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Why Are Racial Problems in the United States So Intractable?

From the perspective of an outside observer, one of the most striking features of the American discourse over race relations is how insular it is. Slavery is often spoken of as though it were a uniquely “American curse,” or an “original sin,” the legacy of which has been transmitted to each subsequent generation in the American republic. It is surprising how seldom any attempt is made to situate the various social problems related to race in America in a broader comparative perspective, by considering how other countries have dealt with such issues. This is unfortunate, since there is a great deal to be learned from an analysis of race relations in the United States that treats it as an instance of a broader class of political and social conflicts involving minority groups, rather than as an extraordinary and unique evil. Situating the problem in this way makes it easier to understand why many policies adopted in the United States have failed, when compared to countries that have achieved greater success in resolving similar conflicts. A comparative perspective may also help us to understand why the problem in the United States has proven so intractable.

The first step toward adopting such a perspective requires seeing the problem of black-white race relations in the United States not as a problem of race relations at all, but rather as a set of conflicts involving a minority ethnic group, namely the descendants of the approximately half million African slaves who were, over a period of three hundred years, brought to America involuntarily, kept in servitude for multiple generations, and subsequently subjected to both legal and social dis­crimination, harassment, and violence. His­torically, race has been used as an effective proxy to identify members of this group, but increased non-European immigration to the United States over the past fifty years has made this proxy increasingly unreliable. As a result, the formulation of the problem as an issue of race, rather than of ethnicity, has become a major obstacle to pro­gress. This is particularly obvious in recent debates over slavery reparations, in which it is clear that the intended beneficiaries of such a policy would be members of a particular historical community—which we can refer to, for convenience, as African Americans—and not the larger racial group conventionally referred to as “black,” which would include, for instance, recent immigrants from Nigeria.

The second step involves treating the problem of race relations in the United States as having certain characteristics of what is referred to in the policy literature as a “wicked problem.” One of the defining features of a wicked problem is that different parties define both the problem itself and its solution differently. As a result, what counts as progress from one perspective might actually be the opposite from some other. The end result will often be stalemate and reinforcement of the status quo, which is blamed on a lack of commitment or obstruction by “bad actors,” when it may just as well be due to people of goodwill, who are committed to solving the problem, act­ing in ways that contribute to the reproduction of the unsatisfactory outcome. The shift in American public discourse away from a con­cern over traditional attitudinal racism toward “systemic” or “insti­tutional” racism involves a tacit recognition that the bad actor account no longer provides an adequate explanation for the persistence of racial inequality. At the same time, it fails to provide an alternative explanation. What I would like to suggest is that the persistence of acrimonious race relations in the United States is due, at least in part, to the pursuit of contradictory objectives in the quest for a solution.

There are two major dimensions of disagreement. The first has to do with the model of accommodation that best suits the demands (and entitlements) of African Americans as a group. The philosopher Will Kymlicka has distinguished two different ways of accommodating ethnic minorities—polyethnic inclusion, which is the standard model for immigrant integration, and multinational pluralism, which involves the recognition and devolution of power to national minori­ty groups. As descendants of slaves, African Americans are not immi­grants, and yet they lack certain characteristics typically possessed by national minority groups. As a result, Americans have adopted an approach to integration that attempts to combine elements from both the polyethnic and multinational models. Unfortunately, the two approaches tend to push in opposite directions, leading not to suc­cessful integration but rather to a self-reinforcing dynamic of mar­ginalization.

The second major dimension of disagreement relates to how the success of polyethnic inclusion is assessed. Stylizing somewhat, one can distinguish the “Singapore model” of inclusion, which focuses almost exclusively on outcomes, from the “Canadian model,” which focuses on process neutrality. Once these two ideal types have been described, it is not difficult to see that there is no agreement in the United States about which one provides the appropriate criterion of success. A great deal of recent confusion over the goals of EDI (“equality, diversity, and inclusion”) in the United States reflects a tendency to employ benchmarks of success derived from both models simultaneously, resulting in a failure to achieve satisfactory outcomes with respect to either model.

The influence of these two different ways of achieving ethnic accommodation, and two different models of polyethnic inclusion, is what generates the dilemmas that stand at the core of U.S. race relations. The internal tensions that result explain a great deal of the political stalemate that Americans have experienced over this issue, along with the growing sense that the major problems will never be resolved. It also explains why African Americans as a group find themselves in a situation in which there is no way to advance that does not involve serious compromise, which in turn generates paraly­sis and internal division. Or at least this is how things seem to an outside observer like myself.

Race and Ethnicity

Should African Americans be thought of as a racial or an ethnic group? The answer to this question has enormous implications for how one understands America’s racial dilemma. The U.S. census recognizes five official “races”: (1) white, (2) black or African Ameri­can, (3) American Indian or Alaska Native, (4) Asian American, and (5) Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Apart from this, it recognizes—confusingly—a single “ethnicity”: Hispanic. The original purpose of the “white” and “black” categories was to differentiate the free European settler population from slaves. In a quite separate development, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo extended citi­zenship to all Mexicans who wished to remain in the territories the United States had conquered. The decision to treat “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, and not a race, was motivated by the desire to maintain good relations with Mexico. The final category, Asian American, was the only one intended to identify an immigrant group—in this case, the Japanese and Chinese who arrived on the West Coast in large numbers during the nineteenth century.

The language of “race” was used quite loosely in the vernacular until well into the twentieth century (for instance, it was common to distin­guish the “Irish race” from the “German race”). As a result, a set of census categories that was intended to identify the major di­mensions of domestic pluralism took the form of a system of racial classification. With the de facto prohibition on non-European immi­gration for the better part of the twentieth century, there was initially little reason to change these categories. They became bureaucratically entrenched, and so despite dramatic changes in the population profile after the 1965 immigration reform law, the nineteenth-century classi­fication system remained in place. This bureaucratic entrenchment was reinforced by the fact that, after the abolition of slavery, the Jim Crow laws in the American South used the census categories of “black” (or “Negro”) and “white” (along with “colored”) as the basis for discrimination. When these laws were struck down by the courts, or overridden by the U.S. federal government, the remedies adopted typically used the same language and categories.

