Dinsh D’Souza’s The End of Racism reminds one of the post—World War II inquiry, “Who Lost China?” For D’Souza’s massive compendium on the contemporary debate surrounding relations between blacks and whites in the United States justifies the conclusion that somewhere along the line he strayed from the only legitimate reason for revisiting that debate. That legitimate reason remains, as it has been, to assay prospects of community within the polity shaped by the Declaration of Independence. Although he is certainly equipped to take up the important work, D’Souza has pursued a different task.
It is essential to ask, therefore, what influences led him astray. Why in so long a book did he not once speak compellingly of “American community”? American blacks, says D’Souza, will become the “truest and noblest exemplars of Western civilization,” once liberated from dependence. Those are his final words, which echo all too strongly his first words, and all those in-between, which do not merely describe but ratify the existence of separate worlds, black and white. While he tacitly acknowledges in his final chapter that there is no “black culture” apart from the American culture of the West, D’Souza elsewhere in the book uncritically accepts the claim of a distinct black culture in the United States, up to and including the elevation of a mere argot, “black English,” into a distinctive language that purportedly prevails among American blacks.
While D’Souza rightly longs for an end to the formal recognition of race in the United States, his wish is contingent on black performance rather than on something that has already taken existence within his own soul. He does not espouse colorblindness, although he recognizes such a regime as superior to the perverse form of color consciousness that now prevails. Indeed, he fully expects consciousness of color to survive into the indefinite future. What he longs for is simply the end of obsessions with color consciousness as a taboo. Thus, his proposal for repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act aims to liberate public life from what he regards as the inevitable coin of our private lives.
But it is impossible to isolate private decisions completely from public authority. Thus, it is necessary to say, as a matter of policy, whether marriage licenses will be granted to all comers, without regard to race, despite the fact that the choice of a marriage partner is, and ought to be, a discriminating choice. Similarly, a contract for the sale of a home or performance of a job is considered private, until, that is, it must be enforced by a court of law, when certain kinds of contracts conflict with a public policy of nondiscrimination.
Such considerations make clear that we must break cleanly with such tendencies toward group regard if we genuinely aim to resurrect the language of the Declaration of Independence as fundamental for American prosperity. Deferential nods to African-Americanism, ill-articulated ideas of black culture, and credulous acceptance of “black English” serve no constructive purpose in realizing this goal. By considering some particular characteristics of The End of Racism, I shall make this truth painfully clear.
The first proposition that must be investigated is D’Souza’s claim that contemporary liberalism is the source of our current obsession with racism. D’Souza seems to blame liberalism both for the systematic racism introduced by racial preferences (affirmative action) and for the obsessive recurrences to racism by blacks and whites in explaining and excusing the failures of some American blacks. In short, he presents the current state of the “dialog” on race relations as a debate about the effects of racism in determining the possibilities open to blacks both now and in the past.
D’Souza’s position in this debate, paradoxically, is that liberals, as the authors of the regime of race preferences, are responsible for the racism intrinsic to that regime, while the possibilities open to blacks do not necessarily result from racism. According to D’Souza, it is “black culture” that most meaningfully determines the fates and life chances of American blacks. Thus, he defends the society against the charge of racism, insofar as it affects the lives of blacks, but condemns the society of racism, insofar as it sustains policies of racial preferences.
Although acknowledging the existence of “white racism,” D’Souza seeks to demonstrate that it has been defanged through the changes wrought by the civil rights revolution. The elimination of “white racism” was accomplished by liberalism, which, however, put in place a structure of racial preferences constituting a new racism, not against but nominally in favor of blacks. The new structure is also a form of racism, in the double sense of depending on allegations of continuing “white racism” for its justification and also affecting the opportunities of black and white Americans on the basis of invidious racial distinctions. Since the new racism is no less the work of whites than the old racism, and since its effects are no less pernicious than those of the former, it only confuses matters to attempt distinguishing “white racism” and “liberal racism” in this fashion. Nevertheless, D’Souza’s entire project, and so his relative success, depends on the success of this distinction.
