.)
It all started rather innocuously. The term first appeared in President Kennedy's Executive Order
10925, issued in March 1961.72 Building on Orders by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and
Eisenhower, EO 10925 stated that government contractors should "take affirmative action to
ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without
regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Most of the rest of this order described in
detail how the government should monitor and enforce this non-discrimination in employment
by government contractors. But nowhere did the notion of affirmative action “plans” appear nor
is preferential treatment of applicants indicated.
Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Orders that reinforced these requirements and expanded
protection to include gender as well, but these did not use the words “plans” or
“underrepresentation.” Yet, over the remaining years of the 1960s, what started as a legal effort
to ensure non-discrimination, as legislatively required by the Civil Rights Act of 1965,
eventually morphed into an effort to ensure compensatory advancement, without any basis in
legislation. Such accelerated (compelled?) advancement was seen by many, including both
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as needed to overturn the many remaining barriers to black
advancement. These barriers would operate to delay or prevent advancement even in a new
The question remains as to the impact on the many black and Latino children of growing up without much direct
contact with Anglo children. Given the pervasiveness of other contact points for such experience, including a media
suffused with at least Hollywood versions of both Anglo and minority cultures, it seems less critical.
“Administrators keep close track of students, making sure they have their correct addresses and phone numbers.
The principal meets with a graduation team to discuss each student and what troubles or obstacles, if any, they face
in their lives outside of school.” See
See for a timeline of the key laws, orders, and court
decisions about Affirmative Action.
world of no overt discrimination on the part of employers and others. Some of the barriers arose
from the long pipeline, in some ways multi-generational, that exists for many, if not most, jobs
involving high skills or education. Others arose from the many more subtle and indirect ways
that discrimination can be practiced covertly.
The present day structure of workplace affirmative action (AA) gelled in regulations created by a
black Republican named Arthur Fletcher in the Department of Labor under President Nixon.
These require that “contractors with 50 or more employees and contracts of $50,000 or more
implement affirmative action plans to increase the participation of minorities and women in the
workplace if a workforce analysis demonstrates their underrepresentation. Underrepresentation
is defined as there being fewer minorities and women than would be expected, given the
statistics of the area from which the workforce is drawn. The statistics used are those minorities
and women qualified to hold the positions available, not all minorities or women in a given
geographical area. Pursuant to federal regulations, affirmative action plans must consist of an
equal opportunity policy statement, an analysis of the current work force, identification of
underrepresented areas, the establishment of reasonable, flexible goals and timetables for
increasing employment opportunities, specific action-oriented programs to address problem
areas, support for community action programs, and the establishment of an internal audit and
reporting system.”73
Once the regulatory framework of affirmative action was in place, identifying the precise
requirements and limits fell to the courts. In general, most courts, including the Supreme Court,
initially upheld aggressive steps towards achieving equal representation, in the workplace and in
higher education.74 But there have been steps back from the practice of setting quotas. This was
seen as being too blatant a form of reverse discrimination and thus contravening the nondiscrimination requirement. Instead, in the arena of higher education, the Supreme Court, in
Bakke, created a wholly new ground for affirmative action, that of the interest of the university in
fostering diversity for its own sake. With that goal in mind, race and other protected factors
could be given some positive, although not decisive, weight.
Other key Supreme Court decisions shaping AA include Paradise (1987), where the Court
upheld strict quotas because of the specific persistent discriminatory practices of the Alabama
State Police; Adarand (1995), where the Court disallowed a contracting set-aside until there was
enough evidence of systematic discrimination and non-race based tools had been tried to deal
with it; Hopwood (1996), where the Court ruled that Texas could not use race in university
admissions since diversity per se was not a goal; and the University of Michigan cases (2003),
where in one case, the UM was permitted to include race in admissions in order to achieve
diversity and in the other it was prohibited to ascribe a specific number of extra points. Most
recently in the case of the New Haven firefighters (2009), the conservative majority on the court
dismissed New Haven’s claim that a promotion test was not racially neutral and thus should be
See It is commonly stated, including on Wikipedia, that
this Order required such plans and other steps. This is incorrect. It was the regulations that flowed out of this order,
as promulgated by the Department of Labor, that translated the ideal of taking action to ensure non-discrimination
into the hard flesh of such bureaucratically enforceable steps. For a closer look at the complexities of such
requirements, see
Landmarks included requiring that job standards that disparately impacted applicants by race, etc., be shown to be
essential to the job.
overridden and instead emphasized the rights of white firefighters for protection against racial
discrimination. In addition, a number of states have explicitly prohibited affirmative action with
respect to state contracts and educational systems.
It is not clear how important affirmative action is in actual practice today. Most large
organizations and institutions have such plans and often have a upper-management person
responsible for ensuring non-discrimination and efforts to reduce any under-representation that
may exist. Notably, many large organizations representing businesses, educational institutions,
and labor unions have supported AA in court cases, presumably because it offers a relatively
settled way of dealing with discrimination concerns. But it seems that the notion of affirmative
action as a policy to be contested by those of differing ideologies is still strong. More
importantly, it seems that the notion is pervasive among the white population that AA plans are a
sufficient, if not excessive, remedy for the burdens of rigorous discrimination over 300 years.
It is worth a very short review of the perspectives supportive of and critical of affirmative action
employment policies. (The issue of contract set asides or advantages for women and minorityowned businesses is not considered here. The author perceives these as largely political,
probably abused as far as actual ownership, and in any case poorly linked to dealing with past
discriminatory practices.)
The Reagan and G. H. W. Bush Administrations consciously dialed back the enforcement, but
not the regulatory requirements, of affirmative action. Because of the continuing clamor about
reverse discrimination, the Clinton Administration promised a thorough review of the efficacy
and practice of affirmative action. This review was completed in 1995 and the report, and the
President, vigorously defended the usefulness of AA.
This defense is based on two propositions. The first proposition is that the evidence shows that
AA contributed to a closing of the gap in socioeconomic status of minorities and women. The
wage gap for black men fell from about 40% in 1960 to 26% in 1993. Moreover, careful
analysis controlling for education, experience, and test scores showed only a 9% gap remaining
in 1991.75
The second proposition is that there remains evidence of continuing racially discriminatory
attitudes in the white population. The strongest evidence is derived from “audit” projects where
black and white applicants (for jobs or housing) are given the same “paper persona” and sent out
on interviews. In one set of studies, the black applicants were “treated significantly worse than
white applicants 24% of the time.”76 In another set, black job applicants were not advanced
along the application process when the “identical” white was, and, when both were advanced, in
12% of the cases, white applicants received job offers and the black did not.