After 1965, however, America became the destination for many immigrants from both Africa and the Caribbean, who are classified racially as black, and yet are not part of the historical community of African Americans. This has produced an unhelpful ambiguity, espe­cially because the formulation of various legal remedies in terms of race, rather than ethnicity, has had the effect of expanding eligibility to include a large number of people who have no obvious claim to them. The problem is obvious in the case of slavery reparations, where it seems clear that the proposed beneficiaries would be limited to the descendants of American slaves. But the confusion also besets many affirmative action policies, where it is understood that the intended beneficiaries are African Americans, since the goal is to off­set disadvantages attributable to the historical injustices perpetrated against this group. And yet, because of the formulation in terms of race, a disturbingly large percentage of the beneficiaries of affirmative action (for example, in highly selective American universities) are in fact recent immigrants or foreigners. The same is true of minority “set‑asides” in government contracting, where preference is given to minority business enterprises, many of which are owned by immigrants. Given how incredibly divisive these programs are in American society, even when they serve the intended beneficiaries, the practice of giving preference to immigrants with no plausible claim to such benefits, over native-born Americans, puts what many would regard as an unnecessary strain on the American body politic.

In order to avoid confusion, in the discussion that follows I will use the term African American to refer to members of the specific ethnic group—descendants of American slavery—and use the term black primarily to refer to the (much larger) racial group. I will, in this respect, be breaking with the American practice of using the two terms interchangeably. My central focus will be on the claims of African Americans, not the larger group of black Americans. I refer to them as an ethnic group because, just as Italian Americans are an ethnic subcategory of the white racial category, African Americans are a subcategory of the black racial category.

Conflicting Policy Imperatives

When dealing with any persistent social problem, especially one that is widely acknowledged and yet remains unresolved, there is a natural tendency to attribute lack of progress to widespread indifference or malevolence on the part of various social actors. This is often reinforced by a temptation to suspect those who challenge these explanations of secretly siding with the bad actors. The first step in serious policy analysis involves the recognition that some problems persist not because of a lack of will to solve them, but because there is no agreement about what constitutes a solution, or because the problem is multidimensional, and so an improvement in one dimension generates a worsening of the problem in another. A classic example of this style of analysis can be found in the work of James Q. Wilson on bureaucracy. As Wilson notes, there is widespread acknowledgment, across the political spectrum, that there is a prob­lem with bureaucracy in the U.S. government. The surprising thing is that, even though “everybody seems to agree that we ought to do something about the problem of bureaucracy,” nothing ever gets fixed.

The reason for this paralysis, Wilson claims, is that “there is not one bureaucracy problem, there are several, and the solution to each is in some degree incompatible with the solution to every other.” The most celebrated example involves the desire to eliminate “red tape,” and yet also improve accountability. Because one person’s red tape is just someone else’s accountability, fixing one problem necessarily worsens the other. And so the bureaucracy problem persists, not through malevolence or indifference, but because reasonable actors are pursuing incompatible objectives.

The relevance of this analysis to the problem of race in America should be obvious. To speak of a “problem” invites one to ask what a “solution” would look like. Here one is immediately struck by the lack of agreement, especially given the long-standing division within the African American population between “integrationist” and “na­tionalist” thinking, two approaches that obviously push in opposite directions and that generate conflicting demands on American socie­ty. This suggests that race relations may pose a wicked problem in the policy sense. And yet there remains a stubborn insistence that the persistence of racial inequality and conflict must be explained by the influence of bad actors. In other words, racism and racial discrimination are posited as key factors that explain all problems related to race in America. There is, of course, a surfeit of anecdotal evidence, along with high-profile instances of racial animosity to support this view, but the large-scale empirical evidence is weak. (The unending series of provocations emanating from former president Donald Trump unfor­tunately robbed a large segment of the American public of any capaci­ty for impartial assessment of the evidence on this front.)

First, there is the simple fact that the level of attitudinal racism among Americans is not that high compared to people in other countries. Americans think that other Americans are quite racist, but that is primarily because they take the persistence of the race problem, or lack of support for preferred policy responses, as evidence of racism. They generally fail to realize just how racist people are in other countries. By contrast, the United States is an outlier from other Western countries in a number of social, economic, and political respects that clearly contribute to the persistence of racial inequality. These include the lack of class mobility, inadequacy of the social safety net, poor quality of diet, extreme inequalities in primary education funding, artificial scarcity in elite postsecondary education, high levels of crime, especially violent crime, astronomical incar­ceration levels, high levels of police violence, widespread gun owner­ship and gun crime, and governance failure in the democratic system. Set against these problems, traditional racial discrim­ination does not seem like the most pressing issue facing disadvantaged minorities.

The other reason for suspicion of the bad actor theory is that racism—at least of the overt, attitudinal variety—has declined quite precipitously in the United States since the 1960s, and yet many problems have persisted. To take just one example, condemnation of interracial marriage has collapsed almost entirely, and yet the rate of out‑group marriage among African Americans remains quite low. A 2013 study of young married or cohabiting couples aged twenty-five to thirty-four found that about 16 percent of black men and 7 percent of black women had a white partner in the United States, compared to 62 percent and 49 percent, respectively, in Canada. The fact that only 77 percent of Americans had a favorable view of black-white inter­racial marriage at the time, versus 92 percent of Canadians, does not indicate a profound enough difference to account for these numbers. Since African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. popula­tion, it would take less than 14 percent of the nonblack population being open to the idea in order for every African American in the country to intermarry. Similarly, it would take only the participation of a small minority of nonblack Americans to achieve integration of residential areas and schools. Racism would therefore have to be extremely widespread in order to function as a genuine causal expla­nation of the observed patterns in such cases of decentralized social choice.

Yet many Americans remain resistant to the suggestion that the persistence of racial inequality could be due to anything other than racism. They suggest that racism is still present, but that it has become hidden. According to this view, since social norms changed in such a way as to stigmatize the expression of racist attitudes, many Americans simply ceased to report their true beliefs to pollsters. As a result, the racism was still there, it had merely become invisible to social scientists. But this claim has merely invited the development of more sophisticated social-scientific techniques, which tended to confirm the decline-of-racism story. As a result, the explanation shifted to the notion of “implicit bias.” According to this view, racism is hidden not just from pollsters; it is hidden from the racists themselves, because it is subconscious. Again, empirical support for this hypothesis is less than overwhelming. It is not difficult to discover evidence of subcon­scious bias; the problem lies in showing that it has a significant effect on behavior. The primary evidence that it does, in most cases, is just the persistence of the race problem, combined with the assumption that it must be caused by racism. As a result, implicit bias winds up functioning in these theories in much the same way that dark matter does in our understanding of the physical universe. We are not able to actually detect or measure it, but know it must be there, because it is the only way that we can account for the behavior of the matter that we can see. The question, of course, in the case of racial inequality, is whether attitudinal racism is really the only way, or even the best way, of accounting for observed patterns of racial inequality.

