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When the movie JFK was released in 1992 amid controversy over its historical accuracy, one commentator, explaining why the film’s distortions were so dangerous, pointed out that fully 60 percent of the American people had been born since John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. With no personal memories of the events and personalities to put up against Oliver Stone’s rendition of the story, this commentator said, a large and growing majority of the American population stood to have their impressions of a key event in modern American history formed by the conspiratorial prejudices of an ideologically driven moviemaker.

The problem of the dulling and loss of memory with the passage of time is as old as history. (Indeed, it is history’s raison d’etre.) Recall, for example, Exodus 1:8: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” We all know what happened next.

The civil rights movement has suffered from this problem since at least the late 1970s, but until recently has either ignored or denied it. Dominated as the movement has been by veterans of the glorious struggles of the early 1960s, it has seemed to be trapped within that decade and has often given the appearance of being on a nostalgia trip, a la The Big Chill.

Thus each January 15, Martin Luther King Day, has become an occasion for linking arms at some movement shrine and singing “We Shall Overcome,” and some civil rights organization can be depended on to call for a “Marshall Plan for the cities.” And so on.

None of this is ignoble, just ineffectual. It ignores the fact that in democratic America, a new cohort of kings and queens is born each year, none of whom knows Joseph, much less cares about him. If 60 percent of the population were not yet born when John F. Kennedy was murdered, a scarcely smaller percentage can have been born since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the high water marks of the civil rights movement that together constitute a watershed in America’s modern racial history.

The fact is that in 1994 most Americans, black and white, have no personal memories of Bull Connor’s police dogs tearing at black flesh; of Freedom Riders with broken limbs and smashed skulls; of Jim Crow and the whole loathsome structure of American apartheid; of Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, Liuzzo, Reeb, Evers, Till, Parker, and the thousands of other (mostly nameless) victims of American racial terror.

And the fact is, further, that for most white Americans, the term “racial problem” nowadays means news reports about murder, welfare, and social dysfunction in ghettos; about disputes over “quotas” or “guidelines”; about demands for more government services.

It is about this changed reality that Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza have written in The Scar of Race . Their central contention is that the problem of race in America is no longer principally a matter of unreasoned, overwhelming white prejudice against blacks-white racism-but rather is a set of political problems in which prejudice does play some role, but far from the dominant one, and in which political ideology and the perceived self-inflicted injuries of blacks themselves are at least as important.

“Bigotry provides a temptingly simple cause of a complex problem,” they write. “It underlines the moral appeal of working to overcome the legacy of slavery and discrimination by fixing attention on the evil originally responsible for it . . . . But to concentrate attention on the deviant and marginal in American life is to miss the larger problem.”

To say that racial bigotry has become a “deviant and marginal” element in American life is to say a mouthful. But Sniderman and Piazza offer what they contend is proof, in the form of survey data showing whites markedly less likely nowadays to hold the sort of raw, benighted, unreflectively racist attitudes toward blacks that were the norm a quarter century and more ago.

That is not to say that whites do not hold negative views about blacks. They do, and those views have important social and political implications. So why do Piazza and Sniderman not consider such views-that blacks are more violent than whites, for example, or that blacks, if they would just try harder, could be as well-off as whites-evidence of prejudice and bigotry?

There are two reasons. First, each of the negative characterizations captures in some degree “real features of everyday experience.” In other words, according to the authors, there is empirical evidence that blacks are more violent than whites and that blacks do not exert themselves to the degree they should to overcome the disadvantages inflicted by the unique historical injustice from which they suffer.

The second reason, say Sniderman and Piazza, is that blacks themselves are given to the same negative characterizations. Indeed, blacks tend to be even harsher than whites in their judgments. “[W]hen it comes to judgments of whether blacks as a group exhibit socially undesirable characteristics, whenever there is a statistically significant difference between the views of blacks and whites, it always takes the form of blacks expressing a more negative evaluation of other blacks than do whites.”

