Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
VTR Date: March 20, 1992
Guest: Hacker, Andrew
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Andrew Hacker
Title: “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … and I suspect that when Martin Luther King joined me on this program thirty-five years ago, we both – and our viewers – would have been hard pressed even to have begun to imagine the extraordinary changes that have ultimately worked to transform the America of the 1950’s into the America of the 1990’s.
Yet one theme remains chillingly constant in this nation of now nearly a quarter billion Americans. Jefferson had noted it so poignantly two hundred years earlier, when he said about Black chattel slavery in White America that he feared for his countrymen if, indeed, there is a just God in Heaven.
Later, Lincoln would pray that the mighty scourge of civil war speedily pass away. But, added the Great Emancipator, “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”
Jefferson, Lincoln … later Earl Warren from our highest court, then again Kennedy and Johnson from the bully pulpit of the Presidency … all would lead, trying at least to wean our nation from its historic racial conflict, appealing always to the better angels of our nature.
Yet Dr. King’s fears here on THE OPEN MIND thirty-five years ago … and now a totally brilliant new Scribner’s book by Professor Andrew Hacker, my guest today, TWO NATIONS: BLACK AND WHITE, SEPARATE, HOSTILE, UNEQUAL they point up the constancy of what Gunnar Myrdal called THE AMERICAN DILEMMA: the unwillingness of theoretically equalitarian White Americans to embrace their Black American brothers and sisters as true equals … in short our persistent inability to practice what we preach.
Nor is there any pretense in this brilliant and disturbing book of an up-beat ending … with an RX for ready fixes and racial remedies. But that leads me to ask my guest, Dr. Hacker just why he even addresses the subject. When his father was my teacher — and a great teacher – at Columbia a half century ago, he was ever the hopeful ameliorist. Now I want to know what article of faith informs the son?
Hacker: Dick, race has been an American obsession since human beings from Africa were brought to these shores, really, to serve as livestock. And for the next 300, 350 years America has race as an albatross around its neck. And the reason I wrote this book was really to understand why race is such a preoccupation in the hearts and minds of Americans. And why this persists year after year as we become more civilized, go through phases like civil rights, and still race continues to be number one on our agenda.
Heffner: Why? That’s the question that you are seeking to answer. What’s the answer?
Hacker: The answer is slavery as history, which i to say that we were the only country that imported literally millions of people to serve as slaves, to serve as I said as livestock. Then came Emancipation … 1865 … not much over a century ago…slavery still persists. We can watch movies, television programs like “Roots” and admire the stamina, the strength of human beings who survived under slavery. But what White Americans also recall is that only people from Africa were chosen to serve as slaves, and the thought persists in the back of people’s minds … they don’t say it explicitly … “well, perhaps there was something about them that suited them for slavery”. And because of this people from Africa have never been given full citizenship.
Heffner: Andrew, if we could exorcise, if we could wipe out our historic, and we’re not terribly history minded, we make think and talk in terms of the Founding Fathers, we don’t know very much about our past. But if we could obliterate the memory of slavery are you suggesting that we would then be more civilized in acting out our principles as expressed in the bask documents?
Hacker: It’s a beautiful question, but we can’t … cannot obliterate this memory. From the … 1865 on … every immigrant who came to this country … five minutes off the boat… was allowed, even encouraged to look down on Black people…to regard them as subordinate, subservient, inferior. And even today immigrants who come off the plane, or come across the Rio Grande, still are allowed … I don’t say encouraged, but allowed and take it on themselves to regard themselves as superior to Africans … African-Americans who have been here for centuries.
Heffner: So that the curse of the lash, as Lincoln referred to it, remains with us.
Hacker: I would say it remains with us as much as ever. Now it is true that we have had advances in terms of, let’s say, de-segregation of public accommodations, but of course, this is 1992 … we should expect some mode of change. But at the same time, the expectations of Black people, the anger of so many Black people, is greater than ever before.
Heffner: But there are those … let’s see, who was it … someone writing about your book saying … said that you would … oh, I guess it wasn’t here … I read it somewhere else … said you would make many people uncomfortable and make new enemies … you would make friends and admirers, too. You’re pointing out, particularly with your statistics, particularly with your personalized statistics, what we White Americans do to Black Americans. No end in sight then, I gather?
Hacker: Not only that, I have been prepared to generalize about Black Americans, no exceptions … Liberal, Conservative, Left and Right, religious, atheist…North and South … I believe all White Americans hold this view, that they belong to a superior genetic strain and that people of African origin belong to an inferior strain.
Heffner: You’re talking about feelings … not intellectual conviction, then.
