WE ASKED NINE SCHOLARS TO COMMENT ON RECENT BOOKS ABOUT
"The 'conversation on race' initiated by President Clinton has generated a lot of headlines, but it hasn't helped to illuminate the power of racial ideologies. In the United States, elites developed a particular ideology of race in order to exploit the labor of people of African descent. Today we should focus not on data from polls that ask how people feel about race, but on the persistence of segregated employment and housing. A good place to begin a meaningful conversation about such issues is Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996), which details the variety of forces--from the racism of city council members and real estate agents to the deindustrialization of the auto industry workforce--that kept blacks out of good jobs, good schools, and suburban neighborhoods."
Michael Tomasky, political columnist at New York magazine and author of Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America (Free Press, 1996).
"My abiding opinion is that we could do with a moratorium on race books for the next five years. The field has been tilled many times, and it doesn't seem like much is growing there. The cultural left's well has been drying up; the cultural right has nothing to add; in the middle, passionate defenses of (or attacks on) affirmative action basically restate old arguments. Nevertheless, in Race, Crime, and the Law (Pantheon, 1997), Randall Kennedy does take the conversation in a few new directions. Kennedy is trying to find that place where racial interests and the community interest meet--where race can be both accounted for and transcended. His research and method are airtight and meticulous, and his refusal to ignore facts that might interfere with his argument exemplifies the open-mindedness we need more of on this topic."
Bill Ong Hing, visiting professor of law at the University of California at Davis and author of To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation (NYU, 1997).
"If only every member of President Clinton's commission on race relations would read a book like Angelo Ancheta's Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience (Rutgers, 1998). Given the country's ethnic diversity, especially in urban areas and the West, the commission's emphasis on black-white relations and its aversion to issues like affirmative action injure its credibility. Ancheta, a civil rights attorney, reminds us that Asian Americans have been a significant part of the nation's diversity. He chronicles the legal predicaments that Asian Americans have faced, providing an insightful study of a broad range of social and political issues from discrimination to identity and language. Although the book is choppy in places, Ancheta's insights--born of his broad community lawyering experiences--are a useful reminder that any dialogue on race must be broad. With any luck, the president's commission on race is listening."
Ann Douglas, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).
"In I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African American Culture (California, 1994), Patricia Turner, having conducted extensive interviews, analyzes the oral tradition by which black Americans interpret key events. These traditions often stress the covert role of government agencies, which is downplayed in the press. Rumors become a culture of knowledge, Turner concludes, when the demand for information far exceeds the supply. Brenda Gayle Plummer's Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960 (UNC, 1996) shows that, contrary to much previous academic opinion, African Americans were engaged critics of U.S. intervention in the third world during the early decades of the Cold War. Surveying a wide variety of sources, Plummer disentangles diplomatic history from its sometimes crippling dependence on the state. Instead, she studies those whom foreign policy actually affects and who, she argues, can sometimes affect it in turn."
Jane Lazarre, professor of writing at the New School for Social Research and author of Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Duke, 1997).
"Two collections, one of poetry--Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of African-American Poetry (Syracuse, 1997), edited by Keith Gilyardand one of essays, The House That Race Built (Vintage, 1998), edited by Wahneema Lubiano--cut through the denial about racism that discolors our knowledge of history and ourselves. 'The idea of race and the operation of racism are the best friends that the economic and political elite have in the United States,' Lubiano tells us in her introduction. The essayists in her collection, like the poets in Gilyard's, bring to light revealing stories about American politics and identity. Both collections do what Gilyard calls the 'serious literary work' of progressive political struggle by gathering voices that insist on the intimate relationship between our internal lives and social realities."
Fred Siegel, professor of history at Cooper Union and author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities (Free Press, 1997).
"The debate over Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom's America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1997) has centered mostly on affirmative action. That's a shame, since the most persuasive sections of the book demonstrate how, contrary to the views of cranks like Cornel West, the riots of the 1960s actually served to slow down black progress after World War II. The Detroit riot that left much of the city an economic wasteland was, they maintain, driven by neither poverty nor police injustice. At the time of the upheaval, the income of the typical black family in Detroit was merely 6 percent lower than that of the typical white family--the smallest differential in the country. With such statistics in mind, the Thernstroms conclude that the riots were 'the beginning of the end of a great deal of hope...that has never quite returned.'"
Tyler Stovall, professor of history at University of California at Santa Cruz and author of Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).
Stovall recommends Robin D.G. Kelley's Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon, 1997). "Kelley has written widely on race, and in his newest book he inverts intellectual hierarchies by both exposing the 'culture of poverty' of social science analyses of race and taking on various opponents of multiculturalism, from black conservatives to the 'angry white men of the Left.' Kelley argues that such positions neglect how both free-market capitalism and the working class have been built on the principle of racial exclusion. To argue otherwise is to denigrate the achievements of African-Americans and do violence to the historical record. Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! is a book to make one both think and laugh: Anyone who can coin the phrase 'She's a Bricolage House' clearly has many insights to offer."
David J. Dent, professor of journalism at New York University and author of Journeys in the Black (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming).
Dent recommends Orlando Patterson's The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America's "Racial" Crisis (Civitas, 1997), "which argues that enormous progress has been made toward the goal of full racial equality in America, though problems persist. What makes Patterson's seemingly simple idea so provocative and original is its independence from the predictable liberal and conservative camps on race. Patterson's opposition to the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts has won him few cheers from liberals. Nor have conservatives applauded his book's strongest chapter, 'Why We Still Need Affirmative Action,' which argues that affirmative action is not a system of racial preferences but a means of advocating equality of opportunity. I wonder, though, how someone so thoughtful can remain so optimistic, particularly when the debate on race is still driven by camps that, as Patterson himself shows, are out of touch with how most Americans live."
Werner Sollors, professor of American civilization at Harvard University and author of Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Oxford, 1997).
"Among classic works on race I would like to see back in print is the antifascist book Racism (1938), by the sexual scientist Magnus Hirschfeld, who pioneeringly gave racism (used by anti-Semites as a positive concept) a bad name. For those who examine race in Latin America, the 1996 catalog of the New York Americas Society Art Gallery, New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America, edited by Ilona Katzew, makes available the whole range of mestizaje paintings, which depict interracial family situations, in excellent reproductions. Equally valuable is Jennifer Fleischner's Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives (NYU, 1996), which examines representative slave narratives and abolitionist fiction from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. Fleischner puts to rest ill-founded fears that psychoanalysis, a European discipline, is not suited to the topic of American race relations--an argument that in itself suggests the continuing power of race."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.