By Carl T. Rowan
Little, Brown. 298 pp. $22.95

Go to the first chapter of "The Coming Race War in America"

THE COMING RACE WAR? And Other Apocalyptic Tales of America After Affirmative Action and Welfare
By Richard Delgado
New York University Press. 198 pp. $24.95

Go to the first chapter of "The Coming Race War?"

Go to Chapter One

Nightmares of Rage and Destruction

By Jim Sleeper
Sunday, November 3 1996

When two books, one by a veteran columnist, the other by a law professor, are published almost simultaneously under virtually the same title, both touting portents of a racial Armageddon, you can't help but wonder: Are the authors really convinced that the country is heading toward "race war," or are their publishers just heading for the bottom line? The books themselves might seem portents of catastrophe, appearing in the wake of revulsion felt by most whites at O.J. Simpson's acquittal, assaults by white "militias," and Louis Farrakhan's rise as an exponent of black rage.

Yet neither author argues persuasively that racial injustice is worse now than ever in this century. Why, then, their intimations of war? Don't they risk creating self-fulfilling prophecies of doom by "warning" about it?

Not at all, insists Carl T. Rowan, who believes his title passionately and accuses skeptics of being "in denial of both the magnitude and the danger of white violence in America." He opens and closes "The Coming Race War in America" by damning the "militias," whose existence he explains much as Jesse Jackson did black church burnings: "Those in blue suits and those in black robes help set the climate for those in white sheets." In Rowan's account, social-welfare and affirmative-action rollbacks are driven by -- and driving -- white-racist anger at nonwhites' gains since the 1960s. His alarm at white perfidy eclipses even his oft-expressed anger at self-destructive black behavior.

This is enough to give pause to anyone who has followed Rowan's work. A nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, he has been an honest, if sometimes windy, voice for older, stolid, black working- and middle-class folk who owe much of their modest security to liberal initiatives, and to whom this country's social fabric owes even more in return. If something has snapped in Rowan, one is tempted to pay heed.

Unfortunately, this latest of his books snaps completely. Instead of making the sound arguments his incendiary thesis demands, he gives us islands of coherence in roiling seas of emotion and cant. He rigs together some of his own columns, old news items, and wild digressions like this one, in a chapter on affirmative action: "I've heard thoughtful white men suggest that angry white men resent bitterly the evidence that black men . . . are now fornicating with white girls, and daring white men to try to stop what black men boast that white women really want." This theme surfaces again and again in the book, once luridly in a chapter on IQ and race.

Later Rowan writes: "Black conservatives like Glenn Loury . . . who more or less share [Charles] Murray's social and legislative agenda, were in virtual lockstep with the "Bell Curve" authors." Actually, Loury played a vigorous, public role in discrediting "The Bell Curve," breaking with the neoconservative Commentary magazine over it and, later, with the conservative American Enterprise Institute over its sponsorship of Dinesh D'Souza's "The End of Racism." Where was Rowan? And how does one win a noble peace by writing that "Americans are brandishing hand grenades over `affirmative action' " -- if, as Rowan acknowledges, big corporations were so strong on affirmative action that they stiffened President Clinton's spine? It's not that there's no reason to worry; it's that ranting like Rowan's is no way to worry.

Richard Delgado never rants; his writing about apocalypse is curiously disembodied. "The Coming Race War?," too, blames rollbacks of social programs. Worse, it suggests, whites want the cutbacks to bait non-whites into rebelling; then they can crush them without qualm. The book's narrator, a senior professor who may remind some of Delgado, announces that he will escape race war by emigrating from the United States, where he was born and has taught successfully -- though, by his lights, rebelliously -- to Mexico, because "the atmosphere there is in many ways freer than it is here."

But it's unclear whether Delgado, the Charles Inglis Thomson Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, really foresees an apocalypse perpetrated by whites and requiring an escape. His "genre" is a weird one popularized by him and other "critical race theorists" such as Derrick Bell: It tells "fables" that turn on dialogues among fictional characters -- in this case, as in Delgado's earlier "The Rodrigo Chronicles," between "the Professor" and his young African-American/Italian interlocutor, in varied ethnic restaurants near pleasant conference centers and colleges. Yet their fictional repartee is heavily footnoted with citations from real academic work, as if Delgado wants to be taken seriously as a scholar while ducking criticism under cover of fiction.

What accounts for such dodging? Critical race theory, of which Delgado is a major architect, holds that ostensibly color-neutral legal scholarship and jurisprudence suppress nonwhite experiences and narratives and, hence, justice. The "crits' " fanciful yet footnoted fables presume to speak for all blacks or Hispanics and control all entrances and exits to the debate. That suppresses the "narratives" of non-whites who prefer race-neutral rules. And fables can't be appealed.

All scholarship involves subjective judgment, but, unintentionally, Delgado shows why race-neutral jurisprudence and scholarship are needed: At least they can be challenged (not just reviewed) in racially integrated settings, by transracial standards. Ironically, critical race theory is a refuge for those who want to keep racism firmly in place, if only so that they can define themselves by railing against it, always at arm's length -- protected by tenure, deference from guilt-ridden whites, and, now, fictional license that exempts their ruminations from scholarly scrutiny. Let Carl Rowan rant in honest confusion and frustration; there's an eerie serenity to those who fashion an ersatz "identity" that coheres only in negation: "I am excluded; therefore, I am." Full inclusion would bring their implosion. "Keep that race war coming -- as long as it doesn't touch my pension -- and royalties." What we need now is a new Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. offering a more inclusive narrative for a transracial America.

Jim Sleeper's new book, "Color-blinded: How Liberals Got Race Wrong; How Americans Can Get It Right," will be published this spring.

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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