The End of Racism: New Prospects for a Color-Blind Society
October 5, 1995
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, I am the president of The Independent Institute, and I am delighted to welcome you to our Independent Policy Forum program today. As many of you know, the Institute regularly sponsors programs featuring outstanding experts to address major social and economic issues, especially as they may relate to important new books. And, today is certainly no exception.
For those of you new to the Institute, you will find background information on our program in the packet at your seat. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly public policy research organization which sponsors comprehensive studies of critical public issues. The Institutes program adheres to the highest standards of independent inquiry, and the resulting studies are widely distributed as books and other publications, and are publicly debated through numerous conference and media programs, such as in our forum today.
Our purpose is a Jeffersonian one of seeking the truth regarding the impact of government policies, and not necessarily to just tell people what they might want to hear. In so doing, we will not take the public pronouncements of government officials at face value, nor the conventional wisdom over serious public problems. Hence, we invite your involvement, but be prepared for new and challenging perspectives.
Neither seeking nor accepting government funding, the Institute draws its support from a diverse range of foundations, businesses, and individuals, and we invite you to join us with your tax-deductible Independent Institute Associate Membership. Also in your packet, you will find information on the benefits in becoming a Member including receipt of our newest award-winning book on the dysfunction and pathology of contemporary politics, Beyond Politics. And, in keeping with the topic of our luncheon today, the issues of the politics of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and much more, including the multicultural battles being waged on American college campuses today, you will also want to obtain a copy of our new book, The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance on Campus, which you will find described in our book catalog in your packet.
Thirty years after the civil rights laws of the 1960s, race may still be the most divisive social issue of our time. Black unemployment, illegitimacy, crime, and school drop-out rates remain multiples of those for whites. Proposition 187s ongoing legal battles, Governor Pete Wilsons pledge to abolish affirmative action in state government, the California Civil Rights Initiative, and of course the racial disparity over the O. J. Simpson trial verdict attest to the continuing ability of race-related issues to polarize public debate.
In contrast to the optimism that followed much of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many today seem to doubt the very possibility of an America characterized by widespread racial harmony, the melting pot. Yet despite the prevalence of race-related issues, few agree about the nature of such issues, where they come from, and how best to deal with them. In fact, there seems to be fundamental confusion over exactly what racism is?
In this Independent Policy Forum, bestselling author Dinesh dSouza will address many of these issues, based on his new, widely discussed book, The End of Racism. To say that this book is a bombshell is beyond understatement! Many of you may have already seen the articles in U.S. News, Newsweek, Forbes, USA Today, etc. The book raises such questions as: Is racial prejudice innate, or is it culturally acquired? Is it peculiar to the West, or is it found in other societies? What is the legacy of slavery, and does contemporary America owe African-Americans compensation for it? Have government affirmative action programs helped or harmed minority groups as well as the general public? Has the civil rights movement succeeded or failed to overcome the legacy of segregation and racism? Can persons of color be racist? Is racism the most serious problem facing black Americans today, and if not, what is? Is racism an increasing or declining phenomenon?
In his book, Dinesh chronicles the political, cultural, and intellectual history of racism. Do current government policies intended to combat the harm from racism actually help, or do they instead perpetuate a cycle of impoverishment and dependency, and hence, racial stigmatization? His book chronicles the history of racism, examines the failed policies that have helped spread it, offers a way out of the deadlocked debate about race, and sets forth principles intended to create a more harmonious, multiracial society.
All of these issues revolve around fundamental concepts of what a free and civil society is and how it is structured. Do we pursue the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Hayekthe tradition of equal rights for all individuals to pursue peaceful lives free of the arbitrary coercion of others. Or do we base society on concepts that empower some to forcefully impose their aims on others and in so doing, cast aside the Rule of Law.
Dinesh DSouza is the John M. Olin Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Until his new book, he was best known as the author of The New York Times best-selling book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, which Tom Wolfe praised as, a bold and controversial work by one of the true, fearlessly iconoclastic writers around.
