IN BLACK AND WHITE
November 11, 1997
In the first of a three-part series on race relations, David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. Sheís a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Heís a professor of history at Harvard University. Together they wrote America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible.
DAVID GERGEN: Abigail and Steve, one of the most difficult subjects Americans face, itís fashionable in some quarters to say that America is as segregated and as prejudiced today as it was a half century ago when Jim Crowe seemed to rule many parts of the South. You believe thatís flat wrong.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 9, 1998
A dialogue on race with President Clinton.
Browse NewsHour essays , Gergen dialogues, and coverage of race issues.
Mrs. Thernstrom: "By every measure we have come a long way since the days of the Jim Crowe South."
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM, Co-Author, America in Black and White: Itís just totally wrong. I mean, by every measure almost we have--well, by every measure we have come a long way since the days of the Jim Crowe South. Now, weíre not as far down the road as I would like or anybody else would like, but we are walking in the right direction, and weíve been walking there for sometime now.
DAVID GERGEN: Can you be more precise about the progress?
STEPHAN THERNSTROM, Author, America In Black and White: Let me give you a couple of figures and one example. Back in 1940, 87 percent of black families had incomes below the poverty line. Today itís 26 percent. Back in 1940, six out of ten black working women were cooks or other kinds of domestic servants, maids, cleaning women. Today itís 2.2 percent.
DAVID GERGEN: And many of those black women are now working at much more productive, better things.
STEPHAN THERNSTROM: Oh, yes. A large majority of them in some sort of white collar position, often highly educated, indeed. Or to take one example, everyone, I suppose, by now knows that blacks once in the South had to ride at the back of the bus, but few people realize the way that system worked, or at least in many Southern towns not only did you have to ride at the back of the bus, you boarded the bus in front, you paid your fare, then you went back down the stairs, walked to the rear of the bus, and re-boarded it, so that the white passengers sitting in the front wouldnít be contaminated by your brushing against them walking down the aisle. It was that extraordinary, that insane.
DAVID GERGEN: It was interesting too, just as women were once held back by refusing them education, there was a real effort made to make sure blacks did not become educated. You had a story about Richard Wright, the novelist, that just sort of jumped right off the pages.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Well, Richard Wright could only go to his local public library.
STEPHAN THERNSTROM: The Memphis Public Library.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: The Memphis Public Library--by pretending that he was getting books out for his boss, and, indeed, he was asked, youíre not getting them for--boy, youíre not getting these books for yourself--"Oh, no, maíam, I canít read," he said.
DAVID GERGEN: He was pretending he was getting them for his white boss.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: For his white boss. Thatís right. And, of course, those books made Richard Wright the great writer that he was. I mean, that was, you know, and it was just the luck of having a white boss who was willing to do that for him.
DAVID GERGEN: You challenge conventional wisdom as well when you talk about how this progress came about. Itís often--many believe today that the progress weíve seen comes largely from the civil rights statutes of the 1960's, and you disagree with that.
Progress before the Civil Rights Acts.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: We do disagree with it. We see--although we think those statutes are extremely important or were extremely important, I should say, in busting the system open, I think the 1964/1965 Acts, statutes--the Civil Rights Act of Ď64--Voting Rights Act of Ď65--were important, but we see enormous progress starting much earlier than that, and, indeed, progress in white racial attitudes that made the civil rights movement possible, a huge expansion--a drop in poverty--in starting in 1940, and the decades before the civil rights revolution--a change in white racial attitudes. Steve, why donít you say a thing more about it.
STEPHAN THERNSTROM: Yes. Well, these are really deep-rooted changes that the normal focus on politics, the Supreme Court holds this, President Truman did that, I mean, those were all steps of importance. Brown V. Board was certainly important. But what really struck is in looking at the material is how much what those political leaders, the judicial leaders were doing reflected deeper progressive changes going on within the white population and also, of course, the extent to which they reflected responses to the mobilization of black people to work and demand their rights--the Birmingham bus boycott. That couldnít have happened if Birmingham hadnít already been changing, if white attitudes in Birmingham hadnít become more positive than they were 30 years before that, so itís very--
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: And also blacks had not been ready to mobilize. I mean, the notion of black gains as a white handout--whether itís from a white-dominated court or white-dominated Congress or a white President--I think is absolutely wrong.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you--what are the applications for the debates of today if you believe as you do that weíve made more progress than is widely accepted and that much of that progress has come through self-help and self-effort, as opposed to legislation, what are the implications for today?
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Again, I donít want to neglect the importance of that legislation. I mean, itís--our view is that itís a mix, but the story of black progress from 1940 to 1970--that is before the affirmative action era--preferences really kick in around 1970--that story tells us that all of the progress--subsequent progress--canít simply be attributed to affirmative action policies because thereís no reason to believe that the advancements that were made in the previous decades, what has suddenly come to a screaming halt, had there been no affirmative action policies instituted in 1970.
STEPHAN THERNSTROM: And, of course, we do argue there is something condescending about affirmative action that, of course, we canít hold you to the same standards as other people, your disadvantages being, of course, you need to be held to a lower standard, and it assumes in a way that blacks canít make it without changing the standards. And that is a very dismaying message, in our view.
DAVID GERGEN: You point out--one of the most disturbing things in your book comes toward the end--and you say itís disturbing--and that is that even with the progress you find in the schools that the typical black child whoís 17 years old is reading at the level of a 13 year old--a typical white child--and that, in fact, that gap has widened in the last 10 years. How do we address that issue?
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Well, itís a terrible story, as you say, and it is not--I would hasten to add--an outcome--a Bell curve story, an IQ story because obviously thereís nothing that has changed about either white or black IQ in the last 10 years. We were wonderfully narrowing the gap in academic performance in the years 1971 to 1988, and then it started to widen again. And itís the one point in the book where we say weíre stumped, we donít know why, but then we go on to talk for about 40 more pages of why that might have been.
The disintegration of family.
STEPHAN THERNSTROM: But it is a very difficult problem, and we genuinely were stumped in that one might think, for example, well, this had something to do with the disintegration of the black family. Thatís very logical. The trouble is the black family was disintegrating during the period when the racial gap was narrowing. It has continued to disintegrate now, but you canít explain whatís happened since 1988 by that because that factor doesnít hold for what was going on before 1988.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: And thatís true of a whole bunch of other kind of logical explanations: school spending. I mean, you donít have a sudden drop in school spending--you know, et cetera. I think itís possible that the introduction of crack, the increasing violence on the streets, the increasing disorder in the schools does have something to do at least with the performance of inner-city kids, but I think itís "the" most single most troubling fact about the racial picture because itís driving everything else. I mean, kids who start institutions of higher education or go into the work force with the deck stacked against them are--
DAVID GERGEN: Do I hear the makings of another book?
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Yes, you do. Yes, you do.
DAVID GERGEN: Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, thank you very much.