Is the black underclass a severe threat to America? The answer is “yes” but not for the reasons you think. Yes, their crime, multiple pathologies such as drug addiction, their penchant for mayhem, and the financial burdens they impose are troublesome. These traits are not, however, a lethal threat. Similar pathologies can be found to a lesser degree among Appalachian whites, and Hillbillies have long been safely ignored. A good case can also be made that the black underclass’ worst features are avoidable, often just by fleeing or behaving prudently.
What makes the black underclass a serious threat is that the underlying culture is contagious, spreading into the population more generally thanks both to white-run corporations and–even more important–to the government itself. This is historically unique. The black underclass culture is deeply antithetical to the bedrock principles that created America, but in today’s battle over “who we are,” thanks to ample outside help, the underclass mentality is gaining.
Let us begin by recognizing that underclasses are eternal and not strictly a matter of race, though some racial groups are often over-represented. But regardless of racial composition, the historic reaction to this population is condemnation, not emulation. Yes, the disheveled urchins in Charles Dickens’ novels elicit sympathy and even inspire charity, but no proper Englishman, even working class folk just a step above those living in squalor, would ever, ever seek to imitate them. The opposite was true: The ever-present underclass served as a powerful reminder of what could happen to anyone who surrendered to depravity, so even the slightest lapse–skipping the morning shave, not making the bed–had to be resisted. Imagine the reaction of a proper 19th century English family if their thirteen-year-old had thought it was “cool” to dress and talk like a rag picker?
We have come a long way. Entire industries now exist to promote the black underclass “life-style” and there is little pull in the opposite direction. (Ironically, the strongest pushback against this comes from ambitious black immigrants terrified that their children will “go native” and soon resemble American blacks.) Some poor whites live depraved lives but there is no impetus to legitimize their culture.
The siren song of the black underclass is everywhere. Almost every suburban mall has stores propagating the ghetto look to white teenagers. At The Buckle (400 stores in 41 states) white farm boys can buy ghetto-like hoodies to complement sagging, reverse cleavage-showing jeans, all topped off with a baseball cap easily tilted to show a faux gang affiliation. The men’s clothing industry organizes special “urban” trade shows, and merchants selling to genuine inner-city residents are prized as a source of fashion information that can be exported to the mainstream.
When CDs were still popular the mall’s music stores sold rap/hip hop music by the ton, and some white aficionados became “Wiggers.” Today TV and the Internet supply the latest in black underclass fashion and lingo to everyone (see, for example, Vibe or XXL Mag). You can even learn pimp speak. I visited Ebonics Translator and instantly converted my “Where are the young women?” into, “Yo Where is da young beotches? sho ’nuff!” I doubt a site exists to help black underclass denizens talk like white people.
More serious is the relentless campaign, often government financed, to remove the stigma from quintessential black underclass traits. Behavior once almost unthinkable is becoming mainstream. White illegitimacy rates now are now equal to those of blacks when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report, and more and more whites show a black underclass-like indifference towards traditional marriage and family life. What middle class mother today would warn her teenage daughter against premarital sex because “only poor blacks do that sort of thing.” The young lady may well attend a school where many black girls are either pregnant or already have children and suffer no consequences. Hollywood starlets routinely have out-of-wedlock births and cohabit with a steady parade of irresponsible boyfriends.
But, at the very top of the list of nefarious bottom-up transformations is how American society increasingly adopts, almost invisibly, the Santa Claus view of government. To put it bluntly, government is bribing many whites to behave as if they were underclass blacks. The older notion of government existing to provide only collective benefits–national defense, highways, a currency, public safety and the like–is in decline. We are instead developing a more “modern” understanding of government as a provider of all of life’s requirements: food, shelter, recreation, medicine, and everything else Americans once provided for themselves through their own effort. Washington’s job description increasingly resembles something that a black underclass member would write: a responsibility for everything. It now takes an entire bureaucracy to raise a child to adulthood–and that’s just the beginning.
The formula for successful contagion is simple: start by targeting the black underclass and then let politically driven mission creep ensnarl ordinary citizens. Consider, for example, government help for young children, a task once considered totally beyond government’s role. Head Start was supposed to close learning gaps between blacks and whites, but 45 years later it is just one part of a far broader government-administered “early intervention” enterprise hardly limited to blacks. Similar expansions have occurred with school lunches (and now breakfasts), government subsidized housing (including mortgages), and free government medical care. In 2010, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be called “food stamps”) had 40.3 million recipients and was growing. An increasing proportion of these families have no cash income at all.
Meanwhile, one of the signature traits of the black underclass–financial irresponsibility–spread virus-like through the population thanks to government pressure on banks to lower lending standards. What began as legislation to ban “red-lining,” a practice that only applied to poor urban blacks, has now resulted in countless whites sinking hopelessly into unsustainable mortgage debt. As the army of pauperized whites grows, fiscal insolvency becomes the new normal. And don’t forget the subversion of public education as billions are spent to make American schools friendlier to underclass blacks through relaxed discipline and dumbed-down graduation standards. Our overseas economic rivals could not invent a better scheme to destroy US education.
The central fact is that since the black underclass’ problems are intractable, there can never be a “mission accomplished.” There will never be a V-J-Day style dancing-in-the-streets victory celebration with government employees pensioned off. With huge government bureaucracies in place, the war on black underclass pathology is forever, and make no mistake, like a black hole that sucks everything into it, more and more Americans will slip into this “life-style” of dependency. This is not as alarming as flash mobs, but the threat if far, far more serious.
Mr. Kay is a retired academic, finally free to speak his mind.