Why Do We Have an Underclass?

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, June 1991

Nicholas Lemann, ‘The Promised Land.’ The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, 410 pp., $24.95

In The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann tells several interwoven tales. One is about Mississippi sharecroppers who migrated to Chicago during the middle decades of the century. Another is about the bungled policies of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Binding them together is Mr. Lemann’s attempt to understand why the United States has a black underclass that probably lives in greater squalor and desperation than any other people on earth.

The Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann

The book’s perspective is the by now standard one that pins most of the blame for black failure on white racism, and it leads to a call for an “ambitious wave of new programs” that will bring the underclass into the American mainstream. Nevertheless, The Promised Land is by no means a simple rehash of the liberal clichés of the 1960s. Mr. Lemann does not gloss over the failures that stemmed from the soft-headed zeal for uplift that characterized the period. At the same time, his accounts of the lives of underclass blacks do not leave an impression of helplessness and victimization so much as one of fecklessness and self-destruction. The author coats his facts with a layer of liberal indulgence, but he has gathered the facts and they are not pretty.

The Migration

As Mr. Lemann points out, the migration of poor blacks from the southern countryside to the northern cities ranks with the great migrations of all time. Between the early 1940s and late 1960S, more than 5 million blacks made the trek, in what was probably the greatest mass movement in history not driven by war or starvation.

The reasons for the move are not hard to understand. The vast majority of rural blacks were sharecroppers with no prospects for bettering themselves. In the north, especially during the war years, there was a huge demand for labor and fewer social barriers to getting good, blue-collar jobs. Most blacks could count on at least quadrupling their incomes simply by moving.

At the same time, the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker in the mid-1940s suddenly cut the need for black sharecroppers to near zero. In fact, the demand for industrial labor that sucked so many blacks north was a godsend for the south, which would otherwise have had massive, dangerous black unemployment.

The migrations meant that the black population of Chicago grew at a terrific rate: 77 percent in the 1940S, another 65 percent in the 1950s. By 1960, the city had haft a million more blacks than it had in 1940.

Mr. Lemann points out that one of the most important effects of this sort of population shift was to elevate race from a merely sectional problem to a national problem. Northern cities that had always had only a few, neatly segregated black neighborhoods suddenly found themselves swamped with newcomers who were not the sort that even northern blacks wanted as neighbors. Most of the newcomers were poor, ignorant, and already imbued with the habits of reckless procreation that became characteristic of the underclass.

Whites burnt the cars and firebombed the houses of blacks who settled in white neighborhoods. Black tenants who moved into all-white apartment buildings did so under heavy police guard. Less combative whites simply cleared out. The traditionally-Jewish Lawndale section of Chicago, for example, went from being 13% black in 1950 to 91% black just ten years later.

Lawndale, like many newly-black areas in other northern cities, also turned into a hideous slum that showed no sign of improvement. This did not just stoke the fears of the remaining whites in bordering areas or seem to flatter the good judgment of those who had escaped early. Disasters like Lawndale also discredited the widely-held view that black damn would clear up all by themselves, just as the Irish, Jewish, and Polish slums of the turn of the century had.

In Chicago, what happened to Lawndale was too ugly to ignore. The Catholic church backed a local activist by the name of Saul Alinsky to try to keep another racially changing neighborhood, Woodlawn, from turning into another Lawndale. Mr. Alinsky used church money to hire a number of blacks, and was able to mobilize thousands more for rallies and demonstrations.

Mr. Alinsky’s Woodlawn Organization attracted enormous favorable publicity, and gave credence to the altogether silly idea that poverty could be defeated by political agitation. As Mr. Lemann points out, the Woodlawn organization became, a kind of Potemkin village through which admiring liberal journalists were herded even as the neighborhood was going hopelessly down hill. The decay of Woodlawn never got the front-page treatment that had been lavished on the hopeful commotion of the early period, and the illusion of its success gave shape to President Johnson’s war on poverty.

Uplift Begins In Earnest

Lyndon Johnson had the misfortune of assuming office on the heels of a Golden Boy whose reputation was established by martyrdom. The Kennedy circle had always made him feel like a Texas hick, and he was vividly aware that if a southern politician gave off the merest whiff of racism the eastern establishment would make short work of him. As President, Lyndon Johnson decided to become the champion of the black poor and thereby win the praise of liberal intellectuals. At the same time, the desperation of ghetto life was a blot on the national landscape, and President Johnson seems to have had a sincere desire to help. He declared “unconditional war on poverty” in January 1964, and established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in August of the same year.

At the time, says Mr. Lemann; there were two ways in which it was thought possible to combat poverty. One was to cut away the “culture of poverty,” the web of impoverishing personal habits that poor people were thought to be caught in. As Mr. Lemann puts it:

“If poor people did not train their children well for school, the government could train them; if poor people did not eat properly, the government could give them nutritious food; if they did not have good work habits, the government could teach that, too.”

