From the May 29, 1989 issue of New York Magazine.
On a pleasant spring evening, several weeks before the city was convulsed by the rape of the woman jogger in Central Park, Richard Ravitch found himself in the heart of Queens—as he often does these days, pressing his long-shot candidacy for mayor—trying to sell optimism to a room full of pessimists. “This city was built by optimists,” he insisted. “By people who built the subways two stops beyond where the newest houses were going up. By people who built reservoirs, and roads, and bridges, an infrastructure far more sophisticated and expensive than was needed—because they had faith in the idea of New York, they knew the city would grow and prosper… .”
“It was different then,” the man next to me muttered. This was an audience of mutterers—the Continental Regular Democratic Club: elderly Jews mostly, the sort of people who sit behind you in matinees and repeat the dialogue.
Ravitch plodded ahead, sensing that his attempt at urban rhapsody wasn’t quite cutting it with this crowd, but pushing on anyway—to the immigrant experience, usually a winner with older folks. They loved to hear about the “wave after wave” of immigrants who came to New York “with a dream of building a life for themselves and their families. This city is an incubator“, he said. “It provides an atmosphere of opportunity for each newly arrived group, where they can get a job, an education for their children and move into the mainstream… .”
“So what happened?” An elderly woman interrupted. “What about the—”
“Shhhh,” said the man in front of her.
“No, let me say it,” she said, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Get your hand off me!” he yelled, and moved away. “Let him talk.”
These were wild, inexplicable passions. Ravitch seemed lost, deflated: What was going on here? “Excuse me, Mr. Ravitch,” said Arthur Katzman, a leader of the Continental Dems and a longtime member of the City Council. “But I must disagree with you about the immigrants. It was true of the immigrants who came from Europe, and also the Orientals. But these … others. The quality is not as good. The ability to contribute used to be greater.” There was wild applause, which Katzman took to mean that it was time for a speech—and he careened off on a defense of the mayor and a tour of the homeless crisis, thereby relieving the candidate of the need to respond to that other question.
In a perfect world, Ravitch—whose lifelong devotion to the cause of civil rights is unimpeachable—would have gone back and chastised Katzman for the racial implication of his comments. He might have mentioned the thousands of West Indians and Hispanics who have opened stores and worked their way into the mainstream, the tens of thousands of American blacks who—against all odds—have gone to college, become teachers and nurses and public officials. A truly gutsy response would have gone on to acknowledge the social anarchy that has overtaken the black underclass, and the difficulties the city—and the nation—faces in trying to deal with it. But Ravitch should be forgiven his stunned evasion: Each of his fellow candidates would have done the same.
Race is an issue politicians go to great pains to avoid. It has been deemed unfit for open discussion, in all but the most platitudinous manner, for many years. The public is, oddly, complicit in this: People seem to sense that the topic is so raw, and their feelings so intense, that it’s just too risky to discuss in mixed company. “It never comes up,” says another mayoral hopeful. “Crime does all the time, but it’s rarely linked to race. I get questions and comments in public meetings about everything under the sun—but never about race.”
In private, though, race seems the only thing people are talking about these days—especially since the terrifyingly casual barbarism in Central Park last month. The radio talk shows, the true vox pop of the eighties, are full of it. The subject dominates fancy dinner parties in Manhattan; it comes up on supermarket lines in Queens and around kitchen tables in Brooklyn; it has suddenly become permissible to vent frustrations, to ask questions and say things—often ugly things—that have been forbidden in polite discourse for many years.
And the central question, at least among whites, is a version—more or less refined—of what Arthur Katzman was trying to get across in Queens that night: Why have so many blacks proved so resistant to incubation? Why, after 25 years of equal rights—indeed, of special remedial treatment under law—do so many remain outside the bounds of middle-class society? Why do even educated blacks seem increasingly remote, hostile, and paranoid? In a society besotted with quick fixes and easy answers to every problem, is this the one that will prove insoluble?
Even though none of the candidates will say it publicly, race is the central issue in this year’s mayoral campaign. But then, it was the great unspoken in last year’s presidential election as well—remember Willie Horton? It is, and always has been, the most persistent and emotional test of America’s ability to exist as a society of equals. In New York, the challenge is immediate and explosive: Race is at the heart of all of the city’s most critical problems—crime, drugs, homelessness, the crises in public education, public health, children’s services. All have been exacerbated by racial polarization and antagonism. And also by a conspiracy of silence—by a fear of speaking candidly about the causes and possible solutions to these problems.
