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America in Black and White:
One Nation, Indivisible
(Touchstone 1999, Simon & Schuster 1997)

by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom

Stephan Thernstrom is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University
Abigail Thernstrom is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

The “American Dilemma,” Gunnar Myrdal called the problem of race in his classic 1944 book. More than half a century later, race remains the issue that dwarfs all others—the problem that doesn’t get solved and won’t go away. But in the decades since Myrdal wrote, much has changed, say the authors of America in Black and White. Progress—too little acknowledged—has been heartening. Pessimists talk of the “permanence of racism,” and say that things are as bad as ever.  In fact, the authors show, the status of blacks has been transformed in recent decades, and there is no going back.

America in Black and White is the first comprehensive work since Myrdal’s to look at the status of African-Americans and ask, what has happened and why? The book starts with a picture of American apartheid—back life in the South and North in the decades before World War II. That picture sets the stage for a dramatic tale of amazing change. It is often assumed that progress is both fragile and recent: a product of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and subsequent affirmative action policies. This is wrong, the authors argue. In fact, by numerous measures, the pace of change was most impressive in the years between the end of World War II and the 1970s, the start of the modern affirmative action era. Deep economic and demographic shifts, accompanied by a revolution in white racial attitudes, put African-Americans on the difficult road to equality.

The end of that road is not yet in sight, the authors acknowledge. Nevertheless, progress has been impressive. For instance, today black and white high school graduation rates are identical, and black married couples earn on average only a bit less than those who are white. America is also more racially integrated than ever before. More than 70 percent of both whites and blacks now claim to have a “good friend” of the other race. Only a small fraction of blacks say they have no white neighbors.  Residential segregation is down in almost every major city—a well-kept secret.

Problems remain, of course. But they will not be solved by traditional civil rights strategies, the authors argue. Affirmative action programs, for  in-stance, do nothing to help the black underclass. Racial preferences cannot rescue the high school dropout who is too unskilled for the modern world of work.

Indeed, racial preferences are not a civil rights solution at all, the authors contend. Preferences themselves—not their rollback—threaten progress. Racist whites have long said to blacks, you’re defined by your color.  With racial preferences black and white Americans of seeming good will have joined together in saying, we agree. It is precisely the wrong foundation on which to come together for a better future. Racial progress ultimately depends on our common understanding that we are one nation, indivisible—that we sink or swim together, that black poverty impoverishes us all, and that black alienation eat at the nation’s soul.


America in Black and White.


America in Black and White is lucidly written, rigorously researched, and persuasively argued. On a topic that frequently divides and polarizes, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom have elevated and enriched the national conversation. America in Black and White looks honestly at the history of American racism while also looking to a more just, cohesive, and ultimate color-blind society. But it does more than that: the Thernstroms make a compelling case for color-blind public policies as the surest route to a society where all individuals are judged on the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.”
William J. Bennett

“…The benchmark study of America’s current anguish over the race question.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A benchmark new work turns the accepted history of racial progress in America upside down.”
Tamala M. Edwards, TIME magazine

“. . . their tough-minded book serves the cause of racial justice. It shows that the issue is not whether black exceptionalism should end.  The issue is when.”  
Alan Wolfe, The New Republic

“This is a work of excellent scholarship, and one that supports, with facts, what most people really believe.”
James Q. Wilson, Commentary

“…A richly factual, rigorously analytical, profoundly humane account of the changing status of black Americans and of black-white relations since the early 1940s.” 
Kenneth S. Lynn, The American Spectator

“…[America in Black and White] promises to become the standard reference book on contemporary race relations.”
Linda Chavez, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“What distinguishes America in Black and White is its comprehensiveness: this is the Summa, the Magnum Opus…”
Roger Lane, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“[America in Black and White] is in a class by itself when it comes to telling and analyzing what has been happening in this country on the racial front over the past two generations.” 
Thomas Sowell, Forbes

“…[The Thernstroms] have written the definitive account of U.S. race relations in our time.”
David Frum, Financial Post

“…Deeply researched and powerfully argued. . . . America in Black and White is a notable edition to the lengthy shelf of books dealing with contemporary race relations. . . tightly argued, richly documented, provocative book – scholarship of the highest order.” 
James Patterson, The Wilson Quarterly

“Well-written and thoughtful, the book never stoops to the exageration and bombast that plague much of the current debate on race.”
Paul Magnusson, BusinessWeek

“[America in Black and White’s] discussion of race is far more level-headed and useful than anything the president or his recently appointed commission on race has said or is likely to say.” 
Walter E. Williams, Parkerburg News