Both of these sets of results seem very plausible. There can be no doubt that bias was quite high
at the start of the desegregation process in the early 1960s in all parts of America. This is not to
say that all white Americans were biased against blacks, but that such a bias was prevalent in all
See Thus, discrimination in pay and position seems to
have declined sharply, but the large “unadjusted” gap largely reflects the historically-based disadvantages of blacks.
regions and strata of society. Indeed, it may have gotten worse in the aftermath of the 1968 riots
and the general dissemination of the perception of criminality in the inner-city black
neighborhoods. Within this context, it is plausible that economic gains would have been
significantly less without the goad of AA employment plans.
It may seem more surprising that racial bias was still significant in the early 1990s. However,
the author’s view is that instead it would be very surprising if that were not the case. After
hundreds of years of racial stereotyping and continuing evidence to support such stereotyping
(inner city crime, the crack epidemic, significantly lower achievement levels of black students in
integrated schools), it would have been a miracle of human nature for white “gate keepers” in
employment and housing not to have filtered information about applicants to conform with such
The question of interest here is whether AA employment programs continue today to offer an
overall positive benefit in redressing the injustices of the past. The answer partly depends on the
extent of negative effects.
The complaints about AA policies come in several forms. First, there are the white individuals
(and companies in the case of contract set asides) who are penalized by AA. They tend to be
forgotten in the policy making but are theoretically the focus of the individual court cases.
While the courts must rule on issues raised in individual cases, the court of public opinion should
keep some perspective on the overall impacts. If AA policies mean that 3-5% of all jobs or
promotions are directed towards minorities who would otherwise not get them, this is a relatively
small injustice compared to the huge majority of blacks who have been directly impacted by past
and present bias. (The inclusion of women and all “minorities” in the AA equation may make
this perspective more problematic, since the issues involved in any past or present discrimination
against women and recent immigrants are much different from those with respect to blacks.)
In general, whites probably suffer from the “disabled parking space syndrome,” where each
driver passing by an empty disabled parking space feels that, but for the privilege of the disabled,
they would be able to park there. In fact, reservation of those spaces probably just means that
they have to park a few spaces further away than otherwise.
A more prominent complaint is that AA policies are corrosive of the deeply ingrained
meritocratic and individual rights traditions in America. Some of this opposition is probably due
to lack of sympathy for (and sometimes outright bias against) blacks. Many, if not most, whites
living today are fairly ignorant about the history of blacks in America and have a relatively
benign view of the initial footing granted blacks relative to whites. The result is a sense that the
absence of current discrimination is remedy enough for all past transgressions, and interventions
in the meritocratic process are highly inappropriate.77
This problem was highlighted recently in an academic study that found that whites seem to think that they are
being much more discriminated against than in the 1970s, in fact more so than blacks today. See
A third complaint, mostly voiced by ideologically conservative blacks, is that the presence of AA
programs makes the normal advancement of individual blacks, based on merit, appear suspect.
As articulated by the economist Thomas Sowell in 1976, “What ‘affirmative action’ has done is
to destroy the legitimacy of what had already been achieved, by making all black achievements
look like questionable accomplishments, or even outright gifts. Here and there, this program has
undoubtedly caused some individuals to be hired who would otherwise not have been hired - but
even that is a doubtful gain in the larger context of attaining self-respect and the respect of
A related perspective is voiced by another black economist, Glenn Loury, who fears that AA
plans create perverse incentives in the labor market. Employers who promote partly based on
race encourage the stereotype that blacks are less productive by in fact promoting underqualified blacks, as well as distort the flow of honest feedback to black employees about required
improvements in skills or attitude. Schools that admit under-qualified blacks do the same thing.
He would eliminate AA for middle-class blacks and focus on remedial investments in those who
have yet to get over the basic barriers to a steady occupation and lifestyle.
The author is sympathetic to Loury’s concerns, which are consistent with his experience with
sometimes seeing under-qualified blacks being hired or promoted, often to positions of relatively
high visibility but low effective authority. But whatever the general reality is in the workplace or
college context, the most vexing issue is that AA is seen by most of the white population as
sufficient remedy for all those years of oppression. The concept seems to be that workplace AA
both partly compensates existing blacks for past disadvantages and partly launches the next
generation into a higher orbit. The presence of more middle- and upper-middle-class black
families probably does provide strong positive feedback into the success of their children,
including better schools, better self-evaluation, and higher expectations.
How much effect does AA have? Are its benefits greater than its costs? Are there alternative
approaches to mainstreaming blacks in America? Where is the justice in reverse discrimination?
The analysis and discussion required to answer these questions is too voluminous to provide
here. Good references include:
1. The Civil Rights Era, by Hugh Davis Graham, as reviewed by Murray Friedman, This book by a noted academic historian on the period highlights
how various interest groups shifted Federal policy away from non-discrimination and
towards the overt preferences of AA.
2. “Affirmative Action and Its Mythology,” Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Glenn C. Loury,
3. “’Affirmative action’ reconsidered,” Thomas Sowell, an article in the Public Interest
Magazine, Winter, 1976, available for download at
4. “Affirmative Distraction,” Steven Carter,
5. The operator of the website,, lists
URLs for every side of the debate.
6. A good discussion of the larger philosophical and legal issues involved can be found at
The author’s conclusion is that, currently, the costs of affirmative action greatly exceed the
benefits and that AA should be explicitly ended (or “sacrificed”) as part of an effort to reframe
public policy efforts in this arena. On the benefit side, the greatest part of the straightforward
gains from AA are past. Many of the beneficiaries today are from middle- or upper-middle class
backgrounds and facing relatively low levels of discrimination in their schooling or career path.
Few children of the “underclass” are raised up by it.78
On the cost side, the “disabled parking space syndrome,” whereby a much larger number of
whites feel discriminated against than is actually true, is alive and well and not going away.
Moreover, the distortions in workplace perceptions and practices are significant. On top of these
considerations, AA encompasses preferential treatment for women, Hispanics, and even Asians,
all of whom carry much less, if any, burden of past or present discrimination, yet amplifies the
resentments of white males.
Most importantly, AA may be preventing more targeted and aggressive steps to rescue black
children from the social and economic cul-de-sac that so many will find themselves in.79
Hopefully the prospect of removing this perceived blight on the American mythology of meritbased success and upward mobility could provide political impetus for creating a more
consensus-based diagnosis of the problems and useful and encompassing programs of such
interventions. Whether it does or not, removing AA is probably a necessary step before the
focus can shift from removing current discrimination towards instead addressing the cumulative
effects of past discrimination.
V. The Black Underclass
If employment discrimination and residential and school segregation are no longer major
pressing issues in black-white relations in the US, what is? My answer is that the apparent
socioeconomic immobility of a large black “underclass” is the key longer-term issue.
