Can whites and blacks ever coexist peaceably in America? The answer, to judge by this depressing essay, seems to be no.
Martin Luther King Jr. suspected that the issue of equality was insoluble largely because whites were “deeply racist” and were unwilling to address their racism. Historians Adams and Sanders (The Private Death of Public Discourse, 1998) give no reason to think King wrong, arguing that “our history is largely the product of an elemental desire of America’s white citizenry to keep blacks at arm’s length and deny them entry to white society.” Though that “largely” is debatable, the authors catalogue the many manifestations of that desire: the long history of slavery; the relentless drive of early-19th-century leaders such as Thomas Jefferson to expand American territory precisely in order to spread slavery; the long indifference of the North to the slave trade; the determined efforts of state voting commissions to evade 15th Amendment guarantees; the nationwide imposition of Jim Crow laws; and the continuing de facto separation of the great mass of African-Americans into a permanent underclass. Though significant gains were made during the decades of civil- and voting-rights activism, the authors acknowledge, many advances were just as significantly undone with the rise of the “New Federalism” of Ronald Reagan and company, who saw to it that “the search for racial equality had nearly disappeared from the nation’s domestic policy agenda” by the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was heralded by black voters, but his eight years in office revealed a constant “inability to get things done” on their behalf, and the present administration seems unwilling to recognize that a problem exists, despite the disparities between African-Americans and nearly every other ethnic group in nearly every facet of social and economic life. In light of this legacy of ill treatment, the authors close by making a reasoned if somewhat cursory case for reparations.
Given the powerful evidence they present, it seems a small price to pay for centuries of wrong—though “an admission that the majority of white citizens seem unwilling to make.”