This was nothing less than the assumption that government could take over pretty nearly the whole job of childbearing, but nothing was too ambitious for the people who launched the war on poverty. After all, the total victory of the Second World War was less than 20 years old, and there seemed to be nothing that America couldn’t do.

The Woodlawn Organization seemed to show that there was another way to fight poverty. By tracking down authentic, ghetto-based political organizations and showering them with money, the government could somehow ensure “empowerment” that would defeat poverty. There was never even a theoretical case for how this would actually work, but pushed along with slogans like “maximum feasible participation,” promoting community action became even more popular than undoing the culture of poverty.

One common approach was to train ghetto blacks in Job Corps centers. These often became dens of iniquity. A standing joke among poverty program lobbyists in Washington Was that a good way to get a reluctant Congressman to vote for appropriations was to threaten to put a Job Corps center in his district. Another mirthless truism was that a year of Job Corps training cost more than a year at Harvard.

It accomplished a great deal less. Community action was largely a waste of money. As Mr. Lemann puts it, “there is no clear example of a community action agency in a poor neighborhood accomplishing either the original goal of reducing juvenile delinquency or the subsequent goal of reducing poverty.”

One of the most ridiculous ideas of the times was that black, urban gangs could be steered into useful work. In 1967, OEO actually made a grant of $927,000 to be partially administered by a notorious Chicago gang, the Blackstone Rangers. This was a horrible failure. There were shootings, rapes, and indictments for murder among the program “instructors,” and OEO hurriedly pulled the funds. Amazingly, the Ford Foundation then stepped in and made a grant to the Rangers.

The glory days of the OEO continued until 1973, when President Richard Nixon decided to throttle it. He never quite succeeded, and the agency limped along until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan finally did it to death.

At the time, it was estimated that the various war on poverty programs had created two million new jobs virtually all of them in program administration, and a disproportionate number of them held by blacks. Something the programs and money did not do was fix up the black slums.. Although many of the people who got the new jobs were slum-dwellers to begin with, as soon as they started getting a government pay check they fled to the suburbs. The slums only got worse.

Why the Underclass?

An interesting bump on the road to losing the war on poverty was Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family. He pointed out that nearly 25% of all black children were born to single mothers, and wondered if this didn’t contribute to black poverty. To ask such a question was a shameless breach of racial taboo, and as Mr. Lemann points out, the Moynihan Report went on to become what is probably the most diligently refuted document in American history. It almost single-handedly gave rise to an entire industry of uplift experts whose message was that there is no crime more vile than to “blame the victim.” Just who else’s fault it was when single, black teenagers had babies was never clear, but to talk as if the black teenagers themselves had any choice in the matter was nothing short of racism.

Black illegitimacy rates have always caught the attention of observers, even when they were forbidden to draw conclusions from them. As far back as 1944, when Gunnar Myrdal wrote An American Dilemma, he was worried about a 16 percent illegitimacy rate among southern blacks, which was then eight times the white rate. Today, nearly two thirds of all black children are born to single mothers (the figure for whites has risen to 15 percent), and if there is a single statistic that sums up the plight of American blacks today, this is it.

America continues to tiptoe very carefully around this chilling figure, and Mr. Lemann can’t quite come to grips with it himself. As he follows the lives of sharecroppers who went north, the women drift from man to man, sometimes marrying, sometimes not, accumulating broods of fatherless children. The children arc even more promiscuous and less likely to marry than their parents.

Many single parents arc, of course, dooming themselves to poverty. In 1987, black families headed by a single woman had a median income of only $9,710 a year, or about one third of the median income of black couples. Is there a link between illegitimacy and poverty? Of course there is, but for whites to say so is to meddle indecently in the sexual habits of blacks.

Even Patrick Moynihan is quiet these days, although the collapse of the black family and all the misery that has come with it arc exactly what he predicted. In the 1970s, Mr. Moynihan was even writing that a large welfare-dependent class “will come to be accepted as the normal and manageable cost of doing urban business.” He likened it to “a political subsidy, as irrational perhaps as those paid to owners of oil wells, wheat fields, or aerospace companies, but whoever said politics was rational?”

Cynical he might have been, but Mr. Moynihan was right on the money. Just as America pays billions of dollars to farmers for crops it doesn’t need, it pays billions for crop after crop of welfare babies it doesn’t need. This is the heart of the problem of the underclass. So long as our society rewards improvident baby-making by juveniles who cannot even look after themselves, the adolescent libido will censure steady growth of the underclass. Mr. Lemann’s call for “new programs” is as blind to the real problems of black America as it is inconsistent with the data he has so carefully gathered.

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