How large is the black underclass? In Census-collected data for 2005, 32% of black-headed
households, almost 1 out of 3, were in the bottom 20% of US households by income (below
An interesting statistic: only 3% of the students in the top 150 colleges are from the bottom 20% of the income
distribution. See
Carter (see references above) well states the author’s view: “We still fight over affirmative action and pretend it
means we’re fighting over racial justice. We debate its pros and cons in order to avoid coming to grips with more
fundamental challenges. Those who suffer most from the legacy of racial oppression are not competing for spaces in
the entering classes of the nation’s most selective colleges. Millions of them are not finishing high school. We
countenance vast disparities in education in America, in where children start and where they come out. And we do
not even want to talk about it.”
$18,600) and had an average income of about $9,000, at a time when US family incomes
averaged $60,500.80 On the other end of the income distribution, only 24% were in the top 40%
of households by income. Does this mean that there is a distinctive underclass situation present
for black Americans? Perhaps not as strongly as some may think; the stereotype of the urban
ghetto black is probably overdone. Instead, over two-thirds of black households are not in the
“underclass” as defined by the bottom 20%, and a quarter of them are in the solid middle-class
and above.81
Still, commonly being of very low-income is a distinctly black phenomenon, relative to other
racial groups. Only 24% of Hispanic-headed households are in the bottom 20%, 18% of whiteheaded households, and 15% of Asian-headed. Moreover, XX% (62% in 1970 by Pew; still need
updated data) of black children are in such households and the typical income within that bottom
20% is lower for blacks than the other groups.
Low Social Mobility and Assimilation
One can frame this issue in terms of another discussion that has been going on for a while. That
is, why haven’t blacks as a group been as economically and socially mobile as were waves of
European and Asian immigrants into the US, even the disadvantaged ones from poor Southern
and Central European (SCE) countries from 1880-1924? Of course, no one is framing that
question in the context of the time since the initial arrival of Africans in North America, nor
during the period of slavery. In fact most commenters further assume that mobility and
assimilation prospects were negligible for blacks living in the South until the end of Jim Crow
practices (however, it should be noted that there were significant strides towards assimilation
during Reconstruction, which were mostly reversed soon thereafter). Instead the clock on the
intergenerational immigrant assimilation model usually is seen to start only when large number
of blacks migrate out of the South, initially to Northern industrial cities and later to the West.82
There have been many studies of the assimilation process for European immigrants, but only one
major one that systematically compared that process with that of blacks during the Great
Migration. It is called A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants since 1880 by Stanley
Lieberson, published in 1980.
In brief, Lieberson argues that discrimination, combined with a specific sequence of events, led
to blacks staying on the socioeconomic bottom rung after the Great Migration and being
cemented into that position by a number of factors.
He first deals with the claim that blacks did not have an interest in advancement through
education. He documents that educational aspirations were very strong among blacks in the
This income level may seem unrealistically low. It is implausibly low because it does not include in-kind
transfers under government programs. But it does capture the meager market earnings of these households.
Presumably some insight could be gained by examining the socio-economic mobility of blacks in the North before
the Great Migration. I have not found any material on this, nor will the answers probably be different from the later
post-bellum South, but even more strongly beaten back under Jim Crow. These reappeared in
the North, but quality of education was better for the Southern and Central European (SCE)
whites, especially through access to parochial schools.
Lieberson argues that instead the poverty born of strong employment discrimination was the
most potent reason for the establishment of the underclass. There also was discrimination
against most of the SCE immigrants, but this was attenuated over time by some powerful forces.
First, the flood of SCE immigrants was cut back in 1924, while black immigration continued
until 1970, weighing down the descendants of the first wave of black migrants with competition
for “black” jobs and reinforcing rural black stereotypes.
Second, the descendants of SCE immigrants could blend in by adapting their clothes, manners
and even their names to being closer to the non-immigrant population. Ethnic identity was a
matter of choice for the second generation and there were big rewards to submerging the SCE
identity.83 But this was not an option for blacks.
Third, he notes the same benefits from inter-marriage. SCE girls and their offspring could gain
an old Euro surname, but children of black/white couples usually remained “black”. Moreover,
blacks were repressed to staying in “their station,” while SCE immigrants were generally
rewarded for trying to assimilate.
Fourth, he notes another advantage for SCE immigrants. They could return to their countries
when times were hard; about 20-25% did so. In principle, only the fittest stayed. Many SCE
immigrants also had support from their home countries.
Fifth, the SCE immigrants had only slightly worse health (death rate in New York in 1920:
14.5/1000) than the native born (13.1), but blacks had much higher death rates (25.1).
Sixth, urban politics was mostly anti-black. Blacks had no political power in the South at all. In
the North, where they could at least vote, they were not large and concentrated enough until after
1920 (e.g., 150,000 in NYC, versus 950,000 Jews, 800,000 Italian, etc.). Strongly prejudiced
SCE immigrants dominated the unions and WASPs dominated the business establishment and
together they dominated urban politics. Then machine politics faded just as blacks came into
majority positions.
Lieberson does not feel that residential segregation per se had a significant effect, at least not
until after WWII, noting that the SCE immigrants were often even more concentrated. The
difference is that the SCE immigrants could access additional housing as needed, usually without
being hemmed in by hostile neighborhoods. Black immigrants were hemmed in by residential
An indirect measure of the rewards from such assimilative actions is the language guiding the adoption of the
1924 Immigration Act. Proponents of the Act sought to establish a distinct American identity by favoring nativeborn Americans over Southern and Central Europeans in order to "maintain the racial preponderance of the basic
strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population". For example, the Act
effectively reduced immigration from Italy by over 90%.
discrimination (usually by neighborhoods of SCE immigrants) and suffered higher housing costs
and greater crowding because of this.
More than any other factor, he sees access to semi-skilled jobs for SCE immigrants, versus the
general relegation of blacks to unskilled laboring, as the key to the more rapid socio-economic
mobility of the SCE immigrants. He sees the main reason for this discrepancy as rampant racial
prejudice and also stereotyping whereby second generation blacks were lumped in with recent
arrivals from the South. Evidence for this is his finding that, for any given level of education,
blacks had much lower rates of occupying professional, skilled, or semi-skilled positions. There
is also lots of anecdotal evidence of strong biases against blacks, partly based on the racist
beliefs of the previous century84 and partly based on the “tribal competition” between white and
black immigrants for industrial jobs. These forces were often strongest within unionized
contexts, with unions having explicit or implicit barriers to entry by blacks.