Increased recognition of the limitations of these bad actor explana­tions has spurred a growing movement away from an analysis based on attitudinal racism toward one based on systemic racism, which is produced as an effect of social institutions or systems of interaction, in some cases completely independent of the racial attitudes of individuals. This type of institutional analysis raises a number of complex issues, but for now it may suffice to observe that the shift to the vocabulary of systemic racism usually involves a shift to agnosticism on the question of causation. Systemic racism cannot serve as an explanation of racial disparities in outcome, because it is typically just another way of describing those disparities. For example, if the over­incarceration of African Americans serves as the primary evidence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, then these disparities obviously cannot be explained by systemic racism, on pain of circu­larity. Thus the overrepresentation of African Americans must be explained by something else, such as attitudinal racism, along with some complex combination of social determinants. Of course, the diagnosis of systemic racism is often made in a way that is intended to suggest that attitudinal discrimination is widespread in a particular domain. Strictly speaking, however, it is neutral on the question of causation, and in this respect, winds up serving as a diplomatic way of abandoning the assumption that the persistence of racial disparities must be due to traditional attitudinal racism.

Because of this, my analysis of racial inequality in America as a wicked problem could be described as a way of specifying the notion of “systemic racism.” My inclination, however, is to avoid that term, because once the pretense at causal explanation has been abandoned, use of the term “racism”—a term that in my mind always implies moral condemnation—winds up being tendentious, since one cannot condemn a racially disparate outcome without knowing what caused it. As long as there are cultural differences between white and black Americans, there will be differences in modes of behavior, which will generate disparities with respect to certain outcomes, many of which will be perfectly innocent, the aggregate effect of choices that no one has any desire to interfere with. Thus if one wants to affirm the moral proposition that racism is always wrong, it is best to use the term only in its traditional sense, to denote attitudinal racism. And when one focuses on racism in this sense of the term, it seems very doubtful that America’s race problems are caused, first and foremost, by racists (as opposed to being merely exacerbated by racists). The primary reason for this suspicion is that, across the American population as a whole, there are simply not enough genuine racists, their social status and economic power are too low, and they are too geographically isolated to be able to block the efforts of those Americans who act with goodwill. So while racists are no doubt capable of serving as some impediment to progressive change, I would like to suggest that America’s race problems also persist because of reasonable disagreement among good actors about how those problems should be re­solved. It is not merely that progressive Americans, both white and black, have not agreed upon any clear conception of what would constitute success in achieving racial reconciliation; the problem is that they have been pursuing incompatible models of ethnic accommodation.

Two Models of Accommodation

One way to understand the dilemmas of American race relations is in terms of a problem common to all societies in achieving social integration. Human cultures are characterized by a very dense body of norms, which people rely upon for guidance on how to carry out virtually every aspect of social, and indeed often personal, life. Social integration is achieved when most people share the same set of norms; in the sense that they largely conform to them, they expect others to conform to them, and these expectations are mostly fulfilled.

It is because of these structural features of social interaction that intercultural contact, communication, and interaction has always been fraught with difficulty. Particularly in the political and legal sphere, there is a great deal to be said for having a uniform system of rules, which imposes the same demands on everyone and generates a shared set of expectations. The modern state, with its expansive administrative system and economic reach, relies heavily upon standardization for a great many of its organizational achievements. As Ernest Gellner observed, this creates the need for an official language for the conduct of public affairs, as well as a uniform set of social expectations. The rise of modern nation-states has generated enormous pressure toward linguistic and institutional homogeneity. Elements of the capitalist economy also push toward uniformity and shared norms. Major cor­porations, for example, go to great lengths to standardize the “customer experience,” so that clients always know what to expect when interacting with the firm. Thus both bureaucratic and commercial culture tend to push in the direction of, and to reward, uniformity of social behavior.

In a culturally plural society these institutional imperatives have the potential to generate significant conflict. With respect to language, for instance, there is often a great deal at stake for different linguistic groups when it comes to determining what the official language of the state, or of the education system, will be. Any group that finds itself disadvantaged as an ethno-linguistic minority within a larger state has an obvious temptation to resolve the issue by breaking away and forming a smaller state, in which it constitutes the demographic ma­jority, and therefore can enjoy the benefits of designating its own language as the official language.

There are two ways in which states have generally resolved such intercultural conflicts. The first is what Kymlicka refers to as the “multinational” model of accommodation. The centerpiece of this approach involves the devolution of powers to subsidiary political units within the society, in such a way as to allow institutional pluralism to develop. This in turn frees members of the minority group from having to integrate into a homogeneous set of national institutions. The standard approach follows the federalist strategy of dividing up the state into smaller territorial units, with a corresponding order of government, in such a way as to create “minority-majority” jurisdictions. It is then possible to devolve certain powers to that level of government. For example, while in France both language policy and education are administered nationally, in Canada these are provincial responsibilities, which means that the French-speaking minority is able to administer its own French-language school system in the province of Quebec, as well as institute French as the official language for the conduct of all provincial business. Thanks to this arrangement, Quebecers are not forced to share insti­tutions in certain domains with the English-speaking majority, and are thus able to avoid many of the disadvantages that would arise from being minority-language speakers. Social and political integration at the national level is then achieved by limiting the set of laws and institutions imposed at that level to those for which the benefits to be had from uniformity across the entire country are large enough to outweigh the disadvantages that this uniformity creates for internal minorities.

This approach to social integration, Kymlicka notes, is typically only appropriate for dealing with what he calls a national minority group, by which he means “a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture.” The existence of such groups within a state is usually brought about through colonialism or con­quest, and thus involves states that were founded through force, but are now seeking to reorganize their internal affairs in order to satisfy the demands of justice. Quebec, for example, is not just a province of Canada. It is a province that encompasses most of the former colony of New France (which was ceded to the British in 1763), and thus exercises political authority over an entire society that functions in French. This society is “institutionally complete,” in the sense that there is an education system, newspapers and television stations, an entire entertainment industry, several universities, an economy that includes many large corporations, a court system, a public bureaucracy, several police forces, state-owned enterprises, and an entire third sector, including churches, clubs, and community associations, that function entirely in French. Thus it is possible to grow up and live one’s life as a unilingual French speaker in Quebec, without suffering any major disadvantage, either social, economic, or political.

The central feature of the multinational model is that it solves the problem of social integration by not requiring social integration, or more specifically, by being more selective about when and where social integration is required. Instead of just imposing a uniform set of rules on everyone—an arrangement that typically benefits mem­bers of the majority culture—it allows different rules and practices to prevail within different national groups, whenever the costs of doing so are not too high.

