Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared in City Journal. It is adapted here with permission.
What gives Gene Dattel’s Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure its special power is that, even after its bracingly original and thoroughly researched account of the racism of the abolitionist North from the late 18th century until long after the Civil War, the book nevertheless does not shrink from laying the ills of today’s black American underclass not at the door of a painful history, with ample blame for northern as well as southern whites, but squarely at the feet of black Americans themselves. Yes, shameful, deeply shameful, were slavery, Jim Crow, and northern racism, and who can doubt that they left grievous scars? Still, America fought a war to end the evil institution, had a civil-rights movement to try to erase its malign remnants, and spent decades on affirmative action and other nostrums to expunge even the faintest remaining traces. Whatever white Americans could do to atone for and repair the damage they caused, they have done, as much as imperfect humans in an imperfect world can do. Now, Dattel argues, it’s up to black Americans to save themselves.
The most surprising part of the book is Dattel’s documentation of the racism of northern abolitionists. As early as the 1790s, about a decade after Massachusetts had abolished slavery and while Connecticut was in the midst of its gradual abolition, the white townspeople of Salem and New Haven fretted that the movement of blacks into their neighborhoods would crash property values by up to 50 percent. Nor did Yankees make any distinction between free-born blacks and freed slaves, as an 1800 survey by the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences found. Yale president Timothy Dwight, who sponsored the survey with lexicographer Noah Webster, summed up its consensus on the state’s blacks: “Uneducated to principles of morality, or to habits of industry . . . they labor only to gratify gross and vulgar appetites. Accordingly, many of them are thieves, liars, profane drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome, idle.” New Haven’s freedmen, Dwight expanded a decade later, “are, generally, neither able, nor inclined to make their freedom a blessing to themselves” and end up as “nuisances to society.” Little wonder, given such attitudes, that as white immigrants crowded into the new nation, employers preferred them to native blacks, left with mostly menial jobs as domestic servants, chimney sweeps, washerwomen, and outhouse cleaners.
Half a century after Connecticut’s survey, New York senator and former governor William Seward made a famous abolitionist speech, perhaps a template for Abraham Lincoln’s immortal 1854 Peoria speech. Lincoln’s future secretary of state argued that “a higher law than the Constitution,” decreed by “the Creator of the Universe,” forbade slavery. Nevertheless, that same abolitionist, a decade later, pronounced that “the African race here is a foreign and feeble element . . . incapable of assimilation . . . a pitiful exotic unnecessarily transplanted into our fields, and which it is unprofitable to cultivate at the cost of the desolation of our native vineyard.” Just after the Civil War, Seward added that “I have no more concern for [Negroes] than for the Hottentots. They are God’s poor, they always have been and always will be so everywhere.”
Even the midwestern states carved out of the Northwest Territory, from which the Founding Fathers famously had banned slavery, instituted an array of discriminatory laws from their birth, banning black immigration at the most extreme or, less harshly, banning black suffrage, jury service, poor relief, intermarriage with whites, or admission to white schools. When the Civil War threatened the North and Midwest with an influx of newly freed blacks — when, indeed, the victorious Union Army requested those states to admit black refugees and even sent some north by trainloads — outraged officials in Massachusetts and Illinois balked, and angry mobs turned back the trains. The Army reversed its policy, containing freedmen in the South and putting them to work on abandoned cotton plantations. Indeed, some northern officials hoped emancipation would lure their existing black populations southward.
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Dattel is right to object that the conventional explanation for Reconstruction’s failure fails to emphasize the key role of white racial attitudes, both northern and southern. After all, culture — beliefs, prejudices, mores — is the ultimate shaper of politics and society. With this reservation, though, the conventional account, by Dattel’s own showing, is fundamentally correct. Presidents Andrew Johnson and Rutherford Hayes had no commitment to a radical remaking of the South. Indeed, Hayes had told an old friend, before a special electoral commission to decide the inconclusive 1876 presidential election ruled in his favor in exchange for his supposed promise to southerners to withdraw federal troops from the South, that the South needs a “let-alone policy. . . . The future depends on [the] moderation and good sense of Southern men.”
