In a provocative 2008 essay, the novelist Charles Johnson declared "the end of the black American narrative." This narrative, Johnson remarked, "is quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people.... It is our starting point, our agreed-upon premise, our most important presupposition for dialogues about black America." But this old narrative, at the center of which is "the experience of victimization," is now, at long last, obsolete. "In the 21st century, we need new and better stories."
A story held so broadly and deeply could hardly fade away quietly. The old narrative persists, Johnson observed, "as doggedly as the Ptolemaic vision before Copernicus." It persists most stubbornly among scholars and pundits on the Left, who work endless variations on the narrative's theme of promise and betrayal. In the current versions, the hopes for equality raised by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement were dashed by a conservative backlash, the same fate that met the kindred hopes raised during the American Revolution and Civil War. Decades after the civil rights era, the nation that once seemed poised to secure equal rights and liberty for all has defaulted yet again. American racism, devilishly adept at strategic retreat and self-concealment, remains alive and well.
Readers familiar with the updates of the old narrative might be forgiven for approaching Eugene Robinson's new book with certain preconceptions. One might expect Robinson, the reliably liberal MSNBC commentator and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, to provide a popularized reworking of this tale of backlash and disillusionment. Instead, he produced something genuinely interesting. Viewed in light of Charles Johnson's suggestion, Disintegration is divided between the old and the new—a book that goes far toward answering the call for "new and better stories" about black Americans, although it recurs, at a crucial point, to the traditional narrative.
Robinson's book is divided between old and new because black America itself is so divided. The disintegration in his arresting title reflects his main thesis: there no longer exists a single, unified black America. Instead, there are now four distinct categories of black Americans, characterized by very different experiences, conditions, and prospects relative to one another. Assessing this development, Robinson cautions against nostalgia. What sustained a bygone sentiment of racial solidarity was an experience of injury shared by nearly all black Americans. What makes the present differentiation possible is the abatement of those injuries. In short, what is disintegrating black America is the integration of America, as more and more blacks make good on hard-won opportunities to differentiate themselves by their individual talents and efforts.
For three of the four categories that Robinson identifies—to which the large majority of black Americans now belong—white racism or its legacy no longer imposes any serious encumbrance. The most numerous group he calls the Mainstream, the relatively unnoticed middle-class majority whose heroic rise he celebrates as "truly a great American success story—arguably, the greatest of all." But the most spectacular success belongs to the Transcendent, the tiny elite whose enormous wealth and power places them far above ordinary Americans of any color. For the first time, black Americans mingle among the genuine Masters of the Universe; Robinson notes with bemused pride that "two African Americans [Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines and Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O'Neal] had become big enough players in the financial world to have major roles—I should say allegedly—in triggering a global economic crisis."
The most intriguing group in Robinson's quartet, the Emergent, is itself divided into two subgroups. It includes, first, those lately arrived in the largest wave of black immigration since 1808. He characterizes these immigrant-Emergents as America's newest model-minority—highly educated relative to native-born Americans of any color, industrious, enterprising, and animated by a strong belief in America as a land of freedom and opportunity. The second Emergent group comprises the racially mixed offspring of black and white parents, whose rapid growth in numbers elicits the author's confident prediction: "I have seen the future, and it is beige." For Robinson this, too, is a good thing. He expects that members of this subgroup will naturally gravitate to incorporation in rather than estrangement from the American mainstream.
Inspiring much less hope, however, is the final group in Robinson's classification scheme, the Abandoned, the underclass minority experiencing their own, distinctly negative forms of disintegration. The troubles frequently ascribed to black America as a whole are, in reality, concentrated among the Abandoned: the demise of marriage and two-parent families; the failure to persist in or benefit from the educational system; and the subsequent unemployment, poverty, and crime. This group's prospects are as bleak as the rising black majority's are bright, since the Abandoned have "less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction," according to Robinson. He calls on America to make the rescue of this group an urgent priority. For as long as their woes continue, Robinson insists, the Abandoned will be viewed as the authentic, representative black Americans. He updates W.E.B Du Bois: "The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the Abandoned."
