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Racial Issues: Where There's Dialogue, There's Also Hope

March 19, 1992|BOB SIPCHEN

One-million dollars a year for life. That's what white college students supposedly say they should be given as compensation in the hypothetical event that their skin suddenly becomes black.

Such figures are the stuff of "Two Nations," a new book by Queens College professor Andrew Hacker that explores inequities between black and white Americans.

Excerpted in last week's New Republic, "Two Nations" has appeared in part in recent articles in The New York Review of Books and is discussed in the current Newsweek in an article, "Apartheid, American Style."

Newsweek's David Gates says Hacker is "known for doing with statistics what Fred Astaire did with hats, canes and chairs."

When he steps away from hard stats, though, Hacker can get fuzzy-headed. The current issue of Reconstruction--a smartly contentious African-American-oriented free-for-all on politics, culture and society--features a heated letters column of responses to an article by Hacker in the previous issue.

In "Jewish Racism, Black Anti-Semitism," Hacker, who is white, attempted to explore the complex reasons for growing antagonism between Jews and African-Americans. But the essay is undermined by Hacker's nasty tone and his blanket assumption that liberals in general and liberal Jews in particular are driven by dishonorable motives.

One letter writer suggested the piece should have been called "Why I, Andrew Hacker, Don't Like Jews." Another accused him of bolstering the black demagogues who "are deliberately alienating their other natural allies. . . ."

But the statement that sheds the most light on Hacker's pessimistic view of racial issues is this:

"Whether they admit it or not," he wrote in Reconstruction, "virtually all white people believe that, in terms of both genetic and evolutionary development, theirs is the highest racial stratum among the human species."

If one can forgive Hacker's use of such pseudo-statistical rubbish, there is an unpleasant truth found in more reliable figures that he uses in other articles: White Americans clearly have advantages over blacks, and they know it.

Hacker has no solutions to the problems he identifies: "I wouldn't know where to begin," he told Newsweek.

April's The Atlantic also points out the continued stigmatization of African-Americans. But then it steps forward with a bold remedy.

Claude M. Steele, a social psychologist at Stanford and the brother of controversial author Shelby Steele, weaves a detailed explanation of how blacks are "devalued" in this culture and why that often leads young blacks to "disidentify" with school--to reject the institution that offers the best path out of the racial quagmire.

Steele, who is African-American, has a more charitable view than Hacker of non-blacks who support change. His complex and important case boils down to a four-part solution, which might be oversimplified like this:

* Teachers must demonstrate that they truly value black students as people and for their potential.

* Remedial teaching programs defeat black students' natural ambition; challenge strengthens it. "Frustration will be less crippling than alienation."

* "Segregation, whatever its purpose, draws out group differences and makes people feel more vulnerable when they inevitably cross group lines to compete in the larger society."

* "The particulars of black life and culture--art, literature, political and social perspective, music--must be presented in the mainstream curriculum of American schooling, not consigned to special days, weeks or even months of the year. . . . "Such channeling carries the disturbing message that the material is not of general value. And this does two terrible things: It wastes the power of this material to alter our images of the American mainstream--continuing to frustrate black identification with it--and it excuses in whites and others a huge ignorance of their own society."

Before stating his case, Steele laments: "I sense a certain caving in of hope in America that problems of race can be solved."

Is that perception accurate?

Not if continued dialogue evidences a refusal to give up.

Discussions of race have dominated magazinedom for at least the last year. And although the talk is usually more divisive and grim than Steele's message, at least it goes on.

REQUIRED READING

* The seven greatest rock bands of all time are (drum roll) . . .

The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Public Enemy, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. At least that's what the April Spin concludes after a poll that seems to have included everyone who ever shouted "yeah! whooo!" at a concert. Why argue?

* According to respected former newspaper editor Bill Kovach, "Most of what we call investigative journalism these days is really reporting on investigations."

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