Four years earlier, by the start of President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term, the majority of northern whites already agreed with Hayes. They wanted troops out of the defeated Confederacy. From 1 million in 1865, the Union Army in the South shrank to 20,000 by 1868 and 6,000 by 1876. No matter how many civil-rights laws Congress passed to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments — and it passed many — they were dead letters without federal soldiers to enforce them.
Northerners, no more welcoming than they were before the Civil War, wanted blacks to stay in the South.
The more so because the Supreme Court was gelding those laws even as Washington was gutting the army. After the Court’s infamous decisions in the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873 and Cruikshank of 1876, which denied that the 14th Amendment extended to blacks the privileges and immunities of U.S. citizenship as defined by the first eight amendments, and denied further that that amendment forbade the states from encroaching upon those privileges, the Dishonor Roll includes the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, which — to the praise of Harper’s and the New York Times — voided the 1873 Civil Rights Act granting equal access to theaters, restaurants, hotels, and railroads to all American citizens; Plessy v. Ferguson in 1886, which legalized segregation if separate accommodations for the races were equal in quality; and Williams v. Mississippi, which in 1898 validated that state’s effective disenfranchisement of blacks eight years earlier.
Northerners, no more welcoming than they were before the Civil War, wanted blacks to stay in the South, where the cotton plantations offered ample work for them, not as slaves but as sharecroppers, a system with scant legal protection of their economic rights. Cotton quickly regained its status as America’s “indispensable product,” and soon after Appomattox, U.S.-produced cotton textiles and raw cotton totaled three-quarters of the world’s export market for the commodity. Blacks provided cotton’s necessary labor force in the South, immune from the European-immigrant competition that often impeded northern black workers. The southern black field hand “is there, as he is nowhere else, an absolute necessity,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “Neither Chinaman, German, Norwegian, nor Swede can drive him from the sugar and cotton fields.” The “climate of the South makes such labor uninviting and harshly repulsive to the white man.”
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But was he always to be a tiller of the soil there? Two prominent black leaders thought not, and posed competing plans for black progress. Ex-slave Booker T. Washington saw manual or domestic labor as the first step up the ladder of economic mobility and thus by no means degrading. “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized,” declared the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute for teaching blacks skilled trades. But the economic advance that would lead to social acceptance required education and the spread of work skills, to allow blacks to “rise to the level of owning stores, operating factories, owning bank stocks, loaning white people money, and manufacturing goods that the white man needs,” Washington taught. If the business of America was business, he believed, black Americans needed vocational training to take part.
However much he disdained bourgeois economics, Du Bois sensed the necessity of conventional morality for a people’s rise.
Socialist W. E. B. Du Bois — Harvard’s first black Ph.D., a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of its magazine, Crisis — wanted no part of American industrial capitalism. Redistribution, not production, was his focus. Let white America wallow in the world of grubby accumulation; “We black folks is got the spirit,” says a character in one of his novels. So while he valued education, like Washington, he believed its goal was political power, not economic advancement, and he urged blacks not to let their education dilute their sense of a separate, special group culture.
That proved fatal advice, especially given Dattel’s interesting account of Du Bois’s cultural premonitions. However much he disdained bourgeois economics, Du Bois sensed the necessity of conventional morality for a people’s rise. He worried that, by his estimate, a quarter of black births in 1900 were out of wedlock, and only half of blacks observed “monogamic sex mores,” as opposed to whites’ 2 percent and 90 percent, respectively. He also worried that black preachers were too interested in making money to “adopt a new attitude toward rational amusement and sound moral habits.” He saw, in other words, that black cultural mores had a self-destructive streak, and that the one indigenous black institution that could preach a moral message was shirking its principal duty. As it later turned out, one of the tragedies of 20th-century black American history is that those churches fell under the Du Bois spell, becoming political organizations — partly out of the self-interestedness that Du Bois scorned in their preachers — rather than agencies of personal improvement and self-discipline, soul by soul.