But he also sees other factors at work, such as a lower quality of the education that blacks
received as well as feedback effects, whereby the lower reward to education for blacks
discouraged educational achievement. There may have been some “cultural” factors at work as
well, with employers complaining about blacks’ (presumably mostly immigrants from the South)
slow work style and low tolerance for working in cold conditions. In addition, blacks were
perceived as less reliable workers, with a greater likelihood of not “showing up on Monday” and
quitting a job for relatively minor reasons. Both of these latter traits may be traceable back to the
much less stable home life of many blacks, a point we turn to in the next section.85
Lieberson emphasizes a theory of queuing for better jobs. In this framework, the presence of
large numbers of SCE immigrants competing for semi-skilled jobs, combined with strong
prejudice (unfounded or founded on the tendencies noted above) against black men for those
positions, kept black men in jobs lower than their education warranted through to the post-WWII
era. At that point, when the children and grandchildren of the SCE immigrants were moving up
into higher skilled or professional jobs, industrialization subsided, drying up the pool of semiskilled jobs, and the skill levels required escalated. In addition, the power of unions declined just
as blacks were able to access them.
The Moynihan Proposition
If the Civil Rights era removed or at least weakened most formal barriers to black advancement,
why haven’t blacks made up more of the ground of upward mobility, at least out of the bottom
He provides an eye-opening measure of racist beliefs in a table he reproduces (p. 367) a table from Katz and
Braly, 1952, p.70, showing labels associated with various “races” by Princeton undergrads in 1950. Blacks were
considered “lazy” by 75%, ignorant and happy-go-lucky by 38%, stupid by 22%, and unreliable by 12%.
One indirect result of family “dysfunction” among black families was probably a lower career trajectory for black
men. It appears that black men were considered to be less reliable employees in the 1920s through 1940s partly
because they were seen as less attached to their jobs and more subject to irregular attendance after weekends of
partying and other distractions. It seems likely that their competitors, the SCE immigrants, with their traditions of
tight family bonds and almost zero illegitimate births, would be much more “committed family men,” focused on
maintaining stable employment and less diverted by “good times and gambling,” than black men with looser
connections to familial responsibilities.
rungs? Lieberson would argue that the ladder used by the SCE immigrants had been removed in
the meantime by structural changes in the economy. A version of this view appears in recent
writings of William Julius Wilson. But meanwhile there has been an ongoing argument as to
whether underlying aspects of black culture were playing a major role.
The famous report to President Johnson by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, entitled “The
Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” has already been noted. Moynihan drew
attention to the significantly higher rates of “family dysfunction” for blacks than whites, and
blames this on “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment (of) the Negro people.”
He sees these problems as major drags on black advancement even after removal of the burden
of explicit discrimination.
Many observers protested his comments as a form of “blaming the victim” (i.e., presumably it
was now the fault of blacks if they lag in the future) and as a denigration of the strength of
slavery-era black families. Proponents of both “black pride” and feminism were deeply offended
by the propositions that high rates of single-motherhood were in some way embedded in black
culture and were a major cause of low black social mobility. This ferocious reaction has been
blamed (certainly correctly) for curtailing serious enquiry into these issues, including whether
they are in fact major detriments, and whether they are due to past mistreatment or other factors
(such as welfare policies). Unless answers to these questions are ascertained, the more important
question of what might be done about them cannot be examined.86
So were the feminists right? Is single-motherhood not such a big problem for the socioeconomic
success of children? The qualitative case against this view is straightforward. On average
(albeit with plenty of exceptions), single-mothers (or single-fathers) will bring to their child
raising significantly less income and free time than two parents, simply because two parents have
twice the available time for some combination of employment and child-rearing activities. This
should matter at least somewhat, if not for the sense of security and confidence of the children,
then for the quality of education (parental and school-based) and socioeconomic level of their
personal networks.87
The quantitative evidence turns out to be similarly straightforward (despite any number of
attempts to reassure divorcing parents that their kids would survive alright). The most
referenced study on the effects of single-motherhood is that by Sarah McLanahan and Gary
Sandefur, published in 1994.88 (It must be noted that, although more careful than most studies,
this study ultimately has to rely on correlations without direct evidence of causation.89 )
For a modern day polemic about the past polemics on the Moynihan proposition, see
This statement does not say that it is irresponsible or unloving of specific parents to divorce or bear children outof-wedlock. It is not meant to be judgmental, only analytical.
Sarah McLanahan & Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent, Harvard University Press, 1994.
McLanahan is co-directing a long-term study intended to dig more deeply into the processes linking family
“dysfunction” and child outcomes. See
The correlations they report are usually very strong. 90 For example, surveying five different data
sources, they conclude that children from one-parent families are twice as likely to become high
school dropouts as those from two-parent families.91 And a correlated risk, that of teen
motherhood, is similarly strongly linked to single-parenthood, with rates 50-100% higher for
daughters of single parents. That is after controlling for race, sex, parent’s education, number of
siblings and other factors. (The absolute impacts are much higher at lower parental education
levels, but the relative impacts (e.g., doubling of dropping out) are similar at higher parental
education levels.) The differential is significantly larger if GEDs are not counted as
The higher dropout rate, the lower college attendance rate, and the higher teen maternity rate
enter into the likelihood of being out of school and unemployed later, which is about 30-50%
higher for children of single-parent families.
These impacts are very similar for black-headed families, once level of parental education is
controlled for. In other words, high school dropout rates and teen birth rates are about 100%
higher for black single-parent households, holding constant parental education (but much higher
than that if simply comparing single-parent versus married couple households, regardless of
So, it seems that single-parenting, usually single-motherhood, is generally bad for the future
social and economic success of the children. (Notably, single-parenting due to unmarried
motherhood is only a little worse than if it is due to divorce.) So it is worth looking at what
might cause the much higher rate of single-parenting among black families.
The issue of single-motherhood and its effects arises in Lieberson’s look at the income trajectory
of black migrants, and he presents some interesting historical data. He notes that in 1920, the
rate of births out of wedlock was 13% among blacks, 2% for native-born whites, and only 0.5%
among SCE immigrants. Among those ever-married, the rate of dissolution of the marriage was
29% for blacks and 17% for whites.
What was the source of this large divergence in family structure at this early date? Because of
such data, in the 1960s it was generally claimed, including by Moynihan, that much of the
dysfunction was due to the disruption of family ties due to the frequent break-up of family units
under slavery. However, in 1976 one of the most respected historians of slavery, Herbert
Gutman, concluded that “most black families largely remained intact despite slavery”.93 Gutman
This evidence is not saying that any specific child would be better off with his or her parents being married or not
divorcing. It is not even saying that, if those same parents were married or never divorced, their children would end
up exactly as well off as the children of stable, married families, since these parents probably differ from the latter
parents in some other ways.
All of these conclusions are from Chapter 3 of Growing Up with a Single Parent.
