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Two Nations:
Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal

by Andrew Hacker
Scribner’s, 272 pages, $24.95

The shockingly violent reaction to the Rodney King verdict, destined to be remembered as the great Los Angeles Riot of 1992, has provoked more intense discussion among the American public about the nation’s perennial problems of race relations and urban affairs than at any time since the “long hot summers” of the 1960s. Sadly, the heat of this scrutiny has not often yielded the light of insight or wisdom. Instead, we have been repeatedly subjected to the hysterical ravings of political and academic demagogues, who seek to build their careers by exploiting the alienation of the urban black masses and the gullibility of liberal white elites. This demagoguery has taken many forms, but it is perhaps most dangerous when disguised as “analysis,” and offered up by a respected social scientist. Andrew Hacker’s book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal provides an instructive illustration of the mischief now afoot in the land.

This volume was not written in reaction to the Los Angeles riot—it was published last spring, shortly before the event took place. But in the aftermath of the disturbance the book was catapulted onto the bestseller lists, and was widely cited as a prescient foretelling of the coming “rebellion.” As the title suggests, and as the author repeatedly emphasized during numerous interviews—some given while the looting and arson were going on—it is Andrew Hacker’s view that the events in Los Angeles were entirely predictable, indeed inevitable. From his perspective, what we observed in L.A. was the well-deserved consequence of the systematic neglect by “white America” of the basic human needs of blacks. According to Hacker, the racial gulf now stands wider than ever in American life, despite a growing black middle class, increasing numbers of black elected officials, and the continuing political clout of the civil rights lobby. And why? Because of the persistent racism of “white America,” a racism that has evolved from its historical “no blacks need apply” character into a more subtle, covert, institutionalized form: “Racial tensions serve too many important purposes to be easily ameliorated,” he says. Moreover, while “there are things that should be done … there is scant evidence that the majority of white Americans are ready to invest in redistributive programs, let alone give themselves in more exacting ways.”

Hacker takes as his mission to lay bare the true nature of covert white racism in contemporary American life. The irony is that he succeeds in powerfully revealing the face of a new strand of American racism, but not the one he thinks he sees. This book can be most profitably read not for what it discloses about the racism of the avowed enemies of black aspirations, but rather for its inadvertent revelation of the deep racism of some liberal whites who, like Hacker, think themselves to be friends of the black cause. He manages in the course of this book to convey a profound contempt for blacks and whites alike, offering sweeping generalizations about the behaviors and attitudes of groups of people based on nothing more than racial identities.

He writes here in a matter-of-fact prose style that affects the attitude of a disinterested observer, and gives the impression that he is oblivious to the possibility that he has given offense. But Hacker intends to offend whites, the better to shock them from their racial complacency, and he wants desperately to placate blacks, the better to show that he “understands” their plight. Thus in an opening chapter called “Dividing American Society,” we learn that the root cause of our racial woes is a fundamental asymmetry of power between blacks and whites, not as individual persons, but as racial collectives. This asymmetry is discernible to Hacker in the very definition of racial categories, for whites have determined to consign all persons with any visible Negro ancestry to the degraded status of being black, while welcoming European immigrants, however swarthy, into the privileged club associated with whiteness. For Hacker, to be black in America is to be degraded from birth, while to be white is to know that you are inherently superior to anyone with darker skin than your own.

Hacker combines simplistic anthropomorphic thinking with a flair for the conspiracy theory, writing as if a single actor that he calls “white America” sat down to decide upon the linguistic rules of the racial identity game, with the explicit objective of creating a racial bipolarity:

Hence “mestizo” and “mulatto” have disappeared from our parlance, as have “creole” and “quadroon.” Nor has this country retained the generic term “colored” for people whose ancestries are obviously mixed.… It has been far from accidental that this country has chosen to reject the idea of a graduated spectrum, and has instead fashioned a rigid bifurcation.… Had white America really believed in its egalitarian declarations, it would have welcomed former slaves into its midst at the close of the Civil War. Indeed, had that happened, America would not be two racial nations today.