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In 1914, 90 percent of American blacks still lived in the South. But World War I’s urgent need for workers, as unemployment plummeted from 8.5 percent to 1.4 percent between 1914 and 1918, sparked the Great Migration of blacks northward, with businesses recruiting all capable hands. From 1920 to 1940, Detroit’s black population jumped from 40,000 to 149,000; New York’s from 152,000 to 458,000; Chicago’s from 109,000 to 278,000. The northern cities herded the new arrivals into ghetto slums, run-down and never repaired, unsanitary and unhealthy, with short life expectancy and high rates of infant mortality, illegitimacy, marital desertion, and crime. In Chicago, some blacks who dared move into white neighborhoods had their houses bombed — 58 in 1917 and 1918, with one in 1919 killing a six-year-old black girl. Schools were segregated, and black teachers, clinging to their jobs, resisted integration wherever cash-strapped cities tried to desegregate and consolidate schools.
Dattel gingerly insinuates two key, ultimately unanswerable and almost incendiary-to-ask questions about this state of affairs. With jobs plentiful and well-paid, why so much social pathology? One plausible answer is the one that Richard Wright gives in his 1940 novel, Native Son, in which an accidental murderer later becomes an intentional one. As Dattel describes Wright’s argument, the murderer “is not responsible for his actions because he has no free will.” His deeds “are reflexive reactions to a culmination of conditions, beginning with slavery and graduating to the urban nightmare of poverty, exploitation, restriction, discrimination, and condescension.” There, in a nutshell, writes Wright himself, “you have the psychology of the Negro people.” So too with the ghetto race riots of 1919, 1935, and 1943, which sprang, Wright explained in 1945, from “conditions imposed upon [blacks] by white America.”
Dattel gingerly insinuates two key, ultimately unanswerable and almost incendiary-to-ask questions about this state of affairs.
Dattel isn’t so sure. He joins Ben Burns, a white friend of Wright’s and an influential longtime editor at black publications Ebony and the Chicago Defender, in doubting — as many of Burns’s black friends doubted — that poverty and slum misery were the sole causes of such disproportional black crime. If that were so, asked Burns, “Why did so many black gangs thrive while committing mayhem against their own people?” Late in life, Burns, without a racist bone in his body, nodded in agreement when Benjamin Ward, New York’s first black police commissioner, complained that black youths were “committing genocide against their people.” Burns was amazed that even ultra-left-wing black judge Bruce Wright — “Turn-‘em-Loose Bruce” — chimed in that “if you don’t talk about it, it will remain a dirty little secret,” while black Brooklyn College professor Carlos Russell observed that “no white person comes into Bedford-Stuyvesant and rapes a grandmother.” And in 1994, even New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, always ready to cry racism at the jerk of a knee, called for cops to “grab the felons,” after a black thug violently mugged 89-year-old black civil-rights icon Rosa Parks — a long-forgotten moment of clarity. Why, Dattel asks, do so many “historians today assiduously claim that even slaves had ‘agency,’ or individual free will,” when black authors from Wright to Ta-Nehisi Coates speak of black Americans as automaton-like playthings of circumstance, incapable of free choice?
Dattel’s second implicit question is, Why did whites desert en masse the public schools of northern cities in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision (which Dattel, like so many authors, wrongly believes overturned Plessy v. Ferguson)? Was it merely the ugly racial hatred seen in the expressions of the leaders of the Boston school-busing boycott of the mid-1970s? Dattel’s implicit answer, again, is that he’s not so sure. As early as 1950, black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier reported that, since black “family disorganization is so widespread, [and] the family environment of a large number of Negro children is precarious and fragmentary . . . Negro children from disorganized families often exhibit little interest in the knowledge and skills provided by the public schools.” Even worse, they “do not even acquire the domestic work skills necessary to make a living.” By 1964, Dattel observes, Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer was reporting on the effect that such “at risk” children (the era’s euphemism for underclass black kids) had on the culture of the schools they attended. Undernourished, often physically abused, improperly cared for, deficient in language skills and vocabulary, they displayed such “apathy, outrageous behavior, [and] resistance,” Glazer wrote, that they subverted school discipline, too often creating a climate of anarchy in the classrooms and hallways in which more motivated kids couldn’t learn.