The second way in which states try to resolve intercultural conflict is through what Kymlicka calls the “polyethnic” model of accommodation, which addresses the more familiar form of pluralism produced through immigration. As Kymlicka has observed, the expectations that immigrants have are radically different from those of national (or non­immigrant) minority groups. In particular, while immigrants usu­ally re­tain some elements of their background culture, including their language and religion, they do not in general expect to retain their major social institutions, or to recreate them in their new land. Unlike national minority groups, who were almost all involuntarily incorporated into the society, immigrants chose to come, and most retain citizenship in their country of origin, which leaves them free to return if they develop second thoughts (as a surprisingly large number do).

Liberal societies are particularly attractive destinations for immi­grants, not just because these societies are wealthy, but because of their commitment to limited government, which generates an unusu­ally large private sphere, in which individuals are able to practice their own reli­gion, build places of worship, found social clubs, open restau­rants and music venues, print newspapers in the language of their choosing, and create facilities that cater to traditional marriage or other rituals. Immigrants are also drawn by the political culture of liberal societies, especially the commitment to a system of rules in which individuals should be able to participate on roughly equal footing. In principle, this institutional neutrality is supposed to recon­cile the preservation of pluralism in the private sphere with rough equality of life chances among members of different ethnic groups.

It is the second of these commitments that proves to be the most difficult to uphold, and that forms the core of the polyethnic model. The centerpiece is a set of anti-discrimination rights and policies, intended to prevent the exclusion of minority-group members from mainstream institutions. This is often coupled with a set of benevolent policies aimed at providing modest sponsorship and support for plu­ralism in private life. But there are inevitably a number of barriers to participation in mainstream institutions for minorities that do not involve explicit discrimination, or discriminatory intent. Thus an im­portant component of the polyethnic model of integration involves the adjustment of institutional rules to eliminate barriers to the full and equal participation of minorities in majority institutions. (To take just one example, many police services in Canada used to have a minimum height requirement for officers—often 5′10″ or more. This proved to be a significant impedi­ment to the recruitment of Asian officers, and so with the growth of non‑European immigration such restrictions were either lowered or abandoned.)

These two different models of accommodation—multinational and polyethnic—are often able to operate side by side quite happily, as long as they are applied to different population groups. As Kymlicka observes, countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States contain both ethnic and national minority groups. The failure to draw a clear distinction between the two models of accommodation, how­ever, has been the source of a great deal of unnecessary friction. In Canada, for example, the introduction of the multiculturalism policy in 1971 (which put in place the key features of the polyethnic model) was met with fervent opposition in Quebec, where it was regarded by many as an attempt to demote French Canadians to the status of just one ethnic group among many. Meanwhile, in constitutional debates, much of the public opposition in Canada to the granting of “special status” to Quebec was based on the concern that, if special arrangements were made for the French, a long queue would form of minori­ty linguistic groups seeking the same arrangements. The solution, in both cases, lay in recognizing that French Canadians, as well as In­digenous peoples, are national groups, which gives them a very different set of claims than immigrants. As a result, there is no inconsistency in according a certain special status to the French lan­guage, as a form of national accommodation, while not granting the same status to Ukrainian or Chinese. Difficulties arise, however, when the two models of integration, which are compatible when pur­sued with respect to different ethnic groups, are applied to the same group. This is the situation that has developed with respect to African Americans in the United States.

Integration and the African American Experience

It is not difficult to see how, with respect to these two models of integration, African Americans fall through the cracks. Unlike immi­grants, their ancestors did not come to America voluntarily. At the same time, they lack certain characteristics of a national group, in part because of geographical dispersion, but also because slaves were subject to intentional disruption of their language and culture, which resulted in African Americans both speaking English as a native lan­guage and becoming overwhelmingly Christian. And so despite the standard political claim that African Americans want “integration” into American society, there is considerable disagreement about the terms of such integration. Polyethnic integration is often rejected as equivalent to institutional “color blindness,” which is insensitive to the particular demands of African Americans (often phrased in terms of a desire to affirm a distinct black identity). Yet because of the impossibility of devolution of powers, primarily because of geographic dispersion, the institutional pluralism that is the major feature of the multinational model of integration is impractical in the African American case.

Because African Americans are in many respects “omni-Ameri­can,” and have been so influential in the development of American culture, there is a tendency to underestimate the degree to which they possess the characteristics of a national group. Ironically, the develop­ment of a parallel society for blacks in America was not a consequence of slavery per se, but began rather in the Reconstruction era, due to the near-total exclusion of former slaves and their descendants from all of the institutions of mainstream American society. The existence of black churches has been widely noted, but less commonly recognized is the development of an entire network of black magazines and newspapers, schools (including colleges), sports leagues, artistic traditions, entertainment venues, businesses, and in some cases towns. Many of these were reproduced with the Great Migration northward, leading to the creation of important African American institutions in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and especially New York. This period also saw the emergence of a distinctive dialect of English, whose status remains an object of intense controversy. Currently referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), it is not merely an accent, since it involves systematic grammatical departures from Standard American English (SAE), as well as a distinctive lexi­con.

Some of these parallel institutions—such as the sports leagues—collapsed with the abolition of formal discrimination, but others per­sisted, in part because they were valued as independent institutions by African Americans, who saw them as providing space for the repro­duction of their own distinctive culture and traditions. As a result, the dynamic of integration is one that has been met with, at very least, profound ambivalence. One can see this in the characterization, and frequent ridicule by African Americans, of those who adopt various mainstream behavior patterns as “acting white.” This is most obvious in the case of English grammar and pronunciation, where SAE is often regarded as pretentious or haughty. More generally, because the behavior of the majority is often characterized as “white,” conformity to majority norms is seen as exhibiting, in many cases, a lack of racial solidarity.

Consider, for example, the question that many minorities face when it comes to naming their children. The common dilemma faced by immigrants involves the choice of giving the child a name that is traditional in their own family or culture, but that would clearly mark the child as being from a minority background, or giving the child a name that would make her indistinguishable from the majority. African Americans historically faced no such difficulty, because not only were they almost uniformly Christian, but also because the set of traditional African American family names is quintessentially Amer­ican. (Upon emancipation, many former slaves were faced with the task of choosing a last name. Large numbers chose the name of an American president or founding father, which is what led to so many African Americans having names like Washington, Hamilton, Jack­son, Baldwin, and Johnson.) After the civil rights movement, how­ever, and the push toward greater integration, many African Americans reacted in the exact opposite way that most immigrants do. Given that traditional African American names failed to set their chil­dren apart from the majority, they began to invent new names (some­times referred to as “neo-African,” on the grounds that they sound African to the American ear) or else to adopt Muslim ones (such as Jamal or Aisha). Common sense suggests that these naming conventions generate a risk of labor-market discrimination, although there is some controversy over this. What is clear, however, is that they constitute a symbolic rejection of integration.

