The Continuing Dilemma

MORE THAN 25 years have passed since K. Gunnar Myrdal first wrote of the "American dilemma"--the conflict between America's democratic and egalitarian ideals and its treatment of racial minorities.

More than 25 years have passed since nonviolent civil rights protests and the savage southern response they received swung public opinion against segregation and state-sponsored discrimination.

More than 25 years have passed since Martin Luther King Jr. told America his dream and Lyndon. B. Johnson stood in Congress and stated the civil rights mantra: We shall overcome.

More than 25 years have passed, and many in America, majority and minority, are wondering if anything has changed.

FOR MANY BLACKS, Hispanics and other members of minority groups, discrimination persists, and the future looks bleaker than ever. The promises of the 1960s, the ephemeral Great Society, King's dream--all have seemed empty recently in the face of another King's nightmare.


The violence in South Central Los Angeles sparked by the Rodney King verdict left 52 dead and hundreds injured. Millions in property were burned or stolen. And, to make matters worse, gang members grabbed an additional 4000 guns in the melee--and suburbanites have purchased up to 300 percent more than before the riots.

Furthermore, with only 31 percent of those Blacks who even make it to college graduating, with over 56 percent of Black families headed by single women and (according to the Urban Institute) with more than one quarter of Blacks still facing some from of discrimination in the workplace, the American dilemma seems alive and well.

At the least, it can be said that America's trade-off between democracy and capitalism falls hardest on those on the martins.

For many whites--especially those working-class whites whose tax burden increased in the dozen years as their wages decreased--the conservative response to urban decay has rung true: The costly, taxpayer-funded social policies of the 1960s only exacerbated Blacks' problems and urban decline in general by providing disincentives to employment.

The answer, conservatives argue, is law enforcement coupled with encouraging morality and social responsibility. Translation: Get Blacks off the dole and they will be forced to find a job.

The liberal's response to the problems of minorities--vociferous support for civil rights bills and expanded affirmative action--is well intentioned but has alienated many whites and thus made implementation difficult. In addition, liberals have often failed to support tough crimeprevention policies.

For many whites, a new American dilemma has emerged--a conflict between America's meritocratic ideals and its race-based preferential treatment in hiring, election districting and school choice. President Reagan tapped into this dilemma, galvanizing a slice of white working voters around "a new conservative egalitarianism," as Thomas B. Edsall of the Washington Post and Mary D. Edsall '65 wrote recently.

Few of those in power have articulated sensible ways to deal with this disaffection. Conservatives fail to admit that discrimination still exists, often hidden away from the federal government in the private sector.

And they refuse to concede that the Great Society worked for the people it reached. The Black middle and upper-middle classes have grown more than twofold in the last two decades. The number of Black and Hispanic professionals has risen drastically.

Furthermore, majority and minority liberals fail to acknowledge what white working-class voters have lost in what has become a contest for increasingly limited government resources. A city's best schools, its best jobs and promotions, federal housing subsidies--all came to be contested by Blacks for the first time, and rightly so.