Hacker: Not … indeed, and people who are Liberal, perhaps … I believe hold these feelings and hate themselves for it. They wish they could exorcise these feelings from within themselves. You … Thomas Jefferson said this, you know … he wished he had proofs that our Black brothers were our equals. Well, if you need proofs, you’re never going to get them.
Heffner: You do, indeed, then bring us to a wall beyond which you seem to feel that as long as we hold on to any sense of what the past was, we shall not get beyond.
Hacker: Well, quite obviously various Black men and women, Cohn Powell, you know, other individuals, succeed in American society, I would say mainly they are ‘co-opted’. I would say at a certain point the military, the White House felt they needed someone like Cohn Powell, or someone like Clarence Thomas. Yes, we say, Black people make it on their own, but at all times, they make it when Whites, who after all, we control employment at every level … when we decide we want a Black face somewhere. And they know that. Black people know this.
Heffner: Why does a White person write this book?
Hacker: Because I am partly a historian, partly a social scientist, partly simply a citizen, and I wanted to clear my own mind … this is why one writes a book, get your own thinking clarified, about this topic which is, you know, so central in our lives, and then I hoped, once it was completed, to aid the understanding of other people.
Heffner: What you mean aid the understanding of other people’ … you’re talking about the unthinkable.
Hacker: To look oneself in the mirror every so often and say ‘You know, you know, why is it?”. Particularly my … this book is written … it’s interesting … when I started out in my preface, I had at the end of the preface, I was going to have a preface to the White reader, and then a second one to the Black reader. And I looked at that and it was in for a while, even got set up in type. And finally I decided, “that isn’t necessary” … both Black and White readers will read their own books in their own way. Notice I said, “books … plural”. Now in this case I haven’t had problems with Black readers because most of them say
Heffner: “That’s the way .t is
Hacker: Pretty much, “that’s the way it is”. And they said, “you know, you’re not telling us all that much we didn’t know before, but we’re glad you’re putting it all together this way”. With White readers, of course, there have been a variety of, you know, reactions to this. But really what one of the things I wanted to emphasize was, for those of us who are White, to really confront what ‘Whiteness means to us. You know, it’s like people who have their sight … we never think from day to day, ‘hey, we can see things”, it’s only if we lose it that we can. And I have a little parable in the book, you know, maybe I’m being a bit mischievous, but I said, “Alright”, this is to our White reader, ‘think that some day a gentleman will come to you, you know one of these suave people like James Mason, and look at your name and say, ‘Oh, yes, Richard Heffner, isn’t it?’ … yes. Well, you know, a terrible mistake was made many years ago … you accordingly to our records were supposed to have been born to a different set of parents, you were supposed to have been born Black. Well, these things happen, you know. According to our procedures, we must remedy this mistake. So at midnight tonight, you are going to now have the body at the age you are now of … that you were originally supposed to have. Inside you’ll be the same person, same ideas, intellect, but outside, you will have what anthropologists call ‘negroid features’, dark skin, black skin and the rest”. But, I then go on to say, “because we are a very wealthy organization, I mean we don’t boast about it, we are prepared to offer you recompense. Now that you’ve lost your Whiteness, what would you like from us … I can write out a check to make up for this”. But when I put this to students, I generally put this to students in my class, they would like about a million dollars a year, to make up for losing their Whiteness. Which means that White people really know not only what it’s worth to be White, but what it’s not worth to be Black.
Heffner: What an incredible tale that is because as I read it in your book, and as I listen to you now, it is mischievous, but it is also very, very, very, very pointed and yet, I keep saying to myself “What is Andrew Hacker doing? Does he want me to feel more guilty than I do? Does he want me to recognize something that he says is indisputable, but that there is nothing to do about it?’ That’s why I asked you about motive.
Hacker: Alright. I’ll continue with that. First of all, on guilt, I have quite a section there on White guilt…
Heffner: Yes, indeed.
Hacker: … and White guilt can do more damage than good. You know, when…because in many ways those of us Whites who do feel guilty often act out in various ways, it ends up being condescending, patronizing, you know applauding a little longer for a Black speaker to make him feel good … he knows what we’re doing. I happen to be … well, I don’t know whether I want to call myself a scholar … but my aim is the truth. And we have so much self-delusion when it comes to race that at least I thought I would put several cards up on the table and say, “here is the truth”. Now we know that people, very often when presented with the truth, push it aside, don’t want to see it. You know, we know all that. But there it is between the covers of a book, if people want to look at themselves. And by the way, Black people want to look at the way White people look at them … that was my intention.