This example reflects a very consistent pattern in American public life. With any sort of mainstream behavior, the majority of people who do it are going to be white, simply by virtue of the demographics of American society. This makes it easy to characterize the behavior, not as mainstream, but as specifically “white.” For example, Christian Lander, author of the drolly self-deprecating Stuff White People Like, has compiled a massive compendium of “white” behavior, such as “sipping free-trade gourmet coffee, leafing through the Sunday New York Times.” It is bizarre to think of this behavior in racial, as op­posed to class-specific terms, yet this is something that both white and black Americans are constantly doing. Unfortunately, characterizing it as white has the effect of subtly pressuring African Americans to avoid all the usual forms of upper-middle-class status signaling—such as reading the Sunday New York Times—or indeed, practicing any sort of majoritarian behavior. Thus integration—participating in any of the practices and institutions of mainstream American culture or society—comes to be characterized as acting white.

Of course, the integrationist ideal most often endorsed by white Americans is one in which every neighborhood, every business, and every school and college has a level of “diversity” that reflects the composition of America as a whole. The implication is that African Americans should be immersed in social environments in which they are constantly outnumbered nine to one. Unsurprisingly, this is an ideal that has much greater appeal to whites than to blacks. For whites, it allows them to feel good about themselves for embracing diversity while still remaining the overwhelming majority in every interaction. In democratic politics, for instance, it means always being the demographic majority in every jurisdiction. For blacks, it means being completely swamped and outnumbered by whites. This is what underlies the old complaint, voiced by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, that “integration, as traditionally conceived, would abolish the black community.” Children of immigrants are often happy to disappear into the general population in this way. Among African Americans, by contrast, not only would integration on these terms generate a cultural loss, it would also represent for many a capitulation to whiteness, and to white America, that would constitute a betrayal of the historical community to which they belong. Indeed, if African Americans were a national minority in the tra­ditional mold, the integrationist vision would seem like an obvious instance of what is routinely denounced as cultural genocide.

Some proponents of integration, such as Elizabeth Anderson, avoid this difficulty by arguing that African Americans do not possess a distinctive culture. She dismisses claims that they are culturally distinct as “folk anthropological.” But this misses the point, since what matters is not whether African Americans possess a distinct culture in the social-scientific sense, but whether they perceive them­selves as having a distinct culture that they feel obliged to preserve. Consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’s rapturous description of “The Mecca” at Howard University. It was the experience of attending a black college that led him to feel that “we were something, that we were a tribe—on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.” This is easily recognizable as nationalist sentiment, which can be very power­ful even in cases in which it does not translate into a traditional nationalist politics.

African Americans are in these respects like a national minority group. And yet despite being six times more numerous than francophone Canadians, they are not able to sustain an institutionally complete society, largely due to geographic dispersion. Traditional black nationalism attempted to square the circle in this regard by demanding “community control” of various institutions, such as schools, local governments, and business associations. The problem is that control over a partial set of institutions is not a recipe for autono­my, but rather marginalization. Multinational arrangements only work with national groups that are able to internally provide oppor­tunities equivalent to the ones being forgone by the decision not to integrate into the institutions of the larger society.

Examples such as these lend support to Kymlicka’s view that “we should not expect policies which are appropriate for either voluntary immigrants or national minorities to be appropriate for African Americans, or vice versa.” His suggestion is that “some new model of integration will have to be worked out.” It is not clear, however, what this new model of integration is supposed to look like, or why one would think that a third model was feasible. In one sense, at least, opting out of mainstream institutions is easy in a liberal society. The problem is that doing so creates inequality, because it involves forgo­ing many of the very significant advantages that come from participation in these institutions, most obviously those that are obtained from access to the upper end of the American labor market.

To be sure, some policies that have featured centrally in the American response to racial inequality have attempted to combine these two models of integration. The most obvious is the racial gerry­mandering of electoral districts, in order to ensure that a certain number of African American representatives are elected. The creation of “minority-majority” political jurisdictions is a hallmark policy of national minority accommodation. Gerrymandering represents a somewhat inelegant way of dealing with a problem that can be han­dled more forthrightly with territorially concentrated groups. Many minority set-asides and affirma­tive action programs can be understood in the same way. They create, in effect, a parallel track for African Americans. This allows for integration into a common set of institutions without actually forcing the application of common norms and standards on all members. All of these policies, however, are extremely unstable and only partially satisfactory when compared to the multinational arrangements that have been adopted in other jurisdictions.

Two Models of Inclusion

As a nonimmigrant minority group, African Americans are entitled to demand arrangements of the sort that are normally made available to national minority groups, and yet for essentially practical reasons, these arrangements cannot be effectively institutionalized, or cannot be institutionalized in a way that offers anything close to equality of life chances for members of the minority group. As a result, African Americans have largely had to settle for the type of accommodations offered to immigrant groups, aimed at facilitating polyethnic inclu­sion. Even here, however, difficulties loom, because there are two quite different ways of understanding what successful inclusion amounts to. The first stresses equality of outcome; the other process-neutrality in access to advantage.

These two different approaches generate very different sets of policies. Consider first the case of Singapore, which has pursued a set of resolutely outcome-oriented policies to manage internal ethnic diversity. Like Canada and South Africa, and to a lesser extent the United States, the Singaporean system has its origins in British colo­nial administration. The majority population is Chinese, with a large minority population of Malays and Indians (i.e., South Asians), a division that became entrenched through the census, which created what is known as the CMIO classification system (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other). Residency was originally quite segregated, with four distinct “quarters” of the city. After the departure of the British in the 1960s, a great deal of racial unrest and rioting broke out, primarily involving minority Malays protesting arrangements that benefited the Chinese majority. Singaporean multiculturalism policy was introduced in an attempt to resolve these conflicts.

Under this system, each citizen is assigned a race, which is registered on their birth certificate and printed on their identity card. Children’s race determines a wide range of entitlements, starting with the second language they are taught in school. More ambitiously, the Singaporean state has eliminated residential segregation through its “ethnic integration policy,” which requires that each neighborhood contain a population that is no more than 84 percent Chinese, 22 percent Malay, or 10 percent Indian and Other. Apartments in high-rise buildings within the public housing system are divided up in accordance with the same strict racial quotas. Since 85 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing, this means that not only is almost every neighborhood racially integrated, but every building within every neighborhood is also perfectly integrated.

