The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Notes on the State of Black America

Perhaps the strangest thing about black America today is how little we talk about it.

Published on July 1, 2010

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in November 2008 marked a paradox in the long history of race in America that has not been much noticed: The installation of the first black President in American history—black, that is, as Americans define black, despite his white mother and his non-American, African father—coincided with the almost complete disappearance from American public life of discussion of the black condition and what public policy might do to improve it. There was a time not so long ago when we had trouble having a dispassionate, constructive discussion of these matters in public; now we seem unable to have any discussion at all.

Not one issue having to do with American blacks was on the explicit agenda of either major political party during the 2008 campaign, or on the agenda of the Obama Administration during the first year of his presidency. Neither the continuing crisis of black unemployment; nor the continuing crisis of public education for blacks in the inner cities; nor the crisis of black imprisonment; nor the related abandonment in most American cities of efforts to integrate black students in schools with substantial numbers of white and Asian classmates; nor the cyclical and structural “problems of the inner cities”, a euphemism for all of these problems and others suffered mainly by blacks—none of these issues has formed any significant part of public discussion now for years, including the years marking the political ascent of Barack Obama. As Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, perhaps the leading analyst of the black condition in our inner cities, has written in his important current book, More Than Just Race:

Through the second half of the 1990s and into the early years of the twenty-first century, public attention to the plight of poor black Americans seemed to wane. There was scant media attention to the problem of concentrated urban poverty neighborhoods in which a high percentage of the residents fall beneath the federally designated poverty line, little or no discussion of inner-city challenges by mainstream political leaders, and even an apparent quiescence on the part of ghetto residents themselves.1

How is this to be explained, and what does it mean? Certainly, as Wilson notes, the disappearance of these issues from major public discussion cannot be explained by the successful end of the race issue in American history. Progress there has been in the fifty years or more since a major Supreme Court decision signaled the end of the legal segregation of blacks into an inferior position, but even so, some aspects of the problem have grown worse. The juxtaposition is jarring, confusing, and evidently silencing.

On the one hand, two major pieces of legislation in 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, opened two decades of successive progress in attaining full legal equality for blacks in American life. Progress has been marked in four major areas: in politics, where blacks have won significant representation in Congress and in state legislatures, an ascent epitomized by blacks serving as Secretaries of State and by the election of a black man to the highest position in American life; in higher education, where a system of affirmative action, though challenged by court decisions and by popular referenda, still exists and has increased the number of blacks in elite schools, undergraduate and professional, and widened the pool of blacks who attain high and well-paid positions; in business and public employment, where the ban on discrimination is enforced by strong Federal laws and agencies, diversity training is widespread and a good number of blacks have reached high positions; and in public opinion generally, where surveys show a decline in prejudice and rising acceptance of blacks as full equals in every area of life.

But all this progress has done little to reduce the complex of difficult problems so visibly afflicting urban black populations. Indeed, as already suggested, some of these problems have gotten worse. One way to describe how that could possibly have happened is to note that 2009, the year Obama became President, also happened to be the 45th anniversary of the Moynihan Report on “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” That report, it will be remembered, became famous (in some quarters, notorious) for raising the issue of the weakness of the black family, as indicated by a high and rising percentage of out-of-wedlock births, and its relation to poor economic prospects for black men and a host of problems for black youths. By warning that these problems were more social and historical than legal—and suggesting that they were more cultural than structural—the report created its own kind of silence. Its suggestion that blacks as well as whites had tasks to perform to solve the nation’s racial divide was so vigorously assailed that most white scholars, and some black scholars, too, decided it was the better part of wisdom to speak no further about it.

