In Prospect

Summer 2001

"Can’t they just see?" That’s the question that broods over our two cover stories, each dealing with a different aspect of race in America. Both stories arrive at startlingly similar conclusions, for both writers, setting out from different places and taking separate paths, have faithfully followed the evidence to some profound truths.

Can’t black Americans just see, asks John H. McWhorter in "Toward a Usable Black History," that, after centuries of travail on this continent, they are at last fully American, able to claim their place as equal citizens in the freest civilization in history, pulsating with opportunity for anyone who seeks it? Trouble is, a habit of fixating on the horrors of the past—slavery, racism, humiliation—inhibits black Americans from appreciating that for 150 years their ancestors also created vital communities in which they achieved fulfilling lives worthy of respect, for all the obstacles in their way.

In today’s America, this is an option available to all. But because of their focus on the painful rather than the hopeful past, black Americans too readily look back in admiration to those who rebelled and protested, who railed against victimization rather than showed the way forward past the pain. Much better, says McWhorter, to teach black kids a usable history that, without minimizing the injustice, nevertheless tells the story of past black accomplishment in America, as a way of encouraging ever greater accomplishment in the future.

Can’t opinion makers just see, Heather Mac Donald asks in "What Really Happened in Cincinnati," that nothing positive can come from black rioters trashing their neighborhoods and assaulting passersby, as happened in Cincinnati in April? Riots aren’t a justified response to American racism; they don’t "send a message" about justice; and they have only harmful, not beneficial, consequences. They are instances of mere destructive thuggery, as Mac Donald shows with devastating thoroughness.

But white liberals respond to ghetto riots with such excitement, judges Mac Donald, because the expression of black rage against a supposedly racist society ratifies their own sense of superiority over their unenlightened, racist neighbors. In this spirit, white liberals legitimate the most extreme voices in the black community, the heirs of McWhorter’s historic rebels. How much better it would be, Mac Donald says, if mainstream opinion makers would cast their spotlight on those many hardworking spokesmen in the black community who are showing the way into the mainstream, the direct descendants of those achievers whose story McWhorter so movingly tells.

At a recent rally against non-union labor in midtown Manhattan, a T-shirt stretched tight across the ample belly of a construction worker read: NEW YORK: STILL A  UNION TOWN. Alas, how true. Union power is one of the great enemies of Gotham’s quality of life, as Steven Malanga’s two absorbing stories make clear. "How Political Malpractice Crippled New York’s Health Care" shows how a three-way alliance, bringing together the powerful chief of the city’s health and hospital workers’ union with state legislators and with the high-paid heads of New York’s nonprofit hospitals, has resulted in a state health-care system far more expensive than any other in the country and much lower in quality relative to the rest of the U.S. than it once was. This jobs program for mostly unskilled health-care workers also results in health insurance so expensive that 3 million New Yorkers go without it.

Similarly, the city’s teachers’ union is the main reason New York’s public schools are so bad, particularly the 100 or so that fail to give their disadvantaged, minority pupils the basic tools they need to succeed in the city’s information-age economy. It would help end this scandal if the system could reward good teachers and discourage (or fire) bad ones; but this the teachers’ contract forbids. A merit-pay scheme for teachers, paying the best more and the worst less, would do wonders, Malanga argues in "Why Merit Pay Will Improve Teaching.” After all, he shows, such incentives have already worked magic in the private sector, and the various public school experiments with merit pay around the nation look promising. But Gotham’s teachers’ union remains opposed to the Giuliani administration’s merit-pay proposals, once again shortchanging the kids whose interests they are supposed to serve.