David Shipler is a long-time journalist who has traveled widely, reporting from many countries. Author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, Shipler is no stranger to complex and seemingly intractable differences, and his insight into black/white relations is considerable. A product of five years of interviews, Shipler's book is a balanced, sensitive, and sophisticated exploration of the persistent racism in the United States and the still-strong biases that help keep it in place.
From the starting point that "every American is an expert on race," Shipler explores the multitude of levels in which that isn't true. Or at least, the levels on which it doesn't help. This engaging book is an impressive catalog of the forms of institutional and veiled racism that make the lives of American blacks so much different from the lives of whites, a system of racist obstacles that is typically invisible to whites, who take for granted their counterpart privileges. Shipler's book may be most useful to white people for this reason. Although I would hope that it proves appealing and valuable to any American, its careful enumeration of the things whites can take for granted and its careful tracing of the anxieties caused by being a member of an outgroup can bring new information -- and hopeful understanding -- primarily to a regrettably large number of white people.
Shipler avoids public figures in his interviews, speaking instead to people on the ground -- including students, parents and children in multiracial and biracial families, and diversity trainers. What emerges is a complex but consistent fabric of stories, describing the ways that that cultures devalue the people outside of the dominant group. Bias in American society is subtle, according whites an "invisible knapsack" of advantages, including being free to be high achievers without being called "a credit to their race", learning U.S. history and learning that people of their race built this nation, even being easily able to buy postcards and greeting cards depicting people of their race. These prejudices conspire to make blacks feel unwelcome in the only home they know, usually in ways that whites cannot fathom.
Shipler explores these issues primarily by allowing his interviewees to speak. We hear horror stories of insensitive treatment, definitely, but we also hear the frequently optimistic stories of members of mixed race families and people who have succeeded in forming interracial friendships. Shipler's book is not about politics, although obviously much of its background -- the backlash against affirmative action, the stereotyping of welfare recipients, the public fantasies about dangerous blacks -- is strongly political.
But Shipler leaves to others discussions of recent legal reversals or the pros and cons of school vouchers. His books stays firmly with the subjects of individuals' stories, perceptions, abilities to communicate -- or barriers to communication. He does not only transmit the stories of his interviewees but also transcribes attempts by individuals of different background to understand each other -- Blacks and Jews, Blacks and Koreans -- and in so doing offers us all a valuable glimpse at the stumbling blocks that so frequently prevent understanding across racial lines.
A Country of Strangers contains stories that are sad, infuriating, inspiring, and interesting, and Shipler's treatment of the issues involved is never shallow. His book is long, reflecting both the wealth of information he offers and the complexity of the individual stories and larger story that he tells. Most important, his insight is clearly born of his ability to listen to others, and this substantive model of that ability is itself a welcome contribution to the debate on the significance of race in the Unites States.