Volume 10 Number 3 1997

Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America, Martin Carnoy, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 286 pages, 30 hardback, 14.95 paperback.

Martin Carnoy's book is an economist's attempt to explain America's growing racial inequality and is based on a thorough analysis of new research data based on the last half century. Faded Dreams tries to answer one deceptively simple question; 'Why, with my generation's once ardent commitment to building a just nation and our talent for making such significant changes in other aspects of life, were we not able to overcome our racial problem?' (p.1).

Carnoy examines what he identifies as the three main explanations for racial inequality in America. The first is that of the 'individual responsibility' camp, who argue that America is an open society to those who are willing to take the opportunities afforded to them and that any racial disadvantage is due to the particular group themselves lacking certain attributes, due either to failings in their 'culture' and/or defective genetic characteristics. The people who push such views the hardest, Carnoy contends, are the right-wing 'free-market fundamentalists' (p. 6). The second explanation is that of 'pervasive racism'. This is based on the view that America's institutions 'including politics and the economy - are so steeped in historical racism that they cannot get out from under it' (p. 6). The third explanation is that of 'economic restructuring' where the 'race problem' is in fact due to underlying class inequalities which have resulted from the restructuring of the American economy in the face of increased globalised competition and de-industrialisation. Racial inequality is explained here by subsuming it within a broader class analysis.

Although finding aspects of the various explanations convincing, Carnoy argues that it is within the political sphere that racial inequality can best be understood. Carnoy demonstrates his argument by showing, that at different historical periods, blacks made economic and educational gains, relative to whites, (during the 1940s, 1960s and early 1970s), but stopped gaining in the 1950s and 1980s. This, Carnoy argues, is due to the changing political climate of the those times, and the desire, or not, of government to intervene on behalf of blacks. Carnoy' s analysis allows him to rebut the arguments put forward by the 'individual responsibility' proponents, who argue that if only blacks would take the educational opportunities available, they would receive a greater share of the economic spoils. Even when blacks have managed to secure a college education, their average incomes are still significantly lower than that of whites. Indeed Carnoy shows that of all black groups the ones who did worst, in relation to white earnings, where black college graduates, whose median earnings fell from 85 % to 72 % of median white incomes from 1979 to 1989.

Further, the argument that racism is not a causal factor in black poverty and inequality because other minority groups have prospered, such as Asian-Americans - the so-called 'model minority' - is also questioned by Carnoy's analysis. Despite Asian-Americans receiving much higher levels of education than whites (one-half of Asian-Americans have completed college education compared to a quarter of white Americans), 'the ''model-minority'' still only earns about what whites earn. Apparently high motivation and taking advantage of educational opportunities will get you only so far' (p.84).

Carnoy also argues against the view that black-white income differentials are solely due to blacks simply forming a larger proportion of the working industrial class, who have been hardest hit in the restructuring of the American economy. The recent growth of higher paying 'service' and 'information' based jobs clearly affected the overall earnings of the black population, who are significantly underrepresented in these higher skilled areas of employment (which is again related to lower educational opportunities). However even when blacks are present in these new employment areas, their average earnings are still lower than whites. As Carnoy summarises, 'Yes, moving blacks into primary information-producing jobs does much to reduce black-white income differences, but in 1989 the best it could do was to move black males from 68 to 75 percent of white incomes' (p. 103).

For Carnoy the real answer to removing income differentials and black educational disadvantage lies within the political sphere, and by that he means government intervention. The decades where there were significant black gains, were those where there was also a genuine commitment to equality at the level of national government; what he describes as the 'White House factor'(p. 197). Politics, and in particular national politics, provide the key to understanding racial inequality and to eradicating it. For Carnoy it is relatively straight forward:

The arguments in Faded Dreams however, are considerably weakened when Carnoy attempts to move to explaining the social significance of his data, and his utilisation of sociological concepts is poor. For a study that is based fundamentally around the articulation of 'race' in society, a brief discussion at the very least, of how the term is being employed, would have been useful. Carnoy writes, at times, as if race has an ontological validity in itself, which it clearly does not, and there is no engagement with the work of important writers, such as Robert Miles for example, on this question. This leads Carnoy into some very banal and ultimately meaningless statements such as, ' [t]he notion of class and race is. . .heavily influenced by politics' (p. 49). Race and class are not 'outside' of politics. They are constituted in and through the political process and to argue that they are somehow natural spheres upon which 'politics' impinges itself, is clearly inadequate.

There is also little in the way of a theoretically informed account of what racism actually is. Again this leads Carnoy to some rather dubious generalised statements, such as ' [t]here also seems to be less racism in the arts, media, and sports. . . [and] there is much less institutional racism than in the past' (p. 110-111 ). The only evidence that Carnoy gives to support these assertions is the fact that Jesse Jackson has had some limited success in his presidential campaigns and the increase in the amount of black public officials: 'electoral success of this magnitude can only be interpreted as a clear signal that racism has declined at some level' (p. 112). At no point is there any reference to the voluminous work charting the changing nature of modern racism, which suggests that racism has not necessarily decreased (as if it is possible to measure it any way), but has simply changed in its articulation, more often expressing itself through the coded language of culture rather than biology. These subtle and important changes are lost in Carnoy's analysis.

These problems are clearest in the way Carnoy conceptualises the role of the state in racial politics. He sees the state, essentially, as a neutral arbitrator of public affairs, which merely responds to the demands and pressures put upon it by various groups. Such a view of the state, and especially in the American context, is both idealistic and inaccurate. As Omi and Winant correctly observe, such a view is erroneous as it 'does not reveal how the state itself is racially structured; it depicts the state as intervening, but not intervened, structuring, but not structured. Such a state is not basically shaped by race since it intervenes in race relations from outside them.' (Omi, M & Winant, H. 1994, [2nd edition] Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, Routledge, London, p82). A more accurate analysis, Omi and Winant argue, would show how the state itself is inherently racialised and far from intervening in racial politics, is often itself the major site of racial conflict.

In contrast to most economic tracts, the book is written in an accessible way, although at times you get the feeling that Carnoy has done so much research that he is going to give you the information whether you need it or not. Thus, there is too much repetition of data that could have easily been better summarised. For example chapters 8 and 9 are entitled 'Politics and black job opportunities, I' and 'Politics and black job opportunities: II' respectively.

However, despite these drawbacks the book does provide an excellent resource of information for both students and teachers, about the continuing educational and economic inequalities in contemporary America and provides numerous interesting parallels to the situation in Britain.

Ben Carrington
Leeds Metropolitan University


Copyright Ben Carrington 1997

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