Heffner: Now, I think, if I were a Black person, but I know as a White person that I think there’s more than mischief here because I believe that what you have offered is an Rx in part … not the solution of racial problems, but couldn’t it be that I would say to you or others would say to you, “You’ve provided a wonderful rationalization for continuing the racist attitudes because you’ve said it’s inevitable given the way Blacks came to this country as slaves .. given our history there is a kind of inevitability about it, and if something is inevitable, why worry why feel guilty, why make amends?”.
Hacker: I haven’t heard that interpretation…
Heffner: And it’s not just a mischievous interpretation…
Hacker: I … I understand that. I’ll take my chances with that. I would say that the truth comes first. And we have a problem here because it is not just the notion that Black people are inferior. There is also fear, tremendous fear of people of African ancestry. Fear, of course, of crime. And as you know, I have quite a chapter there on what, inevitably, I end up calling “Black crime”, and I’ll mention why I call it that. Any White person would much rather be attacked by a White assailant and lose much more money, then be attacked by a Black assailant because there is the fear that not only does he want your money, or not only does he … violate your body, but that also he is doing this for retribution, that at a certain point he may take another minute, second, and do something to just make up or some recompense for the wrongs your people have done to his people. That’s why White people are afraid of Black criminals, that’s why we have so many of them in our prisons. And what can we do about this? You know, be nicer? I mean when the fear is so deep there.. because here is … this is the fear the slave owners had. You know, they worried every night that their slaves would rise up, you know, and slay them in their beds. Well, that persists.
Heffner: I remember many years ago at an Aspen Executive Seminar when Thurgood Marshall was associated with, with the conduct of the seminar. Thurgood put on his best ‘Black Boy” accent, and he could do that to a fare-thee-well, and he tried to put the fear of God, if one must, but fear anyway into the White executives at that table. But on the basis of assuring them that if they did not deal adequately enough with racial problems, they might very well burn in their beds, and he was using fear as a means of making changes. And you, as a teacher, I know you’re a scholar, and I know you say, J want to know why” and the best way, reason to discover why is to write a book, but what about moving us? What about the responsibility … that’s why I began making the comment about your Dad, who was, at that point, what I considered an amelieorist. Yes, he could point out the characteristics of our history that were less pleasant, but he was doing it, it seemed to me, to move us from here to there. Now … no movement?
Hacker: Well, first of all may I say that I, along with you, I am a great admirer of my father or my late father who was a teacher at Columbia, and I think a magnificent teacher because the number of people, such as yourself, who’ve come up to me and said they’ll never forget him. Now … use the word “move”. Each year more and more White people move, physically, to put as far a distance as they can between themselves and the nearest Black person. Our cities are more segregated than ever before, there is … if you take those huge stretch of housing projects in Chicago, you know, it’s larger than the land mass of Paris, you know, and it’s all Black. People are moving to ‘ex-urbs” … they are moving to smaller towns. Retirement communities, you know, in Arizona, to be further and further from this part of the population that, really, they just are so uncomfortable with. Asians, many Hispanics can move into your neighborhood, but oh, very worried as you recall in the book, if a neighborhood … we have lots of studies on this, becomes just 8% Black, not even 10% Black … 8% Black … people start moving out, and more important, no new Whites will move in.
Heffner: Now the historical determinism that underlies the compilation of these facts … I don’t think anybody will challenge, could challenge what it is you summarize in your various chapters, in the various categories. But, again, that sense of historical determinism bothers the hell out of me.
Hacker: Well, no determinism. Dick, I’m a historian, in addition to other things, I think. My title is Political Science, but I call myself a historian in the sense that every nation has a history, there are certain forces, there’s a certain momentum, certain constraints that we have that carries us along, and well, choices there, up to a point. Not always there. Alright. If you want a glimmer of change, I’ll give you an example. In the Portuguese colonies in Africa, the Portuguese created a group of Africans and they called them “assimulatos”. They were sent to mission schools where they learned Portuguese, read and write, and they became the minor clerical class in the colonial civil service. They were allowed to live apart from other Africans. They were hi-lingual, spoke Portuguese and their own. And we’ve done that, too, you know. I won’t say we’re a colonial power, but we’ve created “assimulatos”. We have a certain number of them. And Black people understand there’s that opportunity, if they want to work toward it. By and large, though, perhaps this is like the Portuguese colony, even middle-class Black people, for the most part are not welcome in White neighborhoods. You know that now, increasingly, more and more Black people live in the suburbs and we have Black suburbs. They ring Washington, DC, New Rochelle, New York, Baldwin Hills, California … around Atlanta. I mean they are comfortable homes, they’re not, you know, underclass ghettoes, but they are still, you know…
Heffner: What, what bothers me about your descriptives, and again, one would not challenge them, is that you offer them as givens … given, given, gone…there’s no movement because Blacks came to this country as chattel slaves, our psyche continues to respond to them in that way, and you don’t seem to find it in your mind … I sure you would find it in your heart, to note that we not only must, but we therefore can assimilate, because we’ve got to, because one cannot live half slave and half free.