Recently, academic researchers have concluded that the social and economic performance of GED recipients is
negligibly better than for high school dropouts. Thus this finding of even bigger effects when GED recipients are
counted as dropouts instead of graduates is probably more relevant. See “The American High School Graduation
Rate: Trends and Levels” by James J. Heckman and Paul A. LaFontaine, at
See Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925, New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Note the two key modifiers, “most” and “largely.”
argued that, although family break-up was much more common for slaves than for whites, it was
not the normal state of affairs, that there were compensatory steps taken to protect the children
(mostly via extended kinship), and that this history was not sufficient to create an expectation of
break-up in Northern cities. His Times obituary stated “While he acknowledged a deterioration
in the family during the migration of blacks that resumed after 1940, he rejected as spurious
'historical' and 'cultural' explanations for their vulnerability.''94
Gutman’s claim exemplifies the “grayness” of the discussion in this area. Gutman works from
clumps of data that he or others uncovered in an attempt to see a pattern in the mosaic. For
example, one clump of data is registrations of slave marriages in the area of Vicksburg,
Mississippi, soon after its “liberation” in 1864 (pp. 20-22). Gutman emphasizes that, of 4,612
marriages registered, only 25% were second marriages due to the first spouse being sent
However, a close examination of his data shows that, among older people (age 40+ for one
spouse and thus subject to such transfers for more years), 35% had lost a spouse to transfers, plus
41% by death, 5% by desertion, and 4% by mutual consent. Only 29% of those over age 40 had
their initial marriage intact.95 So, in this group, long-term marital stability was a pretty rare
situation. Much of Gutman’s evidence is of this type, wherein he emphasizes the tenacity with
which slaves pursued marriage and worked hard to maintain family ties, but which also reveals
just how stressful slavery was on family structure.96
Another dimension of this debate (a seemingly endless one, given the paucity of systematic data
on the slave population) was that, even if “married” in the social if not legal sense, it seems that
it was very common for the husband and wife not to be owned by the same plantation, and
instead having something of a “commuter” marriage. In fact, it would normally be rare for a
young male slave to find a suitable mate (who also was not a close relative) among the small
number of appropriate-aged females on a typical-sized plantation (e.g., with 20-50 slaves). In
one careful study, 80% of men married women from another plantation, and only a quarter of
those men were able to arrange a consolidation of their ownership. That left 60% of couples
living apart, and men having a very small role in raising the children (a role that was probably
already small based on African cultural norms and also the limitations on paternal authority by
the presence of the overriding authority of the master).97
So we are left with several profound but not well settled issues that go to the core of the
challenges facing “underclass” blacks in America today. Do African social norms that survived
the slave period contribute to overall lack of socio-economic assimilation through weakening
family structure? Did 300 years of slavery cause serious damage to the black family and thus
permeate black social norms today? Or was continuing urban poverty, caused by strong job
discrimination, the more important determinant of contemporary black familial dysfunction?
These shares total 114% because 14% had more than one marriage terminated earlier.
Scholars have since critiqued technical details of Gutman’s analysis, seriously undermining some of his assertions
about post-emancipation family structure. See William Julius Wilson, More than Just Race, p. 112-113.
See Allan Kulikoff, “The Life Cycle of Slaves”, in Lawrence B. Goodheart, Richard D. Brown, and Stephen G.
Rabe, Slavery in American Society, D.C. Heath, 1993, pp. 154-160.
The author is not in a position to opine on these questions in depth, but judges that it is likely that
most, if not all, of these factors are at play. Given the long history of familial disarray, there may
also be long-term cultural factors at work, going back to Africa or at least to slavery.98 The
evidence is that there were also huge numbers of marriages broken up through sale of slaves,
especially in the period just before the war, 1830-60. Poverty and employment discrimination
must also have contributed to despair, drug use, and family abandonment during the Great
Migration. The continuing pervasiveness of familial disarray in urban black communities could
derive mostly from this past history, but it has been reinforced by the plague of incarcerations of
young black men under the War on Drugs and the “law-and-order” politics of recent decades.
To compound the confusion, there is a chicken-or-egg problem, namely, are low incomes
causing the much higher rates of family dysfunction among blacks or is family dysfunction
causing the low incomes? The problem is easily illustrated.
Data for 2010 shows that 66% of black children are growing up in a single-parent household, 2.8
times higher than the 24% for non-Hispanic whites.99 Is this higher rate of single-motherhood
simply because black families are so much poorer? Indeed, the differential in propensity for
single-parenthood drops to 1.4 times when looking at just “low-income” black and white
households (78% vs. 58%). Moreover, the typical income of even these low-income black
families is so much lower than for low-income white families, with 53% at or below poverty
This same question can be asked about any other factors affecting cognitive aptitude or any other aspect of the
average psychosocial characteristics of blacks in America. And there may be evidence in support of an influence of
cultural traits from Africa. For example, the author heard personally from some in West Africa who say that the
tradition there is for children to be viewed as belonging to the woman. If so, this norm may go hand-in-hand with
another documented norm in sub-Sahara Africa, that of male promiscuity, where successful men expect to have a
number of “girlfriends.”
Whether or not these are West African cultural norms and they undermine the economic and social success of blacks
today in the US, any such influence can still be largely blamed on slavery and racism in the US. After all, it has
been over 200 years since the bulk of the slave trade brought their ancestors to North America. Simply put, peculiar
cultural norms among most 19th century European immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Italians, and Germans, have
been much attenuated through cultural assimilation and inter-group marriage. For example, what are the chances
that the much noted tradition of machismo among Mexican males will survive 100 years of assimilation for the
descendants of the current cohort of Mexican immigrants?
The argument here is that, for most blacks in the US, their assimilation into mainstream culture was slowed and
probably pushed in perverse ways by slavery and American apartheid for most of the period since the arrival of their
ancestors. Whatever cultural norms that they brought from Africa were severely distorted by the slave-master
relationship that most were subjected to, and then assimilation was further stifled by the continuing systematic
discrimination, under-education, and repression inflicted for the 100 years after the Civil War. By this analysis,
there have been only 40 years elapsed since most blacks were accorded any sort of normalized role in mainstream
middle-class American culture. Middle-aged blacks today, and their children, are strongly influenced by parents
who experienced first-hand segregation and denigration of their civil rights and social position within the dominant
white culture.
&tf=133. An important nuance of this data is that “single-parent” is defined as not having a spouse (i.e., a married
partner) present. Given the much higher rates of non-marital cohabitation among lower-income adults, especially
minorities, this is not an accurate reflection of the presence of only one adult. However, the evidence in the
literature is overwhelming that the negative effects of not having the biological father present is not ameliorated, and
could be exacerbated, by the presence of “boyfriends”.
levels vs. 39% for whites, that the income difference could explain almost all of the singleparenthood difference.100
These numbers are entirely consistent with the argument that the past history of slavery and
discrimination has depressed the income of blacks and that this, not differences in underlying
cultural propensities, explains most of the difference in teenage pregnancies, other out-ofwedlock childbearing, and higher divorce rates between racial groups. But it is also consistent
with the alternative, that cultural norms dating back to the Great Migration or to slavery or even
to Africa encourage these propensities, and the result is low-incomes and social dysfunction for
black youth. It all depends on where one chooses to look on the cycle of poverty!
