When a black man named Freddie Gray died while in custody of the Baltimore police last month, anguish led to protest. Protest led both to legitimate grievance and illegitimate violence. Black fingers pointed at racism. White fingers pointed at irresponsible black communities. Both were wrong. Both were right.
I wish I had a simple formula for overcoming the problems that beset inner-city African-American neighborhoods. But I end up with that evergreen question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Let’s start with poverty. African-Americans aren’t the only ethnic group in the United States to face that challenge. Yet only African-Americans were legally enslaved in this country—and for centuries. Freedom brought Jim Crow in the southern states and de facto segregation in the rest of the country, including here in San Francisco. Yes, changes have been made. But if you’re black, you still face discrimination on many fronts no matter how successful you’ve become.
Back to the core challenge: I’ve been in East Baltimore with its neglected streets and boarded-up buildings. And I can’t help asking myself: How would I fare growing up there? Could I break out of the cycle? Many black Americans have. But it’s an uphill battle. And many young people have to climb a virtual cliff. It’s harder than middle-class people imagine because a lack of prospects can warp the way you see the world. As Paul Krugman commented in The New York Times (5-4-15), “…middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.”
The first half of the twentieth century produced a huge middle class thanks to industrialization and union wages. When I was a kid, America still offered plentiful jobs to high school graduates in mines, mills, factories and ports, as well as in offices and retail stores. Non-grads with strong backs could find lesser paying jobs. In the ‘seventies, Japan’s lower labor costs and use of automation undercut America’s industrial base. We coined a new term for the Midwest, where manufacturing took a precipitous plunge—the Rust Belt. Ultimately, American industry climbed back. But sophisticated automation results in far fewer jobs for those lacking basic to advanced technology skills.
Still, there’s more to it, I believe. A social pathology long ago infiltrated many once-thriving black neighborhoods. In part, it was aided and abetted by black leaders for whom victimization trumped self-reliance and self-control. The ‘sixties saw the federal government invest huge amounts of money in inner cities. Corrupt leaders ripped off much of it. Frustration spawned riots. It also produced negative attitudes towards education and social order. Those who valued them were denounced for “acting white.” Accomplished African Americans fled the old neighborhoods just as successful members of other ethnic communities have done. Single-mother families with fathers shuttling back and forth to prison became the new normal. Drugs and gangs claimed lives. Despair increased.
Sadly, understanding causation doesn’t provide a solution. So I ask again: Which comes first? Do we need more and better government assistance to create jobs for the chronically unemployed along with better schools and enhanced childcare? Or do black communities need to leave behind old baggage, including dependence on the government, and buckle down in defiance of the odds? The best answer I can offer is, it’s the chicken and the egg.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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