Silence or not, the prescience of Moynihan’s report became evident over the ensuing decades, and so some leading scholars have decided it was time again to address the problems facing black Americans. “The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections After Four Decades”, the title given to the January 2009 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, edited by the distinguished sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Robert J. Sampson, forms a major review of the black condition today. The report’s impact and history are also the subject of an excellent book by the historian James T. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama (2010). And Wilson’s More Than Just Race, which I have already referred to, is also in large measure a reflection on and analysis of the issues raised by Moynihan’s Report. In the scholarly world, it is fair to say, the silence has been broken.

So what do the scholars tell us? How do they explain how several aspects of the problem can be worse than they were when Moynihan wrote his report 45 years ago?

To begin with, they establish the pertinent facts. The employment prospects of young black men have clearly worsened. Harry Holzer, writing in the Massey-Sampson volume on black youth employment prospects, notes:

Unfortunately, it is clear that Moynihan’s prognosis of steadily deteriorating outcomes among young black men was stunningly accurate, to an even greater extent than he realized at the time. [The facts show] employment rates . . . declining and unemployment rates rising among black men throughout this period, to some extent regardless of the state of the aggregate U.S. economy.

At the same time, non-marital births—they used to be called quite directly illegitimate births—have risen among blacks from 25 percent, a figure that alarmed Moynihan, to nearly 70 percent. (The incidence of non-marital births among whites has also risen greatly but is nowhere near this astonishing figure.)

A new crisis of mass incarceration has developed as well. Bruce Western states, also in the Massey-Sampson volume, “By the early 2000s, more than a third of young black non-college men were incarcerated.” That is hardly believable, but it is indeed so. Robert Sampson notes the continued persistence of concentrated black neighborhoods in which all these problems are amplified, using Chicago as his example:

Not one neighborhood in Chicago [that was] more than 40 percent black in 1970 became predominantly white by 2000, fully thirty years later. By contrast, a large number of white neighborhoods turned black . . . . [T]he polar extremes (all-black and all-white neighborhoods) remained the dominant patterns. Neighborhoods . . . tended to stay in the same poverty category or move to a higher poverty category over time—gentrification was quite rare . . . whether in Chicago or in the United States as a whole.

One reason for the intensification of these problems is that a good part of the black community, the black middle class, has been able to leave the inner cities behind. Henry Louis Gates, Thomas Sowell and others have noted the advantages segregated black neighborhoods gained from the presence of a black middle class. A half-century ago, black areas in major American cities harbored serious social problems, but the black middle class, prevented by prejudice from moving out to suburban and other white areas, provided significant social goods. In recent decades, the movement of middle-class blacks to previously white areas and suburbs has been substantial. As a result inner cities became, to an even greater extent, concentrations of the poor, the poorly educated, the unemployed and unemployable.?

This is only one of the factors that has led to worsening of conditions in the black sections of our large cities. In 1965, Moynihan could not have foreseen how the movement of manufacturing out of older cities and the general migration of manufacturing overseas would undercut unionized employment at a decent wage for less-educated black males. Wilson titled his prescient 1997 book When Work Disappears, and a great deal of work has indeed disappeared from or near central-city black areas. The disaster that has afflicted Detroit, with its loss of auto manufacturing and the suppliers dependent on it, is only the most acute case of a general phenomenon that we can see in Cleveland, St. Louis, Dayton and many other cities in the manufacturing Midwest.

We can cite other structural causes, too. Our failure to develop good systems of urban mass transit has exacerbated the problem of jobs for black men. Access to manufacturing jobs outside of city centers is more difficult for residents without cars. The same goes for access to healthcare and social services. The exodus of whites and middle-class blacks out of central cities to new suburbs has also resulted in cities losing much of their tax base, in turn reducing their capacity to provide good educational, health, police and social services.

Whether intelligent public policy could have done anything to slow or reverse these structural factors is an open question. But what could have been done—building better public transportation, more effective schools to keep whites in the cities and raise the achievement level of blacks, alternatives to mass incarceration of young black delinquents, restrictions on suburban and exurban expansion by way of protection of open land and farmland, and a host of other things—was clearly not done. We can debate the extent to which such policies were technically or politically feasible, but in any event they were not adopted. Meanwhile, some policies that were adopted purportedly to help poor urban dwellers, such as cheap credit and subprime mortgages, only made things worse. The public policy record of the past several decades is so depressing that it is little wonder few wish to talk about it in public.