Racism and black social pathology, Dattel implies, exist in such a dialectical tangle that in the 20th century it became impossible to untwist cause and effect. In any event, the rationale behind the coerced integration of neighborhoods and schools has been the belief that the environment forms the individual, and that the environment of the larger middle-class community can trump the environment of the immediate family, imbuing it with the values that underlie success. But what if the opposite is no less true — that the introduction of a dollop of underclass cultural pathology into an ordered mainstream community curdles and corrodes?
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Dattel’s emphasis on the North leads him to write a gloomier-than-usual account of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Given the ugly turn U.S. race relations took during Barack Obama’s presidency, perhaps his gloom is in order. Of course he celebrates, if briefly, the heroic and hugely constructive aspects of the movement — the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins, despite taunts and humiliations; the courageous, tumultuous entrance of James Meredith as the University of Mississippi’s first black student in 1962; the 1963 march on Washington, culminating in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; Freedom Summer in 1964, which cost three Freedom Riders their lives; the “well-disciplined and dignified” southern demonstrations, as King rightly called them, undeterred by Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. And of course, Dattel hails the results: the Civil Right Acts of 1964 and 1965, plus the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Almost from the start of this admirable segment of the civil-rights movement that so many of us remember proudly and that Booker T. Washington would have embraced, a W. E. B. Du Bois–style countermovement gathered steam.
Nor does he minimize the self-help efforts that civil-rights leaders urged upon their followers, to take full advantage of these measures. “We must be able to face honestly our own shortcomings,” King said in the 1950s. “The Negro will have to engage in a sort of Operation Boot-strap.” In 1964, National Urban League head Whitney Young Jr. declared that “Negro citizens must redouble their efforts to educate and train themselves for the new responsibilities which equal opportunities will require of them. . . . They must make a special effort to eradicate the disorganization which has afflicted the lives of so many families.” The next year, NAACP chief Roy Wilkins urged each black person to “speed up the process of self-development and self-discipline, so that he becomes a contributing . . . member of society.”
But almost from the start of this admirable segment of the civil-rights movement that so many of us remember proudly and that Booker T. Washington would have embraced, a W. E. B. Du Bois–style countermovement gathered steam, Dattel points out in his original, remarkably comprehensive, and scrupulously researched history. If social pathology plagues black America, that’s not a problem for blacks to solve, Black Muslim separatist Malcolm X declared in 1964. It’s a problem resulting from “economic and political exploitation” by white landlords and shopkeepers — Eisenberg, Gosenberg, Fineberg, and Weinberg, one Harlem street-corner orator called them. And if blacks rioted, as they did in New York City and Rochester that year, the press lied in “depict[ing] the rioters as hoodlums, criminals, thieves, because they were abducting some property,” Malcolm charged. What he meant, Dattel translates, is that, since “politicians, white merchants, and white landlords were the thieves who had stolen property from the black community . . . it’s all right to steal and burn down the neighborhood.” Those 1964 outbreaks were minor compared with the Watts riots of 1965, which killed 34, injured thousands, and destroyed 100 Los Angeles ghetto blocks — five days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Equally grievous mayhem resulted from the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967. By then, even the nonviolent Martin Luther King (sensing his growing irrelevance) began to waffle, calling the riots “a distorted form of social protest,” instead of the criminal anarchy that they were.
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In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, began demanding “black power” — to accomplish what exactly was never clear — and expelling whites from the organization in which they had been key organizers of Freedom Summer. Two years later, the grim farce of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville school-district battle, which led to a prolonged strike of 54,000 New York teachers, gave an ugly glimpse of what black power might mean — a glimpse that dismays Dattel no less than the violent riots.
