Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, March 1994
The Rage of a Privileged Class, Ellis Cose, Harper Collins, 1993, 192 pp.
We have all heard about the “legitimate rage” of the underclass, which is said to explain its savagery. Now, Ellis Cose, a black contributing editor at Newsweek, explains that affluent blacks may be even more angry and disaffected than ghetto-dwellers. As he writes in the book’s opening passage, “Despite its very evident prosperity, much of America’s black middle class is in excruciating pain.” What causes this pain? No reward for the right guess: Racism denies even the most deserving blacks the just fruits of their labors.
This book could have been a parody of an Al Sharpton speech, but it is not. Mr. Cose probably tried very hard to be fair to whites. Nevertheless, anyone whose views are circumscribed by liberalism and by doctrines of inherent racial equality cannot avoid contradictions. This book is therefore an excellent demonstration of the intellectual dead end to which a liberal/egalitarian analysis of race invariably leads.
Mr. Cose has spent his career working with whites and knows very well that most are not hostile to blacks. “I am not suggesting that most whites are “racist,’” he concedes; “The majority emphatically are not — at least not in any meaningful sense of the word.” As the reader wonders what it might mean to be racist in a meaningless sense of the word, he is quickly told that “people do not have to be racist — or have any malicious intent — in order to make decisions that unfairly harm members of another race.” In other words, most whites are not racist but they don’t have to be racist in order to hurt blacks.
Mr. Cose does not explain this somewhat metaphysical insight, but the examples he advances of the insults blacks suffer begin to fit a pattern. For example, a white supervisor takes aside a talented black employee, compliments him on his excellent work, and asks how the company might find other able blacks. The black is insulted and upbraids his boss because the question implies that it is difficult to find competent blacks.
Mr. Cose recognizes that the boss’s praise was sincere, but refuses to acknowledge a genuine problem: Whites are under pressure to hire blacks but few are qualified. To pretend that America is awash in overqualified, unemployed blacks is an obligatory egalitarian exercise.
Mr. Cose is also shocked to find that whites and even Hispanics define “good” or “safe” neighborhoods as ones with few blacks. There is probably no better, single indicator of an area’s crime rate than the number of blacks, but Mr. Cose insists that this is “stereotyping.” Stereotypes are almost always true, but denying this is another obligatory exercise.
Crime is, in fact, something Mr. Cose fails to understand. Time after time we hear of outraged middle-class blacks who are stopped by the police or followed by store detectives simply because they are black. This is no doubt disagreeable for them, but Mr. Cose seems to have no explanation for this but “racism.” He quotes Prof. James Q. Wilson’s observation that whites sometimes treat blacks differently because blacks are far more likely to commit crimes, but he calls this “utter nonsense.”
Mr. Cose points out that men are much more likely than women to commit crimes, and says that by Prof. Wilson’s logic, men should face the same kind of discrimination as blacks — taking for granted that they do not. On the contrary, they obviously do. People do not call the police when they see a “suspicious woman” in their back yards, or cross the street to avoid teen-age girls. When police go looking for unknown murderers, they launch a manhunt, not a womanhunt. Is this discrimination? Yes, and common sense, too, just as it is common sense to be more suspicious of blacks than of whites.
Mr. Cose is dismayed to find that some black executives explain that an important ingredient in their success has been that they stopped being “black.” That Mr. Cose should think this a tragic sacrifice proves how little he understands. Large companies have good reasons for requiring a certain dress and demeanor and whites, too, must sacrifice to fit the mold. Hippies, nudists, and communists all must leave important preferences at home when they come to work, and big afros and a chip on the shoulder are no more acceptable on the job than beads and long hair.
Moreover, what does it mean that blacks who cease to act “black” get ahead in the corporation? It means that whites are not opposed to skin color but to behavior. Of course, many blacks are incapable of ceasing to act “black,” and companies should be under no greater obligation to hire Afro-centrists or hip-hoppers than to hire cross-dressers.
On the other hand, some of the exclusions that blacks claim to suffer are undoubtedly real. Whites who are willing to hire blacks may not want them in their neighborhoods, clubs, schools or families. These are perfectly normal feelings, though whites are always made to apologize for them. Mr. Cose quotes one wise black man who observes, “You can’t make somebody love you.”
In a genuinely free society no one could make an employer hire him or a club admit him any more than he could make someone love him. Laws that forcibly integrate schools, neighborhoods, and corporations are assaults on liberty. To insist that people should likewise open their private lives to all claimants is an assault on human nature.
It is no doubt unpleasant to be the only one in the executive suite not invited to join the hunt club. To therefore say, as Mr. Cose does, that black managers expend as much energy battling racism as on doing their jobs is excuse-making. Of course, once he has conceded that American society is not inveterately racist, his explanations for black failure cannot help but sound like excuse-making.
Surprisingly, Mr. Cose actually considers the possibility of racial differences in ability, but only to reject it and cast suspicion on the motives of those who study the subject. In the end, Mr. Cose is reduced to the meaningless phrases one always finds at the end of egalitarian arguments, claiming, for example, that the source of black failure is “a special burden born of “the experience of being black in America.’” Somehow, freedom from this special burden has not helped Haitians or Africans build glorious societies.
When it comes to policy, Mr. Cose has almost nothing to say. His basic fair-mindedness has lead to so many concessions about white good will that he is left with very little evil to extirpate. He concedes that blacks see insults when none was intended and that “the source of their outrage is generally . . . someone . . . who causes great pain while truly intending no harm.” It is hard to wax indignant against racist America when most whites are admittedly not racist and cause “great pain” without intending harm.
Mr. Cose cannot bring himself to wonder whether under these circumstances it is the “great pain,” not white society, that may be suspect. In the end, he falls back on a reluctant endorsement of affirmative action, calling it “riddled with the taint and reality of unfairness.”
It would be hard to think of better testimony to the bankruptcy of conventional thinking about race than to concede that the policies it produces are unfair. But it is in an approving quotation from Senator Bill Bradley that Mr. Cose presents us with an almost perfect crystallization of the incoherence that now reigns as dogma: “We’ve got to see diversity as our strength. We’ve got to deal with the issue of race. You’ve got to be candid about it.” For how much longer will our legislators preside over our decline while they flatter themselves on their bold approach to race, on their “candid” discussions that must always conclude that diversity is our strength?
In fact, Mr. Cose’s entire book can be read as mockery of the senator’s remarks. The conventional view is that America’s race problem is one of crime and poverty, and that once blacks are lifted into the middle class race is no longer an issue. Mr. Cose’s point is that race is always an issue, just as much for educated, well-paid blacks as for criminals and ne’er-do-wells, and for whites as much as blacks. “Racial discord will be with us for a long, long time,” he concludes. Indeed, it will — and for precisely as long as we force different races to live side by side.