Reviewed by Julian Bond
Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 26-27
Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal , by Andrew Hacker (Charles Scribners’ Sons, New York, 1992, xiii, 257 pages)Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, by Studs Terkel (The New Press, New York, 1992, x, 403 pages)
The publication of these complementary books on race in the months before Los Angeles and several other cities exploded in a sad repetition of the urban riots of the 1960s gives them special timeliness. They repudiate a series of recent tracts which also argue that race is too much with us. These earlier authors—neo-conservative black academics, neo-liberal journalist—-argue generally for benign neglect of problems associated with race, or for market solutions to the deliberate underdevelopment of human capital. Terkel and Hacker argue convincingly we haven’t paid attention enough.
Studs Terkel is the well-known Chicago radio personality who has written several other highly praised oral histories focused on American subjects. His ability to listen while his subjects talk and reveal themselves and his affinity for working class voices seldom heard in discussions of the past or present make him a delight to read.
Andrew Hacker is an academic who brings a scholar’s eye and an impassioned liberal’s anger to his view of what Terkel describes as “The American obsession.” His book is a worthy successor to Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma, although Hacker’s prognosis is harder, taken together they offer invaluable insights into what Americans mean and think when they see race. Although Terkel draws on earlier interviews he’s conducted for other books, and Hacker gives background to present-day reality, these aren’t histories: these are books about Americans today.
Southerners reading Terkel will appreciate how many of his Chicagoans are migrants from the South, and his conversations with three residents of Durham, North Carolina—C. P. Ellis, a former Klansman; Ann Atwater, a black woman who helped Ellis overcome his racism; and Howard Clement, black Republican city council member now more conservative than the former Kleagle—demonstrate both the complexity of American racial attitudes and the difficulty of assigning political positions to individuals based on preconceived notions of who they should be. Other Southerners—C.T. Vivian, Will Campbell, Charlise Lyles—speak here too.
While many of Terkel’s talkers are poignant and hopeful, there is an aura of sadness about both books, especially so in the aftermath of the breakdown of law and order in Simi Valley and the poverty-stricken discourse and repetitious debate that followed. Hacker
quotes Benjamin Disraeli to describe America’s enduring racial divide: “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thought, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Hacker’s Two Nations is a description of a frightening condition without prescription for its cure; so is Terkel’s Race. Hacker marshals facts and surveys to prove what many readers will already know; Terkel’s subjects add a human face to Hacker’s statistics, and prove Disraeli wrong, for many of Terkel’s talkers live or work in an interracial—if imperfect—world. Although presented in very different forms, it is only this which sets one book apart from the other. Hacker’s numbers represent stark racial divisions. Terkel’s voices, both blacks and whites, in their sharing with us seem less stark.
Race serves important functions for many Americans. It defines class standing, differentiates between “us” and “them”, wins elections, and creates profits.
The Rodney King riots created an explosion in race-talk and analysis, most of it designed to return the discussion of racial division to the Social Darwinism of the early twentieth century, to culture rather than color. But the backward turn of the debate on race didn’t begin in Los Angeles; it has been oozing back into the discourse for several years. If blame for black joblessness, crime, teenage pregnancy, and family break-up can be assigned to a lack of underclass values instead of racial bias, to poverty of the spirit instead of the gross upward redistribution of income which occurred during the Reagan years, or to welfare state-bred laziness instead of the transformation of the American economy from an highly-paid industrial to a minimum wage service base, if all this can be believed then the problems of the ghetto can only be solved by ghetto residents themselves, thus absolving government and excusing non-ghetto citizens of any responsibility: when ghetto residents heal themselves, they’ll be welcomed into the national polity.
These books demonstrate again and again how bankrupt and bogus our national dialogue is. Terkel’s people aren’t interviewed on talk shows. They don’t write op-ed pieces. Their opinions aren’t solicited by pundits. Policymakers want their votes, not their views. But many of them in their unobserved daily lives are making a larger contribution to healing the racial divide than do most of those in official position.
Hacker’s charts and graphs make poor television, and his expositions require more than a quick sound bite. We’ve been taught not to listen to any argument that takes longer than fifteen seconds to hear or five minutes to read. These books argue against racial sloganeering.
Terkel arranges his interviews in topics, such as “Friends” or “Welfare,” creating a context in which his subjects—blacks and whites—talk about race. They are interrupted by “Overviews”—a larger portrait—from a journalist or academic.
Hacker’s chapters also divide his discussion into familiar subjects. Anyone looking for statistical underpinning for arguments about what race means and what it does to us will find his book the more useful of the two. Some of his tables sadly refute the notion that some things, once perfect, are getting worse; they suggest instead they’ve always been awful and are worse today only by degree. The numbers of female-headed households have been three times greater among blacks than whites for forty years. Black unemployment rates were 2.08 times those for whites in 1960; in 1990, they were 2.76 times as high.
But everyone concerned about our national obsession should read both these books. Hacker may occasionally depress readers, and Terkel may uplift them, but both make a common sense contribution to the on-going dialogue on race.
Julian Bond, currently lives in Washington, D. C, and teaches at the University of Virginia.