Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal footnote1 indicts race relations in the contemporary us as a system of what its publicity packet calls ‘de facto apartheid’. But its most chilling contribution to showing just how bad things are is an unwitting one. Unlike earlier liberal studies of racism, Two Nations can only indict. Hacker sketches an apartheid system and adds ‘I wouldn’t know where to begin’, so far as strategies for changing it are concerned. The pessimism of Two Nations stands out especially when compared with the tradition of liberal epics on race relations with which it identifies itself. Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma, which Hacker counts as ‘America’s most notable book on race’ (p. xi), matched Two Nations in its stark portrayal of black life and of the consistent betrayals of the ‘American Creed’ of equality by whites. But Myrdal stressed the tension between an overarching American commitment to justice and the brutalities of white supremacy. He saw room for progress and offered policy prescriptions with that end in view.

Two Nations takes its title and subtitle from a combination of Disraeli’s celebrated remark about the social distance between the rich and poor in Victorian England and the conclusion of the 1968 report of the us National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders: ‘Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.’ But the 1968 report also offered reams of material mapping plans to combat inequality. Newsweek’s laudatory review of Two Nations illustrates how different Hacker’s approach is. The review features his photograph with the apt caption ‘A bleak diagnosis and no prescription.’footnote2

Though it is striking and sobering that Hacker could write (andreviewers could unproblematically praise) a study which posits a more or less unchallenged and unchallengeable apartheid system in the us, his despair is hardly unique among American liberals. The old grounds for hope for racial justice have fled. Although African American support for organized labour remains high and trade-union leadership is more integrated than in the past, the traditional ‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’ strategies of struggle suffer from the burdensome history of labour racism and the fact that the unions themselves have been decimated and shorn of vision and social power. Two Nations makes virtually no mention of trade unions, either as vehicles for transforming society or even as factors shaping African American job prospects. The dream that integrated education would automatically produce racial harmony similarly stands discredited, both because of alleged failures of integration and, more broadly, because of the perceived collapse of the educational system itself. Expanded job opportunities seemed a panacea in 1968 and seem an impossibility in the no-growth nineties.

However, Hacker’s study differs from those of the many liberals who share his gloom regarding race. He does not follow most liberals in arguing that we need to minimize emphasis on racial inequality and to turn instead to the practical task of building raceless coalitions to address economic growth and educational reform, which too many liberals see as prior and practical issues as opposed to the impossibilities of antiracist political action. For example, Hacker writes eloquently of Republican electoral successes resting on the fit between the self-conscious whiteness of voters and the Republican Party’s willingness ‘to have itself regarded as a white party’ (p. 102). He proposes no counterstrategy. Thomas and Mary Edsall’s influential analysis of race and contemporary politics, Chain Reaction, meanwhile describes a representative group of white Democrats-turned-Reagan-supporters as people for whom African Americans ‘constitute the explanation for nearly everything that has gone wrong’, and for whom ‘virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms’. They propose that the Democrats downplay appeals to ‘special interests’ (for example, racial justice).footnote3 In both cases, the diagnoses are bleak, but while Hacker offers no prescriptions, the Edsalls prescribe a deft sidestepping of the issue of race. Given these two choices, I would confess a preference for Hacker’s refusal, as one reviewer has put it, to pencil in ‘upbeat final chapters’footnote4 over the notion that the pale populism of a Bill Clinton will start a process which builds a class coalition that in turn will ameliorate racial oppression.

However, the choices need not be so limited. We ought to be able to learn from Hacker’s unreconstructed racial liberalism without accepting its apoliticism, and to criticize his assumptions without supposing that the ‘left wing of the possible’ is located in the family rooms of Reagan Democrats.

‘While joining in the chorus of “Yeas” which the book has so deservedly evoked’, the great novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in his review of Myrdal’s American Dilemma, that it is also necessary to ‘utter a lusty and simultaneous “Nay”’.footnote5 Two Nations provokes the same divided response. On the one hand it provides a useful mélange of information, and especially of statistical information, which debunks reigning myths concerning African Americans and crime, welfare, voting and jobs. At a time when many liberals and a fair share of the Left have shied away from support for affirmative action (positive discrimination), Hacker offers a vigorous, commonsensical defence of partly race-based strategies to overcome partly race-based injustices. His central insight, that the story of race relations in the us should focus on how ‘white America. . .has made being black so disconsolate an estate’ (p. 218) signals an unwillingness to blame the victim and places him in the best of antiracist liberal tradition. But the same line also signals why that tradition is in ruins and we should say ‘Nay’ to the overall message of Hacker’s study even as we applaud individual sections within it. Failing to see anything but ‘disconsolation’ in the African American experience, and failing to see that on some levels whites know better than that, Hacker can offer no substantive grounds for hope that racial oppression can be fought.

The inability of not only Hacker, but also American liberalism generally to keep hope alive influences the very structure of Two Nations. Pitching his argument defensively to a white audience, Hacker organizes his work around a series of ‘debunkings’ of popular myths about African Americans. In comparison to Myrdal or to the National Advisory Commission, his work is far more limited. Two Nations is a short book and one based on the drawing together of other researchers’ data, not the generation of new research. Where Hacker does provide startling new interpretations, too often a laborious check of the ill-designed citations reveals that the assertion is unsupported. For example, he argues, without citation and despite voluminous documentation to the contrary by the Boston-based Center for the Study of Sport and Society’s studies of racism and athletics, that members of professional teams are ‘all. . .obviously hired on merit’ (p. 121). Similarly the interesting assertion that ‘very few white Americans have ever set foot inside a black family’s home’ (p. 21) turns out to rest on no cited evidence. And how would one document the bizarre contention that African Americans ‘sense that much that is “black” is missing in artists like. . .Toni Morrison [and] Paul Robeson’?