Robinson deserves much credit for his refreshing divergence from the academic party line on race. Contrary to multiculturalists' dogmatic insistence on preserving black identity, he affirms the justice and goodness of racial integration, happily acknowledging the "miraculous" progress black Americans and America at large have made in overcoming race-based injustice. At some points he forthrightly acknowledges that bad choices and behaviors perpetuate degradation and poverty in the black underclass. But on that crucial point he equivocates—and the independent spirit that animates much of the book falters. In his analysis and prescriptions regarding the problems of the Abandoned, the old narrative ultimately prevails.
"It is hugely significant," Robinson observes, "that in most Abandoned black neighborhoods...most households are headed by a single woman." Though well aware that "all else being equal, boys and girls from intact, two-parent families tend to do better...in all walks of life," he rules out as unrealistic efforts to rebuild marriage, and he equivocates on whether such a goal is even to be desired. Upon reporting that "a stunning 42 percent" of adult black women have never married (the corresponding figure among white women is 21%), Robinson offers the remarkably blithe comment that this phenomenon signifies not "some sort of tragedy" but "instead a fascinating process of self-invention.... Mainstream black women may be blazing another trail that the rest of American society will follow as we redefine the concepts of household and family."
This equivocation on family breakdown belongs to a broader equivocation about how moral choices and moral culture determine the underclass's condition. "Not even the most foggy-headed or starry-eyed," Robinson remarks, "could deny that wrong choices play a huge role in keeping the Abandoned mired in their plight—and that no policies or programs can possibly succeed unless individuals make better choices." And yet the focus of both his analysis and his prescriptions is on...policies and programs. As Robinson's terminology suggests, blame for the plight of impoverished blacks rests on negligent others—the larger society that has abandoned its most desperate members. "Since Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was allowed to peter out in the 1980s, government policies have essentially left the Abandoned to their own devices." He describes the consequences in a chain of passive-voice or impersonal formulations: good working-class jobs disappeared, "neighborhoods fell apart, public school systems were allowed to collapse," and the Abandoned were left hopelessly overmatched by the structural and institutional forces that weigh them down.
The remedy is then to reverse the decades of public neglect. Robinson warmly but briefly praises the efforts of his former colleague William Raspberry, the retired Washington Post columnist, who has founded a nonprofit organization to assist a small town in Mississippi whose residents are predominantly poor and black. But rather than call for the multiplication of such private efforts, he calls for a resumption and expansion of the massive governmental efforts initiated by LBJ: "What is needed is a kind of Marshall Plan for the Abandoned—massive intervention in education, public safety, health, and other aspects of life." Robinson doesn't even try to explain how such a Marshall Plan would foster the changes in individual choices and behavior that, he has argued persuasively, are indispensable for improving the condition of this class.
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Robinson is hardly alone, of course, in believing that America's great failure over the past four decades has been its retreat from the Great Society agenda of ending poverty and eradicating every consequence of slavery and racism. Sharing this view is James T. Patterson, an emeritus history professor at Brown University, who chronicles that retreat in his latest book, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life-from LBJ to Obama.
Patterson frames his story as a great fall. It begins at the summit of liberal enthusiasm, when President Johnson declared with characteristic circumspection in December 1964, "These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born." Regarding justice for black Americans, those hopes reached far beyond fully securing civil and political rights. "Freedom is not enough," Johnson declared in his famous Howard University commencement speech the following June. "We seek...not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and as a result." To achieve the comprehensive socioeconomic equality that he envisioned, however, his policymakers would need to overcome obstacles more formidable than discriminatory laws and bigoted opinion.
Enter Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Johnson's 38-year-old assistant secretary of labor and would-be architect of the administration's efforts to combat endemic poverty among black Americans. In a 78-page report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan attempted to guide the administration's efforts by applying the tools of social science analysis to the most vexing dimension of that poverty. In the report's preface, he bluntly identified the focus of his concern: "The fundamental problem...is that of family structure. The...Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.... So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself."
And then all hell broke loose. Just as the report was first leaked to the press in August, 1965, what Patterson calls "the worst urban violence in U.S. history" erupted in Los Angeles's predominantly black Watts neighborhood. It would have been reasonable enough to view that riot, along with the many riots that followed it in major cities in the next few years, as prompt validation for the language of alarm in Moynihan's report. However that might be, Moynihan's linkage of poverty and a host of other social problems with family breakdown—more precisely, with the absence of fathers—has been abundantly confirmed in subsequent decades of research. Yet the immediate response to his report, amid some measured praise, was a wave of hostile criticism from liberal academics and militant black leaders. In the minds of his most severe critics, Moynihan had violated the primary commandment of discussions of race in America: Thou shalt not blame the victim.
