A Response to "What
Should be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind?"by Owen Fiss.
J. Phillip Thompson
Owen Fiss argues that the contemporary black ghetto is a
product of jobs "leaving just as the most successful in the neighborhood
were also leaving." With a high concentration of jobless individuals concentrated
in inner-city communities, a "culture in the ghetto," is produced that
"makes it most unlikely for a job creation strategy such as the one [William
Julius] Wilson proposes to work." In his analysis of what created the
ghetto, Fiss says that, "given the manifest economic considerations involved,
it is hard to believe that race was the only or even primary factor."
Fisss strategy is to break apart black ghettos once and for all
and to disperse ghetto residents into resource-rich middle- and upper-class
I disagree with Fisss description of how the ghetto
emerged and his proposal about how it might be eradicated. I think the
best place to begin this critique is with Fisss characterization
of what created the ghetto of the "underclass." Fiss argues that economics,
not race, was the primary factor in making the ghetto. He points to Wilsons
observations that jobs did in fact leave cities and that the black middle
class left certain black neighborhoods as well. Fiss does not discuss
at all the history of political debate surrounding these issues over the
last thirty years. His account makes it seem as though the ghetto is just
a big accident that well-intentioned Americans created unknowingly. I
find this hard to swallow. The civil rights movement made full employment
a key issue after its legal victories over Jim Crow in 1964 and 1965.
After waves of black congressmen were elected on the heels of the Voting
Rights Act, they too focused on jobs. They linked the necessity for full
employment to the need to repair the damage done by three hundred-plus
years of slavery and segregation. And they warned as well that a failure
to act would entrench segments of the black community into perpetual poverty
and despair. They demanded, thirty years ago, that African Americans not
be forced to pay the price (in the form of persistent unemployment) for
federal anti-inflation monetary policies. Congress mostly ignored them.
The response of the American public was to elect a series of Republican
presidents (with the exception of Democrat Jimmy Carter) who decimated
support for cities between 1968 and 1992. Carter, it must be noted, was
conservative on urban issues as well. Clinton, despite the best economy
in memory, did virtually nothing to change the urban policy course put
in place by Reagan. Perhaps as a former governor, Clinton was aware of
how the Republican party exploited anti-urban (read: anti-minority) attitudes
to win control of nearly two-thirds of the gubernatorial seats in the
country. Another factor in the rise of conservatism in national politics
was intense local opposition to forced school integration in the North
as well as the South. Overall, efforts to integrate schools failed miserably.
Black middle-class parents seeking quality schools for their children
had few options other than leaving inner-city black neighborhoods.
It is important to remember these points because neither
the exodus of jobs from cities nor the departure of the black middle class
from the ghetto happened in a political and social vacuum. By separating
race and economics, as Fiss does in saying that "manifest economic considerations"
obviate race as a cause of the ghetto, Fiss implicitly makes the two assumptions.
He assumes that political decisions made by government officials had no
impact on economic decisions by firms on where to locate and who to hire.
Second, he assumes that race did not affect these fundamental political
decisions. Both assumptions are invalid. The US "free" market economy
is no less a state product than the former Soviet economy. The US markets
are no less "structured" than were Soviet five-year plans; the difference
lies in how they are structured. The federal governments decision
not to ensure full employment in response to black demands, or
not to put limits on firms mobility despite devastating regional
impacts on the rustbelt, were political decisions.
Race has everything to do with the politics. Nixons
appeal to the "silent majority," Reagans visit during the 1980 presidential
campaign to Philadelphia, Miss. (site of the murder of three civil rights
workers in the 1960s), Bush Sr.s use of Willie Horton, Bush Jr.s
and McCains deference to states rights on the issue of South
Carolinas adoption of the Confederate flag--all of these are important
symbolic reminders of how consistently Republicans have played the race
card. Much more debilitating to African Americans, and more bipartisan,
have been the attacks on "big government" and the "War on Drugs."
Exactly what is "big" government? It does not mean the military,
or social security, or tax deductions for suburban homeowners. It means
programs designed to help the undeserving poor (read: minorities). Tax
cuts and spending limits brought about through the revolution against
big government have severely undermined the capacity of city governments
to do much about poverty. Big government does not include prisons, which
are a booming public/private industry. African American and Latino youth
are being incarcerated en masse.Even though illegal drug usage
is roughly evenly distributed across race and ethnic groups in the United
States, close to 90 percent of those jailed for drug offenses are black
and Latino. In some cities, more than a third of all young black men are
in jail, awaiting trial, or on probation. The vast majority are incarcerated
for non-violent drug and property offenses. Those convicted of drug crimes
frequently serve long sentences. Under the mandatory sentencing guidelines
of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State, for example, an offender
convicted of possessing two ounces of marijuana is required to serve fifteen
years to life. The California legislature passed more than 1,000 new criminal
justice statutes in the late 1980s and early 1990s alone. These statistics
represent a massive deployment of aggressive policing and punishment directed
at black youth. Virtually no black person is immune to it because police
tactics initially employed in the ghettos, what is called racial profiling,
are now employed on the nations highways and downtown areas.
Even more alarming than the climate of terror produced by
over-zealous policing and the criminalization of huge numbers of non-violent
and poor black youth has been the publics acceptance of it. Since
the victory of civil rights advocates in winning formal legal protection
of African American citizens in the 1960s, a more effective and defensible
form of racial subordination has set in--namely, racial subordination
brought about through the normal mechanisms of democracy and government
bureaucracy. It is not necessary for white Americans to be intense about
their opposition to programs aimed at helping African Americans (or Latinos).
