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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, 528-530.

I provided the title of this previously untitled review.

Anthony Flood

May 20, 2009


Race: An Ivory Tower View

Hugh Murray

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 racial prejudice.

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.

Unlike other 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.

Also, unlike 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.

Unlike some 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.

Worse, Professor 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, 2007


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