Those critics misrepresented his meaning, as Patterson rightly observes. Despite dramatic references to "the fundamental problem" of family breakdown and the "tangle of pathology" surrounding it, Moynihan took care in the report to avoid blaming the victim, insisting that white racism and unemployment were the underlying causes of family dissolution among impoverished blacks. But the critics' charge stuck, and the fateful effect, according to Patterson, was that "until relatively recently...many liberals and civil rights leaders...continued to avoid talking about many black family issues."
Let us note that the regrettable effect of the controversy, as Patterson sees it, is the intimidating effect it had on liberal discussion. Anxious to avoid the charge or the offense of victim-blaming and wary, too, of licensing conservatives to engage in it, liberals in this period confined their public commentary, according to Patterson, to an increasingly feckless refrain that white racism in some form was the only cause of black troubles worth discussing. But in so confining themselves, liberals ceded the public discussion of family issues to conservatives, who emerge as the real villains—the true victim-blamers—in Patterson's story. The rise of "family-values" conservatism in the 1970s signified not an advancement but an "obstacle to meaningful dialogue," he contends, because woven into its understanding of the family-breakdown problem as fundamentally cultural, not structural or institutional, was a moralistic denigration of the black poor as "undeserving." By this means, conservatives convinced most Americans that freedom under law actually is enough, contrary to LBJ's, Moynihan's, and Patterson's conviction, thereby undermining support for the "large-scale public programs" that liberals believe are the necessary and perhaps even sufficient condition for saving impoverished blacks.
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Patterson's book is a well-researched history of public policy and debate on black family issues in this period, and it provides a fair-minded, persuasive defense of Moynihan against his critics on the Left. He agrees with Moynihan, against the doctrinaire liberals who excommunicated him, that moral culture really is a significant cause of poverty and social dysfunction among the black underclass. Aided by other independent-minded scholars, such as James Coleman and Orlando Patterson on the Left and James Q. Wilson on the Right, the vindication of Moynihan's view of the importance of moral culture and family formation signifies a genuine advance in mainstream academic discussion.
Important as it is, however, the progress that Patterson here chronicles and exemplifies remains only partial. Moral culture plays a prominent part in Moynihan's explanation of underclass ills, but it plays no intelligible part in the remedies that he prescribes. The "heart of [Moynihan's] approach to social welfare," as Patterson reports, was "his longstanding advocacy of a...system of family allowances," designed to guarantee an income floor for all families and thereby to supply the vital needs of poor children. Moynihan believed this plan to be revolutionary: "the most startling proposal to help poor persons ever made by a modern democratic government."
But the connection between diagnosis and proposed remedy is elusive. How does a program of cash assistance, "generous and bureaucratically simple" as it might be, address the issues of family structure and moral culture, which Moynihan called "fundamental" to the problem of poverty among blacks? How is any program aimed at the material dimensions of poverty to assist in restoring the personal desires and disciplines that sustain marriage, parental responsibility, success in school, and industrious employment? Insofar as such policies fail to address these moral dimensions of poverty, how can they be said to supply what needy children need most desperately? That central incoherence in Moynihan's thinking on race and poverty points up an irony that pervades Patterson's account. When the subject turned to remedies, the man who braved a political and academic firefight over the importance of family disintegration was curiously reluctant to face the full implications of his analysis.
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For an argument that shares Moynihan's insight into causes, but shows none of his or Robinson's reluctance to match a conservative remedy to a conservative diagnosis, we must look to the sharply argued new book by Amy L. Wax, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century. Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, combines conceptual insights from the law of torts and remedies with a thorough reading of the scholarship on racial disparities to bring much-needed clarity to the discussion of the black man's burden.
This clarity begins with her forthright declaration that "the taboo against blaming the victim has profoundly distorted thinking about race." She knows very well that it is unjust to blame victims for the injuries others have inflicted upon them, and agrees "that current racial inequalities are the result of historical oppression." But Wax denies vigorously that identifying malformed cultural mores as the primary present cause of black-white disparities amounts to blaming the victim. The widespread opinion to the contrary has fueled a massive effort to locate the causes of disadvantage in factors external to the behavior and mores of the disadvantaged. The result, she contends, has been a massive diversion of mental, moral, and material resources away from the only effective remedial strategy.
