The idea is that the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s wasn’t enough, that a shoe still has yet to drop. Today’s Dream is that white America will somehow wake up and understand that racism makes black America’s problems insurmountable. Not in-your-face racism, of course, but structural racism—sometimes termed White Privilege or white supremacy. Racism of a kind that America must get down on its knees and “understand” before we can move forward.
The problem is that this Dream qualifies more as a fantasy. If we are really interested in helping poor black people in America, it’s time to hit Reset.
The Dream I refer to has been expressed with a certain frequency over the past few weeks, after a succession of events that neatly illustrated the chance element in social history. First, a white woman, Rachel Dolezal, bemused the nation with her assertion that she “identifies” as black. Everyone had a grand time objecting that one can’t be black without having grown up suffering the pain of racist discrimination, upon which Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church put a gruesome point on the issue. Dolezal was instantly and justifiably forgotten, after which the shootings motivated the banning of the Confederate flag from the American public sphere.
However, practically before the flags were halfway down their poles, the good-thinking take on things was that this, while welcome, was mere symbolism, and that what we really need to be thinking about is how to get America to finally wake up to—here comes the Dream—structural racism. A typical expression of the Dream is this one, from Maya Dukmasova at Slate: “There is little hope for a meaningful solution to the problem of concentrated poverty until the liberal establishment decides to focus on untangling a different set of pathologies—those inherent in concentrated power, concentrated whiteness, and concentrated wealth.”
Statements like this meet with nods and applause. But since the ’60s, the space between the statements and real life has become ever vaster. What are we really talking about when we speak of a “liberal establishment” making a “decision” to “untangle” notoriously impregnable things such as power, whiteness and wealth?
This is a Dream indeed, and the only reason it even begins to sound plausible is because of the model of the Civil Rights victories of fifty years ago, which teaches us that when it comes to black people, dreaming of an almost unimaginable political and psychological revolution qualifies as progressivism. After all, it worked then, right? So why be so pessimistic as to deny that it could happen again?
But there are times when pessimism is pragmatic. There will be no second Civil Rights revolution. Its victories grew not only from the heroic efforts of our ancestors, but also from a chance confluence of circumstances. Think about it: Why didn’t the Civil Rights victories happen in the 19th century, or the 18th, even—or in the 1920s or 1940s? It’s often said that black people were “fed up” by the ’60s, but we can be quite sure that black people in the centuries before were plenty fed up too.
What tipped things in the 1960s were chance factors, in the same way as recent ones led to a breakthrough on the Confederate flag. Segregation was bad P.R. during the Cold War. Television made abuses against black people more vividly apparent than ever before. Between the 1920s and the late 1960s, immigration to the U.S. had been severely curtailed, so black concerns, while so often ignored, still did not compete with those of other large groups as they do today.
There is no such combination of socio-historical factors today. No, the fact that Hillary Clinton is referring to structural racism in her speeches does not qualify this as a portentous “moment” for black concerns. Her heart is surely in the right place, but talking about structural racism has never gotten us anywhere significant. Hurricane Katrina was 10 years ago; there was a great deal of talk then about how that event could herald some serious movement on structural racism. Well, here we are. There was similar talk after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and, well, here we are.
The old-time Civil Rights leaders did things; too often these days we think talking about things is doing something. But what, really, are we talking about in terms of doing?
Who among us genuinely supposes that our Congress, amidst its clear and implacable polarization, is really going to arrive at any “decisions” aimed at overturning America’s basic power structure in favor of poor black people?
The notion of low-skill factory jobs returning to sites a bus ride away from all of America’s poor black neighborhoods is science fiction.
In a country where aspiring teachers can consider it racist to be expected to articulately write about a text they read on a certification exam, what are the chances that all, or even most, black kids will have access to education as sterling as suburban white kids get?
Many say that we need to move black people away from poor neighborhoods to middle-class ones. However, the results of this kind of relocation are spotty, and how long will it be before the new word on the street is that such policies are racist in diluting black “communities”? This is one of Dukmasova’s points, and I myself have always been dismayed at the idea that when poor black people live together, we must expect social mayhem.