New York’s leftist panjandrums, including limousine-liberal mayor John V. Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, then chief of the always-wrongheaded Ford Foundation, had decided to decentralize the city’s school system, turning over control — the power to hire, fire, award tenure and promotion, and set curricula — to community school districts. After segregating white teachers in their own cafeterias and lounges, Ocean Hill–Brownsville’s entirely African-American governing board began asserting its power by firing 19 white teachers. It jettisoned civil-service exams for promotion, on the claim that they were culturally biased against blacks in their emphasis on such white Western norms as merit, materialism, and competition. The new curriculum would foster creative, spontaneous, cooperative black learning styles, supposedly different from cold, abstract, elitist white learning styles, so amenable to disciplined, structured teaching of reading, writing, and math. Black history and culture would take center stage, with an emphasis on resentment of white oppression. As for discipline, since blacks were victims, of course black students would challenge authority by cursing at teachers, misbehaving, and even hitting white teachers — for which there would be no punishment. A “disruptive child,” rightly understood, was a “high-spirited non-conformist.”
Since New York’s teachers were then predominately Jews, a noxious ooze of black anti-Semitism pervaded the whole affair.
Since New York’s teachers were then predominately Jews, a noxious ooze of black anti-Semitism pervaded the whole affair. The head of the African-American Teachers Association expressed it in verse in a radio interview attacking the Jewish head of the United Federation of Teachers: “Hey Jew boy, with the yarmulke on your head / You pale faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead.”
The strike’s result: an order-of-magnitude greater difficulty in getting a good education in New York’s public schools, despite a Fort Knox’s worth of money spent annually. The warnings of the white and mostly Jewish teachers’ union leaders that what Ocean Hill–Brownsville set in motion was “not designed to produce young American citizens well prepared to enter the job market” proved true. Equally prophetic was heroic civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin’s contemptuous 1970 dismissal of the same tendency on college campuses. Campus militants demanding black-studies and black-history courses, he said, were “forsaking the opportunity to get an education. . . . If engineering requires too much concentration, then why not a course in soul music,” assuring that classes will be “a soothing, comfortable experience . . . like watching television?” Sadly, the strain of black disdain for Western civilization and its values as being oppressive of non-white and non-Western people never evaporated. As black U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young told a newscaster in 1970, “It may take the destruction of Western civilization to allow the rest of the world to be free” — a sentiment you could hear on almost any college campus today.
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The conclusion of Reckoning with Race bears out more emphatically and more depressingly than I had imagined a prediction that I made almost a quarter-century ago in The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. In that book, I argued that the counterculture’s remaking of mainstream white American culture in the 1960s — the sexual revolution; the fling with drugs; the non-conformist, drop-out anti-capitalism; the devaluation of marriage and family; the belief that in racist America, the criminal was really the victim of society; the belief that welfare payments were appropriate reparations for the slavery and discrimination that had produced so much ghetto poverty; the anti-rationalism; the belief in American oppressiveness, in Vietnam as well as at home — all these attitudes that devalued traditional mainstream values trickled down from young people and their teachers in the universities, to the media, to the mainstream Protestant churches, to the ed schools, to the high schools, and finally to American culture at large. And when these attitudes made their way to the ghetto, they destigmatized and validated the already-existing disproportionate illegitimacy, drug use, crime, school dropout, non-work, and welfare dependency there, and caused the rate of all these pathologies to skyrocket startlingly in the 1960s and beyond.
Dattel quotes Malcolm X, who noticed how much the change in elite white attitudes was harming blacks as early as 1963, just as the new white-liberal worldview had begun ‘lowering the “moral standards” of the black masses.’
Aside from John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy’s role in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school farce, Dattel ignores the white contribution to the victory of Du Bois’s worldview over Booker T. Washington’s as the civil-rights movement unfolded, with such bad consequences for all but a tiny middle-class sliver of black America. But that white role is an essential element of the story. Interestingly, though, Dattel quotes Malcolm X, who noticed how much the change in elite white attitudes was harming blacks as early as 1963, just as the new white-liberal worldview had begun “lowering the ‘moral standards’ of the black masses,” as Dattel paraphrases Malcolm. “Our young girls, our daughters, our baby sisters become unwed mothers before they are hardly teens,” Malcolm lamented. “And our community has tens of thousands of little babies who have no father to act as their provider and protector.” Malcolm was tragically prophetic: now it’s millions.