The silence may well be about to end. Each new outrage—Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, the constant drumbeat of crack killings, cops blown away, the jogger raped, the black woman raped and thrown off the Brooklyn rooftop (one of the legion of black victims ignored by white society)—each new barbarity nudges people closer to the moment when the discussion of how black and white Americans can come to terms with each other is reopened.
It is a public debate that was closed down abruptly nearly twenty years ago. The country has been drifting toward disaster ever since. “There is an illness in the community now, a psychosis,” says John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and one of the true heroes of the civil-rights movement. “We need to bring all the dirt and all the sickness out into the open. We need to talk again about building what Dr. King called a beloved community—a truly integrated society of blacks and whites.”
Integration seems an impossibly romantic notion now. Even to propose it as the solution to the racial morass raises derisive hoots in the black community and patronizing shrugs and smiles from whites. Serious talk of integration ended when “black power” began to flourish and equal rights was supplanted by affirmative action as the rallying cry of the movement. Aggrievement—the notion that blacks deserved special compensatory treatment—replaced assimilation at the top of the activists’ agenda. Integration withered as a goal; “community control” replaced it. The movement imploded—and white America was only too happy to let it happen. Liberals quickly, romantically—and quite irresponsibly—acceded to the new black demands; conservatives were quietly relieved that blacks no longer wanted in. Only a few brave souls raised the obvious question: How could blacks be included in American society if they insisted on separating themselves from it? For the most part, interracial debate ended.
“White America ceded control of the definition of the problem to blacks in the late sixties and early seventies,” says Glenn Loury, a black professor of political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “But not control of the solution. A situation of mutually reinforcing cowardice has resulted.”
Twenty years later, having suffered a generation of black “power” and white indifference, race relations are at a dead end. The usual litany of achievement—the growth of a black middle class, the integration of public life—isn’t very convincing. The horrific desperation of the black underclass demands that the racial debate be reopened, and the only logical place for it to begin is where it left off: at the moment when the civil-rights movement resegregated itself. “We made a serious mistake when the movement turned against its first principle: integration,” John Lewis laments. “The seeds that were planted twenty years ago have borne very bitter fruit.”
The shift from integration to “black power” seems a strange, counterproductive inversion now—and yet it seemed perfectly logical at the time. How did it happen—and happen so quickly? The death of Martin Luther King Jr. is often cited as a turning point—Lewis mentions it—but Stokely Carmichael proclaimed “black power” two years before King’s death, and Malcolm X was drawing large crowds well before that. The separatist impulse had always been there, ever since emancipation—and so its revival in the mid-sixties was no great surprise. The surprise was the speed with which it moved from a handful of radicals at the periphery to the heart of the civil-rights movement. The irony was that it occurred at a moment when civil-rights legislation—bills that mandated integration—were flying through Congress and the leading integrationist, Martin Luther King, was winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Never had America seemed so open to the idea of inclusion.
And yet the legislation itself—particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965—contained the seeds of separatism. As Bayard Rustin, a stalwart integrationist until his death in 1987, pointed out early on. “What began as a protest movement is now being challenged to translate itself into a political movement.” This meant a shift from nonviolent demonstrations to “the building of community institutions or power bases” to elect black politicians.
There wasn’t much percentage in integration for the black mayors and aldermen who soon won election across the black belt in the South and in the urban slums up North. For people like Charles Evers, running for mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, black electoral power was a far more immediate concern than the gauzy ideal of “black-and-white together.” Their agenda was naturally compensatory: If the streets on the white side of town were paved, equality meant paving them on the black side of town. Like all good politicians, the new black officials pandered to their core constituencies. This was classic ethnic politics, a healthy impulse—but it put the black pols into closer rhetorical proximity with the militant separatists: Both were calling for “black power.”
Northern black leaders wanted a piece of the action, too—but they were locked into larger, white-dominated government entities. For them, the naked choice was between power and integration: By separating from the white system—by demanding “community control” of school districts in New York, for example—they could gain a measure of power from the white politicians who ran the town. As Nicholas Lemann observed in The Atlantic last December and January, the “community action” component of the federal war on poverty reinforced this tendency by funneling money to a new generation of community leaders, instead of to the established city authorities—even Lyndon Johnson, it seemed, believed in black power.