Common abuses of the victim-blaming charge, Wax suggests, reflect a failure to acknowledge the distinction between liabilities and remedies. She offers the elementary example of a pedestrian struck and injured by a driver who ran a red light. The driver is entirely culpable, and justice (the law of remedies) requires the driver to rectify the wrong—to make the pedestrian "whole," so far as possible. But the crash has left the pedestrian incapacitated, and his recovery will require a protracted, laborious regimen of physical rehabilitation. Thus the liability and the remedy diverge. The driver can and must compensate the pedestrian for medical expenses and monetary damages, but the pedestrian's full recovery is beyond the driver's power to effect; unfair as it may be, recovery is unattainable without the victim's self-healing efforts.
The divergence between liability and remedy is particularly sharp, Wax continues, in cases in which the injuries damage the victims' human capital by impairing capacities or distorting patterns of thinking and behavior. In particular, "social science evidence shows that enduring injuries to human capital now represent the most destructive legacy of racism." She reviews that evidence in two crucial areas. Regarding educational achievement, she argues that success depends critically on "the characteristics, behavior, and education-related attitudes of the students themselves." The same holds true in employment, where the evidence shows that "personal and behavioral attributes related to productivity are by far the most important predictors of job-market success, regardless of race."
It follows that the "dominant view" with regard to remedies—that "racial inequality can only be eliminated by eradicating racism and providing effective, well-funded social programs"—is radically mistaken. No known school-reform program has ever succeeded in transforming students' attitudes toward studying and learning, Wax observes, just as no known job program has ever fostered the attitudes and habits needed for individuals to take available jobs and perform them well. Above all, no program of external intervention has supplied a remedy for the fundamental problem of family disintegration. Because "virtually all that ails black America today lies outside the power of others to fix," Wax concludes, "a radical shift in strategy" is needed. "The future belongs to self-help."
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In reading these three books, one is impressed by the authors' efforts to reform (Robinson and Patterson) or to replace altogether (Wax) the longstanding narrative about race in America. But no less impressive is what they convey, intentionally or not, about the difficulty of the task. Whereas Robinson, Moynihan, and Patterson fail to break entirely free of the old orthodoxy, Wax succeeds admirably in charting a new (or, in fact, much older) course; but her stark analysis and proposed remedy make clear that her strategy will face tenacious resistance.
Among the sources of that resistance, one is especially powerful. "The self-help insight," Wax concedes, "offends our deepest sense of justice." Justice pure and simple demands that the wrongdoer (1) pay for his crime and (2) repair the victim. These demands are predictably felt with special urgency in response to such massive historical wrongs as those inflicted by slavery and segregation. It is entirely understandable that many blacks would resent the self-help imperative as a means of "letting whites off the hook" and many whites would also resist that imperative out of an earnest desire to atone for a history of black subjugation. To adherents of the old narrative, blacks were for so long, so obviously and grievously victims of whites' injustices that there simply must be a programmatic remedy available to the larger society, cost what it may. Let justice be done, the reasoning seems to say, though the heavens should fall.
As all three books make clear, however, while the search for such remedies continues, the heavens really are falling in many of America's black neighborhoods. The urgency of this fact must be underscored, as Moynihan and Robinson do, and it must be leveraged to open more minds to alternative remedial approaches, as Wax endeavors to do. Liberals would do well in this debate to acknowledge, in a spirit of humility, the limits of our knowledge of how to help people mired in a culture of poverty, and the abundant capacity of would-be benefactors to do unintended harm. For their part, conservatives must draw their own portion of humility from an understanding of the magnitude of the historical wrongs and the depth of the psychological sensitivities involved.
Both might learn a bracing lesson from Tocqueville's observation that white Americans tend to act, in relation to blacks, out of interest, pride, or pity. Proponents of self-help must make their stand, in the end, on the common ground of simple human dignity. Let us all recognize that to ignore or excuse blacks' vices is to insult their virtues. The insistence on internal moral reformation must not be shunned as an affront to blacks or an evasion of white responsibility. To the contrary, it must be affirmed as the only way forward that properly respects the moral responsibility shared by all people of all colors.