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Blacks and Jews

"Recent history," says Ben Wattenberg, "teaches that minorities are often harmed by liberal attitudes, while they are helped by liberal programs." In The New Republic, Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, sketches a "new racism" growing out of preferential treatment for blacks. "The new racists," writes Murray, "do not think blacks are inferior. They are typically longtime supporters of civil rights. But they exhibit the classic behavioral symptom of racism: they treat blacks differently from whites, because of their race." The result, says Murray, is that blacks are denied the right to compete as equals. In Murray's view, and as a result of well-meaning affirmative-action programs, "the new racists . . . think of blacks as a commodity. The office must have a sufficient supply of blacks, who must be treated with special delicacy."

Murray sees a malign spiral. It is well known that despite the promising education statistics Wattenberg cites, blacks score dramatically below whites on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the basic yardstick for college admission (although the gap is narrowing somewhat). In 1983, for example, a math score that would put a black student midway in the ranks of other black students would place him behind 84 percent of all whites. During that same year, only 66 blacks in the entire country scored above 700 in the verbal section of the SAT's; only 205 in the math part. The number of blacks in the 600s in math was 1,531. In contrast, 31,704 non-black students in 1983 scored in the 700s in math; 121,640 in the 600s.

Despite the shortage of well-prepared black students, the nation's best colleges regularly war with one another to recruit them. Once these students are admitted to the elite schools, they do less well than whites, and sometimes, says Murray, "group pressure" causes them to give up. An excuse is born: "We could do better if we wanted to, but we don't." At Harvard, says Murray, "the current term among black students for a black who studies like a white is 'incognegro.'"

As measured by the Graduate Record Examination, the black-white gap is greater at the end of college than at the beginning. Still, graduate schools and then the real world reach out. Especially at the most prestigious white-collar places of employment, Murray finds that paternalism shields blacks from the normal (and usually more grinding) work experience. Invariably, and often simply because they are not permitted to participate in a normal apprenticeship, many blacks fail to perform. They are kept on nonetheless—"the mascot syndrome," to use Murray's phrase. "Everybody pretends that nothing is wrong—but the black's career is at an end."

It may be impossible to rebuild a consensus to deal with these problems—at least before the end of the century. The historical alliance of forces that led to the civil-rights victories of the 1960s and the affirmative-action initiatives of the 1970s took decades to develop. Now that energy is dissipated. Indeed, the whole thrust of the Reagan administration and much public opinion is running the opposite way. Still, for cultural and other reasons, Jews feel a greater stake in black progress than many other white ethnic groups. The polls continue to show that both groups support the liberal domestic social agenda that is the legacy of the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. So the ligature of the old alliance remains intact. Putting flesh on the old bones is something else.

No one seriously suggests that the 1985 mayoral campaign in New York City can be anything but a footnote in the long saga of black-Jewish relations. But because New York is in many respects the capital of the world in the 1980s, even parochial struggles can have outsize impact. Both black and Jewish politicians in New York have contributed to today's climate of bad feelings. Yet if the campaign deals with some of these issues without hysteria—for a change—the race might serve a larger purpose than seems possible today.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Feb 4, 1985 issue of New York