When we talk about American social models and the need to go beyond what I’m calling the blue social model and on to liberalism 5.0, race needs to be discussed. The collapse of the blue social model, a shift from federal to local power and a shift from government to the private sector are not race-neutral topics. It’s not just the underclass in the inner cities who face problems as the old models of subsidy and support become less sustainable; middle class African Americans compared to whites tend to work disproportionately in public sector jobs or in private sector jobs like health care that are heavily subsidized by government transfers. A pension crisis for state or federal workers will hit African-American families harder, proportionately, than white ones; municipal layoffs and bankruptcies will have a disproportionate effect on both the African-Americans who depend on these services and those who are paid to provide them.
If you believe as I do that the old model is going to have to change because we just can’t pay for it anymore — and if you also believe that a less bureaucratic and less statist society can be a richer and a happier one — you need to think seriously about what this means for the group in American life most closely tied to the failing blue system.
And to understand the politics and emotions swirling around politics today, you have to come to grips with the racial subtext in the conversation about the breakup of Big Blue.
Not that I am trying to guilt-trip white America. Most white Americans strongly believe that the struggle for racial equality is a vital component of American life. Not everyone agrees with what should be done going forward, but you have to turn over the rocks and look hard to find people who want to turn the clock back – say, towards the kind of legal segregation I grew up under in the Jim Crow South. The conversation we need to have about the next stage of liberal thought isn’t about race blackmail and pious PC.
It’s about history, politics, economics and facts on the ground. Blacks vote blue; that is an important piece of the American political system. If Black* voters dropped blue politics, the center of gravity in American politics would shift fast and far as the Democratic Party adjusted to their new views. As it is, African-American voters are some of the most determined blue state, blue model voters around, and there are good historical and economic reasons why so many Blacks vote blue.
Historically, Black voters associate the expansion of federal power with emancipation and civil rights. They associate states’ rights and localism with slavery and segregation. In American history the association between states’ rights and the oppression of Blacks hasn’t always been watertight. States like Massachusetts invoked states’ rights to oppose the execution of federal laws designed to force the return of fugitive slaves to their ‘owners’. Much of the anti-slavery opposition that propelled the Republicans into office in 1860 sprang from the belief that an out–of-control Supreme Court was going to invalidate the northern states’ personal liberty laws banning slavery within their frontiers. Still, people like me who think centralized federal authority is a problem today need to recognize the blindingly obvious truth that the enemies of Blacks have historically sheltered behind the cry for states’ rights.
It was federal power overruling state policies that ended slavery and broke Jim Crow and no honest discussion of the relationship between federal, state and local power can ever proceed as if those facts weren’t true.
Let’s not descend to the politics of ‘gotcha’, but the occasional slips and sashays by prominent GOP figures on questions like the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act and the moral stature of the Dixiecrat movement don’t help much. Rand Paul, for example, has spent a lot of energy on convincing people that his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not racist in nature. I take Senator Paul at his word on this, and personally I think the time when states’ rights served as an effective cloak for Jim Crow has gone, but Black concerns are substantive and real. Trust takes time to build, and today’s supporters of decentralized government need to think long and hard about how to dismantle a poisonous and destructive legacy that the actions of past advocates of states’ rights sadly did so much to build.
But the blue voting patterns of Blacks don’t just reflect their historical experience with slavery and segregation. Nor do those patterns simply reflect the interests of poor Blacks wanting the services and subsidies like food stamps and Medicaid that the government provides. It is also about middle class jobs.
The Black beneficiaries of the blue social model include the bulk of the Black middle class whose emergence is one of the great American success stories of the last half century. Once victims of discrimination, Blacks gained access to federal, state and local government jobs in the last fifty years. Today, Blacks hold a larger share of government jobs (pdf) than their percentage of the population would alone account for – and government employment represents a significant percentage of Black middle income families. Teachers, police, fire-fighters, sanitation workers, health workers: Blacks are often strongly represented in state and municipal workforces, especially of course in urban areas with large Black populations.
If we start talking about cutting government employment, scaling back unsustainable government pensions and similar ideas, we need to be clear: we are going to be striking at the economic foundations of a substantial chunk of the Black middle class. As readers of these posts know, I believe that these changes are coming whether we want them or not; the question is what happens to Black America as these changes take place – and how can an upgrade to a less bureaucratic, more flexible and entrepreneurial society work to strengthen rather than undercut the Black middle class?
