Racism Over Three Decades

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Samuel Farber

Black Lives, White Lives:
Three Decades of Race Relations In America
By Bob Blauner
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989 (347 pages). $10.95.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, in the Spring of 1965, I audited one of the most stimulating courses of my graduate-school years at University of California, Berkeley. This was a sociology course on race relations taught by Bob Blauner. A good number of the department’s leftists took the course at the same time I did, and this greatly contributed to the political and intellectual excitement surrounding our discussions.

Blauner’s work on race—such as Racial Oppression in America (Harper and Row, 1972)—and that of former Berkeley students influenced by his teaching, in particular David T. Wellman’s Portraits of White Racism (Cambridge University Press, 1977) and Stephen Steinberg’s The Ethnic Myth (Beacon Press, 1981 and 1989) constitute indispensable reading for any serious student of race relations in the United States.

This is especially true for those who view race and racism from an institutional, power-conscious and materialist point of view, as opposed to the perspectives that place the central focus on individual prejudice and psychology and see the presumed cultural values of ethnic and racial groups as more important than their class position in U.S. society.

Bob Blauner has now published the results of his study of racial change in America as seen through the eyes of sixteen Blacks and twelve whites who were interviewed over a twenty-year period starting in 1968, again in 1978-9 and finally in 1986. Blauner, influenced by the oral-interview techniques of Studs Terkel, was not concerned with whether his respondents were “typical” in any demographic or survey research sense.

In fact, all of the interviewees lived in Northern California, although some had moved there from other parts of the country such as the South. Moreover, a significant proportion of the Black respondents seem to have been local leaders in their communities.

This is more than anything a study of racial consciousness and of its evolution and change. Consciousness is here revealed as contradictory; that is, what with few exceptions consciousness has always been. Thus, for example, Blauner interviewed a white aircraft machinist who had problems getting along with a fellow Black worker whom he saw as an agitator and Black power advocate. Yet the white worker also respected this Black worker as a good machinist who got his work done.

Blauner measures the extent of change in race relations not only through the perceptions of his Black and white subjects, but also through his own brief but telling summaries of the Black condition in America (and white relation to it) over the twenty-year period he covered in this book. In this account, Black Americans come out as having improved their overall situation, particularly in the South, although this has been by no means an improvement without important setbacks and qualifications, mostly due to the fact that part of the gains made in the late sixties and early seventies had been lost by the eighties.

Change and Continuity

Blauner mentions the possibility that what appeared as diminishing racism may have been due to whites having learned what was and was not acceptable to say in public about race. Yet it seems that most of the whites Blauner interviewed in the sixties had indeed mellowed by the seventies and eighties. Nevertheless, whites still tended to reject intermarriage, oppose affirmative action as “reverse racism,” and make distinctions between “good” and “bad” Blacks.

Blauner suggests that whites may have also learned to disguise their biases in the more acceptable language of class where the “good” Blacks are middle class, and the “bad” Blacks are the rest who may now be referred to as the “poor” (I would add that sometimes this is replaced, among more educated whites, by the use of the term “underclass” with a racist slant). This parallels the existing class polarization within the Black community between a middle class on one hand and an economically and socially marginal population on the other hand.

In light of the above, what do we make of the recent racist outbursts in such diverse places as the University of Michigan, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and Forsyth County, Georgia? In a recent as-tide entitled “Black-White Relations From Bensonhurst to Ballot Box” (Tlkkun January/February 1990), Blauner develops an argument that was implied but not fully and explicitly stated in the book under review.

In the sixties, according to Blauner’s article, despite much defensiveness and resistance, whites were forced to examine their racism, and explanations of racial inequality that took into account slavery, discrimination and poverty were widely accepted.

By the late seventies, in spite of whites having become more sophisticated about racial matters, they had also become tired of “the Black problem.” The impact of affirmative action was greatly exaggerated by most whites, and it was consequently argued that if Blacks still had problems, it was their own fault.

No wonder that Blacks became disillusioned, as they saw that racism had changed more in form than substance and had become more subtle and harder to fight.

The 1980s Paradox

Blauner further explained that by the eighties, integration had produced a paradox. There were more Blacks in schools, jobs and neighborhoods, but very often Blacks and whites were more segregated within those places and institutions than had been the case twenty years before.

Blauner mentions UC Berkeley as an example; while there are more Black students than ever before, there is also much less interaction and contact with whites.

In sum, the antiracist counter pressures built in the sixties have been considerably weakened. While Black gains have not been completely lost, white political support for the much greater transformations—that is, changes going beyond legal and political equality—required to achieve Black equality has greatly diminished.

This may be especially true for the younger white generations who have grown up since the retreat on combatting racism began in the seventies. As a result, we have the open racism expressed by young middle-class whites on campuses and by young working-class whites in urban communities during the last several years.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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