Sunday, March 08, 2009

NYTIMES BOOK REVIEW Why the Poor Stay Poor

Why the Poor Stay Poor

Published: March 6, 2009

Review of
Being Black and Poor in the Inner City
By William Julius Wilson
190 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95

When the nation’s first black president took the oath of office,
surrounded by the grandeur of the National Mall, it was easy to forget
that one of the country’s most isolated and impoverished black ghettos
was a few short blocks away. The poverty, violence and hopelessness in
America’s inner cities have become increasingly dire in the four
decades since the height of the civil rights movement. But as Barack
Obama’s victory suggests, racial prejudice is less severe today than
ever before. Why haven’t the problems of the ghettos improved along
with race relations generally?

Conservatives have a ready answer. Racism is not the problem; instead,
a pervasive culture of instant gratification, violence and loose
morals ­ think gangsta rap ­ keeps poor blacks from enjoying the
American dream, not white racists. Liberals have a more charitable,
but unfortunately more obscure, rejoinder. Poor blacks today suffer
from covert racism, unconscious racism, institutional racism,
environmental racism and a host of other theoretically abstruse
“racisms” that don’t involve cross-burning white supremacists or crude
Archie Bunker-style bigots ­ and may not even involve racial animus or
discrimination. Each side has little patience for the claims of the
other. Conservatives reject the idea of structural and institutional
racism as an intellectual’s way of playing the race card. Liberals
attack any emphasis on the dysfunctional culture of the poor as
“blaming the victim.”

In “More Than Just Race,” the Harvard sociologist William Julius
Wilson recaps his own important research over the past 20 years as
well as some of the best urban sociology of his peers to make a
convincing case that both institutional and systemic impediments and
cultural deficiencies keep poor blacks from escaping poverty and the ghetto.

The systemic impediments include both the legacy of racism and
dramatic economic changes that have fallen with disproportionate
severity on poor blacks. State-enforced racial discrimination created
the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the
races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites
used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of
white neighborhoods. Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal
government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private
actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing
agencies engaged in racial red­lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages
in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do
with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto. Encouraged by
recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class
residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and
less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs
that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies
replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and
cheaper overseas labor. The new economy produced most of its jobs at
the two poles of the wage scale: high-paying jobs for the well
educated and acculturated (lawyers, bankers, management consultants)
and low-paying jobs for those with little education or skills (fast
food, telemarketing, janitorial services).

And, as Wilson argued in an earlier book, “The Declining Significance
of Race,”the success of the civil rights movement inadvertently made
things worse for the most disadvantaged. After federal law prohibited
housing discrimination, successful blacks began to leave the inner
city for many of the same reasons whites did: in search of better
schools, less crime, lower taxes and a leafier landscape. This left
the least well off behind in ghettos that were both more socially
isolated and more economically depressed than ever.

Today many ghetto residents have almost no contact with mainstream
American society or the normal job market. As a result, they have
developed distinctive and often dysfunctional social norms. The work
ethic, investment in the future and deferred gratification make no
sense in an environment in which legitimate employment at a living
wage is impossible to find and crime is an everyday hazard (and
temptation). Men, unable to support their families, abandon them;
women become resigned to single motherhood; children suffer from
broken homes and from the bad examples set by both peers and adults.
And this dysfunctional behavior reinforces negative racial
stereotypes, making it all the harder for poor blacks to find decent jobs.

Wilson criticizes the liberals and black power activists who attacked
as racist Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescient report “The Negro
Family: The Case for National Action” (1965). According to Wilson, the
vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a
serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing
policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of
ghetto poverty. But he argues that the legacy of racism and ­changes
in the economy matter more than the dysfunctional culture of the
ghetto. And he rejects the argument that the black poor are
responsible for their predicament, insisting that an aggressive public
policy response is necessary to break the cycle of poverty.

“More Than Just Race” is somewhat ponderous and academic in style; too
often the book details an important and fascinating question only to
end inconclusively, with a call for “further research.” But this is
more than made up for by its considerable substantive virtues: it is
straightforward, accessible and sensible, free of the ideological cant
and posturing that often mar even serious academic studies of racial issues.

At heart, Wilson is a Great Society liberal, so it’s easy to
understand why conservatives might resist his analysis. But his
suggestion that racism is less to blame for black poverty than are
race-neutral changes in the labor market and his attempt to
rehabilitate the study of the culture of poverty have made him a
controversial figure in liberal academic and civil rights circles. As
Wilson notes, some on the left reject any cultural explanation of
black poverty ­ even one as sympathetic as that in the Moynihan Report
or Wilson’s own ­ as blaming the victim. And the accusation of racism
turns heads and grabs headlines, whereas Wilson’s complex and
multifaceted investigation requires a book-length exposition.

Moreover, racism, unlike a complicated web of economic, demographic
and cultural forces, triggers a legal response: instead of persuading
recalcitrant legislators and voters to support policy reform, liberals
can simply insist that the black poor, as victims of race
discrimination, have a right to redress that courts must enforce,
regardless of popular opposition. But the law’s arm is not long enough
to reach bigotry that occurred in the past, nor can it get a grip on
the economic and demographic changes that have hollowed out America’s
inner cities. The urban poor need remedies that judges cannot order:
public and private investment to create jobs that pay a living wage,
training to help them learn new skills and understand the job market,
and most of all a chance to move into racially and economically
integrated neighborhoods where there are better opportunities and
healthier cultural norms. Wilson’s levelheaded, thorough and
unemotional analysis should help such badly needed policies prevail in
the court of public opinion.

Wilson says the legacy of racism and changes in the economy matter
more than the culture of the ghetto.

Richard Thompson Ford is a professor of law at Stanford University.
His book “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations
Worse” is being published in paperback this month.

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