Georgia’s John Lewis says, “The seeds that were planted twenty years ago have borne very bitter fruit.”
There was, less obviously, a certain security in separatism as well. If the schools (and neighborhoods) remained black, there was a good chance blacks would run them. Integration challenged blacks as profoundly as it did whites. It meant competing against the man for the top jobs. And a great many blacks were convinced—despite all the new laws and King’s Nobel Prize and a president who said, “We shall overcome”—that the competition would be as unfair as it always had been. There were, quite understandably, more than a few who quietly wondered if the racists were right, and secretly feared that they couldn’t compete. “That impulse was nothing new,” said a labor leader deeply involved in the civil-rights movement. “The black teachers in the South were pretty solidly against integration in the 1950s.”
So the militants provided the new black class of political leaders with a philosophical rationale for their natural impulses to accumulate power and avoid competition: White society was fundamentally racist, and so integration was pointless. Blacks were victims of a systematic oppression and deserved special treatment—affirmative action, quotas, more programs of every sort—in recompense. This was quite satisfying intellectually. Many fair-minded Americans agreed: Blacks had been treated abominably. Their restraint in the face of the most noxious provocation had been remarkable. Even when the great urban riots began in the mid-sixties, these seemed an understandable—if not justifiable—response to white prejudice.
But a line was crossed when blacks demanded—and then got—special treatment. A price was paid, most immediately in heightened antagonism from the white working class, which felt threatened by the new rules. But eventually by the blacks themselves: By defining themselves as victims and separating themselves by race, they had guaranteed their continued isolation from white society. “This … is the tragedy of black power in America today,” wrote Shelby Steele, the brilliant black essayist, in Harper’s last year. “It is primarily a victim’s power… . Whatever gains this power brings in the short run through political action, it undermines in the long run. Social victims may be collectively entitled, but they are all too often individually demoralized.”
When aggrievement was proclaimed the central, psychic fact of black life, the most aggrieved and alienated—the most amoral, the criminals—became the definers of “true” blackness in the media and also in the streets. White liberals, guilt-ridden (I write from experience), accepted this spurious definition at face value. Far worse, though: For a brief, truly revolting moment, white radicals celebrated the most antisocial blacks as culture heroes. Criminality was romanticized. Slums were now called “ghettos,” which assumed a romantic communalism and immediacy of oppression that simply didn’t exist.
The radical looniness reached its apex with the celebration of the Black Panthers and of Eldridge Cleaver’s hopelessly perverted Soul on Ice, in which black-on-white rape was described as a political act. (As a young reporter in Boston at the time, I interviewed a white rape victim who coolly described her post-violation reaction: “I went to the free clinic to get a tetanus shot, and then went home and reread Eldridge Cleaver, so I could better understand what happened.”) There was something incredibly careless—and so ironic as to feed the worst black paranoia—about both the white radicals’ celebration and the liberals’ acceptance of this pathological behavior. By romanticizing these irresponsible activities—criminality, sexual “freedom,” drug use, and general lack of ambition—whites were lending support to a subtle system of oppression that had existed since slavery times.
“One can think of the lower-class Negroes as bribed and drugged by this system,” wrote John Dollard in his landmark 1937 study Caste and Class in a Southern Town. “The effect of the social set-up seems to be to keep Negroes infantile, to grant them infantile types of freedom from responsibility… . The evidence is unmistakable that the moral indolence allowed to Negroes is perceived by them and their white caste masters as a compensating value and gain [for forced labor in a plantation or share-cropping system].”
The words seem rather harsh now, after a quarter-century of euphemisms. But John Dollard wrote as a firm advocate of “Negro” rights; he described a pattern of oppression and prescribed a solution. He made a clear distinction between the determinedly proper black middle class, struggling to assimilate, and the rural underclass, which had not yet shed the behavior patterns imposed by their former slave masters. Then he concluded, “The dominant aim of our society seems to be to middle-classify all of its members. Negroes, including lower-class Negroes, are no exceptions. Eventually they must all enter the competition for higher status which is so basic and compulsive an element in our way of life. This will mean … approximating more nearly the ideal of restraint, independence and personal maturity which is implicitly attached to our demands for individual competition and mobility.”
