Race Still Matters

Wounds That Would Not Healby Russell K. Nieli

Encounter Books. 456p $29.95

This sprawling work by the Princeton lecturer and political scientist Russell Nieli addresses “the continuing controversy over racial preference policies in America, particularly those in university admissions and in employment.” Nieli proposes to provide an explanation of the “continuing sense of outrage and betrayal” felt by many Americans toward racial preferences (so-called quotas or set-asides) for blacks and Latinos, to highlight research that critically contests pro-affirmative action arguments and to draw attention to the condition of the black urban underclass—“the wound that will not heal.”

Advertisement

To accomplish these goals, Nieli surveys and engages some of the more important and controversial social science research on race and affirmative action (E. Franklin Frazier, Daniel Moynihan, Thomas Sowell, William Bowen, Derek Bok, Charles Murray, Shelby Steele, Claude Steele, William Julius Wilson). The book comprises an introduction and six chapters; citations and explanatory notes are set helpfully at the foot of the page. The book’s “most original” contribution, Nieli’s thinks, is the deployment of contemporary evolutionary psychology, which seeks to determine, identify and examine human psychological traits that are evolved adaptations that support survival.

The first chapter traces the discomfort, anger and resentment over affirmative action to the scare tactics of Southern Congressional opponents of 1964 Civil Rights Bill (HR7192). Several Southern senators promoted the falsehood that the section of the bill prohibiting discrimination in employment would lead to federal imposition of racial quotas favoring blacks. Senator Hubert Humphrey, the majority whip, along with Senators Joseph Clark and Clifford Case, repeatedlly reassured their colleagues that these racial quotas would not only be prohibited; they would be illegal. This dispute, Nieli suggests, reflected two ways of thinking about national civic life—“tribalism” and “personalism.” Tribalism denotes the principle of group representation and group identity and in intergroup relationships disregards the uniqueness of individuality and prefers stereotyping. Personalism refers to the principle of unique, distinct (persons) individuality capable of engaging with other human beings on the basis of mutual equality and respect.

Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to Nieli, “the federal bureaucracy, led by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (O.F.C.C.), aided and abetted along with the federal courts, simply rewrote through ‘interpretation’ Titles VI and VII as well as President Johnson’s antidiscrimination Executive Orders 11246 and 11375, substituting ethnic-tribal categories (e.g., ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Oriental,’ ‘black,’ etc.) for the personalistic language of the documents in question.” This reinterpretation by the federal bureaucracy blatantly contradicted the plain meaning of the Civil Rights Act and “certain moral and ethical precepts that have deep roots in America’s liberal and Christian past.”

In 1971 proponents and defenders of preferential hiring in the federal bureaucracy issued Revised Order No. 4 of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance. This document employed language of “ ‘goals,’ ‘timetables,’ ‘deficiencies,’ ‘good-faith efforts,’ ‘underutilization,’ ‘results-oriented’ policies, and the like, and helped set the style for the mystification and double talk that would become the stock-in-trade of most affirmative-action programs.” Disclosing the discreditable behavior of members of Congress and that of middle-level bureaucrats reminds us just how difficult it has been to achieve real fairness, justice and equality in our democracy.

The second chapter reprises a lengthy commentary on a manuscript circulated by a colleague of the author in order to consider whether racial preferences offer an antidote to racism. Nieli chides his colleague for failing to provide a precise definition of racism and proffers not one, but two. On the one hand, racism functions as ideology, a “type of thinking” that imputes negative characteristics to members of a diverse social or cultural or racial or ethnic group and those characteristics are attributed to “innate, biogenetically determined factors.” On the other hand, racism “refers to any of a variety of enmities, hostilities, or hatreds of people of a different race, ethnicity, or tribe, regardless of the extent to which such enmities, hostilities, or hatreds are related to any ideology of inferiority or any cognitively deficient process of overgeneralization or stereotyping.”