Of course, “this country” has abandoned the term “colored” because, in the first instance, Negroes regarded the term as undignified. And whatever Hacker may intend by suggesting that “white America” ought to have “welcomed former slaves into its midst,” the failure to engage in wholesale intermarriage across racial lines is hardly a test of the extent to which egalitarian political ideals are genuinely held. This passage displays breathtaking ignorance of American political history. For example, while Abraham Lincoln was decidedly not in favor of wholesale social intercourse between blacks and whites, his differences with Judge Stephen Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney over the meaning of the founders’ “egalitarian declaration” could hardly have been greater. For Hacker such differences amount to nothing at all in the face of “white America’s” implacable racial prejudice.

But it is pointless to argue with the belief system evident in this book for, as Hacker states explicitly, these are not matters subject to resolution through the dispassionate review of historical fact. This becomes painfully obvious when we consider Hacker’s account of how blacks think and feel about their position and possibilities in American society. It is here that his own racism becomes most evident. Though he would never say it directly, Hacker writes as if, when he looks upon today’s black Americans, he sees a confused, defeated, and disturbed collection of people, obsessed with what whites have done to them, and incapable of doing anything for themselves. He seems to think of blacks as though they are children whose failures can best be explained by reference to the inadequate tutelage of their betters.

Hacker’s is the clearest, most candid statement that I have yet seen of the new liberal racism—the patronizing attitude that conveys contempt by means of evasion and apology, explaining every black failure or foible as the result of something white people have or have not done. Hacker would, of course, vehemently deny this, but if you have ever sought to understand why “black men and women [find it hard] to assimilate into the American mainstream,” here is Hacker’s answer:

[T]he “Africa” in African-American contrasts with much of the European structure of technology and science, of administrative systems based on linear modes of reasoning.… [For if] the European heritage imposes the regimen of standardized tests, the African dream inspires discursive story telling celebrating the soul and the spirit.

And if you were puzzled by the persistent deficit of blacks relative to whites in performance on standardized tests, here is Hacker’s explanation:

[The reason] why even better-off blacks tend to do less well than whites on tests used by schools and employers … [is that] [s]ince blacks of all classes are more likely to be raised in segregated surroundings, they grow up with less exposure to the kinds of reasoning that standardized examinations expect.… One outcome of this isolation is that black Americans have less sustained exposure to the “modern” world than have many members of immigrant groups.

If you were wondering how to “account for the low percentage of blacks” in certain occupations, you now have the following “Hackerism” at your disposal:

Perhaps most revealing of all is the small number of dental hygienists (2.5% of the total in 1990.) While white patients seem willing to be cared for by black nurses (31% of nursing aides and orderlies were black in 1990), they apparently draw the line at having black fingers in their mouths.

In Andrew Hacker’s America, blacks are responsible for little that affects their lives and can achieve nothing unless whites reform themselves. The African sensibility, unlike the Asian, he seems to say, is incompatible with the intellectual rigors of “the modern world,” though possessed of a superior spirituality. Unless whites choose to integrate with blacks, thereby sharing some of their natural affinity to the things of modernity, we ought not be surprised that blacks achieve little. The small number of black optometrists, actuaries, or physicists has nothing whatever to do with the choices and efforts of blacks themselves. Blacks are not even capable of racism on their own; acts of hatred on the part of blacks do not have the same moral significance as those same acts undertaken by whites, for “racism should be attributed only to those who have the power to cause suffering,” and blacks, being “an oppressed people,” presumably lack such power. (This will come as news to Reginald Denny, or the Central Park jogger.)

Hacker’s stubborn refusal to take blacks seriously, as morally responsible agents capable of shaping their lives according to their will, leads him to perverse and dangerous conclusions. When he writes of family structure and relations between parents and children, he reports that 56.2 percent of black and 17.3 percent of white households were headed by women in 1990, which leads him to ask: “Do the races really differ?” The answer would seem to be obvious. But Hacker, stressing that the ratio of the percentage of black households headed by women to the percentage of white households so headed has not changed over the last forty years, concludes that racial differences are not really important, and that the apparent disparity is in fact the consequence of “concurrent adaptations to common cultural trends” on the part of blacks and whites alike.