While seeking mainly to retell the story of blacks in America, The End of Racism does so with the clear purpose of seeking to inform the current debate regarding the status of blacks in America, or what D’Souza calls “the black problem.” In that sense it is a throwback to an era in which Americans had persuaded themselves that the problem of vexed social relations in the country somehow inhered specifically in American blacks rather than in the country as a whole (a view radically inconsistent with the views of those American founders who anticipated the travail). By such lights the “problem” is more a problem of black performance than a problem of social organization, and such a view has always led ineluctably to the question, “What are we to do about the blacks?” By re-creating that frame of reference D’Souza re-creates the illusion that adroit policy maneuvers can establish peace where turmoil prevails.
The goal is not unworthy, even if different than advertised. But racism is far less the triumphant cultural relativism of D’Souza’s account than it is the persistent recourse to group remedies that long antedate this philosophical shift in American public life. The idea that government requires a policy to deal with the group is the very soul of racism. For some reason, however, D’Souza mined this story, which has been clearly told the past twenty years, yet enlisted himself in the “blacks are a special case tradition,” which has rendered the problem so intractable.
Why D’Souza made this error remains inexplicable after a careful reading of his book. His long and frequently erroneous account of the history of racism fails to inform the reader why he made the choices he did.
The history, however, contributes little to the analysis of current practices of “liberal antiracism,” which are the principal target of D’Souza’s polemic. Indeed, this long book is really two hooks promiscuously joined together. One book—the history—would have been better not written, while the other addresses a question that no one ought to ignore, namely, the contemporary obsession with race.
The obsession with race remains inexplicable apart from the existence of public policies and practices that codify race as the principal determinant of life chances for blacks. This is clear of whites—and not only liberal antiracists. More significantly, it is also true of American blacks in a way that offers a more powerful explanation than the “civilizational deficiencies” on which D’Souza prefers to rely in the second case. He would have seen this had he inquired more closely, and with less resort to stereotypes, as to why ordinary American blacks today are obsessed with race and whether they are obsessed in the same way their predecessors were or might have been.
W. E. B. DuBois notwithstanding, blacks of an earlier generation placed their concern with race in the context of a hoped-for assimilation to American political and social principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Equality for them meant being at one with America. This remained true into the 1950s, when even Langston Hughes, as Paul Laurence Dunbar before him, still celebrated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom as an ethical model.
A political sea change occurred since that time, ultimately affecting even Martin Luther King, wedding black hopes to a leftist politics that spurned America as it was founded. In our era, American blacks reverse Frederick Douglass’s journey from his query of 1848, “What Country have I?” to his 1854 embrace of “our fathers.” This reversal took place not only for American blacks (Remember Ronald Reagan’s blasts against the “blame America” crowd?) but also for the inner core of leftist politics, with which black leadership had cast its lot since the election of Roosevelt. The reversal finally overtook ordinary black citizens after the election of John F. Kennedy. The story of the deracination of American blacks in our time, while supported by cultural relativism, has far more to do with a widespread and dramatic political decline in the United States.
Oddly enough, politics has little to do with D’Souza’s account, despite his obvious political conservatism. That is what gives rise to the question, “Who created this version of Dinesh D’Souza?”—a D’Souza who ignores the fact that “black culture” has been shaped in decisive ways by white leftist culture. Indeed, remove the so-called “African American” peculiarity, remove the leftist politics—which is white culture, insofar as race is relevant at all—and what remains, but class shifting within a broader mixed-race society?
Because he abstracts from politics and has little understanding of the foundations of lower-class Southern mores, D’Souza over generalizes race. He does so despite having canvassed an enormous range of writings on his subject. The point of this observation is not to minimize the gravity of social deterioration in numerous American black communities throughout the United States. It is, however, to deny the relevance of the analysis of race in addressing those problems. When I say this, I am not liberal. When I say this, I am not conservative, although I am otherwise conservative. How can this be? Conservatism and liberalism are perspectives that address our hopes for man more than our understanding of nature. Though liberal insouciance has fostered an intensive contemporary racism, neither liberalism nor conservatism founds it hopes for man on a theory of race.
D’Souza successfully identifies cultural relativism as a special partner of liberalism. But that argument misses the point. The racism spawned by liberalism is really the old- fashioned variety, namely, the adoption of a corporate relationship toward a group. This reality weighs far more heavily than the notion of racism as a “mode of thought.” For, in the end, it is the existing policy that provides the nexus of racism, and someone is in charge of that policy. The most significant racist is the person or body of persons in charge of the policies that entail racism as a social problem and not merely a characteristic of certain individuals.