Widely regarded for his expertise on race and affirmative action, higher education, social and individual responsibility, and much more, his articles have appeared in Forbes, Harpers, The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Commentary, and The New York Times. Dinesh has also appeared on Nightline, Firing Line, Crossfire, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, This Week With David Brinkley, Good Morning America and other network news programs. He earlier served as White House Senior Domestic Policy Analyst from 1987-88, and he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College where he was also editor of The Dartmouth Review.
Tom Sowell describes The End of Racism as a thorough reappraisal of race and racism in America, former NAACP chairman Margaret Bush Wilson calls the book rich and provocative, and columnist Charles Krauthammer describes it as invaluable to our raging national debate on race and justice. Can a non-black man write such a book and honestly examine the highly sensitive issues of race relations? Well, the answer is yes, and I know that you will join with me now in welcoming Dinesh DSouza.
Thank you very much, David. Im very grateful for this opportunity to address such a distinguished audience. I appreciate that introduction. I remember when I was a White House policy analyst and gave briefings before various groups, I was once introduced by someone who said, And now ladies and gentlemen, for the latest dope from the White House; he pointed to me.
My last book, Illiberal Education, was about the politics of race and gender on campus. Ive decided to stop writing about gender, at least for the meantime, and the reason is one that was stated by President Gerald Ford, some years ago. He said that there would never be a war between the sexes because there has been too much fraternizing with the enemy.
So gender doesnt have the same possibilities for social Balkanizationfor divisionas does race, a subject that has not only intruded upon our public culture, our public policywe see it in the debate about affirmative actionbut also in our popular culture. We see a mental gap that is very evident in the reaction to the Simpson verdict, for example.
What I would like to do is to try to step back and analyze how we came to this pass. Why have race relations seemingly deteriorated to this point? And what can we really do about it? It seems to me we are facing in America a conflict between two principles that are both very important in a multiracial society. The first principle is: equality of rights for individuals, and its the principle that Martin Luther King articulated when he said we should be judged on our merits as individualsby the content of our character, if you willrather than by our skin color. I assume that most people in this room would agree that this is a very important and a fundamentally American principle. But there is another principle that is also important, one that we cannot be totally indifferent to. And that principle is: equality of results for groups.
Now, in a conservative audience you will find many who will say, Well, Im not attached to that principle, at least not as enthusiastically. And yet if we want to live in an inclusive society, a diverse society, in which some groups are not permanently ensconced at the top and other groups are not permanently consigned to the bottom, in short if we want to avert a racial caste society, we cannot be totally indifferent to how groups as groups end up. We have to pay some attention to equality of rights for groups as well. And I think one of the problems is that equality of rights for individuals does not lead to equality of results as groups.
This was illustrated recently, when the Regents of the University of California voted to end racial preferences. This generated an enormous uproar, an enormous controversy. And one reason it engendered such an uproar is because many studies have shown that if the University of California at Berkeley were to admit students solely based upon merit, solely based upon grades and test scores and nothing else, virtually the entire campus would be made up of two groups: whites and Asians. Over 90 percent of the Berkeley campus would be composed of these two groups. And the percentage of African Americans or blacks at Berkeley would plummet to between 1/2 to 2 percent.
Now Berkeley, as you know, is a state university, and the deans and admissions officers would be acutely embarrassed by a meritocratic admissions policy that produced such racially disparate outcomes. And so Berkeley has done what many other colleges have done, which is try to balance equality of rights for individuals with equality of results for groups. And it has done so by articulating a doctrine called proportional representation. Berkeley would like to have, as you know, a student body that roughly approximates the racial breakdown the surrounding population.
This, of course, is hardly a policy unique to universities. Proportional representation is indeed the fundamental premise of American civil rights laws. If you have a company here in the San Francisco area or Washington, D.C., and you are sued for discrimination, the federal government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will come to your door and say, Why is it the case that only 3 percent on your payroll are Hispanic, when Hispanics comprise eight percent of the surrounding population or the relevant population? In other words, you are presumed to be guilty of illegal discrimination. Why? Because the assumption of our laws and policies is that if you were not discriminating, then Hispanics, who are eight percent of the surrounding population would indeed be roughly eight percent at your company, as well.
