The Rodney King Question

Long Way to Go: Black and White in AmericaBy Jonathan Coleman Atlantic Monthly Press, $26.50, 451 pp.America in Black and White: One Nation IndivisibleBy Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 704 pp."Can't we all just get along?" asked Rodney King. I can't remember where I was when I first heard that, but I remember laughing. I wasn't the only one. Rodney had gotten the hell beat out of him by a posse of LAPD goons, all of them white, and now here he comes asking some ridiculous question like this.Negro, please.King's plea has become a staple for late-night comedians. Funny thing, the folks laughing hardest include some of the same ones -- white and black -- who felt sick when they witnessed Brother Rodney on tape being smacked around like a pinata. Go figure. And all this was before the hilarity of the O.J. trial brought blacks and whites even closer.Maybe so many of us have given up on getting along that the suggestion prompts hysterics. That's sad -- even a little sick -- but that's where we are. Black and white. Oil and water. Separate, unequal and getting used to it. Or is it really that bad?The answer is an emphatic "no" if you ask Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, husband and wife co-authors of the recent book America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible. He is a history professor at Harvard; she is a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, which reprtedly advanced them $100,000 to help with the writing of the book. Compared to a few decades ago, the Thernstroms say, everything is coming up roses for black people. The problem is those damned liberals keep chopping the roses down and planting thistles to keep the pain alive. As we all know, liberals depend on omnipresent pain to keep their whining in good repair. A liberal with a clear conscience is a conservative under construction.However, if you ask Jonathan Coleman, author of the recent Long Way to Go, whether race relations is in terrible shape, he will nod. Like the Thernstroms, Coleman is white and convinced that race is one of the defining issues for America today. But rather than crunching numbers in the Ivory Tower, Coleman spent seven years in Milwaukee interviewing everyone he could find to get a feel for one of our most racially divided communities. By the end of the book, few of the people interviewed can say much positive, leaving Coleman to conclude: "The color line that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of at the beginning of the 20th century is still there, defiant and seemingly immovable. ... We as a country have made much progress, but still the line remains, there to be reckoned with, a pox on all our houses." Keep that damned pox to yourself, say the Thernstroms.Cherished PainThe provocatively conservative Thernstroms go out of their way to acknowledge the past; nearly one-third of the book rehashes gruesome history from slavery to Jim Crow. To their credit, they are more willing than most of their conservative peers to recognize racism's destructive legacy.Nevertheless, they insist that America has advanced much further than most black leaders and white liberals will admit. (A point worth making, but which the Thernstroms, piling statistics on top of statistics, distort beyond recognition.)From the Thernstroms' vantage point, neither white liberals nor traditional black leaders can afford to let go of their much-cherished pain. As a consequence, they say, far too many blacks buy into the dubious notion of collectively shared pain.This in turn angers well-meaning whites who are tired of being blamed for a period in history before they were even born. Referring frequently to conservative blacks they admire, such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, the Thernstroms argue that blacks should prepare to be judged by the content of their character not the color of their ... wait a minute, doesn't that sound familiar? Something to do with a dream?Anyway, the authors seem to truly believe we have a level playing field where true grit is rewarded. Just look at Gen. Colin Powell, the Thernstroms' black man of the future, in contrast to the obsolete Rev. Jesse Jackson.Likewise the Thernstroms point to the number of African Americans who consider themselves middle class, to the growth in the ranks of black elected officials, to the fact that whites are more likely to vote for an African American than ever before (which explains why the Thernstroms want to do away with black majority districts, along with affirmative action). Socially, interracial friendships are up, interracial marriages are up; blacks and whites can regard each other with lust without continually checking their necks for the presence of rope.The ugly truth, according to the Book of Thernstrom, is thus: White racism is no longer black folks' biggest enemy. The enemy is poverty and broken families and poor education, which create high crime rates perpetrated by predatory angry young black males, which creates frightened white masses, which creates white flight, which leaves behind desolate and broken-down inner cities, which creates more poverty, which creates welfare dependency, which pulls apart families, which creates single mothers who give birth to more predatory angry young black males and single mothers ... Case StudyBut if all that blacks need to do is smell the roses, what's up with Milwaukee? If this is a microcosm of race relations nationwide, as Jonathan Coleman believes, then there remains a continental divide between African Americans and whites.This city labeled "hypersegregated" has some of the nation's highest rates of black teenage pregnancy, of blacks living below the poverty line and of blacks turned down for loan applications.Of all the people the one-time CBS News journalist interviewed, Howard Fuller, the African-American former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, is probably the most fascinating. As a black man who began his activism outside the system and then tried to move the fight inside, Fuller's accomplishments and failures symbolize our morass.Fuller won an election that required the support of blacks and whites in a city where such cooperation is rare. But once elected superintendent, Fuller failed to convince a sufficient number of people that the schools were worth saving. Too many whites had already moved or were moving to the suburbs. They had no interest in a regional solution that would use their tax dollars to help city kids.As for the black folks, Fuller had been a victim of suspicion ever since he'd become a part of the system. Outside the system he was OK, even if he could do little, because he didn't have to compromise. Inside it became too easy for the black community to suspect he was selling out to the White Man. That there was little or no evidence to support that didn't matter.Black and white. Oil and water. Separate, unequal and getting used to it. Anyone interested in the issues of race can't seriously read Coleman's book without the Thernstroms', and vice versa. Depending on your politics, one of the two is guaranteed to tick you off; neither will let you down easily. The liberal/conservative slants are sometimes blatant, but hardly enough to discount the research.Can't we all get along? Who knows, Rodney, but maybe it's not such a laughing matter after all.Keith Owens is a free-lance writer, blues musician and editorial writer for the Detroit Sunday Journal.


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