Now as before, there are three main routes for intervention and remediation of these problems. The first is employment. In 1960, with a different central city economy in which manufacturing played a larger role, almost two thirds of the males in the classic black sections of Chicago, according to Wilson, held jobs during a typical week. By 1990, that proportion was down to 37 percent.

Young people are being harder hit than others. In 2005, only a third of black males 16–24 years old who were out of school were employed; the figures for Hispanic and white males are more than half. Black males with high-school and college diplomas do better, but still not as well as Hispanics and whites. Black college graduates do reach employment levels close to Hispanics and whites, but relatively few black males are college graduates. The proportion of males among black college graduates has also been falling. Notes Wilson: “In 1979, for every 100 bachelor’s degrees earned by black men, 144 were earned by black women. In 2003–4, for every 100 bachelor’s degrees conferred on black men, 200 were conferred on black women.”2

The second possible route of attack is education. As is well known, education is ever more important for success in the modern economy. Clearly, the failures of black youths in the economy has one large cause in their failures in education. This is particularly marked, as the figures on college graduation indicate, for black males. Certainly, we expected much greater progress than we have seen as a result of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against racial segregation in schools that came down in 1954. That decision was finally implemented, against prolonged resistance in the South, in the 1970s. Black leaders and the civil-rights enforcement agencies of the Federal government concentrated on achieving racial integration in schools with the expectation that integration would raise the educational achievement of blacks. But that became an elusive and ever-receding goal for most urban and central-city blacks, despite court decisions requiring busing in the 1970s.

Federally mandated integration efforts led to schools that no longer reflected the racial composition of their neighborhoods, a development fiercely resisted by whites, which contributed to the suburban movement of whites away from inner cities and out to the suburbs. Initial success, owing to some degree of integration, dissolved as white students in central cities became sparser, and the Supreme Court refused to allow the consolidation of central-city and suburban school districts that would make racial integration possible. Perhaps actual integration, had it been widely attained and maintained over time, would have substantially raised black achievement, but it became politically, legally and demographically impossible on a large scale in the central cities. Just recently, in Kansas City, Missouri, where the greatest effort had been launched under court order to integrate whites and blacks in schools, and where new schools had been built and new programs launched at great expense to attract suburban white students, the school board voted to close half the schools: Attendance had fallen so sharply in the wake of integration efforts that there was no alternative. And in Raleigh, North Carolina, where integration has succeeded in raising black achievement, the recent election of an anti-busing majority to its school board signals the probable end of that effort.

Fifty-five years after the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown, black students still attend mostly black schools. And their educational backwardness, particularly in the case of boys, has become the central issue facing big-city school superintendents. It is the measure by which they are judged, and by which they almost uniformly fail. The Administration has proposed some changes in the historic No Child Left Behind legislation that makes closing the gap between black and other students a priority, but it is hard to see how these changes will affect a situation that has been with us for two generations and has proved almost impervious to major progress.

The third and final leg of the black urban complex is mass incarceration, which has terrible effects on black neighborhoods, where a good part of the boys and men are either in penal institutions or under the watchful eye of probation or parole systems. Mass incarceration is something still quite new on the American scene. The numbers imprisoned in the United States began to rise in the mid-1970s, to the point where the U.S. rate is now seven times that of Western Europe, and the rate of incarceration of blacks is eight times that of whites. Among the most vulnerable black youths, the odds of imprisonment are incredibly high. As Bruce Western notes: “For black male dropouts born since the mid-1960s, 60 to 70 percent go to prison. . . . Serving time . . . has become a routine life event on the pathway to adulthood.”