This was considered radical race-mixing in the thirties; 30 years later, black activists had come to see any derogation of lower-class black morality as white paternalism. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report—in the spirit of Dollard—on the instability of black family structure in 1965, he was pilloried. A sociological ice age ensued. “Liberals became increasingly reluctant to research, write about, or publicly discuss inner-city social dislocations following the virulent attacks against Moynihan,” wrote the black sociologist William Julius Wilson in The Truly Disadvantaged. Indeed, for nearly twenty years, the only “legitimate” research was conducted by “minority scholars on the strengths, not the weaknesses, of inner-city families and communities.”
Meanwhile, the pathology metastasized. When Moynihan wrote his report in 1965, a “staggering” 26 percent of non-white children were born out of wedlock; now the figure is 61 percent. The technology of underclass indolence also has exploded: The Saturday-night knife fights on the black side of the tracks that Dollard says the rednecks found so amusing have become shoot-outs with semi-automatic weapons; “white lightning” has become crack. Sex remains sex—but mixed with hypodermic needles spells AIDS.
A great many blacks and white liberals will argue that these spiraling pathologies are the result of racism, the hopelessness and frustration that are part of growing up desperately poor and “knowing” that the system won’t cut you any slack. This is undoubtedly true, as is William Julius Wilson’s belief that the departure of the black middle class from the cities to the suburbs removed role models, disciplinarians, and other socializing forces from the slums, hastening the collapse of the social order. “You can’t imagine how removed these kids are from life as we know it,” says Andrew Cuomo, who runs a program for homeless families. “They have no contact with anyone who has succeeded in the system. They don’t have an uncle who’s a lawyer or an aunt who’s a teacher. They see no point to succeeding. The line you hear most often is ‘Stay in school so you can go to work in McDonald’s.’ “
This terrible deprivation no doubt would have existed if sociologists had been free to ply their trade in the slums, and if the civil-rights movement had kept integration as its goal, but the militant know-nothingism of the black nationalists certainly hasn’t helped any. Sadly, when “black power” filters to the streets, it’s often little more than a rationale for failure: More than a few scholarly studies, notably one by John U. Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in The Urban Review, have shown that there is enormous peer pressure against academic success in black high schools. It is considered “acting white.”
The taunts that Ogbu and Fordham describe seem no worse than those endured by generations of Jewish, Irish, and Italian nerds, but the sanctions are cosmic: The black kid who succeeds in school is not only a traitor to the race but a sucker besides. He, or she, is busting his butt for a job at McDonald’s. There is tremendous pressure on these kids—even those from strict, stable middle-class homes, as some of the children involved in the Central Park rape apparently were—to prove their blackness by misbehaving.
White society offers very few incentives to the black teenagers who resist peer pressure and play “our” game. Indeed, they are treated with the same disdain visited upon the potential hoodlums. In a stunning bit of television several weeks ago, Ted Koppel gave six star black high-school students a camera and sent them out into the white world, asking for change of a dollar. The reactions were depressing. Most whites simply ignored the kids. White women were startled when approached; one seemed to jump back, then hastened to the other side of the street.
Given the levels of criminality now, these reactions are also understandable. They are part of the vicious spiral of racism and reaction that has been allowed to spin out of control during the years of silence. The pattern is clear: The more violent the streets become, the more race-sensitive whites become, and the blacks, in turn, grow more isolated and angry. The rape of the jogger in Central Park seems to have ratcheted the cycle another turn toward anarchy. The white reaction is manifest. Mayoral candidates who never hear questions about race relations in public forums say that privately white people seem obsessed by the incident. “Jaws have tightened.” says one candidate. “Whites have just had it with blacks,” says another—that is, they have no tolerance for discussions of racism, oppression, or other excuses for antisocial behavior.
The reaction in the black community is less remarked upon but no less extreme and much more disturbing. “I am just disgusted by how many friends tell me that it was the jogger’s fault,” says one prominent black leader. “They say she shouldn’t have been there.”
There is also a new outbreak of the half-crazed paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing that have become quite popular in the black media in recent years. The City Sun, considered a “respectable” black weekly, published a truly vomitous account of the incident, including a fantasy description of the victim’s body as “the American Ideal … a tiny body with round hips and pert buttocks, soft white thighs, slender calves, firm and high breasts.”
The problem of the underclass can’t be solved unless personal responsibility pervades society from top to bottom.
