Whose American Dilemma?
By David Nicholson
Oct. 1, 1995
This is a maddening book, in places unspeakably vile, littered with half-truths and questionable assumptions, characterized by research aimed not at discovering what is so, but at confirming what the author already believes. Certainly there are, throughout, insights and assessments worth heeding. Ultimately, however, Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism is most valuable as one more indication of a sea change already underway in attitudes towards race and civil rights in America.
The answer to the question implicit in the title-how will we put an end to racism?-can be found in the last chapter. After more than 500 pages of windup, pages in which he traces the origins of racism, explores world and American slavery, and attacks the fallibility of cultural relativism, Illiberal Education author D'Souza finally gets to the point. "It will be blacks themselves," he writes, "who will finally discredit racism, solve the American dilemma, and become the truest and noblest exemplars of Western civilization."
And how will black Americans do this?
By abandoning "idiotic Back-to-Africa schemes and [embracing] mainstream cultural norms, so that they can effectively compete with other groups." If blacks show they can compete, says D'Souza, they will eradicate "beliefs in black inferiority . . . [by removing] their empirical basis."
In D'Souza's view, racism is not the primary obstacle facing black Americans. Racism, he writes, "no longer has the power to thwart blacks or any other group in achieving their economic, political, and social aspirations." Instead, D'Souza argues, blacks' worst enemies are themselves, and blacks' "main challenge is a civilizational breakdown that stretches across class lines but is especially concentrated in the black underclass."
The route to these conclusions is a long and tortuous one, more than 700 pages of text and notes. While designed to impress, much of this is unnecessary. D'Souza's main points-slavery was not "a racist institution"; liberals and the civil rights establishment are morally bankrupt; blacks can be racist; blacks are their own worst enemies-can be found in his first and last chapters. The End of Racism, then, is essentially a long magazine article that has consumed more research than was good for it.
To be sure, some of the material in the intervening chapters is intellectually provocative-for example, D'Souza's encapsulation of the Founding Fathers' dilemma: "For them to sanction slavery would be to proclaim the illegitimacy of the American Revolution and the new form of government based on the people's consent; yet for them to outlaw slavery without securing the people's consent would have the same effect."
ELSEWHERE, however, D'Souza's conclusions are difficult to accept and, often, downright offensive, as when he suggests that "personality types" that developed during slavery-"the playful Sambo, the sullen `field nigger,' the dependable Mammy, the sly and inscrutable trickster"-are "still recognizable today, or that Africans may be more intelligent than African-Americans because the smart Africans ran away from slave traders.
If that were not enough, he argues that segregation was a form of paternalism, established to offer blacks protection from white racists by minimizing social contact between the races. He minimizes the terrible vicissitudes of slavery, claiming that the breakup of slave families by the sale of parents or children was "not typical." And he seems to believe that because some blacks owned slaves-3,500 blacks owned about 10,000 black slaves in 1830; compare this to a black population of about three million in 1850-or because some slaves were better fed and clothed than white industrial workers in the North, this changes the immoral nature of the peculiar institution.
Finally, D'Souza asks a question that would be laughable if he did not mean it seriously: "If America as a nation owes blacks as a group reparations for slavery, what do blacks as a group owe America for the abolition of slavery?"
D'Souza's offensive conclusions are not limited to the past. For him, America's inner cities are not populated by people, but by barbarians sorely in need of "civilizational renewal." Black culture is characterized by "functional inadequacy." Essentially, however, D'Souza seems to believe that much of black America is in trouble because black Americans aren't intelligent enough. After citing statistics that purport to show a 15-point difference between white and black IQs, D'Souza concludes that the data "suggest that racial preferences are futile and a virtual guarantee of economic inefficiency for private companies and the government. Moreover," he continues, "IQ results suggest the circumstances of poverty and deprivation in which blacks find themselves in America today are not the cause, but the result of low intelligence."
Sometimes, D'Souza is both baffling and offensive, as when he insists that other cultures are more frank in their discussions of race, and offers as proof disparaging remarks made by Japanese government officials blaming America's shortcomings on its black population. And sometimes he is just plain wrong, as when he cites a slave song quoted in Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, and then, in an end-note, directs the reader to a discussion in Genovese's book of "work avoidance" by slaves. The pages he refers to are actually about intransigent slaves who defied their masters.
It may seem petty to criticize a work of this size for mistakes like that last one. I would argue, however, that the changes D'Souza advocates in our public policy as regards race are of such a magnitude that it is imperative to ask whether we should trust him on the big things when he is so often wrong-and wrongheaded-about the little ones.
AND, make no mistake about it, D'Souza would see national policy towards blacks, and other minorities, changed, most fundamentally by doing away with affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws for all employers except government (even though doing so would be a "virtual guarantee of economic inefficiency" because of blacks' low intelligence.) He believes that most employers would not discriminate, because it would be economically unsound to do so, but he has no trouble with those that might: "It is not unjust for an employer to refuse to hire even the most qualified black because the job is the employer's to give and the rejected applicant is no worse off than before applying for the job."
For someone like me, who believes that black Americans can, and should, do more to help themselves, The End of Racism poses a special problem. All across America, black neighborhoods are in desperate need of renewal. Government can, and should, do more. But the hard truth of the matter is that government can only do so much. In the end, we black Americans will have to reform the schools in our communities. We will have to eliminate violence on our streets by refusing to protect criminals. We will have to demand excellence from our children and accountability from elected officials.
It's true, then, that a great many of D'Souza's recommendations are down-to-earth correctives to bankrupt liberal orthodoxies that condone in black communities destructive behavior whites would never allow in their own. The trouble is that I don't trust D'Souza. By putting the onus solely on blacks to end racism, he completely absolves whites of any responsibility for the American dilemma. Then, too, so much of this book is repugnant, lacking even a wisp of empathy that would show D'Souza has some basic understanding of the complexities and contradictions of American history and the human condition.
Far worse, however, is how often D'Souza's intellectual mentors seem to be the white supremacist Samuel Jared Taylor-who believes that "the alternative to slavery was Negro pandemonium, which is basically what we have right now"-or Michael Levin, the white City College of New York professor who believes in black inferiority and that the criminal behavior of some blacks justifies "rational discrimination" against all.
Time after time, D'Souza's ideas sound like they derive from the thought-if so it can be called-of these two cranks. Thus, while others may hear in his book D'Souza's voice sounding calmly in the halls of reason, I hear the tread of heavy jackboots, faint and far away, but steadily approaching.
David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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