This argument does not deny the existence of black racism. Nor does it accept the absurdities by which some apologists for social monsters exculpate black racists. It goes rather to the question D’Souza raises at the outset of his book, namely, what is the crisis of racism today? He answers: “black rage,” “white back-lash,” and “liberal despair.” Notice, then, how his account serves to excuse the architects and guardians of the policies that are most responsible. For him racism consists of the effects of affirmative action more than it inheres in affirmative action itself. This is tantamount to saying that white feelings of superiority and black feelings of inferiority spawned by Jim Crow were racist, while neglecting to characterize the policy. This is consistent with regarding racism as a “mode of thought” rather than as an illicit action of the state.
This argumentative turn is important because it infuses the most substantial project of the book: the demonstration of black racism and its refusal to recognize deficiencies in black people. And that is precisely where D’Souza leaves the realm of salutary cautions and tries his hand at a social analysis that he completely mishandles. A few examples ought to suffice. He takes on the IQ controversy in the end only to make a case of no relevance to his argument. The prescription of governmental indifference to race does not flow from a supposed demonstration of racially differentiated intellectual capacities. Moreover, his own reliance on the “one drop of black blood” theory makes recourse to an argument about pure genetic heritage largely irrelevant. Finally, as a scientific matter, it makes infinitely more sense to investigate what distinguishes those folks who score 85 on a test rather than how any of an infinite number of possible groupings might score. There is no doubt that Einstein, by some characteristic, would have belonged to a group the overwhelming number of whom score in the imbecile range. The knowledge of that particular fact is of no value whatever, while the knowledge of what all the imbeciles share besides their score could be most helpful and would, by definition, be transracial.
Or take another case: “Desegregation permits racial separation as long as it is not compelled by government. Integration, by contrast, is a state-mandated result…. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly endorsed desegregation rather than integration.” Besides abstracting from the practical history of “separate but equal,” and therefore erring in fact, although not in principle, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims and assumed conditions of the civil rights movement. In the South, given the geographic, legal, and economic conditions, the reality was that desegregation meant integration. Hence it was wise for legislators to discuss the matter in such terms. Moreover, the real question, from the perspective of the organization of society, was not desegregation versus integration, but rather integration—mere integration—versus mutual dependence. Mutual dependence is more than integration. White integrationists never attempted mutual dependence, which helps to reveal why affirmative action grew to fill the vacuum.
One further example of poor analysis and poor judgment concerns the example of Dr. Dale Lick, former president of Florida State University. Lick “was promptly accused of racism” and forced to withdraw as a presidential candidate at Michigan State University for saying what was obvious, according to D’Souza, namely, “as blacks begin to get into sports, their natural abilities come through.” This is an error both of fact and of reasoning. Lick was forced “to apologize” years earlier, when he took the position at Florida State, for he made the remark at a previous post in Maine. Further, his apology, along with a promise to institute a regime of multicultural sensitivity, secured for him the position at Florida State.
In the Michigan State University search, when the issue resurfaced, Lick offered an explanation of little credit to a gentleman. Moreover, the original statement had been made in answer to a student’s question about the absence of blacks in sports like golf and hockey. In his answer he showed no awareness whatever of the likely effect of his remarks, even against the then-contemporary back-drop of the Al Campanis and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder affairs. At MSU, Lick was forced out of the search largely upon my decision to resign if he were appointed, and I did so for the sufficient reason that he brought with him baggage—and clear professions—that would have made him the worst kind of multiculturalist and politically correct administrator.
D’Souza’s inability to understand this story highlights the problem of his book. He assumed that an administrator who is an American black acted on the basis of what D’Souza imagined to be black culture in a situation that eventuated in denying advancement to a white male. In reference to racism and politics, however, the story is exactly the reverse of his imagination. One may think he was deceived by careless press reports. The thoroughness of his research otherwise, however, weakens that excuse and reveals the error as entirely his own, whether of disposition or procedure.
Let us close, then, by saying flatly that there is no such black culture as D’Souza imagines. Indeed, apart from transient immigrant cultures and numerically insignificant Indian cultures, there is but one culture in America, and whites no less than blacks are embraced by it.
Dinesh D’Souza, a former editor of Crisis, has been invited to respond to this article in a forthcoming issue.