For our purposes here, it may suffice to conclude the following. The initial conditions of black
existence in the Jim Crow South, combined with cultural traditions in Africa and the treatment of
families during the slave period, created a greater tendency towards single-motherhood and
familial instability (“familial dysfunction”) in the US black population relative to the local poor
white population and even more so relative to the SCE-immigrant population. This was then
reinforced by poor educational opportunities and strong discrimination in the North at the time of
the Great Migration to magnify it into the significant amount of familial dysfunction observed in
the first part of the 20th century.
Most importantly, this position of the “black underclass” in US society was then cemented in by
the strong increases in familial dysfunction among low-income households in all racial groups
since 1950. In other words, if the general tendency towards out-of-wedlock births and divorce
had not grown so enormously since 1950, a much larger share of black children would have been
well positioned to take advantage of (finally) improved educational and employment options,
and their upward mobility out of the poverty cycle would have been much higher. As it is, with
66% of black children bearing the burden of single-parenting today, the chances of growing up in
a lower-income household are very high as is the chances that their own incomes will be low and
their family situation will be “dysfunctional.”101
All of these considerations can be captured in a few statistics. What are the chances of a black
child, relative to other children of similar parental income, moving up in socioeconomic status?
The data shows that, over a roughly 30 year period, the children of black households lagged
significantly behind white children at the same income level (as defined by quintiles) in upward
 Only 46% of those with parents in the lowest 20% made it out of the bottom 20%,
while 69% of the white children did.103
This perspective is very similar to that of one of the most prominent (and least polemical) analysts of the black
situation, William Julius Wilson. Throughout his career he has worked to tie the black experience to economic and
cultural shifts as well as both past and present discrimination. We will discuss his analysis below.
Data are drawn from p. 76 of the Pew Charitable Trusts study entitled Economic Mobility in America, published
by the Brookings Institution in 2008. The periods used for comparison are parental incomes between 1967 and
1971, and children’s income between 1995 and 2002. Sample sizes were not large enough to look at race
designations other than white and black.
Undoubtedly, some of these differences reflect a statistical anomaly. Since whites have historically had much
higher income than blacks, a higher portion of white parents would happen to be in the bottom 20% for “temporary”
Almost half (45%) of those with parents in the middle 20% dropped 2 notches
into the bottom 20% versus 16% among whites.
Almost half (46%) of the black children from solidly middle-class households
(60-80% in the income distribution) dropped down 2-3 notches to the lowest 40%
in income, versus 22% among white children.
These are the sorts of numbers consistent with a view that there is something dysfunctional with
many black families. The differentials can be blamed on continuing discrimination, but this was
a period of declining discrimination as perceived by both blacks and whites, and rising
affirmative action employment practices.104 It just seems that the odds of a black child’s success
in climbing out of the socioeconomic hole that history and the child’s parents’ choices have put
him or her in are pretty bleak.
One unavoidable conclusion of this essay is that the fate of over half of black children in
America is strongly tied to the history of black-white relations over the last 400 years. It is, on
average, much bleaker than that of a white child or even a child of recent immigrant Hispanic
parents. The latter may currently occupy a socioeconomic position similar to the black
underclass, but they have familial structures as well as family histories more attuned to eventual
economic mobility.
The Wilson Propositions
One of the few scholars to break the taboo on looking at the potential role of black culture in
fostering the black underclass is William Julius Wilson, a black sociologist at Harvard. In a
series of studies over 30 years, he has taken the measure of the “black underclass” and tried to
explain their situation. His latest book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner
City, has many points similar to the ones I have arrived at independently.105
Wilson distinguishes between structural and cultural factors creating the black underclass.
Structural factors involve both acts by external individuals (e.g., discrimination) and broader
social or economic systems. Cultural are factors internal to the affected group, although
obviously molded over time by external factors.
The structural processes he focuses on include:
1. Globalization that reduces employment and real wages among the low-skilled.
2. Immigration by low-skilled workers.
reasons (unemployment, illness, divorce) than for blacks. More of their children will just be rising back to the
“more permanent status” of their parents than will black children whose parents are more likely to have never been
anywhere higher than the lowest income status and who are more likely to not be living together.
This same trend would tend to contribute to the statistical anomaly noted above. If the opening up of middleclass jobs to blacks in the late 1960s bumped up many of the parents into a higher quintile, these black households
would be at much higher risk of having children who would “slip back” than would white households wellensconced in the middle-class.
See W. J. Wilson, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, W.W. Norton, 2009.
Shift of jobs out of central city areas and away from mass transit.
Big cutbacks in Federal support for central cities since 1980.
Declines in unionism and the real minimum wage.
Shift towards service jobs involving less “muscle” and more “people-skills.”
Concentration of poor blacks due to locations of public housing and the opening up of
suburbs to middle-income blacks.
8. General rise in female-headed households due to rise in female options for self-support as
well as other social trends.
9. Stereotyping of young black males due to high crime in central city ghettos.
10. Criminalization of more black men due to drug war and general “law and order” politics.
11. More stringent child support requirements imposing a high tax on formal-sector earnings
of black males.
He sees negative aspects of the black inner-city culture as including:
1. The “code of the street” that values the “cool pose” and bonding among men, with no
role for marriage.
2. The “code” of the underground economy (that reduces eventual access to the formal
3. Lack of trust among black males which limits job networking.
4. Black females finding status and emotional fulfillment in single-motherhood, blind to the
disadvantage being imposed on their children.
5. Children acquiring a disposition to interpret the way the world works as disrespecting
them because they are black.
6. Stereotypes (and frequent reality) of young black men being irresponsible and not worth
marrying or employing.
He correctly sees these factors as interacting, usually reinforcing each other in negative ways.
He also notes that usually the discussion of these issues is one-sided, with conservatives focusing
solely on cultural factors and liberals solely on structural forces. This is very unhelpful, not only
because it is incomplete and thus inaccurate but also because it politicizes what should first of all
be an analytical issue.
It is worth commenting on some of these. One point missed by Wilson and certainly by
conservative commentators (when they emphasize that blacks seem to ignore the many entrylevel jobs filled by the thousands of illegal immigrants) is that the great majority of nonimmigrant urban poor do not frame their job search the same way as do immigrants. The latter
are focused almost totally on getting any sort of income, in any place and any occupation, that
will allow them to send money back to their home country. The urban poor usually have strong
roots in their neighborhood or at least their city and a significant amount of personal self-worth
invested in their social group. As long as they can survive, and hopefully maintain respect
within their social group, they will not want to move to another area entirely and they will not
accept just any job at just any wage (they may have more options in criminal activity and also
value time just hanging out with their network of friends more highly).