The author of this trash went on to opine that—if you omit the question of whether the rape actually occurred—the children who committed the Central Park abomination were being subjected to the same sort of treatment as the Scottsboro boys, the blacks falsely convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama 50 years ago. This sort of nonsense is of a piece with the increasing numbers of blacks nationally who, according to one pollster, believe that the drug crisis is a conspiracy on the part of white society to “commit genocide” against blacks. “The really disturbing thing is that the more solid the black middle class becomes,” this pollster said, “the more its fundamental views of the issues seems to diverge from middle-class America.”
In the days since his untimely death, I have been thinking about the asthma that killed Schools Chancellor Richard Green. I had several long conversations with Green during his year or so as chancellor, and the most striking thing about him—in addition to his fierce integrity and caring—was how constricted he seemed, physically and figuratively. This was especially true when we were “on the record.” He would speak in word clouds, imprecise, clichéd and formal, his inhaler clutched tightly in his hand. When I put the notebook away—and no longer was an official emissary of the white media—he literally seemed to breathe easier. We gossiped freely about politicians and reporters, and how strange the flushed intensity of New York seemed to a fellow from the eminently more rational town of Minneapolis.
The pressure of my “official” station on this proud man—and his relief when the inquisition ended—is haunting. The Richard Greens of the world, all the striving, insistently moral black men and women working to overcome 400 years of stereotyping, are the most poignant victims of the escalating alienation between the races. They are the tightrope walkers, holding their breath as they perform in midair with only a slender strand of support—ever fearful that even the smallest mistake will prove cataclysmic.
I wonder what can be done to make their lives easier, to show appreciation for their efforts. The usual impulse—the liberal impulse—is to look to government for a remedy, and there are some things that can be done, but a great deal that can’t. The most basic thing, I suspect, is to implement John Dollard’s 50-year-old prescription: Make a concerted effort to undo the behavior patterns of the underclass that cause social anarchy, feed the cycle of racism, and undercut the efforts of middle-class blacks to become part of the larger society.
For a quarter-century, this agenda has been avoided. There have been two paradigms for dealing with dilemmas of race, and neither has worked. Conservatives have ignored the problem, left the solution to “market forces” or, worse, to social Darwinism. Liberals seem to have abandoned critical thought entirely, allowing militants to dictate their agenda, scorning most efforts to impose sanctions on antisocial behavior by underclass blacks.
A new model is needed, one that returns to the original movement goals of integration and equal rights while addressing the deterioration that has taken place in black family structure and community institutions over the past twenty years. Integration—that is, assimilation into the middle-class economy—can be the only possible goal. The society has to “emphasize commonality as a higher value than ‘diversity’ or ‘pluralism,’ ” wrote Shelby Steele in Harper’s. Programs that divide by race, even well-intentioned ones like affirmative action, are too costly in moral terms. They send the wrong message—of racial division and aggrievement. A more profitable agenda is one that seeks to pull the poorest, regardless of race, into conformity with middle-class standards. Even now, before a real debate has started, some areas of agreement are beginning to emerge:
• Education. Head Start preschool programs have been proven to be successful in helping to adjust poor children to the middle-class educational experience; studies have shown that Head Start graduates are less likely to drop out of high school, more likely to do well academically. Everyone from George Bush to Jesse Jackson praises the program—and yet it is available to only 16 percent of those eligible. Why? Because it isn’t cheap. This year, Head Start will cost $1.235 billion. Multiply that by six.
Perhaps the most important job for schools in the present atmosphere is to convince poor kids that there’s hope for them, that they are not being merely hustled on to jobs at McDonald’s. In truth, many demographers predict a serious labor shortage in the near future—a serious skilled-labor shortage already exists—and good jobs most likely will be there if the kids finish school. But programs like the Boston Compact—in which local companies guarantee work to every Boston public-high-school graduate—can reduce the anxiety of poor teenagers and counteract the sneers of the street kids, the ones too cool to compete. Harrison J. Goldin, the city comptroller and a candidate for mayor, has proposed that more attention also be given to dropout prevention in the early elementary grades. “Attendance in fourth grade is a strong indicator of which kids will stay in school later on,” he says. “Instead of putting all our dropout-prevention money at the high-school level, we should be spending it in the earlier grades.”
Still, schools can do only so much. Indeed, they are blamed for a great deal they can’t do. I’ve had several conversations recently with independent observers who’ve been spending time in the public schools. “They aren’t in crisis,” says one, who has concentrated on the early elementary grades around town. “I started off thinking we were faced with a disaster, but I was dead wrong. The teachers are great. The kids are alert. The books and equipment aren’t any worse than they were when I was in school. The problem is what goes on outside the classroom—in the streets, in the homes.”
