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BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Souls of White Folk BY CHANDLER DAVIDSON LIVING WITH RACISM The Black Middle-Class Experience By Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes 398 pages. Boston: Beacon Press. $25. By Chandler Davidson OF THE MANY ETHNIC problems in America, the one receiving the most scholarly and journalistic at tention in recent decades has been black poverty. This is not surprising, because at its worst, entangled with crime, drugs, welfare and family breakdown, chronic black poverty is nothing less than a catastrophe on a grand scale, “the greatest crisis facing black America since slavery,” in the view of historian John Hope Franklin. By comparison, the difficulties faced by middle-class African Americans who have benefited from the Second Reconstruction are largely ignored. This, too, is understandable if not justifiable. The problem a black investment banker faces when he bumps into the racial glass ceiling is hardly as riveting as the gang-style execution of an 11-year-old drug runner. The statistics on harassment of black families who move into a predominantly white neighborhood are hardly as newsworthy as inner-city child abuse statistics. But “newsworthiness” in today’s tabloid culture may have little to do with genuine social significance; and there is no question about the significance of the continuing failure of African Americans to escape from the burdens of skin color despite having escaped from the burdens of poverty. Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes have written a book to address this problem. Feagin, a distinguished sociologist of American race relations and former professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has written numerous books and articles on the subject over the past 30 years. Sikes is a psychologist with practical expe Former Observer editor Chandler Davidson teaches sociology at Rice University. His latest book, co-edited with Bernard Grofman, is entitled Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 rience as a race-relations consultant to organizations as different as the Austin Police Department and Exxon. Feagin is white. Sikes is black. Together, they reviewed the literature on racial discrimination and supervised over 200 lengthy interviews with middle-class African Americans across the country to learn of their experiences in predominantly white milieux on the job, in schools and universities, in shopping malls and car show rooms, and in the neighborhoods. Their book, engagingly written and free of social science jargon, reports the most systematic and detailed research findings to date on the current black middle-class experience as told by African Americans themselves. Feagin has for some years been a critic of William J. Wilson, the author of The Declining Significance of Race The Truly Disadvantaged views have had enormous influence on the thinking of the liberal establishment, not only because he is a distinguished sociologist in his own right, the holder of a prestigious chair at the University of Chicago, but because, like Feagin, he is a liberal. Unlike Feagin, he is an African American. Today Wilson is an advisor to the Clintons on urban policy . THE THRUST OF Wilson’s argument is that in spite of gains achieved by the civil rights move ment and the resultant laws forbidding discrimination, black urban pathologies have increased both in rate and severity since the early 1960s. This increase cannot be the result primarily of current discrimination, he argues, given the host of anti-discrimination laws enacted during the Great Society. Rather, says Wilson, it is mostly the result of two great migrations out of America’s inner-cities: the departure, often to foreign shores, of heavy industry and the wages it used to pay even for unskilled labor; and, ironically, the departure to the suburbs of the newly liberated black middle class, leaving the black “underclass” without role models, black employers, or neighborhood leaders. \(This theory has been challenged on several points by a Wilson generally does not deny that racial discrimination still exists. He just believes other factors are much more important in explaining continuing black poverty, especially among the underclass. And because the underclass is such a crucial problem, the difficulties of the black middle class get very little of his attention. Feagin and Sikes, on the other hand, argue that prejudice and discrimination among the putatively more tolerant white middle class are still widely directed at middle-class African Americans. Broad generalizations about “the declining significance of race” distract attention from this fact, which is more important than Wilson and numerous other scholars make it out to be. The result of white racism is frustratidn and a growing anger among those African Americans who, whites might think, should be satisfied with their newfound gains. Before discussing their findings, it is worth thinking about how one might establish empirical evidence for widespread antiblack prejudice and discrimination in the middle class, evidence that a skeptical but open-minded person would find convincing. The simplest approach is the “audit study,” whereby people of different races who are apparently similar in all relevant respects apply for a job, try to buy a car or house, or attempt to rent an apartment, after being carefully coached on how to behave and answer questions in a uniform way. Many such studies have been conducted by government and private agencies in the last 20 years, the findings of which are that a significant proportion of African Americans are discriminated against, even when there are no relevant differences in their education, ability to pay, credit history, dress, language use and the like. One of the best such studies to date, published in the February 1991 issue of the Harvard Law Review, found that black women in the Chicago area were typically asked to pay more than three times the dealer markup for a new car that white men were asked to pay, despite using the same negotiating tactics and presenting the same consumer-related characteristics. Black men were asked to pay more than twice the markup of white males. Audits are a useful method for revealing unfair treatment when the criteria for fair treatment are simple and the researcher 18 OCTOBER 28, 1994