Making an upgraded America work better for Blacks is more than a question about racial justice or even than about the future hopes of real people and real families – important as those things are. Liberal politics (and here I mean the whole great history of Anglo-American political thought that has been guiding us into greater prosperity and freedom for 400 years rather than the worn out nostalgia that calls itself liberalism today) is about promoting the well being of all kinds of people, reducing religious and social discrimination, allowing each individual to reach something closer to his or her full potential and to engage in the pursuit of happiness with less and less restraint and coercion. Human slavery disgusted the liberal soul; so did Jim Crow; so does the plight of American families stuck in high crime neighborhoods, children stuck in unsafe and inadequate schools, and all the other problems bedeviling those African-Americans still mired in rural and urban poverty around the country.
4.0 liberals would like to claim a monopoly of concern about race; race-baiting is one of the basic elements in the 4.0 playbook whenever Americans of whatever color challenge the core assumptions of the blue social model. Blue liberals cry “racist!” the way Joe McCarthy cried communist – and often with as little justification as McCarthy frequently had.
Those of us who believe in a better, brighter future than the blue model can offer need to strike this weapon out of the hands of those who want to forestall badly needed social change. More, the effect of reforms and changes in the American way of life on both the Black middle class and the urban underclass (of many colors, but disproportionately Black) is an important and legitimate test that any political program should be measured against.
And there’s more. Unless a significant chunk of the Black middle class finds positive elements in the new social model, Blacks will vote solidly blue for many years to come. That will likely anchor the Democrats to the blue social model for the foreseeable future; united Black opposition to the new social model will also have a chilling effect on a number of white thinkers, writers and voters who for a variety of different reasons will not want to break ranks with Black America. Finally, Black opponents of the upgrade aren’t against it because they are Black. They are against it because it doesn’t meet their needs and serve their interests. Thinking about how the upgrade can be made to work better for the Black middle class helps us think about how it can work better for the majority of government workers and other middle class families who aren’t Black. And thinking about how a new social model can help more Black Americans climb out of poverty helps us think more concretely about how to make our whole population more prosperous and more productive.
The Black middle class isn’t based so largely on government jobs because Blacks aren’t entrepreneurial or because they have some natural affinity for bureaucratic paper-pushing. Historically, municipal government in particular has been a major avenue for the economic advance of different American ethnic groups. The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles and many others used their voting strength in urban centers to elect politicians sympathetic to the interests of their group, and over time that turned into municipal jobs for many voters, and contracts for others. The urban ethnic political machines and their traditions of patronage, wholesale electoral fraud and influence peddling often led to bad governance, but historically that system did help millions of new immigrants bootstrap themselves into the American middle class. Politicians like Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters aren’t evidence of some peculiar disease of Black urban politics; they are as American as Tammany Hall.
The rise of Black voting power in American cities led very naturally to improved access for Black workers to city jobs – just in the same way that Tammany Hall helped the Irish and other political organizations have helped other groups get that first toehold on the rung of success. Blacks, whose Great Migration to the northern cities came as World War One and immigration restrictions closed the door to European immigrants early in the twentieth century, were (until the recent Hispanic influx) the last major group to colonize the great American cities; it is the misfortune of Black America to be just establishing its middle class on the basis of government work as the economic foundations of government are shifting.
One of the tragedies of Black history in America is that Blacks often only get to the gravy train when the locomotive is coming to the end of its run. Blacks are qualifying in large numbers for civil service pensions just as those pensions are looking shaky. Blacks have moved into professional, middle class government employment just as state and local governments are heading over the financial cliff.
In the same way, Blacks came relatively late to the other pillar of twentieth century American middle class prosperity: manufacturing jobs. For the European migrants to American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as productivity rose (and as immigration restrictions cut off the supply of low wage competition), rising manufacturing wages and employment opened the door to the development of mass prosperity. The children and grandchildren of immigrant factory workers would go to college, enter the professions, and also build new businesses, but that factory employment gave the economic stability that underwrote the economic integration of whole waves of immigrants into the American system.
Blacks, drawn to the urban North after European immigration was curtailed by World War One and the draconian restrictions passed in its aftermath, came late to the factory economy as well. Many labor unions refused to accept Black apprentices into skilled trades until the 1960s. Formal and informal systems of discrimination kept Blacks from competing on equal terms for many factory jobs North and South until well into the 1970s.
