Ethics & International Affairs Volume 20.1 (Spring 2006): Book Reviews: Shaping Race Policies: The United States in Comparative Perspective [Full Text]

Apr 24, 2006

Erik Bleich (reviewer)

Shaping Race Policies seeks to explain why racial incorporation is successful in some arenas of American public policy—such as in the employment sphere where affirmative action has significantly diversified the labor market—while it has failed in others—notably in the area of welfare, where policies have tended to marginalize minorities. To address this puzzle, Lieberman explores the development of race policy over the past century in the United States, comparing the American trajectory to those of Britain and France, the two developed democracies most similar to the United States in terms of the challenges posed by their racial diversity.

The book begins by examining the legacies of slavery and colonialism on the early politics of social reform in all three countries, and then traces the history of different national policies such as social security, social insurance, public assistance, “welfare,” and employment discrimination through the present day. Lieberman argues that race policy trajectories in these countries cannot be explained principally by ideational or institutional causes alone, but rather must be seen as functions of coalitions composed of strategic actors, who in turn are both influenced by ideas and constrained by institutions. Alongside its descriptive and explanatory claims, the book also addresses normative concerns about the uneven incorporation of ethnic minorities in all three societies, and the impact of both race-conscious and formally color-blind policies on the ability of nonwhites to participate fully as citizens.

The juxtaposition of the British and French cases with the American one casts interesting light on U.S. policy outcomes by illuminating the particularities of the American experience. For the purposes of this project, Lieberman defines incorporation as the “extent to which policies in fact offer benefits and protection to minorities and enable them to attain a measure of status within the national community” (p. 5). That Britain has strong welfare incorporation and weak antidiscrimination policies while France has mixed welfare incorporation and anemic antidiscrimination enforcement emphasizes the distinctive nature of America’s weak welfare incorporation and strong antidiscrimination policies (p. 20). In addition, by considering French and British policies and incorporation outcomes from an American “race-centric” perspective, Lieberman focuses attention on racial and ethnic issues in a region in which most analyses have revolved around immigration and immigrant integration. Highlighting the specificity of race in a region unaccustomed to facing such concerns head-on may help contribute to budding debates about different types of equality in Western Europe.

Lieberman’s book is well worth reading—and debating—and in that spirit I will focus the rest of my review on some criticisms of its approach. Although minority incorporation is difficult to gauge in any one country, let alone three, the book would have been strengthened if the first chapter had explicitly identified a systematic set of incorporation measures. At various points, the author invokes racial or ethnic differences in employment rates (overall, and in managerial positions), wages, participation rates in social security or pension programs, public assistance benefits, poverty, as well as a host of additional measures. Limitations in the availability and comparability of national statistics may explain why there is no unified summary of the data (such as an index of minority incorporation), but the result is a selective use of statistics that fails to convey a clear sense of how the author compares incorporation patterns across space and time. Moreover, at points his analysis also takes for granted that different rates of minority poverty or unemployment or participation in retirement programs, for example, are primarily due to race policies, as opposed to reflecting (at least in part) other structural or environmental patterns such as educational background, citizenship status, or life expectancy. The book is convincing when it argues that state policies affect racial incorporation, but it is less clear just how important they are, and just how much racial incorporation exists at any given time or place.

The book’s explanatory framework is even more difficult to pin down. In the introduction, Lieberman takes a stand against straightforward ideational or institutional accounts of race policy design, emphasizing instead the key role of strategic coalitions of minorities and other interested parties. The core argument is best summarized in the following (somewhat opaque) sentence: “Accounts of these processes of coalition formation, maintenance, and change and their consequences for racial incorporation are the hinge that connects ideas and institutions in a broader causal argument about change and variation in race policy” (p. 11). Ideas and institutions are thus important variables insofar as they create a context for coalition formation, which in turn is the primary factor accounting for policy outcomes. The paradigmatic example of this process is African Americans’ successful lobbying in the 1960s and beyond (pp. 204–205).

Over the course of the book, however, it becomes clear that institutions do a great deal of work. In Lieberman’s analysis, they are certainly privileged over ideas, but in many instances—indeed in many entire chapters—they also overwhelm coalitions as the most important variable. Lieberman notes that institutions are “crucial for shaping patterns of racial incorporation” (p. 57), that they “made the critical difference in promoting racial incorporation” (p. 112), and that institutional mechanisms (such as decentralized public assistance programs) “have been crucial in establishing the capacity of American welfare policies to incorporate African Americans” (p. 145). These claims suggest the absence of a coherently articulated model of policy-making and the presence of a general list of variables that may be used together or separately to explain outcomes. Such a conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the book highlights coalitions as critical variables in the American case but hedges on claims of their significance in Europe (pp. 203–204). The multiple messages about the factors driving outcomes undermine Lieberman’s aspiration to draw “general lessons about the cultural and institutional determinants of race politics and policy” (p. 26) or to maintain that “the course of race policy in the twentieth century clearly depended centrally and above all on processes of coalition formation and on the ability of racial minorities to participate in policy-making coalitions” (p. 203).

The ambiguities in the analysis make it easier to apply the theory flexibly to address the complexities of 100 years of American, British, and French policy history. Yet, because the author aspires to advance a particular model of policy-making, there are a few significant points at which he selects evidence and historical examples that appear to fit the theory, but that are at best a stretch and at worst misleading. For example, it is a stretch to view the development of the British welfare state as an attempt to distinguish white Britons from colonial subjects. It is also a stretch to compare French policies toward noncitizen immigrants to American policies toward citizen minorities because the presumption of full equality and ability to participate in political decision-making is not the same in the two cases. It is misleading to contrast the1976 British Race Relations Act as an example of race-consciousness with the color-blind 1964 American Civil Rights Act, because the British law was deeply influenced by late 1960s and early 1970s race-conscious policies in the United States. Moreover, it is incorrect to suggest that minority political participation is the key to understanding racial incorporation in all three societies because minimal minority participation cannot account for strong welfare incorporation in Britain, and because stronger minority participation in France would not have led to vigorous employment incorporation in the American sense as French minorities imbued with color-blind ideals have not traditionally advocated for affirmative action. Finally, it is untenable to argue that the United States is the quintessential case of institutional decentralization—viewed as a feature that has offered significant opportunities for racial incorporation—when the Supreme Court was one vote shy of ending affirmative action in higher education both in the 1978 Bakke case and in the 2003 Grutter decision, thus illustrating that one person sitting in Washington has had the power to sweep away affirmative action with the stroke of a pen.

These are significant objections, but they have to be weighed against the substantial benefits that come from the book’s broad overview of how race policy is crafted and the effects it has on minority incorporation. Regardless of whether one takes issue with the theoretical model or with aspects of the historical analysis, this book sets its sights on a big, interesting question and tackles it over a long period of time in three separate countries. It is a book that should open up significant space for debate and for future research.

—ERIK BLEICH, Middlebury College

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