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In your magazine's second look at Thomas Jefferson (March 1997 issue), Benjamin Schwarz comes to a much more reasonable conclusion than the first look, by Conor Cruise O'Brien in last October's issue. O'Brien, a British author whose forefathers were the principal profiteers in the slave trade of the 17th century, came across the Atlantic to tweak us about Tom Jefferson, the known racist and slaveowner of the 18th century. Schwarz at least acknowledges that James Madison, another slaveowner, drafted the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and that "Americans elected slaveowners to the presidency for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of that office's history."
Schwarz is wildly off the mark, though, when he says O'Brien correctly argues that "Jefferson diverged from the mainstream in stating an inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks." I can find no historical evidence that any white political leader of the 17th, 18th or 19th century did not believe in the inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks. It is only in the 20th century that biological scientists began to posit the possibility that at conception there is no inherent limitation on the intellectual potential of a man or woman of color. Indeed, I have only been able to find a few white adult males in my lifetime who were not at least in some small part white supremacists.
When I met Jack Kemp 21 years ago, we discussed the fact that neither of us had any friends who thought it possible we would ever see a black quarterback in the National Football League. Blacks could run and catch, block and tackle, but they would "never have it between the ears." Even when it began to appear there might be quarterbacks of color, the conventional wisdom was that they of course would never be allowed to call their own plays.
Upon the publication of The Bell Curve two years ago, I discovered that many of my friends in the political world, liberal and conservative, supported the idea that skin pigmentation plays at least a small part in genetic limitations of intellectual development. Of the professional journalists who commented on the book, only Gregg Easterbrook of Newsweek and John McLaughlin of NBC argued a zero correlation. When on October 16, 1995, Louis Farrakhan spoke at his Million Man March, he argued that continued elements of white supremacy are at the heart of the racial divide and I had to nod in agreement.
The racial divide in America will never be closed until it is conventional wisdom that while the human brain may have genetic influences, skin color is not one of them. So while I am happy to see the Atlantic Monthly take a second look at Jefferson, a third would be even better.
Sincerely, as ever,