The government has also been quite proactive in ensuring that each racial group has appropriate political representation. The “group representation constituency” system requires each political party to field a minimum number of candidates from each racial group. The presidency of the country now also alternates between racial groups, so that each gets its turn (for instance, in 2017 only Malays were allowed to run). National holidays are divided up equally, with two assigned to each of the three major groups. Finally, civic harmony is achieved by making it a punishable crime to utter words “with delib­erate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person.”

Compare this to the case of Canada, which has been almost entirely process-oriented in its approach to polyethnic inclusion. The Canadian multiculturalism policy is centered around a core set of antidiscrimina­tion rights, the most important of which emanate from the 1982 Con­stitution, which prohibits “discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability,” with the further specification that these rights “shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multi­cultural heritage of Canadians.” A similar schedule of rights is reproduced in human rights legislation enacted in each province, enforced by a set of administrative tribunals that are more accessible than courts, and provide expedited adjudication of complaints. Despite the mention of race as a prohibited ground for discrimination, the federal government does not engage in race-based classification of citizens. The census does not impose racial categories, but instead asks only about “ethnic origins.” With respect to major social institutions, such as the criminal justice system or the universities, there has traditionally been no collection of either race-based or ethnic data.

Due to this relative paucity of data, the sort of outcome-based policies adopted in Singapore cannot be implemented in Canada. For example, Canadian universities practice no affirmative action in ad­missions. Indeed, they could not do so even if they wanted to, since applications are in many cases administered centrally by the government, which does not collect this information. Applicants to university in Ontario, for instance, may opt to declare official Indigenous status, and are asked to specify their first language, but are otherwise not invited to provide information about their race or ethnic origins. Similarly, there is no attempt to integrate primary schools along racial or ethnic lines, or to assign quotas. Equality is achieved by equalizing funding across school districts, so that even though education is fi­nanced primarily through local property taxes, per pupil spending is the same in every municipality.

It is not difficult to see the advantages and disadvantages of either system. The Singaporean model obviously achieves outcome equality, but does so in a way that interferes with personal freedom to an extent that is almost comical by Western standards. For example, it solved the problem of local rioting by ethnic Malays by dispersing them, so that they cannot form more than 22 percent of the population of any neighborhood. This undoubtedly violates the preferences of many Malays, who might like to live in a neighborhood that is not overwhelmingly Chinese. Similarly, under conditions of perfect free­dom and equality, it is doubtful that each apartment building in Singapore would contain the same perfect mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian/Other residents.

The Canadian system exhibits much greater preference sensitivity, but at the expense of tolerating greater disparities in outcome. This is attenuated somewhat by the fact that the two major minority groups, francophones and Indigenous peoples, are subject to multinational arrangements, which are able to incorporate concern over outcomes in various ways. Nevertheless, by focusing so much on process neutrality in its approach to multicultural integration, the Canadian approach requires considerable forbearance. This includes a willingness to wait and see if certain inequalities resolve themselves over time. In the case of immigrants, for example, it requires a willingness to worry less about the integration of the first generation and to focus on outcomes for the second or third. To a certain degree this is facilitated by an absence of data about outcomes, which discourages hand-wringing over disparities in cases where it is difficult to know whether they are due to discrimination or differences in background preference.

Americans are, both by political tradition and temperament, far more disposed toward accepting the Canadian model than the Singa­porean. Furthermore, unlike the Singaporean Constitution, which promotes a set of shared values, the U.S. Constitution entrenches a set of individual rights. This favors a process-based approach in several ways. It gives individuals standing to demand equal treatment, and it protects various spheres of personal choice from social control. It also blocks the implementation of outcome-based schemes that violate process neutrality too egregiously. Thus the courts have played an important role in pushing Americans in the direction of the process model. At the same time, many Americans lack the forbearance to sit by while process neutrality does its work. African Americans, in particular, are tired of waiting for justice and equality. Given the background racial inequalities in American society, many perfectly neutral institutions are guaranteed to reproduce radically unequal outcomes, the optics of which are considered intolerable by many Americans. As a result, the practice of adjusting institutional processes in ways that violate neutrality, but ensure more equal outcomes, has become widespread.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the issue has become polarized along partisan lines, with conservative courts attempting to impose constitutional constraints on any departure from process neu­trality. This has pushed liberals in the direction of a more outcome-based way of thinking about equality, in part as a strategy to avoid adverse court judgments. For example, affirmative action programs in university admissions that apply very different standards to individuals of different races have been successfully defended against charges of unconstitutionality by insisting that they are not about screening applicants, but rather about crafting an incoming class that will max­imize the quality of the educational experience. Achievement of the pedagogical objectives of the program is said to be enhanced if a certain level of “diversity” is present in the incoming class, and so race becomes a relevant consideration in assessing applications (rather than a prohibited ground of discrimination). Although adopted primarily for legal reasons, this defense of affirmative action has increasingly influenced the way that liberal Americans think about the moral aspect of these programs as well, pushing them in the direction of outcome-based measures.

Ibram X. Kendi, for example, defines racial inequality in purely outcome-based terms as any division of advantages that does not result in members of each racial group receiving approximately the same amount on average. He then defines as “racist” any policy or institutional process that fails to correct racial inequality so understood. Predictably, he has no use for process neutrality. So-called racial discrimination, in his view, will be bad only if it promotes racially unequal outcomes, but good if it promotes more equal out­comes. This view is consonant with many discussions of systemic or structural racism, which assume that merely observing inequalities of outcome is sufficient to convict an institution of an objectionable form of racism. This sort of outcome-based thinking has also trickled into popular discourse, so that racial representation is increasingly not construed in terms of nondiscrimination, but rather in terms of the consequentialist language of diversity (or in the current parlance, of creating institutions that “look like America”). All of this thinking takes the U.S. population as a baseline, and then tries to arrange insti­tutions in such a way as to produce outcomes that precisely mirror those demographics.