What this means is that the immigrant will be the one most likely to get any low-skill job other
than ones immediately convenient to the neighborhood and will accept a lower wage for ones
offering relatively poor working conditions. On top of that, immigrants, legal or not, probably
generally bring a stronger work-ethic, especially to rough menial work (not unlike that they may
have done in their native country), than a native-born person in general and especially one inured
with central-city social norms. It is notable that both employers and black women report the
same stereotype of young black males being unreliable. On top of that, by the time inner-city
black men get to age 25, many have a criminal record that bars them or makes them undesirable
for many positions.
Wilson goes into some detail about the cultural perspectives contributing to unwed motherhood.
First, neither black men nor women see this as a problem. Men report seeing marriage as tying
them down and preventing what they really value, “hanging out” with their male friends. This
perspective is not that different from young white males. What is different is that having a child
is just what young poor black women tend to prize, as providing the status, identity and
emotional attachment that they covet. Moreover, women see little reward from marriage to a
man who will probably not be faithful and may be violent (given the high tendency towards
violence among young black men), and also given the trouble of most likely having to get a
divorce later. Furthermore, low-skilled women have better income prospects (in service
occupations) today than low-skilled men, thus inserting a further psychological hurdle into a
marriage. Of course, most black men and women have little experience with successful and
rewarding marriages to begin with.
Wilson also notes the remarkable resilience of the mythology of “rugged individualism” in US
culture. Seventy-one percent of whites and even 53% of blacks agree with the statement that
“blacks who have not gotten ahead in life are mainly responsible for their own situation.” There
is minimal recognition that the hand you are dealt as a child may be the major determinant of
your personal resources and attitudes as well as your general prospects. In contrast, within the
EU, where there is not such a history of discrimination and repression, only 20% agree that
poverty is the result of “laziness and lack of will power.” Instead, “social injustice” is blamed
by 37%.
One other aspect of black culture that may play a role in reducing socioeconomic mobility is the
anti-assimilationist streak that seems to exist. In strong contrast to the voluntary immigrants to
the US, who most often were ready to change the spelling of their surnames and shed most
aspects of their culture that were deemed inferior or inconsistent with mainstream (mostly white)
culture, there appears to be a collective and individual resistance to bowing to such social
pressures among blacks, at least among those who are non-immigrant (recent immigrants from
Africa and the Caribbean do not seem to have this attitude). Young blacks confront accusations
of being “oreos” from the black peers if they adopt mainstream white attitudes. Parents pass
down advice to prepare their children for racist slights, sometimes perceived only because they
are being looked for. Parents also endow many black children with distinctive names that
identify them as black and emphasize that black identity. This tendency, if it exists, is entirely
understandable given the history of black-white relations. But its negative effect on mobility is
evident in the efforts that most immigrants make in the opposite direction.
The Future
In most ways, America is a “post-paternalistic” society, with it now taken for granted that
women will participate equally with men in almost all endeavors. This is a huge change in the
two generations since women’s liberation first burst on the scene in the 1960s (of course, the
build-up to this had been ongoing since the late 1800s). Remaining differences in the social and
economic trajectory in women’s lives mostly derive from intrinsic gender differences (e.g.,
childbearing, comparative advantages in certain endeavors) and to some extent cultural gender
differences (e.g., in networks).
Is America also a “post-racial” society because of the similar sweeping revisions of social
norms? In many ways, the answer must be “partly”. Access to all of the routes to
socioeconomic advancement is much greater for blacks than 50 years ago, e.g., quality K-12
education, post-secondary education, social networks, etc.. In theory (and the data supports it),
enough systematic discrimination has been removed that black males and females are positioned
close to equivalently to comparably skilled white males and females, although starting skill
levels (and other factors) continue to differ significantly.
But the similarities between the success of women’s liberation and the civil rights movement are
limited. White females already occupied the same cultural space as white males in the 1960s and
shared the same family histories. Black children did not share these same elements of success
with white children. The divergences of the previous 300 years were much too extreme
(master/slave, oppressor/oppressed, educated/ignorant) to suddenly be irrelevant.
Notably, Lyndon Johnson tried to focus attention on this issue in a commencement speech at
Howard University in 1965. He said, “You don’t take a person who has been hobbled by chains
for years and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and say, ‘you are free to
compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” As a
Southerner, he was personally aware of how far behind the starting line many blacks were
Johnson did set about making good on his insight. He created a number of Federal programs
under the rubrics of the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty,” mostly in 1965 before the
Vietnam War became the dominant budgetary and political focus. These included Head Start,
Title I (aid for K-12 education of poor children), the Job Corps, and certain subsidized housing
programs (as well as Medicare and Medicaid). There remains much contention as to how
effective these were for breaking the cycle of poverty for poor blacks and there have been few
new initiatives since then.
Political support for such interventions on the part of the government waned rapidly after the
1960s. After the initial burst of energy focused on winning basic civil rights, the white
population has had little interest in Johnson’s point (although “white” philanthropy has made
continuous efforts to address some of these issues). As Wilson reports (p. 19), since 1975, never
more than 25% of whites have agreed with the statement that the federal government “has a
special obligation to help improve the living standards of blacks” because they “have been
discriminated against for so long.” In 2001, it was 20%. Moreover, the current fiscal dilemmas
ensure that there will be at best minimal public resources to invest in programs designed to
redress this uneven starting point.
In addition to the different starting points of black and white children, there must exist lingering
fallout from the reality of past racial tensions. The US is still populated with black parents who
grew up under Jim Crow and amid strong racist attitudes, and with whites who held those
attitudes. These are both stumbling blocks. Indeed, the coping mechanisms that were taught
black children for generations appear to still be passed down to the third post-civil rights
generation of black children today, while white children are exposed to black inner-city
stereotypes in the media and popular culture.106
With almost a third of black families mired in the underclass, and two-thirds of black children
growing up in single-parent households, the prospects for evening up the starting point of black
and white children look dim. What might be done? In the realm of Federal policy, much as been
tried already. Such large scale Federal interventions have been largely discredited. (However,
this did not prevent George Bush from pushing through the “No Child Left Behind” approach
that now seems to have had similarly poor results.)
What seems most promising recently is action at the local government level to reform public
education and at the community level to strengthen community support systems. This progress
will be discussed below.
But one can also ask “So what?” What if most black kids can’t escape the burden of the past? Is
that a threat to social stability and economic progress?
