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Summer 1992
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  N ew York Views

The New Polemics of Race
Linda Chavez
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Were it not for the Los Angeles riots, Andrew Hacker’s new book, Two Nations: Black and White; Separate, Hostile, Unequal might have languished on the shelves, its unsung beyond the literary journals of the Left. But with the rubble in South-Central L.A. still smoldering, the book’s publishers went back to the presses twice, turning out 90,000 copies. Within a week, Two Nations was on the best-seller list, and Hacker, a professor at Queens College, became a frequent commentator about the riots on television, radio, and in print. The media had found the perfect riot pundit—a middle-aged, white professor who could explain “black rage,” the phenomenon supposedly responsible for three days of arson, looting, and murder which followed the verdict in the trial of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Unfortunately, both Hacker’s media commentary and the book he has written are more likely to inflame animosity than encourage understanding.

What happened in Los Angeles was incomprehensible to most Americans. By virtually all measures, the conditions in which the majority of blacks live and work have improved in the last thirty years. Opportunity is more widely available and discrimination less common and less severe. Even if racial tensions have increased somewhat in recent years, part of the explanation is that blacks and whites are more likely than in the past to come in contact with each other at school, at work, where they shop and play, and, to a lesser extent, where they live. Yet despite obvious improvements in the lives of most blacks, for those who live in crime-infested, fatherless, welfare-dependent neighborhoods, things have never been worse. In South-Central Los Angeles, the presence of gangs and crack cocaine have made life almost unbearable in parts of this once working-class neighborhood of modest, single-family homes and small apartment houses. These factors were responsible for the rampant lawlessness that erupted on April 29. In a city in which there were 690 gang-related killings last year, where a child can be murdered for wearing the wrong color baseball cap on gang turf, why should it come as a surprise that a man would be dragged from his truck and beaten senseless because he happened to be of the wrong race, in the wrong place, at the wrong time?

Hacker’s book might have given some insight into the chasm that exists not just between whites and blacks, but between the great bulk of black Americans who lead law-abiding, productive, and rewarding lives, and the few whose destructive behavior was epitomized in the Los Angeles rampage. Instead, Hacker chooses to see such violence by some blacks “as expressing a despair that suffuses much of their race.” If most blacks do not take to burning stores and beating whites, Hacker’s analysis seems to suggest, perhaps it is because they have mustered “an extra patience and perseverance that whites have never required of themselves.”

In Hacker’s estimation, all blacks are victims and all whites responsible for what he sees as blacks’ universally hapless existence. “It is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate,” Hacker tells us. But in his zeal to assign blame to “white America”—or what in one place he actually calls “the white race”—Hacker displays a morbid condescension toward blacks. By conflating the misery of the underclass with the ordinary existence of most blacks, Hacker confers on racial identity a stigma most blacks (and one hopes most others, too) would resoundingly reject.

In what has become perhaps the most often cited passage in the book, Hacker describes an experiment in which white college students are asked to imagine that they are paid a visit by an official who informs them that at midnight they will become black. “And this means not simply a darker skin, but the bodily and facial features associated with African ancestry,” Hacker gratuitously adds. Students are told, “Inside you will be the person you always were. Your knowledge and ideas will remain intact. But outwardly you will not be recognizable to anyone you now know.” Students are then asked to tell the official how much money they would consider a fair sum to compensate them for this dramatic change in their lives. According to Hacker, most students say they should receive $1 million a year for as long as they live. “This calculation conveys, as well as anything, the value that white people place on their own skins,” he concludes. But does it really? Does it make sense to assume that only whites might want to be compensated for being deprived of all family, friends, and acquaintances, which as much as skin color is part of the trade required? One can only wonder what the response of black students might be to such a proposition because Hacker either didn’t bother to inquire or doesn’t report his findings.

Certainly the assumption would be a logical one if what Hacker describes as white attitudes toward blacks were indeed real. In Hacker’s view, whites despise blacks. According to Hacker, “most white people believe that, compared with other races, persons with African ancestries are more likely to carry primitive traits in their genes.” Conservatives are more apt to believe this, he asserts, “and proclaim it when they are sure of their company.” Liberals, on the other hand, may be less likely to believe differences between blacks and whites are due to heredity and, in any case, “if they harbor doubts, they keep them to themselves.”

Racism serves an important function for whites, according to Hacker: “No matter how degraded their lives, white people are sill allowed to believe that they possess the blood, the genes, the patrimony of superiority. No matter what happens, they can never become ’black.’ White Americans of all classes have found it comforting to preserve blacks as a subordinate caste: a presence, which despite all its pain and problems, still provides whites with some solace in a stressful world.” It is worth noting that in a book filled with statistics, tables, and charts, there is not one bit of evidence cited to support the claim that whites hold such views.

Indeed, most public opinion polls show that prejudice among whites has diminished in recent years. Nonetheless, Hacker is not alone in ascribing malign racial intentions to whites. A substantial proportion of blacks apparently believe that whites would like to eliminate them. A 1990 New York Times poll, for example, found that 10 percent of blacks believed that the AIDS virus “was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people,” and another 19 percent said that the theory might be true. What’s more, a quarter of the blacks polled said that the government “deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people,” and another third said this might possibly be true. What once would have been the paranoid fantasies of a few have gained new saliency among a much larger group of blacks, including many who are middle class.

The danger in Hacker’s cant is that it will be seized upon to confirm such racial fears, even granting them the veneer of academic legitimacy. Hacker is, after all, a respected professor. A black journalist acquaintance confided to me that reading Hacker’s book has helped her finally understand what whites really think about blacks. Heaven help us.

 

 


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