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.”
The great achievement of American liberalism — Franklin Roosevelt’s social security state — was passed, Porter argues (following lines of thought developed by the political scientist Ira Katznelson), only by a devil’s bargain with Southern segregationist senators. Liberal social security systems perpetuated black exclusion until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms of 1964. Johnson knew these reforms would cost him the South politically but, Porter says, no liberal anticipated the larger historical consequence: “Johnson failed to grasp the scale at which inviting people of color into the network of rights and assurances created in the 1930s by F.D.R. to protect the well-being of white American workers would undermine support for the safety net altogether.”
Porter, who writes about economics for The New York Times, is at his strongest when he points out the tragic irony of a white working class, decimated by deindustrialization and wasted by substance abuse, focusing their hatreds on minorities and turning against the very social programs — Obamacare, for example — that might actually help them: “The America that built the most prosperous working class the world had ever seen collapsed into a heap of pathologies — deaths of despair — simply due to a lack of empathy. The greatest irony is that while the black and the brown suffered most intensely from the fallout, the collapse in social trust wiped away the American dream of working-class whites too.”
This is a powerful argument, but it has a couple of problems. The first is that it overestimates race and underestimates class and a free market political culture in explaining why America collects a far smaller percentage of national income in taxes compared with European countries that have more adequate public health, education and welfare services. The second problem is that Porter treats racial hatred as a fixed dose of poison coursing through the veins of the public and neglects politics, the systematic way in which Republican politicians from Richard Nixon onward fed the poison with envenoming rhetoric about “welfare queens,” “dysfunctional black families” and the shame of welfare dependency.
Yet here too it’s not the case that race alone — or even Republican populism — drove the critique of welfare dependency in the 1970s and 1980s. Charter liberal grandees like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who cannot be accused of racial animus toward blacks, worried that welfare was passing dependency from one generation to the next in some poor black families.
Porter’s pessimism is a bracing wake-up call for liberal readers and may confirm the darkest fears of many a black and Hispanic reader. Yet it is not the first passionate polemic to damage its impact by overstating its case. Racial polarization, Porter claims, has led to the collapse not only of “Americans’ support for the safety net,” but also of “their general support of public goods and the entire apparatus of government.”
This book came out around the start of the pandemic emergency, and so it is unfair to criticize Porter for failing to anticipate the all but universal cry right now for an effective “apparatus of government.” Even so, Porter’s jeremiad makes it impossible to understand the equally tenacious history of American progressive government: from Roosevelt himself, through Truman’s integration of the United States military, the Supreme Court ban on racial covenants in housing in 1948, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the struggle to desegregate American schools and finally — an achievement barely mentioned in Porter’s story — the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The point here is not to retreat into complacent liberal banalities, but to observe that a story of American race relations that makes no attempt to account for the unending battle to lift its hateful curse ends up being no kind of story at all.