Surprisingly, this patently unfair situation may not be a huge problem. Clearly most whites do
not see it as a problem. Perhaps by willful ignorance, they choose to see any steps towards
redressing the imbalance as a threat to the American meritocratic myth. The next step in the
consolidation of this viewpoint may be the banning of any race-based preferences (aka
Affirmative Action) in university admissions when the Supreme Court rules on Fisher v. Texas.
Meanwhile, the latest round in the “culture vs. structure” debate with respect to the poor has been
struck by the recent book by Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) called Coming Apart. His
focus is specifically on just the white population and his thesis is that cultural differences are the
cause of a major divergence in socioeconomic success, which is in turn reinforcing these
differences. This perspective, that bad choices are the root cause of failure, is largely held by all
segments of the population, including blacks. His further point that single-motherhood and poor
work success then propagates that failure into the next generation, seals off much sympathy for
the bad hand dealt historically to the black underclass.
See for an example of the commonness and usefulness of
such guidance.
But it is notable that the white population is starting to see growing income inequality and
reduced economic mobility as a threat to its own social equanimity. Will this shift policymaking
towards improving the chances of the underclass, both white and black, to escape the cycle of
poverty? Perhaps, but more likely studies such as Murray’s will be used to say that it’s up to the
poor to break it themselves, since their choices are so central to their poverty.107 (Meanwhile,
the same political conservatives will continue to block something immediately useful, such as the
government paying for abortions or even contraception.)
To some extent, the black population has acceded to this perspective. It seems that, as it deals
with its own similar troubles, wrestling with issues of family dysfunction and underclass culture
destroying the prospects of many young black men, it is turning towards trying to solve these
through reforms of public education and drug laws and other approaches not related to largescale governmental intervention or expenditure.108
This may be the payoff to having removed the spirit-crushing (and anger-inciting) weight of
blatant racial discrimination and lifted a substantial portion of the black population into the
middle-class (and shown the other blacks that such access is at least possible).109 There seems
little evidence of high racial tensions, but rather more a focus on individuals dealing with their
situation and communities seeking ways to offer opportunities for these individuals to improve
their lives.
One good example of these tendencies is the pressure to improve public education, and
especially the rise of the charter school movement. Whatever careful experiments may say about
their effects on student test scores, charter schools give black parents much more of an incentive
to be active shapers of their children’s education. Simply having the choice as to what kind of
school and educational approach to enroll children in shifts the parent from passive recipient of
what the public school bureaucracy imposes to an active chooser among alternatives. This
should create greater involvement in the actual educational process. At a minimum, it seems to
have given black parents (who are much the disproportionate users of charter schools) a sense of
control and reduced underlying frustration with the “bad hand” their kids have been dealt.
Hopefully, charter schools and other school reforms will impact the perspectives and market
skills of the next generation of young black men. Meanwhile, the current cohort of young black
men are being severely impacted by high incarceration rates. The major cause of these is the
In a subsequent op-ed piece in the New York Times, in classic conservative fashion, Murray contemplates
possible ways of increasing the permeability of the upper-echelons to strivers from the other classes, but decides that
none are likely to be effective. He does not suggest directly boosting the weaker classes. See
Notably, these efforts are mostly at the individual or grassroots level. The mainstream black political groups
remain heavily invested in established perspectives such as supporting Affirmative Action and opposing charter
schools, both dear to their middle-class constituencies.
One important aspect of this upward mobility is totally unexplored here (and maybe anywhere). Casual
empiricism suggests that most members of the black middle-class started off with some advantages over the true
underclass, including above average status a century ago or descendance from house slaves versus field hands. This
may imply that escape from the underclass is in fact quite rare.
pursuit of the War on Drugs and the politically popular reliance on punitive incarceration to
reduce crime.
Whatever the formal cost-benefit calculation of both of these policy positions, it is becoming
clear that other ways of managing drug and crime issues offer a better balance of social costs
relative to the benefits. The costs of prisons and parole are significantly contributing to the
bankrupting of state treasuries, the consequences of regulating instead of prohibiting drug
markets are becoming more palatable, the possibilities of drug treatment are growing, and the
social costs of stigmatizing and cutting off the economic prospects of a major part of the black
male population are becoming clear.
Will these trends lead to reform? It is hard to know. For every push towards legalizing soft
drugs, political pressures seem to build for pushback. The strength of “law and order” politics
does not seem to diminish, despite much declined crime rates and the fiscal weight of the high
rates of incarceration. The political appeal of post-prison punitive policies such as restrictions on
access to food stamps, housing assistance, welfare, and post-secondary financial aid remain
strong also.
However, in a sign of the heating up of this issue, a book by the provocative title The New Jim
Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander has been getting
a lot of notice. The New York Times reports “For many African-Americans, the book gives
eloquent and urgent expression to deep feelings that the criminal justice system is stacked against
them.”110 Her point is that these policies are usually directed specifically at drug-related
convictions, which are overwhelmingly given to young black men who operate the drug market,
and not to their white customers. The result is a devastation within the black community that is
not seen or felt in the white community.
It is not clear what can be done aside from these two reform movements (and greater access to
contraception and abortion for the poor). One additional option might be to seek to ensure that
American history, as it is taught in schools, accurately and fully portrays the sort of information
collected here as to the historical burdens imposed on African-American citizens by scientific
racism, slavery, and Jim Crow.
From the author’s perspective, the focus of most Black History Month coverage on the
achievements of blacks is a hangover from the Black Pride pushback against the Moynihan
Report. It is pretty much wasted teachable moments. Young people, white and black, are
already thoroughly impressed by the abilities of black performing artists, sports figures and even
authors and Presidents. What is needed, and appears to be largely missing, is an appreciation of
just how long and systematically most blacks were denied the opportunity to achieve, especially
in other arenas.
This focus on the forces creating the black underclass should not be allowed to gloss over some
of the continuing issues for other blacks. As Wilson notes in his preface, and as Henry Louis
See Also see the following for reactions to
her claims.
Gates discovered in 2010, being a professor at Harvard does not prevent the upper-class AfricanAmerican male from being profiled into a threat, whether by the police (Gates) or the little old
lady in an elevator (Wilson). Young blacks in all situations probably suffer from stereotyping
based on the problematic characteristics of their ghetto brethren, as well as simply the echoes of
the past. The continuing self-segregation in social and cultural milieus and networks also act to
limit opportunities relative to whites.
Some day these issues may disappear. But meanwhile, blacks and whites will tend to carry
different world views, with whites generally oblivious to their privileges and blacks generally
fully aware of their history and their status as an “other” in a society where almost all other
ethnicities and “races” can disappear through intermarriage and cultural assimilation. Having
said that, the progress in black-white relations from the situation only 50 years ago has been
enormous and should be celebrated by both groups as indicative of how much can be changed in
social affairs under the right conditions.