• Crime. Strict law enforcement may be the ultimate civil-rights program: It removes the temptations of the street as a viable alternative to staying in school. More of everything is needed: more cops, more jails, more drug-treatment slots—and a much more serious attempt by the federal government to interdict the flow of drugs into the country. All of which will cost untold billions.
But perhaps the most valuable thing that can be done in this area is to drive home the certainty of punishment in the slums, to make it an immediate reality for the kids tempted to go wrong. The idea of community work gangs, often dismissed by liberals, isn’t quite so Draconian as it sounds. If the kids on the street see the small-time corner drug-dealer busted on Monday, tried, convicted, and forced to scrub graffiti off the local elementary school in a prison work gang by Thursday, it may erase some of the glamour from the drug trade. “They should put the miscreants in really demeaning outfits, too—like pink polka dots,” says one formerly liberal Democrat. “Anything that makes lawbreaking seem less macho and more dumb.”
• Personal responsibility. This is more controversial and also, most likely, the heart of the problem. How should society address the fifteen-year-old mother? What does she owe the government in return for the welfare check it gives her? A consensus seems to have grown in favor of “workfare,” which was included in last year’s federal welfare-reform law. But that’s not enough: Doesn’t the teenage mother owe society something more than simply going to work after her kids have grown? “She owes us being a good mother,” says former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, now a declared candidate for mayor. “I wouldn’t have any trouble with a requirement that these girls attend parenting classes and bring their babies there… . We might encourage them not to have more children and teach them to care for the ones they do have.”
But then, a lot of attention has been paid to the problems of teenage mothers. Remarkably, the responsibility of the fathers has been largely ignored. And yet, the “impulse freedom” (as John Dollard called it) involved in siring a child out of wedlock and then refusing to support it is the essential pathology of the black underclass. It represents a state of mind, a behavior pattern that is the most enduring legacy of slavery. Last year’s welfare-reform legislation stepped up child-support-enforcement procedures. The question now is how far the society is willing to go: Should the mothers be required to give up the names of their mates? If the fathers aren’t working, should they be provided with public-works jobs? Should they be the ones scrubbing graffiti off the local elementary school?
There is no question that the problem of the underclass can’t be solved unless an ethic of personal responsibility pervades the entire society, from top to bottom. If black teenagers are going to be made responsible for their sexual conduct, taxpayers will have to be willing to spend the money on education and crime-fighting that will channel the children of the underclass toward inclusion in the middle-class economy. To those few remaining self-destructive militants who say, “You’re asking us to become white,” the answer is readily apparent in the recent tide of Asian immigrants who practice economic integration while maintaining a fierce cultural pride and even, to an extent, segregating themselves in ethnic enclaves.
“When you are behind in a footrace,” Martin Luther King told college students in 1964, “the only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your white roommate says he’s tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil.”
There is not much more that government can do than help the runners to the starting line and make sure the lanes are clear for all contestants. There is no way government can guarantee that blacks will succeed, although many seem to believe that to be the case. “It’s the greatest difference between blacks and whites in polling—the vast majority of blacks believe government can solve anything,” says a prominent pollster. “By contrast, the baby-boomers are the ultimate level-playing-field crowd. If you ask them who gets special benefits from the government, they name three groups: big corporations, rich people, and minorities. The good news is that they seem ready to accept anyone who earns what he gets, regardless of race.”
Polling data are notoriously sanguine when it comes to problems of race. No doubt, far too many whites won’t be ready to “accept anyone … regardless of race.” But what’s the alternative? The costs of not competing—of using racism as an excuse for paralysis—have become all too clear these past twenty years. No doubt, the contest will be far more difficult for blacks than it has been for any group that has gone before them. No doubt, a great many won’t succeed, and a great many more will be as uncertain and anguished in their pride as Richard Green was. The contest won’t be fair.
But consider the possible results of the extra testing, the fearsome struggle that will be required of blacks if they are determined, finally, to compete as equals—even if the race is still stacked against them: Their triumphs will be that much sweeter; their success may prove that much more spectacular than the victories won by the less rigorously tried “Europeans” and Asians who have incubated so well—and who have no choice now but to cheer their African brothers and sisters on, since the success of the experiment itself may depend on it.