With irreconcilable differences

Monday Book Review

March 30, 1992|By Gwinn Owens

TWO NATIONS: BLACK AND WHITE, SEPARATE, HOSTILE, UNEQUAL. By Andrew Hacker. Scribner's. 257 pages. $24.95.

BY VIRTUE of its brutal honesty and its statistical thoroughness, this is probably the most important book on America's racial condition in at least a quarter century.

Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, New York, unmasks the reality of racial hostility, whether subtle or flagrant, political or economic. His findings are gruesome. In his own words: "The reader should not expect this book to end on an optimistic note." It doesn't.

Consider some of Hacker's revealing facts, both broad and specific:

* While African Americans constitute 30 percent of nursing aides and orderlies, they amount to only 2.5 percent of dental hygienists. The author's assumption -- which is probably correct -- is that even white Americans who think they are unbiased still don't want black fingers in their mouth.

* The Republican Party "has all but explicitly stated that it is willing to have itself regarded as a white party . . . by sending a message that it neither wants nor needs ballots cast by blacks, it feels it can attract even more votes from a much larger pool of white Americans who want a party to represent their racial identity."

In this pursuit George Bush's 1988 campaign sanctioned the famous Willie Horton commercial. By citing the policies of the Democratic contender as the reason for a black man's rape of a white woman, the campaign cynically exploited one of the most primal of all white fears. (In the 1992 campaign, even the Democratic Party is loath to emphasize programs aimed at helping blacks.)

* Nearly half of all black children (44.8 percent) live in poverty, while 15.9 percent of white children are so unfortunate.

* The United States "speaks eloquently of universal justice and equal opportunity. Yet its treatment of its principal minority belies those basic commitments."

* Seven times more black men than white men spend time in prison.

Hacker does not pull any punches on the issue of black crime; its prevalence is indisputable. Worse, it creates a vicious circle: Crime drives whites to the suburbs, leaving the cities to poor people unable to support education and other services. Poverty breeds more crime and further instills the belief of whites that blacks are genetically prone to criminality.

Still, Hacker writes: "The most obvious question is why blacks are responsible for so large a ratio of crimes entailing threats or acts of violence." His answers are understandably not definitive, but piecemeal add up to some conclusions. Poverty is but one. Another is that blacks commit violent street crimes because less violent forms perpetrated in offices are not available to them. And given their miserable stake in society, they are simply breaking (in the words of a black New York judge quoted by Hacker) "a social contract that was not of their making in the first place."

As African-American administrations take over cities like Baltimore, they must deal with diminishing resources that leave education and other services in tatters. This (along with crime) sends the middle class to the suburbs. From that base they have little interest in rescuing the city, and suburban politicians feed on the anti-city sentiment. As for Washington, Hacker notes that "federal administrations have taken the view that they reap little benefit by propping up declining cities." And so the cities slip farther into the chaos of poverty, poor education, awful housing and crime.

The essence of Hacker's thesis is that in subtle ways, racism persists even among those who would insist they have no prejudice (recall the dearth of dental hygienists). Most whites believe the various civil rights laws demonstrate that America has tried hard and that they are not responsible for the privations of blacks. (For example, this takes the form of the belief that affirmative action only takes jobs from whites who shouldn't be held responsible for their ancestors' mistreatment of blacks.)

In sum, the efforts to eliminate racism in America just haven't worked. Hacker analyzes the situation as a scientist would, making his case with pages and pages of cold but indisputable statistics. These prove that to be black still means facing a lifetime of rejection, both overt and covert. To illustrate this beyond question, the author offers a parable:

An elemental power has made an error, discovering now that you, a white person, were destined to have been born black. Therefore at midnight you will become black, though your mind, your knowledge and everything you were as a white person will remain. You will simply be, physically, an African American. But to compensate you for the error, you will be offered a reasonable sum of money as recompense for being black for the 50 remaining years of your life. How much would you want?

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