Why Talk About Race:
Welfare and Crime Demand More Than Feel-Good Chat

by Glenn C. Loury
The Washington Post
Outlook Section
Saturday, December 7, 1997


Last June, when President Bill Clinton announced that he would lead the country in a "national conversation on race," the initiative was greeted with skepticism and questions. Who would be included in such a conversation? What would be discussed? Ultimately, what could be accomplished? Now, even after Clinton’s artfully conducted town hall meeting last week in Akron, Ohio, the answers remain elusive.

The seven-member commission impaneled to advise him on this matter, chaired by historian John Hope Franklin, has only added to the sense that the initiative is sputtering. Last month, as the commission planned to conduct hearings on racial diversity in higher education, Franklin left observers befuddled by declaring that opponents of affirmative action would not be permitted to testify. Just what kind of "conversation" did he intend to facilitate, critics asked, if such an important point of view were to be excluded?

Of course, racial conflict in America is a matter of the utmost seriousness and one deserving of presidential attention. As Clinton stressed more than once during his remarks in Akron, other countries around the world have suffered terribly when conflicts between ethnic, religious, or racial groups have been permitted to spin out of control. It would be extremely imprudent to assume that we Americans are somehow immune to this disease. Unless the focus of his initiative can be sharpened and its goals clarified, there is the distinct possibility that little will come of this noble effort.

A therapeutic model of group dynamics seems to underlie the president’s initiative. We are supposed to be getting our long-hidden fears, resentments, and frustrations out in the open. "Be blunt," the president instructed his Akron audience. Yet, absent a relationship of trust having been established among the parties to the conversation and without the privacy that ensures one’s unguarded comments will not be taken out of context, this is a vain aspiration. A nation cannot talk like a family, no matter how earnest and articulate its political leaders might be.

This is not to deny the existence of prejudices and misconceptions that divide us and that might yet be clarified by the educational effects of public discussion. Certainly, stereotypes or suspicions harbored by one group of Americans toward another might, with sufficient effort, be dispelled in this way. But, such an educational mission can hardly be the best use of a president’s scarce time and awesome, if fleeting, command over public attention.

How can Clinton’s initiative be restructured to increase its prospects of success?

An important first step would be to move the discussion beyond the familiar categories of partisan conflict on racial issues. Rather than seeking common ground between the extant camps of racial liberals and conservatives, the national conversation should instead aim at redefining the debate so as to develop ideas that can appeal to people in both camps and thus foster a new sense of common purpose.

We are at a historic moment of social and political transformation on racial matters. One indication is that irrevocable and deep improvement in the status of black Americans has taken place over the past half-century. While the trend has been apparent for decades, a powerful case for this view has been made by the president’s antagonist in Akron, Abigail Thernstrom, along with her husband Stephan Thernstrom, in their new book, "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible."

True enough, blacks continue to bear a burden of racial stigma—reflected in, among other things, widespread police (and civilian) suspicions that young black men are likely law-breakers. And, of course, there remains the deeply entrenched problem of the black underclass, whose condition has grown more desperate even as most blacks have been making good progress. But these considerations to the contrary notwithstanding, truly remarkable change has occurred.

As a result, the 1960s-style civil-rights approach to race relations – in which blacks petition the courts and the federal government for relief against the discriminatory treatment of private or local state actors – is now insufficient. Petitions of this sort should continue to be brought, but the predisposition to view black-white race relations through the civil rights lens is no longer a constructive one.

The profound demographic transformation ongoing in American society over the past three decades is also rendering the old black-white framework obsolete. Twenty million immigrants, most from non-European points of origin, have arrived on our shores since 1965. Blacks will soon be overtaken by Hispanics as the largest minority group in the country. This is not to deny that blacks occupy a unique position in any discussion of race in America; only that a dialogue focusing solely on the old tensions between blacks and whites will miss something of fundamental importance.

A final change, which after the past two elections hardly needs elaboration, is the rightward shift in the ideological landscape that has occurred over the past generation. As Clinton famously put it, "the era of big government is over." In changing times, familiar issues of racial contention – welfare, affirmative action and criminal justice policy – do not fit neatly into the old boxes.

Perhaps the president’s initiative can best achieve a long-term impact on the nation’s public life by recasting the ongoing policy dialogue in these areas:

Welfare: Race and welfare are intimately tied together because poor minorities, especially blacks, are significantly over-represented (by percentage) on the welfare rolls. Revolutionary changes in the federal-state welfare policy framework were enacted into law in 1996. Much of the old debate – over the propriety of forcing recipients to work, for example – was ended by Clinton’s passage of welfare reform.

Nevertheless, the impact of the new law on minority communities appears to be profound. There is good reason to worry, for example, that these policy changes could adversely affect the physical and mental development of many tens of thousands of young children living in inner-city ghettos.

Important welfare policy decisions remain to be made, about the provisions of child care to poor working mothers and about the degree to which the most disadvantaged cases will be exempted from eligibility cutoffs. It is wholly legitimate to focus public attention on how these changes will affect the well-being of the roughly one-third of African American children who depend for their subsistence on the cash grants, food stamps and medical assistance provided by government.

The president’s dialogue could promote a healthy consideration of the racial dimension of this issue, while at the same time reinforcing the broadly held public judgment that the terms of the social contract between indigent families and the rest of the society have been permanently changed.

Affirmative action: The consensus that once supported color-conscious racial policies is collapsing, though it remains unclear what will eventually take its place. A dramatic moment in the Akron town meeting occurred when President Clinton sharply engaged Thernstrom over the issue. The audience there seemed to support "affirmative action," but the president had to concede that similar support for "racial preferences" could not be assumed. Thernstrom, for her part, avoided answering directly when the president pressed her on whether she would abolish the U.S. Army’s affirmative action efforts. She conceded that the Army does a fine job at raising the skill levels of its black personnel.

In Texas, the state legislature responded to a court ruling that forbade the practice of affirmative action in college admissions by passing a novel law. The state now guarantees any high school student finishing in the top 10 percent of his or her class admission to any public university in the state. The law is intended to benefit students with low SAT scores but good grades at less-than-competitive high schools. Those students helped by a colorblind policy will be disproportionately black and Hispanic students.

Criminal justice: As the president reminded his Akron audience, crime rates are down. He made no mention, however, of the fact that the imprisonment rate of black males, already at an extraordinarily high, continues to rise. Scholars attribute this development over the past decade to mandatory minimum sentences applied to low-level drug offenders who are disproportionately black. These sentencing practices, strictly construed, are not racially discriminatory. But they may nevertheless be morally and practically questionable because of their disparate racial effects.

With something approaching one out of every 10 black males under lock and key on any given day, the limits of the punitive response to inner-city law-breaking should be apparent, even to the most die-hard drug warriors. The issue here is not simply whether those (of whatever race) who "do the crime" should "do the time" – they should. The larger issue is whether we want to reap the whirlwind of dysfunctional behavior now being sown in those institutions of higher criminal education that we call prisons. Most Americans, I believe, want to get beyond the tired thinking that assumes maintaining public order must be somehow incompatible with narrowing racial disparities.

In Akron, the president complimented a white young man who admitted that he is sometimes afraid of a poorly dressed black male who is walking toward him on a city street. Such candor is admirable, but the success of the national conversation on race depends far less on the personal courage of individual speakers in a town meeting, than on the courage of national leaders who, having gained the nation’s attention, must now begin to channel it in new and useful directions.