Of course, a half-century ago blacks suffering from prejudice and discrimination were also disproportionately involved with law-enforcement agencies, and they disproportionately ended up in jail or on probation as a result. But matters have become much worse since the 1970s. A record of prison experience blights prospects for employment. It is a major factor affecting the prospects of black women for finding husbands or male supporters, often compelling them to raise their children without fathers. Nothing as yet has been heard from the Administration on this phenomenon or what to do about it.

The three problems are of course linked. If black youths, in particular males, did better in school, fewer of them would drop out, their prospects for further education and employment would be better, fewer of them would succumb to the life of the streets, to drug dealing and other forms of crime that lead to disproportionate incarceration. But the causation does not go only one way: The high rate of imprisonment affects the women and young children the prisoners leave behind, makes the lives of the mothers more difficult, reduces the number of marriageable male partners, and makes it harder for children to succeed in school.

That we seem nowhere near overcoming these problems, a half-century after we thought the stain of black subordination in American life had been wiped clean, is sobering indeed. First we applied legal remedy and moral instruction. In 1965, the civil rights movement reached an historic crescendo, with a major civil-rights bill that outlawed every form of discrimination and segregation in American life, and a major voting-rights bill that radically eliminated every form of restriction, direct or indirect, on black political participation. We moved beyond this, to social engineering in the form of affirmative action. Moynihan, then an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Labor, had pointed out that legal equality for blacks would not necessarily result in substantive equality for blacks. Many agreed. As one result of his report, President Lyndon Johnson made an historic speech in 1965 in which he foreshadowed that special assistance—affirmative action—would be necessary for blacks, shackled so long by prejudice, discrimination and segregation.

Alas, as we can see 45 years later, that did not work either, at least not to the extent we hoped it would. It has been endlessly perplexing to figure out where to grab hold of America’s problem with black urban pathologies and how to do so effectively. We remain bogged down in trying to understand the contrast between structural and cultural explanations and how they interact. Behavior may be responsive to structural realities (for example, lack of employment may drive the problem), or it may be the product of deep-seated habits in family and in child-rearing practices that have failed to change in response to new opportunities and circumstances.

The scholarly debate on the persistence of black problems has taken this structural-versus-cultural form for one central reason: Simple discrimination on the basis of color has been much reduced by both law and behavior responsive to law, such as diversity programs in business and academia, without the effects expected. There is not much more to be achieved by tightening up enforcement efforts, though undoubtedly there has been less assiduous enforcement under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

But even so, we cannot seem to get past the structural-cultural conundrum. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced a new push to enforce anti-discrimination laws, and the Obama Adminstration has recruited a new chief of the education section of the Department of Justice from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. But the only specific mentioned in the news stories of Secretary Duncan’s announcement concerns racial disparities in discipline. Blacks are indeed disciplined in schools much more often than whites. But is discrimination in enforcing discipline really the problem? Or is it rather the behavior of black youths? Is there something “cultural” in the behavior of black youths in school that prevents them from taking advantage of their opportunities?

Of course, this has been a much-debated and much-argued question. Do black males in particular consider doing well at school to be “acting white”, something like a betrayal of their group culture? Do they develop attitudes, expressed in dress, in demeanor and in concrete resistance to teachers, that make it hard for them to simply settle down to school work? If so, then concentrating on discrimination in school discipline will do nothing to address the problem.

If “street culture” is a problem, we may then have some partial explanation for the black youth experience in the labor market. Working with things, with objects, as in manufacturing employment, is ever less characteristic of the jobs available; working with people, as in most service-sector employment, is ever more characteristic of the jobs available. Wilson has noted that jobs requiring an orientation to service may come hard for many black youths. When employers prefer, say, a deferential Hispanic immigrant to a typical black applicant—and that is common—that is indeed “racial discrimination”, but that discrimination is not related to racial prejudice in any simple sense and is quite compatible with the public opinion surveys also showing a reduction of anti-black attitudes. A white employer might be willing to vote for a black candidate for President, but not to hire a sullen black youth for a service-oriented job. (I hasten to add that simple prejudice and discrimination has not disappeared: One analyst has noted that in a large belt of counties in the old Confederacy the vote for Obama in 2008 ran 20 percent behind the vote for John Kerry in 2004.)