Why would anyone claiming the status of social scientist focus on the issue in this particular way? True enough, the proportion of single-parent households has more than tripled among both races since 1950, but this means something quite different for whites, where the change has been from one of every twenty households to one in six, than it does for blacks, where the change has been from one of every six households to better than one in two.

Were it the case that the majority of American children, and not just black American children, had come to be raised without a father present, I doubt that even Andrew Hacker could ignore the tragic implications for our country. But when that collapse of the family is already well advanced among blacks he manages to overlook the tragedy, seeing only the working-out of “common cultural trends” that have no racial significance. In other words, the meaning to Hacker of this deeply disturbing trend is to be found not in what it tells us about how black men, women, and children are living together, but rather in what it shows us about the shortcomings of white society. Blacks will improve their family lives when and if whites manage to improve theirs, Hacker argues. Blacks are not agents who can shape their cultural and behavioral patterns, but merely the bellwethers of developments among whites.

In his discussion of racial differences in crime and victimization Hacker continues his unwitting (?) assault on the dignity and moral integrity of black people. Noting that black men commit the crime of rape at three to four times the rate of white men, and that one-quarter of their victims are white women, Hacker sees in this disparity the stuff of political protest:

Certainly, the conditions black men face in the United States generate far more anger and rage than is ever experienced by white men.… If black men vent their frustrations on women, it is partly because the women are more available as targets, compared with the real centers of power, which remain so inchoate and remote.

And a black rapist choosing a white victim is especially significant, for he

compounds defiance with the thrill of danger.… Each such act brings further demoralization of the dominant race, exposing the inability to protect its own women from the worst kind of degradation.

Robbery, in Hacker’s view, is a crime particularly rich with opportunities for free-lance racial justice, as white victims surely know:

For white victims caught in interracial robberies the loss of cash or valuables is seldom their chief concern. Rather, the racial character of the encounter defines the experience. In the social scheme of things, the tables have been turned. For the present, a black man has the upper hand. Hence the added dread that your assailant will not be satisfied simply with your money, but may take another moment to inflict retribution for the injustices done to his race.

Hacker is all too ready to “understand” why some young black men terrorize the cities and towns in which they live, but he reserves his considerable capacity for outrage for a condemnation of Bernhard Goetz’s “vigilantism,” and of police officers who, Hacker contends, without offering a shred of evidence, give “scant attention” to black crime victims. “Underlying this official unconcern,” he says, is the belief that “less is lost when a black person dies, whether they are slain by the police or a criminal.” Just who believes this, and how Hacker knows that they do, he does not bother to say.

Nor is this by any means all. Commenting on the use of quotas to promote black police officers to the rank of sergeant in New York City, Hacker criticizes as racially biased the exam (passed by more than 10 percent of the white officers taking it but less than 2 percent of the blacks) because it requires test-takers to know the meanings of words like “relevant,” “disposition,” “unsubstantiated,” and “tactfully.” “Not surprisingly,” he proceeds to tell us, “white people seem to do most of the worrying about this apparent harm [of racial preferences] to black self-esteem.” Just how would Hacker know that to be the case? “The experience of being black in America cannot help but stir suspicions that in most cases you were never given a fair chance,” he asserts blithely, with not a shred of evidence to support the assertion.

Hacker smugly dismisses white complaints about affirmative action in admissions at the University of California at Berkeley, which has, over a period of seven years, reduced white representation in the entering class from two-thirds to two-fifths: “It was not easy for white Californians to complain, since their overall scholastic records were not very auspicious.” He means that 16 percent of whites, compared to 33 percent of Asians, had high school records making them eligible for admission at Berkeley in 1988. That only 5 percent of black and Hispanic high school students were eligible does not occasion any comparable qualification by Hacker of the legitimacy of their claims. Indeed, I have calculated from his numbers that for the entering class at Berkeley in 1988 an eligible black student was ten times more likely to be admitted than an eligible white, and an eligible Asian student was four times more likely to be admitted than an eligible white. You might think this would lead Hacker to reflect upon the legitimacy of discriminating against white students at Berkeley, but you would, of course, be wrong.