Id like to step back for a moment and ask an interesting question. Where does this strange assumption come from? Where does the expectation of proportional representation derive from? Historically, proportional representation developed as a logical expression of the philosophy of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is an academic, pointy-headed term for a simple idea, by which I mean nothing more than this: All cultures are basically equal; no culture is superior or inferior, better or worse than any other.
This notion of culture relativism developed in the earlier part of this century, in order to combat the old racism. The old racism was based on a doctrine of human hierarchy. The old racists said, All human beings pass through three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. They argued that, in effect, only whites are suitableare capableof civilization, and all other groups are consigned to a lower rung on the civilizational ladder, stuck somewhere between barbarism and complete savagery.
This old racism, which was a very unique and novel development in the history of the world, arose, I argue, to explain a large gap of material, technological and civilizational development between the West and the rest of the world. If you lived in the ancient world in year 1500, for example, you would see many cultures, many civilizations. Perhaps the most advanced civilization at the time was the Chinese, who were most advanced in learning, exploration, technological development, and so on. Perhaps the second most advanced civilization of the time was the Arab-Islamic civilization.
But something very interesting happened starting in the year 1500 and culminating in the 19th Century. One civilization, that of Europewhich was by no means the most advanced culture in world before thatbegan to advance rapidly. Growing economically, politically, militarily, technologically, advancing in learning and discovery, Europe was able to map, plot, exploreand subduethe other cultures of the world, so that a hundred years ago, for example, European civilization controlled about 90 percent of the real estate on this planet. Racism became a way to account for this large gap of civilizational development that could not reasonably be attributed to climate, circumstance, or rivers, and so on.
In the 20th century this old racism came under fierce assault. It came under fierce criticism in the name of cultural relativism. What the cultural relativists said was this: You cannot rank human cultures as superior or inferior, better or worse, more advanced or less advanced. They said every culture is unique; every culture is an adaptation to its own particular circumstance, to its own distinct environment. They said that each culture should be respected and studied on its own terms. They said that the right attitude toward cultures is tolerance rather than condescension. They said, in effect, that people should learn to recognize that all cultures are equally entitled to respect. They said that all cultures are basically equal. This was relativism.
A tremendous battle erupted between the old racists and the new relativists in the early part of this century. It was a debate that was only settled by a single event: World War II. It was Hitler who discredited the old racism. He discredited it not by proving it false, by proving that human beings do not pass through stages of barbarism and civilization. He discredited it by showing that it could have genocidal consequences. So after World War II, if anyone said that some cultures are better or worse, or that some people are superior or inferior, this was regarded as the kind of thinking that led to the gas chambers. In short, after World War II cultural relativism established itself as the only ethical alternative to genocide.
I tell you this because cultural relativism formed the ferment, the soil, out of which the civil rights movement grew. It formed not the conclusions or the arguments of the civil rights movement, but its basic assumption. Its basic assumption was as follows. The activists who led the civil rights movement, foremost among them Martin Luther King, believed the following: Because cultures are basically equal, because groups are basically equalequal in their ability, talent, and potentialequality of rights for individuals should, therefore, lead to equality of results for groups. In other words, because racism has historically been a system of enforced group inequality, by outlawing racism, by making racial discrimination illegal, we should expect to find, at least within a reasonably short period of time, something approximating group equality. This was the cardinal assumption of the civil rights movement.
I argue in The End of Racism that it is this assumptionthat equality of rights of individuals will lead to equality of results for groupsthat has been proven false. What we know today, a generation later, is that merit, no less than the old racism, produces inequality. Merit produces inequality between individuals. (I think we all know that.) But merit also produces inequality between groups. This has lead many serious people, many civil rights activists, many scholars, to believe that merit is the disguised form in which old racism expresses itself today.
So you have a lot of people who say that the old racism, has not abated, has not changed; it has sort of gone underground where it now expresses itself in form of structures. What structures? Admission requirements, promotion requirements, hiring strategies, promotion strategies, low bid contracts, and so on. These meritocratic techniqueswhich were essentially set in place to fight the old nepotismare now themselves under indictment or under suspicion of being forms in which contemporary racism manifests itself.