White mainstream America, I argued in The Dream and the Nightmare, soon saw the carnage that the counterculture was wreaking on its own children and promptly returned to something like its old values. The white elites got married and stayed married, raised their children with devotion, and stoked up the work ethic to white-hot intensity. The safety net of family and resources saved many of the children from disaster. What’s more, aghast at the minority-crime explosion that rocked not just the ghettoes but much of urban America, voters began electing officials, especially in New York, who believed that the real victim of a crime was the victim, not the criminal — who ought to be arrested and jailed — and crime fell accordingly. For poorer whites, as Charles Murray rightly cautioned in Coming Apart, recovery from countercultural behavior was not so easy, and America began to develop a white underclass similar to Britain’s, which Theodore Dalrymple has analyzed so brilliantly for 25 years. We should be grateful to America’s remaining legion of Tocquevillian families and evangelical churches, Catholic as well as Protestant, for limiting the damage.
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The counterculture subsided but didn’t die, The Dream and the Nightmare argued. It lived on vigorously in the universities, from whence, I predicted, it would break out again into the larger culture. As Middlebury College professor Jay Parini explained in the 1980s, campus radicals, instead of scattering when the 1960s ended, “stepped into academic positions, and it seemed for a while — to the unobservant — that we had disappeared. Now we have tenure, and the work of reshaping the universities has begun in earnest.” The work at hand, in largely post-religious America, was to delegitimize two-and-a-half millennia of Western culture: the literary and philosophical works that the West has taken as a guide to what constitutes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — the right life for man that produces the greatest individual and social happiness, freedom, prosperity, and fulfillment.
The universities had replaced the churches as the guardians of the values that make life meaningful, but after the 1960s, characters like Parini decided to junk — pardon me, deconstruct — those values, a mix of the Judeo-Christian ethic, classical and Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment scientific rationality, and individualistic American republicanism, a much richer and more expansive heritage than the “bourgeois values” currently being touted as the panacea for ghetto ills. These standard-setting ideas, differentiating good from evil, higher from lower, beautiful from tacky, honorable from base, true from false, profound from shallow, were simply made up, a Duke University theology professor sneered more than 30 years ago, “by high Anglican assholes to underwrite their social class.”
The work at hand, in largely post-religious America, was to delegitimize two-and-a-half millennia of Western Culture.
Those few professors trying to defend the Western canon, charged Rutgers graduate-school dean and Modern Language Association ex-president Catharine Stimpson in the same era, “are trying to preserve the cultural and political supremacy of white heterosexual males.” The “high canon of Western masterpieces,” chimed in black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., “represents . . . an order in which my people were the subjected, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unpresentable.” Leave it to the inimitable Jesse Jackson to lead Stanford students in a successful protest against that once-great school’s required Western Civilization course in 1988 by chanting, “Hey, hey; ho, ho; Western culture’s got to go.”
All this trickled down to the public schools in the form of a debased multiculturalism. A 1989 New York State Regents curriculum-reform report declared that the time had passed when Western culture should be seen as the master of the house, presiding at the head of the table, with all other cultures seated lower down, present not by right but by the master’s indulgence. The public schools must stop making “African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans . . . the victims of a cultural oppression . . . that has characterized . . . the European American world for centuries.” Even in the primary schools, a Regents report declared two years later, teachers must leaven discussions of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving with the “perspectives of Native Americans,” as New York officials are arguing at this very moment. Observing the growing national effort to replace the teaching of Western culture with myths of a non-existent African greatness, with African music and ritual, historian Arthur Schlesinger, then perhaps America’s leading liberal professor, wrote, “If some Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he would not be likely to come up with anything more diabolically effective than Afrocentrism.” Today, things are even worse. Just a year ago, the University of Virginia suspended an engineering lecturer for daring to utter the same sentiment about Black Lives Matter.
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Here is where Dattel picks up the story to bring his absorbing book to a close. By the new millennium, the belief that white oppression bore sole responsibility for black shortcomings had hardened into orthodoxy. When Barack Obama, on the presidential campaign trail, urged his fellow blacks “to demand more from ourselves” and to accept that what makes “a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one,” Jesse Jackson snarled, “I want to cut his nuts off.” As president, Obama almost never raised the subject again.