The same data imply that for the entering class of 1983 a black student had about half the chance of a white or Asian to have graduated five years after admission. Furthermore, the vast disparity in qualification upon admission among students of various races proved to be easily observable in the classroom afterward. Hacker reports, without comment, that at Berkeley, “It is almost as if two dissimilar colleges were sharing the same campus. Indeed, [a] … study of freshman calculus courses found that whereas only 5 percent of the Asian students failed, half of the black students did.” Might such occurrences have anything to do with racial tensions on campuses around the country? Hacker does not say. Does this information suggest that affirmative action is a poorly conceived policy at U.C. Berkeley? Hacker does not seem to think so. Instead, he gloats that at Smith College, which has only 3.2 percent black enrollment, “the paucity of black faces [is] … a cause for shame” among many students and professors. He discards the suggestion (made by the late Justice William O. Douglas, among others) that affirmative action in college admissions be based on class, not race. Why? Because “low-income whites and Asians would end up with all the ‘race blind’ awards.” Paradoxically, the awards cannot be genuinely “race blind” for Hacker unless they result in the requisite number of “black faces” on campus. The question of how many pass calculus or graduate we can worry about later.

This book clearly illustrates one little-examined reason why our nation is so deeply divided along racial lines. Hacker’s singular failure to be able constructively to criticize politically correct thought on racial issues is far from limited to him, and is undoubtedly a failure participated in by many of the avid readers who made this work a best seller. The problem is that, in an effort to avoid the accusation of being a racist, with the good intention of “understanding” the rage, incivility, and incapacity of their black neighbors, students, and friends, these people abandon their responsibility to treat blacks with the seriousness that they reserve for whites.

For Hacker, and for much of liberal white opinion in our time, a history of victimization has made black people disappear insofar as being accountable moral agents capable of shaping their own destinies is concerned. The patronizing tone of his discussion of blacks is unrelenting. His whites are powerful, his blacks pitiable. Whites warrant being condemned because they can choose to do better, to stop being racists, to become more generous and compassionate. Blacks do not warrant critical exhortation because they are without choices, their misery and mediocrity are inevitable, their racial hatreds derivative from the primary moral failings of whites. Never does Hacker allow that, despite the bad hand blacks have been dealt, they need not react with violence; instead he rushes to note that whites have been violent too. Never does he suggest that even black policemen who grew up in segregated neighborhoods might be capable of and expected to learn the meaning of words like “tactfully”; instead he endorses quotas for those who cannot, and castigates whites who might dare to be offended by the policy. Never does he worry that black parents could be letting their children down by not marrying.

In his headlong rush to condemn “white America,” Hacker so reduces black Americans that, by the end of his book, even the murderous drug gangs who kill innocents with automatic weapons during drive-by shootings are not seen as responsible for their acts. For Hacker, they are, paraphrasing Ralph Ellison, morally invisible men. Concerning these murders of young black men and innocent bystanders by other young black men, he writes:

These would certainly seem to be acts for which the perpetrators should be held strictly responsible.… Yet it may also be asked why so many young men are engaging in what amounts to a self-inflicted genocide. While in one sense these are “free” acts, performed of personal volition, when they become so widespread, they must also be seen as expressing a despair that suffuses much of their race.… No other race is wounding itself so fatally. Nor can it be said that black Americans chose this path for themselves.
So in allocating responsibility, the response should be clear. It is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate. Legal slavery may be in the past, but segregation and subordination have been allowed to persist. Even today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth.

This, then, is the brave new vision of the liberal racist. I am outraged at the specter of a white academic apologist invoking a putative generalized despair of my race as excuse for the venal acts of a handful of murderers—and this to the broad acclaim of the liberal political elites of my country. What of the millions of young men similarly situated who do not maim and kill? Are their choices to be ignored in the haste of blaming “white America” for the crimes of a few thousands? Cannot Mr. Hacker and his ilk see the damage their rationalizations are doing to the dignity of my people?

Glenn C. Loury is Professor of Economics at Boston University. His article “Two Paths to Black Power” appeared in our issue of October 1992.

Photo by Mick Taylor licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.