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A Response to "What Should be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind?"by Owen Fiss.

Beyond Moralizing

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." Fiss’s strategy is to break apart black ghettos once and for all and to disperse ghetto residents into resource-rich middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods.

I disagree with Fiss’s 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 Fiss’s 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 Wilson’s 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 government’s decision not to ensure full employment in response to black demands, or not to put limits on firm’s mobility despite devastating regional impacts on the rustbelt, were political decisions.

Race has everything to do with the politics. Nixon’s appeal to the "silent majority," Reagan’s 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 McCain’s deference to state’s rights on the issue of South Carolina’s 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 nation’s 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 public’s 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 Fiss’s 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 Wilson’s 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 group’s 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. Fiss’s 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 results.

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.

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Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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