Whites do not need demonstrations or protest movements. Since they are
a strong voting majority in the nation and in nearly every state, they
only need to vote. Voting is low-intensity politics. So long as white
Americans are willing to tolerate a few middle-class blacks in their midst,
they can absolve themselves of charges of racism. They can justify spending
more on prisons than education (already a fact in some states) as giving
minority youth what they deserve based on their bad behavior. It is argued
by some that this is American egalitarianism at work. This is a lie. If
bureaucratic enforcement were egalitarian, 70 percent of those jailed
for drug possession would be white, and the sheer numbers involved would
ruin the economy and turn the nation into a complete police state. I seriously
doubt that lawmakers intend to do this, or that white Americans want aggressive
policing targeted against their neighborhoods. Arrest statistics
indicate clearly that white drug users are being exempted from targeting.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption that the War on Drugs is not
supposed to attack the white middle class. The white public expects this
double-standard in practice,in the selective enforcement of drug
laws. This expectation of favorable treatment by government, where equal
treatment with blacks and Latinos would be unthinkable, constitutes corruption
of the body politic--and it is a powerful form of racism built into the
normal workings of majoritarian democracy and government bureaucracy.
What is most dangerous about it is precisely its normality--it does not
require an abandonment of egalitarian rhetoric, nor does it require much
political mobilization. Blacks are being terrorized and incarcerated en
masse in a climate of public indifference.
To return to Fisss article. I want to suggest that
there are two cultural problems involved in the ghetto, not just one.
There is a problem of ghetto sub-cultures organized around gangs and prison
life that is threatening to most people who live in the ghetto and harmful
to the participants themselves. The second problem is the corruption of
broad sections of the white public that stems from their social privileges
and basic control of public institutions. It is the latter that has created
and maintained the ghetto. And it is the latter that blames the fruits
of its creation solely on its victims. Fiss wants to disrupt the comfort
and disinterest of white suburbia. I applaud this intent. But his proposal
to integrate white suburbs is far removed from political reality. White
suburbia has already shown in practice where it stands on racial
integration and poverty deconcentration. With so many of those Fiss wants
to move into white suburbia coming out of prison today, it would be harder
than ever to convince white communities to accept them. Trying to legally
force white Americans to integrate against their will, in a country where
they are a voting majority, has not worked and it will not. In this context,
in place strategies such as Wilsons public works jobs proposal
are a lot more politically realistic than housing and school integration.
To tackle the larger issue of continuing segregation, I
think that more micro strategies are needed that engage whites on racial
issues beyond moralizing arguments appealing to some fictional commitment
to actual equality. One might want to figure out which predominantly white
institutions or movements are disposed to want to fight against housing
and school segregation, or the mass criminalization of African Americans
and Latinos, and help them forge ties with groups concerned about urban
poverty. Labor unions are targeting low-income minorities in organizing
drives these days, and they are good institutions for engaging the race
issue. It could be suggested to labor unions, for example, that building
schools instead of prisons will create a lot more jobs and union members
in the long and short run. Environmental groups are another potential
source of support for eradicating inner-city ghettos. It might be suggested
to environmentalists that the best cure for urban sprawl--air pollution
and degradation of open spaces--would be to build livable dense cities,
and the key to that is eradicating concentrated poverty. There is potential
for real coalition building on urban issues that address groups
self-interest but also move them beyond narrow definitions of their selves
to a bigger "We."
Finally, I hope that instead of telling poor blacks that
they cannot afford to live with each other (as Fiss does), some kind of
democratic and empowering process can be envisioned in which African Americans
might be able to utilize their churches, clubs, community organizations,
and other social networks to promote their own vision of how they want
to live with other Americans. Fisss proposal would all but eliminate
the black urban church, and would do deep damage to black political efficacy.
I think this would be dangerous for African Americans. Fiss does not seem
to understand this at all. He characterizes churches together with schools
as "intermediate institutions," that in the suburbs, "are not so heavily
burdened as those of the ghetto and that might have more of a chance of
succeeding." He seems to think that churches are like public corporations
where goods can be shipped around according to capacity and output can
be ranked on an economic performance sheet. That is not what black churches
are. They are voluntary associations consisting of dense social networks
that frequently span generations. It takes a long time to build a sense
of trust, caring, and community within a church. Some churches never achieve
it, and those are the failures. The success of a church is not measured
by how well established its members are in the economy, or by how many
of its youth go to college. A successful church may produce these results,
but it does not follow that an unsuccessful church cannot produce these
Fiss suggests that entrenched
poverty has corrupted the black church, and that "we must confront the
possibility that certain less constructive characteristics of ghetto life
might be replicated in the local churches, which, to some extent, reflect
the culture of the neighborhood of which they are a part." Fiss does not
give any examples or explain exactly what "less constructive" characteristics
he has in mind. I can only conclude that his economic and spatial determinism
has led him to indict black churches by association with ghetto poverty.
I am tempted to say that, no, white churches are the corrupt failures
because their entrenched wealth and privilege silenced them through centuries
of brutal racial oppression. I have seen too many caring white churches,
however, to warrant such a simplistic indictment by association. I will
say, however, that I have not found that "ghetto" churches are lacking
in moral fabric as compared to their counterparts in rich neighborhoods.
I bet Fiss has not either. Maybe a good place to begin a discussion of
how to eradicate ghetto poverty would be to put a hold on pretensions
of white middle-class moral superiority.
J. Phillip Thompson
is associate professor of political science at Columbia University and
a Martin Luther King fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
for other New Democracy Forum articles.
Originally published in the Summer 2000
issue of Boston Review