By the new millennium, the belief that white oppression bore sole responsibility for black shortcomings had hardened into orthodoxy.
No longer could black anthropologist John Ogbu gain a hearing for his warning that “broad cultural attributes among blacks — such as parental style, commitment to learning, and work ethic — bear a heavy responsibility for the black–white educational gap,” and that black kids would do much better if made to follow school rules, do their homework, and pay attention in class. That educational gap has only widened, so that recent testing showed only 6 percent of black students college-ready, and of New York City’s black public-school students, only 20 percent passed the state’s watered-down math test and 27 percent the English test for their grade level in 2016 — with performance dropping from third grade to eighth grade. In Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the idea that a disruptive black student is creatively protesting oppression or regimentation has also become dogma, solidifying the earlier shibboleth that “disparate” numbers of black suspensions or expulsions are evidence of school racism rather than a failure of minority culture and family dynamics. Even the broadly accepted consensus among blacks in 1968 that cops unjustly ignored black-on-black crime and should arrest the thugs preying on their own community has vanished, replaced by the mantra that police — now black as much as white — oppress blacks on behalf of a racist society.
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But hardened into orthodoxy how? For this, Dattel makes clear, we can thank the universities. To redress America’s 300 years of racism, these culture-transmitting institutions embraced affirmative action with a vengeance, with the eight Ivy League schools boosting black enrollment 35 percent in the decade ending in 2016. Though that increase totals a paltry 393 students, Yale, with 12 percent of its Class of 2021 black, now zealously offers 49 courses in African-American studies and 45 in African studies — up from one when Dattel was an undergraduate there in the 1960s — and it has increased the ranks of its black faculty members proportionally. In an especially craven act of self-abasement, Yale removed the name of alumnus John C. Calhoun, the slave-owning South Carolina senator who held off the Civil War for two decades, from one of its colleges, replacing it with the name of a woman no one has heard of.
What do these 94 courses, and hundreds like them in academic America, teach? The unifying theme, says Dattel, “is the reinterpretation of American history as one extended nightmare of grievances,” an incapacitating rather than an empowering lesson that generates “a state of perpetual paralysis characterized by an absence of free will among the aggrieved.” Meanwhile, those who teach such courses are churning out books arguing that black family dysfunction results from the undeserved jailing of so many black men in America’s “carceral state,” a maliciously racist society that arbitrarily spirits away upstanding men who would otherwise be model husbands and fathers — notwithstanding that black Americans commit murder at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined, and black New Yorkers, 23 percent of the city’s population, commit two-thirds of its violent crimes. Indeed, this trope of the carceral state and its explanation of black family dysfunction lies at the center of Between the World and Me, the Ta-Nehisi Coates screed that many elite colleges have required their entering freshmen to read, as the beginning of their PC indoctrination. Concurrently, propaganda-cum-community-organizing groups such as Black Lives Matter, with $33 million from ethically puzzling billionaire George Soros at the time Dattel wrote — now augmented by the $18 billion that Soros has given his Open Society Institute, which is becoming as toxic as the Ford Foundation in its War on Poverty heyday — spread the message far and wide. Not a Protestant church in my part of Manhattan lacks its Black Lives Matter banner. And of course the ’60s-enhanced ghetto culture of violent anti-authoritarianism and misogyny lives on vigorously in the gangsta rap whose avatars so often appeared at the Obama White House.
To Dattel, an infamous incident at Yale crystallizes the damage this campus orthodoxy is doing to black students.