We then need to ask, Is this in fact true? What is the real obstacle, for example, to African Americans as a group getting into Berkeley? Is it that there are raving bigots in the Berkeley Admissions Office? No. If that was the problem you could just assign every applicant a number, the way you do when you take a standardized test. Thats not the problem. The problem is that when Berkeley uses selective admissions criteria, not all groups score equally. So, the obstacle is Berkeleys demanding admissions requirements.
Now, part of the problem is that for a long time, many well-meaning activists and scholars have contented themselves by saying, Look, the problem is really not with merit, it is with the way in which these meritocratic systems have been applied. For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test is manifestly biased, racially biased, and biased perhaps along gender, class and other lines, as well. These activists point to examples in the test in which students are asked to find synonyms and antonyms for words like sonnet or sonata, and the assumption is that if you were raised in the suburbs, you know what these terms are; but if you were raised in the inner city, you dont.
And there is some truth to that. But forget about the verbal section of the test and look only at the math section. Will anyone in this room tell me with a straight face that equations are racially biased, or that algebra is rigged against Hispanics? This is preposterous. And yet the same racial gaps we see on the verbal section of the test are year after year equal or exceeded in the math section. In fact, one of the most telling statistics in the book, based on data from the College Board, says that whites and Asians who come from families making less that $20,000 a year score higher on the math section of the test every year than African Americans coming from families making $60,000 a year. Why is this? Because I think its pointing to a larger problem. And the larger problem is that we want to live in a multiracial society where groups are equal but different. If that were the society we lived in, we could have multiculturalism and just celebrate our differences.
The problem as I see it is we are developing into a society which mirrors a certain kind of racial or ethnic hierarchy. Asians and whites at the top, Hispanics in the middle, Africans Americans at the bottom. This is a very distressing reality and it is a reality that cannot be blamed on biased in the tests. So what is going on?
The basic argument of my book, is that what we have here is a problem not of genes, and not of discrimination, but what we have is a problem of culture. What we have is an American cultural breakdown. But one whose effects are particularly severe for African Americans, especially poor blacks. Theres a lot of literature on the subject which I discuss with great care in the book. I point out that in the inner city, for example, we have a culture that is very sadly characterized by some of the following elements:
First, a kind of reflexive paranoia about racism. A belief, for example, that AIDS is a government-sponsored plot. Second, within certain sectors, a hostility to academic achievement, which is sometimes derided as a form of acting White. In fact, there is such a stigma to doing well in class that there are schools in Washington D. C. that are overwhelming black in which prizes at the end of the year for smart kids are conducted in secret, because if you have it in public no one would show up. Third, a heavy reliance on the government, which is seen as the primary source of jobs, provisions, and social support. So a reliance on the government for help and support. Fourth, the rise of very high rates of violence, violence that makes some communities in our country virtually uninhabitable, make it difficult for people to get out of their homes, make businesses flee, make other places boarded-up, make the community a very dangerous place to live, resulting not only in white flight, but black flight, as well. And finally, the epidemic of illegitimacy. The normalization of illegitimacy, which might even be one of the driving forces pushing this entire engine.
These problems, I emphasize, are not due to natural or genetic factors, and they are not due to racism. I think I can prove this definitively by the following example. When we talk for example about illegitimacy ratesand I emphasize this is a national problemillegitimacy rates for whites are now approximately what they were for blacks when Moynihan wrote his famous or infamous reports on the black family not long ago.
But the breakdown of the black family, a much discussed problem, is often discussed by many serious people who should know better. They will tell you very confidently, Oh, thats due to slavery. And they say, Look at those slave owners; marriage was not legal under slavery; slave owners broke up families, sold off children, and so on,which is all true. But the problem with this argument is that in 1910, W. E. B. DuBois did a study of the subject and found that the illegitimacy rates for blacks in America, 30 years after slavery was ended, was about 20 percent. Higher than the white rate, which was about 2 percent. But vastly, vastly lower than the current rate which is close to 70 percent.
