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Questioning the State Of US Race Relations


By Benjamin DeMott

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Atlantic Monthly Press

214 pp., $22

BENJAMIN DEMOTT boldly presents a thesis that he believes will help ''enlightened'' thinkers throw off their current ''blindness'' to the true ''realities'' of the situation of blacks in US society today.

This author, an old hand at presenting some of the neoliberal thinking of the past 60 years, is so upset at what he sees as an ideological shift to the right in the United States regarding race that he takes on all sides in the US cultural and political pantheon.

It is striking to go through ''The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race,'' and tally his hit list. It includes Studs Terkel, John Updike, Roger Rosenblatt, Garth Brooks, and President Clinton. TV shows have also spread racial misconceptions, DeMott says. The Cosby Show, Murphy Brown, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the popular TV series, Roots and The Civil War, are equally culpable in his eyes.

DeMott's thesis is that ''friendship orthodoxy'' - the current penchant for depicting and writing about friendship between blacks and whites - masks the plight of two-thirds of US blacks, prevents serious thought about this problem, and turns the nation away from federal, ''broadscale programs'' to help blacks.

He argues that two viewpoints undergird ''friendship orthodoxy.'' First is Shelby Steele's view that white liberalism has fostered a psychology of dependency among blacks. DeMott's boldness is never clearer than when he takes on black conservatives like Steele. But it is not a surprise, because they more than any group have turned the debate away from government solutions and toward self-help among blacks.

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The second viewpoint undergirding the supposed friendship-orthodoxy, DeMott says, is the theme of ''black-white equality and sameness.'' Here DeMott begins to get into trouble. He implies that the sameness thesis is a dogma, suggesting, surprisingly, that he believes blacks actually do inherit inferiority. At best, DeMott is unclear here; we should probably assume he does not believe that genetics is destiny.

Referring to the black lead in the film, ''Regarding Henry,'' for example, he writes: ''Nothing in his voice hints at awareness either of the gap between riches and privation or of the ridiculousness of the pretense that race and class - differences in inherited ... competencies ... - don't count.''

Later in the book he holds to the view that genes do not cause black inferiority. Here he is on sound liberal ground as he indirectly denounces ''The Bell Curve'' - a controversial book that tackles this subject - as racist.

Another inconsistency should be noted. He lumps the black middle class together with poor blacks and identifies them all as ''a caste.''

DeMott performs a great service, however, by highlighting the work of scholars on the caste theme. In particular he notes that John Ogbu of the University of California at Berkeley led the way in this field in the 1970s.

Ogbu, who emigrated to the US from Nigeria years ago, has studied schooling results among minorities in other countries. In three countries the ethnic minorities were of the same racial group as the majority. In three countries they were of different racial groups. He says his work shows that IQ is fundamentally a cultural factor rather than a genetic one.

This position is certainly along the lines of DeMott's work. One hopes that testing wonks will use DeMott's book as a reason to look at Ogbu's work again and again.

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