As a result, the best way to describe the current American ap­proach to racial inclusion would to be to say that it is attempting to achieve Singaporean outcomes using Canadian methods and legal frameworks. Part of the unwillingness to use Singaporean methods is due to different factions within American society endorsing different approaches, but part of it also involves a genuine case of willing the end but not the means. Americans are, after all, perfectly capable of achieving Singaporean outcomes under circumstances in which they are willing to use Singaporean methods. The most clear-cut example of this is the U.S. military, which is widely regarded as the most successfully integrated institution in American society. That is be­cause the military is not obliged to care about the preferences of its soldiers, with respect to such questions as lodgings, dress, or diet. When the decision was made to desegregate, U.S. Army barracks were integrated in basically the same way that the government of Singapore integrates an apartment building. If the United States were willing to desegregate residential apartment buildings in the same way, the problem of segregation would have disappeared a long time ago.

Instead of sticking to a process-based approach, which is more in keeping with its national traditions, the United States has instead adopted an inconsistent hybrid of wanting outcomes that perfectly reflect the demographics of American society, but then leaving individuals free to make choices that will significantly affect those outcomes. One can see this most clearly in the policies that have been adopted with the aim of integrating the primary and secondary school systems. Instead of equalizing student funding across school districts, which would have eliminated one of the major incentives that drives residential sorting, American courts opted instead for the more overt­ly coercive option of race-based quotas in schools, combined with busing, and the near-complete elimination of school choice within the public system. This is all consistent with a Singaporean approach. And yet, in a uniquely American touch, this was combined with a “back door” that allowed people to escape from it—either by putting their children in private school, or else moving to suburban neighborhoods outside the busing zone. As a result, the coercive features of the American system wound up falling mainly on the lower and work­ing classes (who, if white, were then accused of racism when they complained about it). Because complaints about the program were interpreted as racist, opposition to the program was treated as just more evidence of the need for the program. The resulting spiral of protest and coercion generated class resentments among white Ameri­cans that still have not subsided.

Because African Americans are a national minority group, with shared culture and traditions, there is no reason to expect their preferences to be the same as those of the majority population. They are not a random sample of the population. And yet there is a constant expectation that institutions will produce outcomes that exactly mirror the racial profile of American society—so that 12 percent of the cast of every television show will be black, 12 percent of the musicians in every symphony orchestra will be black, 12 percent of the faculty at any university department will be black, and so on. These outcomes could only be expected if there were uniformity of preference between the white and black population, which one would only expect if there were cultural homogeneity. This leads Americans to adopt commitments that are ultimately incompatible—to respect individual preferences, and yet hope to achieve institutional outcomes that mirror the population. For example, the United States has over one hundred “historically black colleges and universities,” such as Howard, which enroll a significant fraction of African Ameri­can undergraduate students. There is a commitment to respecting the choice of African Americans who attend such institutions, as well as the faculty who teach there. At the same time, there is the expectation that the rest of the university system will be integrated, where inte­gration is understood to mean a fraction of black students and faculty that roughly matches that of the whole population. It is no surprise that American universities find themselves importing foreigners in order to achieve these objectives (and why they have switched to the outcome-based language of “diversity” to justify these practices).

Residential Integration

One can see the conflict between these two models of inclusion most clearly in the case of residential integration, an issue that continues to produce enormous recrimination, hand-wringing, and self-criticism among white Americans. Popular perception seems to have been that, once formal discrimination ended with respect to both property pur­chase and rental, an influx of African Americans into white neighborhoods should have begun that would have gradually transformed every neighborhood into a microcosm of America as a whole. The reality has been quite different. Of course, the phenomenon of resi­dential clustering is hardly unique to African Americans. In Canadian cities, for example, one can find neighborhoods in which the population is almost entirely Chinese or Indian. The suspicion, however, is that African American residential clustering is significantly less vol­untary. Indeed, there is ample evidence of discrimination against African Americans by lending institutions, insurance companies, landlords, and real estate agents, as well as their prospective white neighbors. What makes the issue of residential segregation so intrac­table, however, is the fact that it is impossible to disaggregate the effects of discrimination from the exercise of preference.

It is important to observe that the mechanism through which populations get distributed across residential districts is extremely decentralized. With an apartment building full of rental units, there is usually a single person who decides who is to be accepted as a tenant and who is to be rejected. If a building winds up being entirely white, in the midst of a heterogeneous society, there is good reason to sus­pect discrimination on the part of the landlord. With owner-occupied housing, on the other hand, there is no central gatekeeper; the racial composition of a neighborhood is the product of hundreds of unco­ordinated individual decisions. As a result, it is impossible to ascertain the preferences of individuals from looking at the composition of neighborhoods. To take a highly stylized example, if both whites and blacks prefer to live in integrated neighborhoods, but members of each group would also prefer to live in a neighborhood in which their own race is in the majority, then the only way this preference can be satisfied is through a system of complete segregation. The resulting spatial distribution does not actually correspond to anyone’s actual preference, but no one controls the spatial distribution; people only control their own choices. As a result, everyone will complain about segregation, but no one will actually move.

When white Americans think about residential integration, they tend to imagine that the composition of each neighborhood should roughly reflect the fraction of each minority group in the population as a whole. In order to achieve this there would have to be no discrimination in housing. But it would also have to be the case that no one took any account of the racial composition of the neighborhood in deciding where to live. The latter is perhaps a plausible account of how whites expect that other whites should make such decisions, but whites also tend to recognize that minorities suffer various disadvantages living in majority-white neighborhoods. As a result, most consider it permissible for minorities to have reasonably strong own-race preferences. It is also not difficult to imagine circum­stances in which it would be permissible for whites to have modest own-race preferences (e.g. many white and black Americans belong to Christian denominations that are not particularly integrated, and so wanting to live in a neighborhood in which one can attend a local church generates a certain amount of residential clustering).

But once it is allowed that individuals can take certain aspects of the demographic composition of the neighborhood into account as a legitimate consideration when deciding whether to live there, it becomes impossible to say anything about the relative levels of dis­crimination or racial animosity merely from observing the spatial distribution of individuals of different races. Many Americans, how­ever, subscribe to an inconsistent triad of views, in which they want to achieve certain outcomes (such as neighborhoods that “look like America”), but also want to respect process-neutrality and tolerate minority own-race preferences. The result is another example of wanting to achieve Singaporean outcomes using Canadian methods.

