Black America: The Road to Racial Uplift

Christopher H. Foreman, Jr
Chris Foreman
Christopher H. Foreman, Jr Former Brookings Expert, Former Professor and Director of the Social Policy Program - University of Maryland (College Park) School of Public Policy

March 1, 1998

From the beginning, “civil rights” was a misleading term, perhaps an outright misnomer. The moral, legal, and rhetorical pursuit of collective rights of access was but an essential strategy in a multifront war for a much larger prize: the uplift of a people, once mostly enslaved, afterward still widely despised. “Civil rights” could never mean just individual rights, any more than NAACP denoted a National Association for the Advancement of Coherent Principles. Indeed, black leaders and organizations have always known that they must pursue the vast and varied interests of their stigmatized and marginalized constituents by any realistic mechanism available. Rights were more a means than an end. If progress appears to have stalled, it is largely because the successive strategies embraced by the champions of racial uplift have all encountered their practical and political limits. For the most part these strategies have not so much failed as fallen victim to inevitable exhaustion and diminishing returns.

Everyone now recognizes that the strategy of securing basic legal access, pursued during an era of heroic civil rights advocacy, has long since run its course. As textbooks today routinely teach, that phase of the struggle began in the courts during the 1930s, shifting trajectory toward Congress a generation later as favorable public opinion, nurtured by a disciplined plea for simple justice and bouts of segregationist violence, made such a turn politically feasible. The basic access argument was simple and therefore potent. Individuals ought not to be proscribed, purely for reasons of color, from plainly quotidian activities available to other citizens: voting for mayor, viewing a movie from a seat of one’s choosing, wolfing down a cheeseburger at a dimestore lunch counter. The great majority of white Americans had no particular affection for blacks, but had never felt the need for separate water fountains. Such relatively petty outrages proved hard to defend outside the Deep South. Thankfully, it has now been a long while since even most white southerners would have insisted that, say, Harvard’s distinguished Afro-Americanist Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ought not teach at a “white” university.

But the high moral perch afforded by the access agenda always had stringent limits, and they became apparent early. Formal doors to advancement might stand unlocked, perhaps even wide open, but how many black Americans would or could walk through? A Skip Gates might march off to Yale, but how many others would follow, especially if all the university did was mail out a brochure to Harlem with a road map to New Haven enclosed? Legally desegregated schools and workplaces could not, by themselves, yield diverse student bodies and workforces, much less ensure equal graduation and promotion rates.

Not surprisingly, as far back as the 1960s, the access agenda was giving way to rather less lofty (and still ongoing) haggles over dollars and numbers. Congress could target funds on numerous problems, creating new legal authorities when a favorable combination of support and indifference prevailed. A less openly democratic approach to black uplift lay in the dull machinery of administration, amidst the arcana of government regulations and guidance memoranda, subject to policing by the courts. Merely offering individualized redress for particular claimants according to each specific grievance appeared dreadfully inadequate to the scale of the social challenge–rather like restoring a beach by hauling in one grain of sand at a time. More institutionally aggressive efforts, formal and informal, seemed warranted.

Thus were born goals and timetables, minority contracting set-asides, and the entire regime of both “hard” (formal, mandated, quantitatively monitored) and “soft” (informal, voluntary, improvisational, hortatory) affirmative action. (This writer is a product of that regime. Every professional appointment and educational credential I have held would likely have been unattainable absent the–mostly informal–bestowal of crucial “breaks” tied at least implicitly to my race. For what it s worth, I have felt no attendant stigma.That’s because of my own sense that most success in life is a matter of breaks exploited via work–a very American intuition.)

Advocates for black uplift heard a new and disturbing thunder in the distance as far back as the mid-1960s. Early lightning struck as a government report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Crafted by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the report suggested serious new tears in black America’s social fabric that might widen in time. But neither a leadership anchored securely in the safe harbor of its access– affirmative action agenda, nor the increasingly strident voices gathering under the Black Power rubric, were in any mood to hear some Irishman’s embarrassing prattle about “Negro family structure,” however plainly sympathetic and data-laden. America’s social policy researchers have been making up for considerable lost time as a result.

This issue of the Brookings Review reflects a sense that on racial matters the American condition is overall dramatically improved, but far more complicated than it used to seem, and in important respects continually depressing. A significant black middle class has emerged (and not solely through affirmative action). White racial attitudes are astonishingly transformed from where they stood during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, when lynching blacks was still an informally listed entree on the menu of southern civic entertainments.

Yet some devilishly tenacious ills remain, for which neither access nor affirmative action is satisfactory medicine: low skills and abysmal test scores among minority youngsters; opportunity-sapping teenage pregnancies; the vastly disproportionate involvement of black males with the criminal justice system; the lure of drug money and addiction among the black underclass. A foray into the Brookings library recently yielded a new issue of the Journal of Human Resources, in which Howard S. Bloom and several collaborators assess the Job Training and Partnership Act’s income effects for adults and out-of-school youths. Since I had not seen the results of the National JTPA Study trumpeted across the front page of the Washington Post, I should have known what was coming. Still, I winced at what I read (emphasis below added):

Findings from the National JTPA Study parallel those from the few other studies of employment and training programs that have employed experimental designs. The modest positive impacts on earnings experienced by adult women…are consistent with the impacts observed by previous randomized studies of work-welfare programs…. The modest positive impacts experienced by adult men….are consistent with the impacts observed for men by the several existing randomized studies of programs for displaced workers….

