Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Two Most Important 20th Century Books on Race in America

Probably the two most significant books written during the twentieth century on race in America were An American Dilemma (1944) by Gunnar Myrdal and America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997) by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom. In fact, Linda Chavez, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, writes that “American in Black and White is the most important book on race to appear since Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. Stephen Thernstrom--called by some America's greatest living historian of the antebellum south--is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University, and Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the closing chapter of their 700-page tome they write:

Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, Andrew Hacker called his best-selling book. Our book is in many ways an answer to Hacker. One nation (we argue), no longer separate, much less unequal than it once was, and by many measures, less hostile. Moreover, the serious inequality that remains is less a function of white racism than of the racial gap in levels of educational attainment, the structure of the black family, and the rise in black crime.

We quarrel with the left—its going-nowhere picture of black America and white racial attitudes. But we also quarrel with the right—its see-no-evil view. It seems extraordinary hard for liberals to say we have come a long way; the Jim Crow South is not the South of 1997. But it seems very hard for conservatives to say, yes, there was a terrible history of racism in this country, and too much remains.

Conservatives seem to think they concede too much if they acknowledge the ugliness of our racial history and the persistence of racism (greatly diminished but not gone)—that if they do so, they will be committed to the currently pervasive system of racial preferences and indeed to reparations. And liberals, from their different perspective, also fear concession. To admit dramatic change, they seem to believe, is to invite white indifference. As if everything blacks now have rests on the fragile foundation of white guilt. (pp. 534-535)

For those interested in studying this difficult issue, the careful, nuanced work of the Thernstroms should be required reading for both liberals and conservatives.

But the problem still remains that the definitive carefully-nuanced, gospel-centered, historically-informed, exegetically-rigorous, culturally-discerning volume by a confessional evangelical remains to be written. Who will the Lord raise up for such a time as this?