Consider Anderson, who has offered a forceful defense of the tra­ditional pro-integrationist position. Her argument for integration is primarily consequentialist, in that she thinks it generates benefits for all Americans. These benefits only arise if the spatial distribution is one that actually puts whites and blacks in contact with one another. Thus her “imperative of integration” flows from a normative commit­ment to the “neighborhoods that look like America” outcome. And yet at the same time, she acknowledges that many African Americans want to live in majority-black neighborhoods, and grants that this preference is legiti­mate. Assuming that a range of such sentiment is permissible, it follows that the only way to achieve the outcome she considers imperative would be by violating process-neutrality. There would, in other words, have to be a system of racial quotas in differ­ent neighborhoods (or perhaps race-based surtaxes to discourage excessive clustering). And yet while she endorses racial “selection” and “goals” in certain institutional contexts, the recommendations that she makes in the case of housing all focus on eliminating discrimination and reducing attitudinal racism among whites. These are both good, but they are not actually sufficient means to the realization of the end she favors.

Many Americans believe that they can judge the level of discrimination and racial hostility in a community just by looking at its demographics. They are, in this respect, profoundly mistaken; it is practically impossible to infer underlying preferences from observed patterns. Furthermore, because African Americans are a relatively small fraction of the U.S. population, residential preferences within that group have an outsized impact on the integration of majority-white neighborhoods. Thus the fact that enthusiasm for integration has cooled quite significantly within the African American community is a factor that must be taken seriously. (It is noteworthy, for instance, that the most prominent African American philosopher writing on racial justice, Tommie Shelby, treats residential integration as essentially a nonissue.) Increasingly, residential integration is be­coming something that whites care about a great deal more than blacks. This may have something to do with the fact that, in many social circles, whites suffer a status injury from living in “lily-white suburbs,” precisely because of the commonly held view that this homogeneity is a symptom of underlying racism, and thus lack of urbanity or sophistication.

When it comes to residential patterns, Americans are united in the conviction that the current state of affairs is a reflection of societal racism, if not attitudinal then structural. The proposed remedy is “integration.” And yet there is no consensus view on what integration amounts to, nor is there any willingness to force integration on those who do not want it. Furthermore, any changes to the current state of affairs would have to be implemented via a thoroughly decentralized system (i.e., an overwhelmingly private, owner-occupied residential housing market), in which individuals are left free to act upon a wide range of permissible preferences. Thus it is hardly a surprise that the problem never gets solved. Not only is there is no coherent policy in place, there is not even a coherent vision of what the imperative of integration actually requires.


As an involuntarily incorporated minority group, African Americans have little interest in following the immigrant route to integration. Yet they cannot constitute a nation within a nation, largely due to geographical dispersion, which effectively blocks the standard set of multinational arrangements. As a result, the United States has pursued an approach that tries to blend elements of both, without resounding success. Is there a new and different model that would achieve social integration, while satisfying African Americans’ desire to achieve equality without aban­doning their distinctive group identity?

There are few grounds for optimism about the development of such a model. A great deal of group conflict is driven by an underlying feature of human psychology, which causes us to exhibit greater solidarity with individuals whom we perceive as “in-group” members, combined with antagonism toward those who are classified as “out-group.” While this cognitive bias is both powerful and pervasive, it is also (thankfully) subject to manipulation, because the cues that we use to distinguish in-group from out-group members are not fixed. This allows us to redirect attention away from divisions that have a tendency to generate conflict. With respect to certain differences, such as spoken language, this sort of redirection can be ex­tremely difficult, but with respect to other differ­ences, such as phys­iological variations in hair, eyes, and skin color, it is much less difficult to reduce their salience, so that they no longer serve as a basis for group identification.

Out-group hostility fuels a great deal of xenophobia and attitudinal racism. It is also extremely difficult to overcome, once triggered, through straightforward reasoning and inhibition. Successful poly­ethnic integration is therefore achieved in large part by reducing the salience of those features that have triggered bias and division. Rather than allowing for the formation of strong ethnic identities, successful polyethnic integration is typically achieved by encouraging the for­mation of identities that crosscut ethnic divisions. Minority group members who succeed in integrating typically collaborate in this effort, by diverting attention away from certain differentiating traits, or limiting their public display.

National minority groups, by contrast, do the exact opposite. In part because of the challenges involved in sustaining an institutionally complete society, these groups are often under pressure to cultivate high levels of social solidarity, which can be achieved by promoting in‑group identification along ethnic lines, combined with varying degrees of antagonism toward out-group members. Because the multinational model of integration limits interaction between in-group and out-group members, the benefits of heightened solidarity within the group easily outweigh the frictions caused by greater antagonism toward outsiders. As a result, national minority groups will often seize upon small differences and amplify them, promoting them as central features of group identity and sources of ethnic pride.

The most visible tendency among African Americans since the late 1960s has  been to act in the way that national minority groups act, by promoting group identification or “race consciousness” (and by con­demning “color-blindness” as involving a failure of recognition). This has the effect of increasing the salience of race in everyday interactions. If a multinational solution were feasible, this cultural politics would be useful. Unfortunately, it tends to undermine integrationist goals, since it blocks one of the major strategies used in successful models of polyethnic integration. (The recent American trend of seeking to promote “uncomfortable” conversations about race in everyday interaction represents an extreme form of this tendency.)

The integrationist ideal that is associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement has conditioned Americans to expect both social integration of African Americans on the polyethnic model and satisfaction of outcome-based measures of successful inclusion. But in neither case have Americans, either white or black, been willing to accept the means necessary to achieve these ends. This is what underlies the policy dilemmas that I have been trying to describe. The commitment to the preservation of a distinct African American culture and identity and the aversion to compulsory forms of inclusion have clearly worked at cross-purposes with the objectives specified by the integrationist ideal. Unwilling to decide which option to pursue, or more often, deeply divided over which option to pursue, African Americans have been unable to formulate a unified set of demands. Lack of direction from the black community has, in turn, generated near-complete paralysis on the issue among progressive whites. Absent any coherent policy agenda, white Americans have turned increasingly inward, toward extreme forms of confessional self‑criticism.

Although it sounds strange to say, Wilson’s analysis of the bureaucracy problem provides a helpful way of thinking about this ongoing drama. Because the policy imperatives are contradictory, Wilson claims, there is no such thing as “solving” the bureaucracy problem. The most that we can do is choose which bureaucracy problem we are willing to live with. Similarly, if the analysis that I have provided is correct, then Americans cannot solve the race problem. The most that they can do is choose which race problem they are willing to live with. Neither the multinational nor the poly­ethnic model of accommodation is fully adequate to the claims of African Americans, and neither is the Singaporean nor Canadian model of inclusion. Unfortunately, these are the only models that are conceptually coherent and enjoy some record of practical success. Adopting just one approach, with respect to either choice, would involve some compromise at the level of principle, but would have the advantage of generating a set of policy prescriptions that could actually be implemented in practice.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 3 (Fall 2021): 157–84.

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