In the formulation of public policy, Nieli prefers the latter definition, which will not increase racism either in the sense of negative stereotyping or in the sense of interethnic hostility or bitterness. Further, this definition obviates interest group politics and potential interethnic or racial or cultural tensions, acknowledges the diversity of unique individual persons as citizens and seeks to promote the common good through adherence to the norm of fairness and reciprocity as well as cooperation, understanding, and friendship. To this reviewer, the lack of any analysis of the role and function of power in the structuring of any given society is a glaring omission.

The third chapter probes the effectiveness of racial preferences in college admissions and calls attention to the “underperformance” of black college students, who not only perform less well academically than whites, but also perform below levels predicted by their own SAT scores. The fourth chapter considers the value of “the contact hypothesis,” that is, intentionally bringing racially and culturally diverse undergraduate students together to encounter one another in order to dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions. The fifth chapter argues that affirmative action breaches the norm of fairness and reciprocity, thus provoking in whites and Asians intense opposition to affirmative action programs, intense dislike of blacks and “self-protective ethnic solidarity and defensive rage.” Racial preferences breach “the norm of interethnic fairness and reciprocity—a norm that is the linchpin holding together nonauthoritarian, multiethnic, multiracial societies like the United States.”

The final chapter seeks to explain the historical and demographic circumstances that coalesced in “the explosive growth of a downwardly mobile inner-city black underclass” in the 1950s and 1960s following the mechanization of Southern agriculture. Nieli focuses on “the problem of second-generation maladaptation and delinquency.” Here insights from evolutionary psychology seem to be in play, insinuating negative adaptation to a congeries of circumstances, including decreased demand for unskilled labor in an increasingly high-tech economy, generous monetary increases in public housing assistance, expanded welfare policies, rising rates of incarceration, etc. The perhaps unintentional racism lurking in the bowels of evolutionary psychological inference formed either a safety net too soft to support bounce into the mainstream or a slippery slope of lower and lower expectations, prompting lower and lower maladaptive unequal behavior.

Nieli offers a stringent critique of affirmative action and excoriates liberals—white and black—who fail to acknowledge the flawed conclusions and gaps in their own research on affirmative action policies. Moreover, he skewers black students from the middle and upper classes not only for taking advantage of policies that should have aided the truly disadvantaged, but for intentional poor performance. Nieli is insistent: “racial and ethnic preferences have no place in contemporary America.... Both wisdom and justice cry out for their repeal.”

Nieli eschews solutions and policy prescriptions for diagnosis—aiming to clarify the ironies of racial preferences. At the same time, he makes two suggestions: The federal establishment of a Civilian Infrastructure Corps modeled on the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps could enlist hundreds of thousands of young people in the sorely needed rebuilding of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. It could also teach them self-discipline, self-respect, and the value and dignity of regular work. If school vouchers were made available to poor families, the black church could build a nationwide Christian school system capable of forming and teaching youth in much the same way the Roman Catholic school system has done for more than a century.

There are blemishes. Certainly, Nieli points to the devastating impact of “three centuries of unimaginable mistreatment” (the phrase is Moynihan’s—slavery, Reconstruction, de jure and de facto Jim Crow segregation—but a fuller account would have provided deeper context and the rehearsal of prison statistics more than two decades old. There are omissions—black G.I.’s returning from World War II were excluded, routinely, although not completely, from receiving low cost mortgages, low-interest business loans and cash payments for tuition and living expenses (1944-56). And despite the author’s avowal of regard and respect for the black underclass, something in the tone of the book strikes this reviewer as ungenerous.

This book is sober reading for any educator, urban pastor, minister, parishioner or person of good will concerned about the common good and the future of humanity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A strong vision and mission are two keys to a distinctive university.
Jeffrey von ArxMay 18, 2018
Pat Conroy shares his inner self.
Jay HooksMay 18, 2018
Liam Callanan explores Paris, but also explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading.
Mark Bosco, S.J. May 17, 2018
In a new book, Helen Alvaré argues that a just society defends and protects its children from harms of all kinds.
Christopher KaczorMay 04, 2018