So the current problems of the black family cannot for the most part be attributed to slavery. In fact, the black family was relatively intact and in good shape, in strong shape. Blacks made a fantastic and heroic effort to rebuild their families after slavery. It was only starting around 1960 that illegitimacy rates began to climb and reach the currently astronomical levels in the 1980s and early 90s.
Now a generation ago, as I say, the gene pool for all groups, especially for blacks, was about the same as it is now. Obviously genes are not involved, obviously intrinsic factors can be dismissed. And also a generation ago racism was a lot worse. It was a lot more overt, state-sponsored, and had the backing not only law, but also of custom. I think we have to attribute this to culture. Now let me explain what I mean by culture. What I mean by culture is that groups can develop an oppositional culture that represents a sensible, intelligent adaptation to historical circumstances, and yet one that is in some ways today a liability.
Ill give you an example from my own country. When my parents were growing up in India, the Indians developed a culture of protest, which can be summarized by the phrase, Lie down on the railway tracks. It was the heyday of British Colonialism, and in my parents generation what the Indians would do to send the British home was to lie down on the railway tracks. They knew that the British were not like Hitler; they wouldnt keep the trains going, but they would stop the trains. This would stop the empire, and it did.
A generation later, the 1990s, when I go home to visit my family every two years or so, I go to the Bombay railway station and, sure enough, there are 10 guys lying on the railway tracks. So I say, What are you doing? They say, Well, we work at this factory down the street, we want a 9 percent pay raise, but they only want to give us 4 percent; and so weve decided to express our discontent by putting on these Ghandian robes, and making our voices known. And the police and the politicians are immobilized. No one will pick these guys off the railway tracks, because they are the true Ghandians.
My point is simply this: A cultural orientation that made sense a generation ago is dysfunctional today. Let me give a simple more specific to America. It has to do with attitudes toward the government. More than any other groups Africans Americans are sympathetic to the government. They look to the government as an important source for jobs, of rights, of education, and so on. Historically, many whites have viewed the government as the enemy of rights. If you look at the Founding Fathers debates, or the Bill of Rights, which says Congress shall not do this; Congress shall no do that, limitations on the government were regarded as the crucial way to protect the citizens freedom and security.
For blacks, historical experience proved the opposite. It was the Federal government that ended slavery; it was the federal government that ended segregation; it was the federal government that was an employer of last resort for many blacks in this century. So its not all that surprising that as a group blacks tend to see the government more sympathetically than most other groups.
All Im trying to say is that this cultural orientation, which made a lot of sense at one time, is today a liability. Why is it a liability? Because the record of the government in solving problems has been mixed to abysmal; because the government no longer has the resources; because public confidence in our government is at an all time low. And yet we see a lot of guys marching on Washington all the time, the Million Man March, the anniversary of the Martin Luther King march. Ive been to all these marches, and they say, You know, weve got to go to Bill Clinton and ask for 300,000 new jobs. Well, I worked in the White House, and Bill Clinton doesnt have 300,000 new jobs; he has about 300 jobs and most of them are taken.
So the orientation that looks to government is today not that effective. Meanwhile other ethnic groups, and its not any in particularfor example, its the Cubans, the West Indians, the Koreansare setting up in the inner city, are setting up rotating credit associations, and within a generation their daughters are valedictorians and they have moved to the suburbs.
These cultural strategies are crucial. I quote the urban anthropologist, Elijah Anderson who discusses what he calls the two cultures of the inner city: a black culture of decency, characterized by millions of people who struggle to maintain intact families, get to work, live in safe neighborhoodsthe majority of people; and on the other hand, what he calls the culture of irresponsibility, a culture characterized by drugs, by crime, by violence, by sex abuse, by illegitimacy, and so on. Who can deny that this culture also exists and that it is also real?
This brings me to my main point, which is that we are now in a liberal dilemma. This is the liberal dilemma: Cultural relativism, which has historically been a very effective weapon for toppling the old racism, for de-stabilizing the old racist hierarchy, is now a millstone around our necks. It makes is impossible for us to proclaim as a society that some cultures are simply better than others. It makes it difficult as a society to say that we are going to encourage and strengthen, both as a matter of public policy and civic duty, cultures of decency, and we are going to work againstwork to undermine cultures of irresponsibility.
