In a recent review of books on race in The Nation, Thomas Sugrue wonders “How do we make sense out of a country where racial inequality is deeply entrenched but where racism is seldom overt? How can we square evidence of racial progress with the grim reality of persistent racialized poverty, unemployment, health and wealth gaps and educational disparities?”
Sugrue goes on to remark that, “While racial optimists emphasize the extraordinary progress blacks have made in the United States over the last half-century. Racial pessimists, by contrast, argue that racism is pervasive but well hidden. Peel away whites' colorblind rhetoric and beneath it you will find deep-rooted, perhaps subconscious, evidence of racial hatred.”
Stephen Steinberg author of, Race Relations (a book discussed in this review), would definitely qualify as a pessimist on this issue. Steinberg’s pessimism is based not only on the experiences of African-Americans in America today but also on how mainstream sociologists have theorized about concept of race, “reducing racism to the level of attitudes.” The preferred language of mainstream sociology when talking about race, “race relations” obfuscates the true nature and sources of racism. Steinberg writes: “A popular adage holds: ‘Don’t piss on me and call it rain.’ Applied to the sociologist, it might read: ‘Don’t deprive me of my rights, my livelihood, and my dignity and call it ‘race relations.’”
The book shows how sociologists, perhaps against their intentions, have advanced “a white sociology,” reflecting white interests and perspectives. This explains why they utterly failed to anticipate the black insurgency that culminated in a triumphant civil rights movement and why they fail to see the separate and unequal status of blacks today. In Steinberg's view, this is because sociology since its inception has been more preoccupied with pacification than with racial justice.
Steinberg is critical of both writers on the political right when they trample on the rights of minorities, including the right to preserve their native languages and cultures, and of writers on the political left who engage in wishful thinking about the viability of the multicultural project or who go the other way and are impatient to get "beyond race" and "beyond ethnicity.” According to Sugrue, “Steinberg is relentlessly polemical, often witty and sometimes brilliant in his debunking of the conventional wisdom. Like all iconoclasts, he overstates his case. But for all of his rhetorical excess, his argument that the mainstream of twentieth-century social science downplayed racial oppression and exploitation for individualistic understandings of race relations is powerful and convincing, and it needs to be heard as he shouts it from the rooftops.”
Sugrue concludes that “Steinberg's larger argument--that racial inequality is ultimately a matter of oppression and exploitation, not personal prejudice and bigotry--stands. The story of inequality is one of the maldistribution of power and resources. Racial inequality has persisted in American life not just because whites harbor bad thoughts about blacks but because the advantages that redound to whites through racial segregation, especially in housing and education, have yet to be dismantled.”