Review of Stephen Steinberg,
Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial
Justice in American Thought and Policy (Beacon Press, 1995). From Journal of Social History, 30:2, Winter 1996,
provided the title of this previously untitled review.
Race: An Ivory Tower View
One can learn
from those with whom one disagrees. The back jacket of this book is
filled with glowing praise from Leftist scholars of race—Roger Wilkins,
Frances Fox Piven, Michael Eric Dyson, Howard Zinn, Derrick Bell, Mary
Frances Berry—and rightly so, for Steinberg presents a Left view of
sociology and race relations in this country. Nevertheless, some of
Steinberg’s insights are of interest to all. He reveals how social
scientists have accepted and rejected various “paradigms,” or theoretical
models, for understanding the race issue in America.
Thus, early in
this century most social scientists explained the gaps between blacks and
whites in income, education, status, employment, as due to the assumed
genetic inferiority of blacks. By the 1930s that view, or paradigm, was
increasingly challenged. Some American social scientists were suddenly
embarrassed by the similarity of their own view to that of Nazi social
scientists who explained the world as struggle based upon the hierarchy of
the races. Worse, such conflicts might occur in America, as evidenced by
the 1935 riots in Harlem.
Fear of racial
clashes and unease with the then dominant paradigm led the Carnegie
Foundation to generously sponsor a new, massive report on race in America.
Led by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swede was selected as an outsider with links
neither to the Dixiecrat right nor the Abolitionist left; Myrdal was
considered objective. His aim was to gather facts and let them speak for
themselves. He hired numerous academics, friends and potential foes, to
contribute to the project. The result was An American Dilemma, which
Steinberg declares established a new paradigm on race with its publication
during World War II.
The problem with
Myrdal’s work was not the facts, but the interpretation. To Myrdal, white
racism and black inferiority (the product of inferior conditions), played
upon each other. To break the cycle, whites and blacks must attempt to
know each other. The American moral dilemma (a democratic creed often
vitiated by the practice of racism) could thereby become America’s great
opportunity. Education and improved economic conditions would lessen
prejudice, so America could live up to its democratic faith and overcome
It was not new
theories that were to overturn Myrdal’s paradigm. Myrdal’s ascendancy was
eroded with each civil rights demonstration in the 1960s. The riots
finished it off. The problem was—how good is a social science theory of
race relations when it completely failed to predict the civil rights and
black power surges of the 60s? Moreover its emphasis on changing the
morals of the oppressor was deemed tangential by the new theorists of the
late 60s whose ideas were shaped by their experiences in the movements.
So, an even newer
paradigm, that of confronta-tion, evolved, and has remained dominant since.
It saw Afro-Americans more like a caste than a class, more like an
oppressed colonial people than like other fellow citizens, and more like a
people with a distinct culture than as white Americans with black skins.
Moreover, civil rights laws guaranteeing equal opportunity were
insufficient; equal results were demanded. Preferences for blacks were
therefore essential to overcome institutional racism and insure that
blacks would have an equal chance on an equal playing field. Myrdal’s
moral dilemma of the oppressor was dismissed as irrelevant individual
prejudice. The key to understanding America was “institutional racism,”
from which all whites, including liberals, shared the gains, and of which,
therefore, all whites were guilty. Consequently, race preferences, racial
set-asides, and other affirmative action programs, were the only fair
method to compensate for the oppression of slavery and segregation of the
past and the invisible institutional racism of the present. So if civil
rights laws promoted freedom, affirmative action aimed for equality.
social scientists, Steinberg contends that affirmative action has had a
major effect on the American labor market, ending the racial apartheid so
prevalent until the 1960s. Not only does he favor its continuation, he
favors the expansion of affirmative action.
others, Steinberg sees a correlation between the economic advancement of
Afro-Americans and restrictions of immigration. He argues, rather
persuasively, that the changed immigration laws of the 60s, culminating in
massive immigration, both legal and illegal, along with the corporate
relocation of many industries to foreign nations, have reduced the
potential for black economic advancement.
leftists, Steinberg acknowledges that many large corporations support
affirmative action, and he gives some credit (though less than is due) to
the Nixon Administration for making affirmative action America’s policy.
The problem for
Steinberg’s radical racial paradigm is not only the “scholarship of
backlash,” for each era had its dissenters from the dominant view. For
example, a century ago W. E. B. Du Bois clearly disagreed with the
proponents of scientific racism. Nor is Steinberg’s problem the election
of a Republican Congress with views contrary to his. The main problem
is—the radical paradigm failed to predict, or explain, a) the racially
antagonistic reactions to the O. J. verdict, and b) the massive Million
Man March and rise of Minister Farrakhan. When a paradigm fails to
predict or explain what occurs, perhaps it is time to consider discarding
Steinberg’s radical paradigm as we previously discarded Myrdal’s.
Steinberg maintains that the causes of racial problems are best seen from
afar, from the Ivory Tower (p. 6). But the 1960s demolished this view
(interestingly, Steinberg was then too busy in academia to participate in
the civil rights movement). Now, the tenured, ivory-towered Steinberg
clings to what may be equally faulty theories that may be refuted daily on
the streets of America.
Posted April 3,