So relativism, once adaptive itself, is now, mal-adaptive. And I argue that we should get rid of relativismforget it. The old racists maintain (a) that you could rank cultures hierarchically and (b) that this ranking was due to biology. Liberalism has been based on denying (a): You cant rank cultures hierarchy, because all cultures are equal, it has argued. Im saying we should admit (a) but deny (b). We should admit that in a functional sense, yes, some cultures are obviously better than others, better at getting certain things done. But this is not due to biology. There is nothing about our innate characteristics, about the content of our chromosomes, that make us act in a certain way. Of course not.
I think what we need is two-fold. We need a colorblind public policy, what I call the separation of race and state; get the government out of the race business and stop playing favorites with citizens. And on the other side, we need a cultural strategy that is spearheaded by the private sector, but that is also spearheaded by leadership within the black community. And this cultural strategy is aimed at raising the cultural standards of all Americans. But also with particular benefits for Africans Americans, so that African Americans can compete effectively with other groups.
Ive been criticized by a couple of black conservatives, who say, in effect, Look, we agree with you on point one; youre right about affirmative action; thats gone too far, etc. But we dont think you should be talking about culture, especially about African American culture. Thats a very unpleasant subject; lets not talk about that. But here is the problem: If conservatives embrace the colorblind society but pay no attention to culture, we will find ourselves in a tremendous trap. The trap is that equality of rights for individuals would immediately lead to dramatic inequality of results for groups. I dont think most of us want to have a Berkeley campus with virtually no blacks, or an M.I.T. with virtually no blacks, or certain professions where blacks become very scarce. A strict commitment to colorblindness would begin to produce this inequality, not just on account of the old racism, but also on account of merit.
I am fully convinced that blacks can compete effectively with other groups. In this sense my book is, I think, a tough book, because it faces painful realities. Tom Sowell compared the book to Gunner Myrdals An American Dilemma and says that, The End of Racism is a heartbreaking book, because the truth is heartbreaking. But only if you face up to it can you begin address these problems. I think if we have this two-step strategy, it will allow conservatives, who have been on the weak end of the race debate, having had a very poor record of supporting many of the civil rights initiatives that blacks and other groups have come to depend on. (Those of us who are persons of color, we have benefited too, no question about it.)
I think its time for conservatives to take the leadership in the race debate, and the way to do it is to propose a strategy that offers some hope for working. If our problems are in our genes, there is nothing we can do about it and we are condemned to fatalism. If the problems of blacks or any other group are due to white racism, we are also condemned to fatalism for the following reason: I dont know of any new ways to fight white racism that are going to improve black test scores, increase black savings rates, increase black rates of business formation, strengthen black families, reduce black-on-black crime. These problems are due to the historic legacy of racism, but they have taken on a cultural life of their own. Im simply arguing that as a society, in a compassionate way, these problems should be tackled head on.
I dont claim to know all the answers. There are certain weaknesses to writing a book when you are something of an outsider. I was not born in this country, I was not raised through the civil rights movement, and there are some weaknesses that go along with that. And there are some strengths as well, because I find that a lot of Americans, black and white, are very neurotic on the subject of race. People who have fought in the civil rights movement are captive to that old ideology. They cannot see the ways in which the world has changed. Im sure that if we brought Alexander Solzhenitsyn to this room and asked, What do you think is the most serious problem facing Russia?, he would say, maybe, the return of the Bolsheviks. We would all understand why he would say that, given his life experience. But he would be wrong.
So, I see my book as a response to the fact that our current paradigm, our current way of thinking about race, our current policies to deal with it, have made important gains, but are now at a dead end. We now have more polarization than ever. We live in a more racially intoxicated society. Kings dream of a colorblind society seems more distant than ever. For this reason, I think we need less political correctness, more of a willingness to turn assumptions into questions, to ask questions that were not asked, and didnt need to be asked five or ten or twenty years ago. Its that project that I undertake in this book, and thats why I urge you to read it. Thank you very much.
To hear the questions and answers session of this event, please go the this event's audio page