Let The Honest Talk About Race Begin

National Journal

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

Your speech commemorating Black History Month by calling America "a nation of cowards" because we "do not talk enough with each other about race" — a topic about which we talk incessantly — was unworthy of the admirable public servant I believe you to be.

The speech was, as others have pointed out, embarrassingly misinformed, hackneyed, and devoid of thoughtful contributions to racial dialogue.

You can do much better. Please use your bully pulpit in the future to cut through the usual cant and state some politically incorrect truths about race in America that would carry special weight if they came from you. That would require mustering the courage to take on the Democratic Party’s powerful racial-grievance lobby. But it would do the country a lot of good.

The one point that you developed in a bit of detail in the February 18 speech was especially silly: "Black history is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment…. Until black history is included in the standard curriculum in our schools and becomes a regular part of all our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty, relatively unimportant and not as weighty as so-called ‘real’ American history."

Bosh. The reality is that our high schools and universities are quite clearly focusing disproportionate attention on black history.

The proof includes a poll published last year in which 2,000 high school juniors and seniors in all 50 states were asked to name the 10 most famous Americans, other than presidents and first ladies. The top three finishers were black: Martin Luther King Jr. (67 percent), Rosa Parks (60 percent), and Harriet Tubman (44 percent). So is the only living finisher, Oprah Winfrey (22 percent).

As for the universities, "the almost obsessive emphasis on race, class, and gender in the humanities and social sciences means that, if anything, black history is overrepresented in college history curricula," in the words of professor KC Johnson, a distinguished scholar of American history based at Brooklyn College. (We co-authored a 2007 book on the Duke lacrosse rape fraud.)

It’s true that college black-studies courses are often "separate." But the reason is hardly to slight black history. It is to satisfy demands for hiring more black professors, who tend to specialize in black studies. Some of them also use their platforms to spread the lie that America is still pervaded by white racism.

Your unelaborated assertion that "this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past" is also way off base, Mr. Attorney General.

To the contrary, this nation has adopted numerous civil-rights laws. It has replaced the once-pervasive regime of discrimination against blacks with a benignly motivated but nonetheless wide-reaching regime of discrimination against whites, euphemistically known as "affirmative action." It sometimes seems more interested in teaching children about slavery and segregation than about math and science. It has elected a black president.


The country has replaced the once-pervasive regime of discrimination against blacks with a benignly motivated but nonetheless wide-reaching regime of discrimination against whites known as "affirmative action."


For all of its flaws, this nation is "the least racist white-majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; [and] offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa," black sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote in 1991.

You also said this, Mr. Attorney General: "On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago [and] is voluntarily socially segregated."

Rubbish. It’s true that social self-segregation persists — especially, as Patterson has written, among "Afro-American students and young professionals." But as Abigail Thernstrom points out in National Review Online: "In 1964 only 18 percent of whites said they had black friends; the figure today is 87 percent." And the share of blacks with close white friends soared from 21 percent in 1975 to 82 percent in 2005. Sixty percent of whites report having black neighbors, up from 20 percent 50 years ago. A 2006 poll showed that half of the black respondents had dated whites and almost 40 percent of the whites had dated blacks.

Not to mention the black president, attorney general, former secretaries of state — one of whom served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — power brokers, authors, entertainers, athletes, multimillionaires, and current and former CEOs at some of America’s biggest companies.

You said, "It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society." True. But you offered not a clue about how to address those problems.

As I think you know, and should acknowledge, Mr. Attorney General:

• The major causes of these problems do not include contemporary white racism, which has been driven to the margins of society and has not been a serious obstacle to black advancement for at least two or three decades.

• The dominant cause is, rather, our tortured history: slavery and past discrimination, of course, but also the misguided welfare policies and cultural trends that did so much to destroy work incentives, foster irresponsible child-bearing and dependence on the dole, and break up poor families in the latter half of the 20th century.

Indeed, even as legal barriers to blacks fell and discrimination receded, the percentage of black children born out of wedlock soared from an estimated 15 percent in 1950 to 69 percent in 2000. (There was a similar but far less dramatic trend among whites.) "You name the social problem — poverty, crime, substance abuse, doing poorly in school, dropping out — and it correlates with growing up in a home without a father," in the words of conservative lawyer-scholar Roger Clegg.

• The most-important remedies for the problems plaguing many African-Americans are not more racial-grievance talk or civil-rights lawsuits. They are education, hard work, and the cultural renewal necessary to overcome the views of many black students that studying is "acting white." The average black high school graduate has learned no more in school than the average white eighth-grader. Spending more money on schools won’t change that unless we also adopt major reforms opposed by powerful Democratic interest groups: firing bad teachers, rewarding good ones, encouraging school choice, and tearing down the legal rules that make it so difficult to get disruptive students out of classrooms.

• On the subject of preferential treatment in college admissions and employment, as well as other racial affirmative-action programs promoted by your party, your speech offered nothing of substance — only a cryptic comment that although there can be "very legitimate debate," the subject is "too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes."

If you really want an honest conversation and if you don’t share the opposition of the vast majority of Americans (including me) to large racial preferences, please clarify specifically why you disagree. Also, please come to grips with the fact that these preferences do very little for truly poor people; that a substantial percentage of them go to middle- and upper-class blacks at the expense of less affluent Asians and whites; and that preferences harm some of their intended beneficiaries.

On this last point, please address the social-science research showing that virtually every selective college and university in the country discriminates so heavily in admissions that most black students cluster toward the bottom of the class and the best black students see their accomplishments stigmatized — and that alarming percentages drop out. And that more than half of entering black law students never pass the bar and never become lawyers. And that many blacks might do much better and get better educations at the less selective schools they would attend if the racial preferences were not so large. And please state whether you support the racial-preference lobby’s efforts to deny researchers access to the empirical databases that would cast more light on the magnitude of these problems.

One especially egregious reverse-discrimination case of which you are surely aware — because it is pending before the Supreme Court and politically explosive — is a lawsuit by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who were denied promotions they had earned. The reason was that powerful political figures wanted to promote some blacks who had done much less well on tests of firefighting skills and expertise.

The most important contribution that your Justice Department could make to a serious conversation about race in the near future would be to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting those white firefighters. The deadline for doing that is February 26, the day this column goes to press. Here’s hoping that you do the right thing, and that your brief writers do a better job than your speechwriters.

Update: The Justice Department’s brief writers did do a better job than Holder’s speechwriters. While they stopped short of supporting the white firefighters, they did urge the justices to vacate a lower court’s ruling against the whites. They argued for sending the case back to determine whether the city’s claimed reason for denying the promotions — fear of liability to black firefighters — was "a pretext for intentional racial discrimination" against the whites.

Updated at 12:09 p.m. on Feb. 27.

This article appeared in the Saturday, February 28, 2009 edition of National Journal.