For out-of-school youths, there is a disturbingly consistent lack of program earnings gains across several major studies….

For adults, we still do not know what works best for whom… For out-of-school youths, we are at a more primitive stage in our understanding of how to increase labor market success; we have not found any way to do so…

But it will not help to seek refuge in comfortable fictions. The genuine racism that lingers in white America is not a primary cause of these difficulties, and the view that “nothing has fundamentally changed” on America s racial landscape is insupportable. In their book America in Black and White, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom opine that such a “flat-Earth view of white attitudes” can only be held by those who believe that social science evidence is worthless.”

Actually, as even they realize, that is too simple an explanation for overreliance on the rhetorical hammer of “racism.” For many African Americans, “racism” is simply an intuitively appealing way to make sense of a complicated and disturbing social and economic milieu. Resort to “racism” (which takes its most extreme form as belief in anti-black conspiracies) is fundamentally symptomatic of a deeply frustrated popular groping for answers to questions triggered, ironically, by the vanquishing of the old racial order and by the failure of rising tides to lift all ships and wash away all problems. Indeed, the burial of Jim Crow was followed by social challenges that scarcely seemed to exist when it was alive. This may help persuade some African Americans that a malicious chicanery must be afoot.

For activists and the intelligentsia, “racism” offers obvious political leverage for claiming the moral high ground and sustaining pressure for social change. Trouble is, there is just enough real racism left to render “racism” both a plausible explanation to the black masses and a convenient advocacy fulcrum for black elites.

African-American leadership may be frustrated, but it is not stupid. Its members doubtless appreciate that the current malaise afflicting poor blacks is largely a concomitant of forces like middle-class residential and educational choices and broader economic developments. (When Jim Crow flourished, it was far more commonly possible for a man with no education beyond the primary grades to feed a family.) One also detects, especially among black clergy, a grim awareness that personal and collective values, not just skill acquisition, are essential to strong communities and enhanced life chances. But the leadership game also dictates that one play with the cards available, and the “race card” can be hard to resist, even when inappropriate. Just ask New York City s indefatigable Al Sharpton.

We need hard and courageous thinking about the complex array of troubles that plague the black community and the nation, but we do not suffer for lack of chatter about race. Any careful empirical study of the attention accorded race in both the electronic and print media would surely find impressive amounts of race-related news, as well as opinion reflecting every conceivable viewpoint. We may not always be completely forthright with one another, but the subject is never very far off any sentient citizen’s radar screen. As Donald Horowitz recently remarked, Americans today may be enduring a serious case of “race fatigue.”

We do lack both crucial knowledge (about how to produce various positive policy effects) and the political consensus essential to making available dramatically increased resources for ambitious policy initiatives. It is unclear that franker interracial talk, however desirable, will spur much change on either front. If anyone can lead a probing national seminar on race, surely that person is President Clinton. But even he is all too aware that presidents are most likely to spark successful conversations when “success” has a narrow and precise meanin–such as adoption of a Civil Rights Act or a Strategic Defense Initiative.

Affirmative action certainly warrants hard thinking, though enduring disagreement on that front appears inescapable. Our collective attachment to the notion of meritocracy, of individually earned rewards, runs deep. The ideals of colorblindness and racial diversity remain hard to reconcile, at least for the present. As Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley argues in a recent volume, the subject is far more complex than simple slogans allow. Unfortunately, that is true even of the slogan coined by Edley’s former boss, President Clinton: “amend it, don’t end it.” As a nation we are not going to dispense with affirmative action entirely. Nor do we wish to. Aggressive outreach and job training targeted at African Americans stir controversy mainly by falling short of their announced goals. And corporate America is reasonably content with the status quo, as the Reagan administration quickly discovered.

But some varieties of affirmative action (such as race-normed tests and further breaks for the already conspicuously advantaged) have proved difficult to defend. One specific approach in need of mending is any academic admissions process that displaces deserving white candidates to make room for minorities with weaker credentials who cannot or do not complete the program to which they’ve been admitted. As an affront to both efficiency and justice, failures of this sort ought to concern conservatives and liberals alike. To the degree that a policy slips toward all cost and no benefit, it would appear perverse by definition. Moreover, the Clinton administration’s mantra that “quotas are illegal” may be disingenuous if de facto quotas (which afford the advantage of hard targets to aim for) operate in place of legal ones.

But how common are such defects in the affirmative action universe? More common, one suspects, are efforts that regularly spawn both successes and failures, and where a quota smear won’t easily stick. The obvious example of a Colin Powell, who redeems whatever jumpstart he may have enjoyed through distinguished performance, is bound to give even some affirmative action critics a moment’s hesitation. That’s clearly why President Clinton tried to squeeze Abigail Thernstrom with the Powell example during a televised town hall meeting on race last December.

Possibly the most insidious effect of the affirmative action furor is to shift precious time in the national spotlight away from our low-income black citizens, whose long-term fates merit the hardest thinking of all. Affirmative action, a boon to middle-class blacks like me, promises little help on that front. Nor does the continuing university-based mudwrestle over multiculturalism. The symposium in this issue of the Brookings Review concentrates specifically on what might be called “the black predicament.” This represents another conscious editorial choice, grounded in the conviction that the great social question of the new millennium is less likely to be “can we all get along?” than “can we all get ahead?”