How Racism Is Destroying America (Book Review)Historians in the News
tags: racism, social science
How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise
By Eduardo Porter
A white liberal progressive — as this reviewer would be labeled — confronts the issue of race in America with beliefs that make it difficult to face a reality that their fellow citizens of black or Hispanic origin take for granted. Basic to the liberal creed, for example, is the idea, as Barack Obama liked to say, echoing Martin Luther King Jr., that the arc of history bends toward justice. For many Americans, the arc never bends in any direction, least of all toward justice. Likewise, liberals believe that we can “empathize,” truly understand the racial pain of Americans of color and the racial resentments of an abandoned white working class that thinks their salvation lies with Donald Trump. If any moral quality has been strained to the breaking point in the polarization of our era, it is empathy, ours included.
This liberal astigmatism — our belief that history is a story of racial progress, and our faith in our own empathy — makes Eduardo Porter’s “American Poison” a tough read. It is a learned, well-written but relentless survey of social science studies on the racial polarization, animosity and social fragmentation of American life. A black or Hispanic American reader is likely to finish Porter’s summary of the evidence and say, “So what else is new?” For a white liberal, the book leaves many an illusion in tatters.
One such illusion is that increasing racial proximity by integrating schools and housing is a good way to break down racial animosities and paranoias. Porter cites one study from Chicago that demonstrates the reverse. It was only when project housing for blacks was torn down that the attitudes of nearby whites toward blacks actually improved. Empathy seems to increase with social distance.
Empathy, Porter argues, has always waged an unequal struggle against the racial animus that courses through American history, poisoning both those who hate and those who are hated. Race has contaminated American solidarity, making it impossible for poor whites, threatened by job loss, globalization and the death of carbon-intensive industries, to make common cause with African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and immigrants. He writes, “Unwilling to share the bounty of state with people of other races and creeds, heritages and colors, real Americans — the white ones — have prevented the erection of a welfare state at all.”
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