But again, many Blacks got into the game just as the game was starting to change. As a percentage of the labor force, manufacturing jobs peaked in 1973. Since that time, a combination of productivity-raising technological change, global competition, the full entry of women into the labor force and the start of a new wave of mass immigration following immigration law changes in the 1960s have held real wages down and reduced opportunities for struggling urban families to achieve a secure footing in the middle class. (The high costs of the blue social model make things worse; factories don’t want to locate in the high tax, high cost, congested city centers where many poor urban Blacks live.)
Exacerbating these problems is the challenging nature of urban life for poor young people. Many of the waves of immigrants into American cities come from the countryside where there are strong religious and cultural patterns that help people live disciplined lives. Over time, those values and institutions lose their hold on immigrants living in new and unfamiliar urban surroundings. Youth gangs, the excitements and temptations of city life and the easy availability of demoralizing drugs from alcohol to the many stimulants available today threaten the ability of new urban generations to acquire the habits and skills that make success possible. Religious institutions, schools and social initiatives from Jane Addams’ Hull House have for many generations been fighting the forces of personal and social disorganization that take a great toll in each rising generation of poor urban young people – whether we are thinking about Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles or Blacks. And the longer a population remains trapped in urban poverty, the deeper the damage to new generations.
For all its limits, the blue social model was good for the blacks. From 1947 through 1967, Blacks’ median incomes rose at a blistering pace of 3.6 percent per year (while white median income was grew on average by 2.8 percent per year). As the blue model has broken down, the picture changed. Since 1990 white median family income has been stagnant at 0.1 percent average growth, while Black median income has edged down at -0.1% per year.
For much of the twentieth century, the core problem facing Black America was one of access. If Blacks could get into the building and manufacturing unions on equal terms, they could build middle class lives. If Blacks could gain access to civil service and municipal jobs on the same terms as whites, they could enjoy a rising middle class standard of living. If Blacks could gain access to credentialing institutions like colleges, they could move into white collar and professional jobs – again, if they could compete on equal terms.
In the twenty-first century, access has not disappeared as an issue. Poor Black kids in a chaotic, crime-ridden neighborhood with no option but to attend lousy schools can hardly be said to enjoy equal access to the opportunities of American life. But for the growing number of middle class Blacks, the problem today is less one of access to American life than with the disintegration of a social model that can no longer provide the kind of prosperity and security it once did. It’s no good having equal access to factory jobs if those jobs are disappearing. It’s no good having equal access to municipal government jobs if the city is laying off rather than hiring, and if wages and benefits for the jobs that remain are going to be cut. It’s no good having a pipeline into the health care sector if the sector faces an immense financial crisis and is headed on an unsustainable path.
For Blacks as for all Americans, the central problem today isn’t how to get access to blue model jobs. It’s what to do about the failing blue model – how to shore it up or how to replace it. In that sense the shift from blue liberalism to a new social model isn’t a racial issue. But given the special circumstances and unique history of Black America, those who want to get past blue are going to have to reckon with Black.
As I continue to post on the kind of upgrade America needs, I will highlight issues that affect Black Americans and look at ways to ensure that the transition increases Black opportunity in this country. As the blue model breaks down, the next train is leaving the station. This time, Blacks should be on board from the start and it’s in the interest of all Americans to make sure that this happens.
* In this essay and my subsequent posts I am going to capitalize the word “black” when referring to America’s African-American population. When writing generically about members of the black race throughout the world, I will not use a capital letter. American Blacks are, by and large, an ethnic group sharing a certain culture and history; like Poles, Jews, Wasps, and Italians, American Blacks are a well-recognized ethnic group. Following the same logic, I will not be capitalizing ‘whites’ when referring to non-Black, non-Hispanic and non-Asian Americans. This is not some kind of PC reversal of values or in any other way a dig at white Americans. It does, however, seem strange that every time one writes about, say, ‘blacks’ and Jews, ‘blacks’ and the Irish, ‘blacks’ and Italians and so forth it is always the African-Americans who appear in lower case. This isn’t racist un-PC punctuation, that the Race Police need to correct, but in my judgment it is illogical punctuation and the word needs to be treated in a grammatically consistent fashion. In the context of American society, ‘Black’ is a proper noun denoting a specific group of people who while by no means uniform and identical to one another, have an identity that is generally recognized by virtually all observers of American life. We customarily capitalize the names of such groups (Jews, Tamils, Yankees) and I prefer my usage to be consistent and grammatically correct (GC?) regardless of politics.