To Dattel, an infamous incident at Yale crystallizes the damage this campus orthodoxy is doing to black students. “The ‘coddled’ atmosphere on campus,” he writes, “encourages fragility, tribalism, insecurity, narcissism, an inability to deal with confrontation, an appeal to narrative rather than analysis, and a repugnance to diverse ideas.” Case in point: Halloween at Yale. Yale had sent students a memo warning against costumes that could cause racial or ethnic offense — though why college students have not put aside such childish things as Halloween costumes is another question. Child psychologist and Yale lecturer Erika Christakis, wife of physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis, then-master of Yale’s Silliman College, sent her own email objecting that Yale should not meddle in students’ lives at this level of detail, and that students could rationally work out any such problems themselves. An uproar ensued: How could Mrs. Christakis be so . . . insensitive? A crowd of angry students, many of them black, surrounded Nicholas Christakis in the college courtyard to upbraid him for his wife’s perfidy. Yale senior Jerelyn Luther, privileged daughter of upper-middle-class parents, harangued the unwaveringly reasonable if sometimes bewildered professor in a tearful, screaming, two-year-old’s temper tantrum, laced with adolescent profanity whose four-letter word I don’t like, so I will substitute another, capitalized for quick recognition.
“Why the Yale did you accept the position? Who the Yale hired you?!” the Shrieking Girl, as she came to be known, wailed. “If that is what you think about being a master, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! . . . It is about creating a home here. . . . You are disgusting.” Did college administrators discipline the Shrieking Girl? Oh, no. In the modern university, it’s the Christakises who were forced out of their jobs — just as last month, Yale’s English department voted to accept a student petition to “decolonize” its requirements for graduation, so that now a Yale student can earn an English B.A. without taking a once-required course teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne.
It’s not about creating an intellectual space, indeed. Or even a civil one.
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Dattel’s solution to America’s racial dilemma takes one step further a suggestion that, he recounts, drama critic Robert Brustein made two decades ago to black playwright August Wilson. Black Americans are no longer slaves, Brustein said, but Wilson talks about himself “as if you are standing on the ground of the slave quarters . . . representing yourself as a 300-year-old man. That fact is, things have changed over the course of the last 300 years.” We fought a Civil War that cost 620,000 lives, ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, had a civil-rights movement, a Civil Rights Act, a Voting Rights Act, a War on Poverty, a massive affirmative-action program in education and employment. Now, says Dattel, it’s up to black Americans. “Before we can achieve any major, broad-based improvement in the social and economic status of blacks, they must develop a frank process of self-examination to replace the current unwillingness to look objectively at destructive behavioral norms. Otherwise, the myriad programs designed specifically to aid blacks will fail to achieve large-scale transformation. The particular burden — of facing themselves — lies squarely on the black community.”
And I have a further suggestion for the community at large. Stop letting professors, pundits, so-called philanthropists like George Soros, rap stars, TV political comics, and the like wreck our precious inheritance of Western culture, especially since the unintended result has been to hurt blacks rather than to help them. If you disapprove of the damage they do, don’t support or countenance them. Above all, if you’re a donor to a university, no matter how much gratitude or nostalgia you may feel for the great days of 30, 40, or 60 years ago, don’t give them another dime (unless you went to Caltech or Hillsdale). These institutions now dispense prestige, fast evaporating, not education. They provide social and business connections, not learning, except for hard-science departments and medical schools. They deserve neither respect nor contributions. They are dogmatic, unthinking, heretic-persecuting, decadent, and corrupt, and what they desperately need is their own indignant Martin Luther.
A Fortune 500 CEO acquaintance of mine used to speak often about his corporate affirmative-action efforts. The last time we schmoozed, at the end of his tenure, he said, “You know how hard I’ve worked to recruit and promote talented minorities.” I did: It was an indulgent joke throughout the company. “Well guess what?” he said. “Every one of them has turned out to be an empty suit.” Dattel provides numbers throughout his book to flesh out this mournful if overstated conclusion. But what should worry us even more now is that the tech baby billionaires and their underlings are also ethically empty suits — or empty tee-shirts — thanks to the politically correct atmosphere in which their hugely expensive education takes place, so that even if they have technical skills, they are politically uninformed and dogmatic where they are not merely self-interestedly unprincipled, ready to collaborate with totalitarian governments, because they don’t know the difference between slavery and freedom — a forbidden value judgment. So we have a giant work of reconstruction to do, and don’t wait for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do it.
— Myron Magnet is City Journal’s editor-at-large.