Hacker: One cannot live half slave and one free, but one can survive in a grim way, half slave and half free, which is what we’re doing. Now, in terms of amelioration … you know, sometimes there are statistics … the book is not a statistical almanac, but there are figures in there, I’ve picked them carefully because they tell a story. Back in 1930, which most of us don’t remember, I don’t think I do…
Heffner: I do … so there … go ahead.
Hacker: …the prison population in this country was about 22% Black. The rest were Whites … Jimmy Cagney, George Raft…
Hacker: These tough White guys who, by the way, put a lot of fear into the respectable Anglos … alright. The prison population was over 2/3 White, less than a quarter Black … 22% Black. Now Blacks are the largest single group in the prison…45%, with Hispanics making up a very … another large club. Now that is the obverse of progress. What has happened is that we have more and more Black people…a quarter of all Black young men between 20 and 29, are either in prison, on probation, on parole. And, really, we have a huge class of the Black population which is now not reachable by White America, other than to put them in prison. Now, I cannot have … you know, I can’t give a ten point program at the end, but I want some of these facts to hit us between the eyes, so at least we know where we are and then start thinking and where the thinking will lead us … I really … that’s not my book, that’s someone else’s book.
Heffner: Well, maybe, maybe that’s what it is, and at the end of the book, I thought “he can’t really mean it”. And then I thought to myself, “Well, he does really mean it. He does want us to be so brought face to face with these facts, and to be brought so face to face with his historical interpretation of almost their inevitability” given the way we meet face to face White America and Black America … that this is what he is doing, he’s forcing us to go on and write our own books, he’s forcing us, and at one point you say, “one writes one’s own book here”.
Hacker: Oh, indeed, I, I think … that’s the beginning of the preface … I say, “Each one of us could write a book about race. In fact”, I go on, ‘each one of us has, it’s already etched in our minds, or in our hearts”.
Heffner: That’s not the hopeful part. I’m talking about the hopeful part.
Hacker: Well, at this point … no … it’s … I just … oh, of course, I considered this … I considered a final chapter, but I tried it, I couldn’t do it. And I’m not an innocent … I’m a social scientist, I know about policies, I know about success stories…I know, for example, that there’s a housing development, it’s a private one in New York called Starret City, where Blacks and Whites live side by side. But I point out in the book, the reason this succeeds is there’s a Black quota. The Black number of…proportion of residents can’t go over something like 18%, 20%, which New Yorkers are willing to put up with because they know it will not. Now, this has been challenged in the courts, but the Black people who live in Starret City want to keep that ceiling, that’s why they moved there. They don’t want to live in an all Black housing development.
Heffner: Because they’ve incorporated White ideas about Blacks in their own psyches? Is that the reason…
Hacker: No, these are middle class people who don’t want their kids tempted. That’s the main thing. They don’t want their kids tempted by the temptations, the terrors of the streets. Now, and this is the awful thing if you’re a Black parent. How to get … keep your child, other than locking them up, and you can’t even do that…they have to walk to school … and this is why, as many Black people do … even risk, you know, having flaming crosses in front of their homes, gasoline bombs thrown, going to neighborhoods where they’re not wanted because they want their children, at least, to be saved from what can happen to so many Black kids.
Heffner: Andrew, when I look at the title, first thinking it was perverse, and then realizing it is so true … TWO NATIONS, BLACK AND WHITE, SEPARATE, HOSTILE, UNEQUAL. Now the book hasn’t been out that long for me to ask you what the reaction has been, but that’s what my great temptation is. What in the world will be the … it, it flies so much in the face of, and against our, our preconceptions about ourselves … separate, hostile, unequal. What has been the response thus far?
Hacker: Well, the response … excuse me…
Heffner: In the one minute remaining.
Hacker: … the response, by and large, has been very gratifying from both Black and White reviewers. And it’s been reviewed by people of both races. The chief criticism from some reviewers … White … has been that I regard White America as monolithic … that there are many more Liberal, progressive, well-meaning Whites and I don’t give them the due that they should have. And as I said to you, “yes, I understand these variations, but down deep, we’re still all White”.
Heffner: Andrew Hacker, I sigh as I thank you for joining me today, and for writing this excellent book … I sigh because of the seeming inevitability that you posit for me here. Thank you for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.
Hacker: I’ve been very pleased to be with you.
Heffner: Thanks. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, our author, and the book he’s written, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
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