Whether or not a solution to this structural-cultural puzzle even exists, the American political class seems uninterested in talking about it. Black problems as such form hardly any part of the Obama Administration’s agenda, and if a black Democratic President does not want to talk about it, it is not likely that Republicans in opposition will wish to do so in his stead (however wise that might be). President Obama’s views on the structure-versus-culture debate are not evident in his public pronouncements. Judging from his actions, however, it seems clear that, while he does not underestimate the depth of the problems, he believes a more indirect approach to them will get better results. Education is everyone’s problem, but more for blacks and minorities than for others. Health insurance problems affect blacks and other poorer citizens more than others, too. So by going after the issues functionally, rather than by discussing them openly as racial issues, Obama avoids the political poison he would likely release by heaping special attention on black problems as a black President.

But there may be other reasons lying deeper than political judgment that this Administration has paid so little specific attention to black problems. One is that the political weight of blacks in America is in long-term decline. Hispanics now exceed blacks in numbers, though for the moment fewer of them can and do vote. Asians have also become more prominent politically as their numbers have increased through immigration. And Asians have very different priorities from blacks, some of which conflict directly with black priorities: Asians, who generally do well in school, do not like affirmative action, which reduces their opportunities to enter selective colleges and universities. Perhaps, then, the period when black political weight was potentially at its maximum is past, and the pressure on even a sympathetic Administration to do more is reduced. After all, Democratic politicos making cold political calculations might well conclude that blacks have nowhere else to go, so it’s better to cater to those constituencies who do. Note as a possible reflection of the reduction in black political power the drop-off in the number of black mayors in our major cities.

There is yet another development that makes it hard to pay major policy attention to blacks: the growing recognition either that we do not know what public policies will help or that the ones that will help, such as effective school integration or greatly increased expenditure on public schooling for black students, are simply politically or financially impossible. I think this recognition is spreading among blacks as well as among whites, and it could be consequential. If old remedies are exhausted or have become politically impossible, what now is to be done?

I believe the view is spreading that the improvement of the black condition must depend in greater degree on the work of blacks themselves. One notes the campaign of the comedian Bill Cosby in urging black parents to do more to keep their children studying. One notes, as in the response to the movie Pinky, more willingness among black writers and artists to recognize that black problems are not to be solved by white—or even black—policymakers, but by changes in attitudes and behavior in response to new opportunities. I am impressed that in his thoughtful review of possible present courses in civil rights policy, Racial Justice in the Age of Obama (2009), Roy L. Brooks places great weight on the necessary “internal” changes (what we have called “cultural”) in the black community.

For a long time, comparisons between how blacks are faring and how immigrants fare have been frowned upon. Yes, the circumstances, broadly considered, are very different. And the circumstances of black sub-groups are substantially different, too, as for example between blacks who are descendents of slaves in North America and those who emigrated here from the West Indies, or are now emigrating from Africa. We cover up many complexities in making an amalgam of black Americans, or of other “immigrants”, as we seek some economy or ease of communication. The sociology of the forced and voluntary migration patterns of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is so complex that we may never really understand it. But complex as it is, to frame a self-help policy narrative based on what is generally understood as the American immigrant path may be the best choice available: acceptance of how hard it is to get ahead in America, but recognition that one’s efforts can and often will succeed. That approach, after all, does have the merit of being largely true.


1Wilson, More Than Just Race (W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 1.?2Wilson, pp. 66–7.

Nathan Glazer is professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard University, and the author of many books on ethnicity, race relations and related issues.