Probably the single most potent negative characterization-at least in terms of its effect on whites’ willingness to support governmental actions that might benefit blacks-is that blacks just don’t try hard enough. “This perception of self-inflicted injuries-injuries inflicted directly or indirectly because of a lack of commitment, effort, and responsibility-is a striking feature of the contemporary picture of blacks held by whites,” write the authors.

Even so, they contend, whites show an encouraging ability to distinguish among racial issues and a heartening willingness to support some kinds of governmental assistance for blacks, even as they vehemently oppose other kinds. Items on the “social welfare” agenda (Head Start would be an example) win warm white support, those on the “race-conscious agenda”-i.e., affirmative action-earn overwhelming white opposition, and those on the “equal treatment” agenda-fair housing, for example-fall somewhere in between.

The critical point for Sniderman and Piazza is that, with the exception of affirmative action, whites have not dug in their heels on these questions and can be persuaded. The challenge for proponents of racial justice is to contrive persuasive arguments.

The Scar of Race is honest and accurate-and inadequate. It has long been evident that the nature of the public debate over race in this country needs to change, to become more subtle and respectful of a genuine new reality. And Piazza and Sniderman correctly point out that this change has been stalled, and the resulting debate rendered dishonest and poisoned, by the promiscuous use of the charge of racism.

“For both straightforward and subtle reasons,” they observe, “many feel the need to insist that the contemporary conflict over racial policies is still being driven by bigotry, both openly expressed and covert, that white racism remains a dominating force in our culture, that opposition to any policy intended to assist blacks is, in itself, proof of race prejudice. All this is wrong.”

Right. And yet . . .

To the ears of a black man-even one who has often lamented the tendency of some other blacks (and not a few whites) to cry “Racism!” at the slightest provocation-the contemporary assertion that “blacks don’t try hard enough” doesn’t sound that much different from the old racist canard that blacks are by nature “shiftless and lazy.” It helps but little to think the matter through and recognize intellectually that the two propositions really are different. It helps but little to recognize, as Sniderman and Piazza correctly assert, that blacks themselves are the harshest judges of their own people. That is a phenomenon not unlike the behavior of a coach who has his own child for a player. The judgment is harsher because the judge is so deeply, personally invested in the situation.

The fact is that for a black person it is always troubling when whites as a group make negative judgments about blacks as a group. Because while such judgments may today seem harmless enough, they may tomorrow become poisonous and prejudicial. All the more so since race is not one of those areas of our national life in which Americans customarily behave like dispassionate logicians.

And that gets to the fundamental reason for the judgment of inadequacy. Piazza and Sniderman no doubt are sincere in their belief that their surveys and analyses have uncovered the truth about contemporary white racial attitudes. Given the severely abraded state of American race relations at this moment, however, that belief strikes this observer as incredibly naive.

Look at the news. A national restaurant chain has just settled a lawsuit charging wholesale and apparently systematic discrimination against black customers. The shock waves from Colin Ferguson’s Long Island Rail Road rampage have still not subsided. Every day brings word of some new outrage-either white against black or vice versa.

In such circumstances, it is understandably difficult for an aware reader to buy into the proposition-regression analyses, margins of error, and other statistical devices notwithstanding-that most whites are simply available to be persuaded to adopt more social agenda programs for the benefit of blacks.

All the more so since affirmative action remains such a powerful source of irritation to whites in the society. One would hardly guess, to read some commentators, that there had in effect been a longstanding affirmative action program for white men in this country until about a quarter of a century ago. (What else can one fairly call a system from which nonwhites had been largely excluded?)

But it is not fair to saddle Sniderman and Piazza with the duty of refuting intuitions inspired by the daily news. They have done some solid, provocative social science and produced a volume that deserves to be widely read and carefully considered. And if, despite pessimistic intuitions, they are right, The Scar of Race could be evidence of a deep social wound on the way to healing.

Don Wycliff is Editorial Page Editor of the Chicago Tribune.