And, in a country where our schools can barely teach students to read unless they come from book-lined homes, what is the point of pretending that America will somehow learn a plangent lesson about how black people suffer from a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and therefore merit special treatment that no other groups in America do? Calls for reparations for slavery, or housing discrimination, resonate indeed—and have for years now. However, they result in nothing, and here we are.
Note: I’m not saying it wouldn’t be great if these things happened. However, I argue that they cannot happen. It was one thing to convince America that legalized segregation and disfranchisement were wrong. However, convincing America that black people now need the dismantling of “white privilege” is too enlightened a lesson to expect a vast, heterogeneous and modestly educated populace to ever accept.
How do I know? Because I think 50 years is long enough to wait.
Today’s impasse is the result of mission creep. The story of the Civil Rights movement from 1965 to 2015 started as a quest to allow black people the same opportunities others enjoy but has shrunken into a project to show that black people can’t excel unless racism basically ceases to exist at all. This is understandable. The concrete victories tearing down Jim Crow have already happened. Smoking out the racism that remains lends a sense of purpose. And let’s face it: There’s less of a sense of electricity, urgency, importance in teaching people how to get past racism.
But the result is that we insist “What we really need to be talking about” is, say, psychological tests showing that whites have racist biases they aren’t aware of such as tending to associate black people with negative words, or white people owning up to their “Privilege,” or a television chef having said the N-word in a heated moment decades ago (or posing for a picture where her son is dressed as Desi Arnaz wearing brown makeup).
So, drama stands in for action. Follow-through is a minor concern. Too many people are reluctant to even admit signs of progress, out of a sense that their very role is to be the Cassandra rather than the problem-solver.
So, little gets done. In a history of black America, it is sadly difficult to imagine what the chapter would be about after the 1960s, other than the election of Barack Obama, which our intelligentsia is ever anxious to tell us wasn’t really important anyway. Maybe we’re getting somewhere on the police lately. But there’s a lot more to being black than the cops. There is much else to do.
This new Dream, seeking revolutionary change in how America works, is not only impossible, but based on the faulty assumption that black Americans are the world’s first group who can only excel under ideal conditions. We are perhaps the first people on earth taught to consider it insulting when someone suggests we try to cope with the system as it is—even when that person is black, or even the President.
But this “Yes, We Can’t!” assumption has never been demonstrated. No one has shown just why post-industrial conditions in the United States make achievement all but impossible for any black person not born middle-class or rich. What self-regarding group of people gives in to the idea that low-skill factory jobs moving to China spells the end of history for its own people but no one else’s?
To be sure, Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights hero and intellectual, famously argued in 1965 that automation and factory relocation left poor blacks uniquely bereft of opportunity, such that he called for the Civil Rights movement’s next step to be a call for job creation to a revolutionary degree. However, 50 years is a long time ago. Immigrants moving into black communities and forging decent existences—many of them black themselves—have shown that Rustin’s pessimism did not translate perfectly into later conditions. Today, community colleges offer a wider range of options to poor black people than they did 50 years ago. Books depicting black inner-city communities such as Alice Goffman’s On the Run and Katherine Newman’s No Shame in My Game tiptoe around the awkward fact that there are always people in such communities who acquire and keep solid jobs—something even black activists often bring up in objection to “pathologizing” such communities.
I am calling neither for stasis nor patience. However, the claim that America must “wake up” and eliminate structural racism has become more of a religious incantation than a true call to action. We must forge solutions to black America’s problems that are feasible within reality—that is, a nation in which racism continues to exist, compassion for black people from the outside will be limited and mainly formulaic (i.e. getting rid of flags), and by and large, business continues as usual. Here are some ideas for real solutions:
1. The War on Drugs must be eliminated. It creates a black market economy that tempts underserved black men from finishing school or seeking legal employment and imprisons them for long periods, removing them from their children and all but assuring them of lowly existences afterward.
2. We have known for decades how to teach poor black children to read: phonics-based approaches called Direct Instruction, solidly proven to work in the ’60s by Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through study. School districts claiming that poor black children be taught to read via the whole-word method, or a combination of this and phonics, should be considered perpetrators of a kind of child abuse. Children with shaky reading skills are incapable of engaging any other school subject meaningfully, with predictable life results.
3. Long-Acting Reproductive Contraceptives should be given free to poor black women (and other poor ones too). It is well known that people who finish high school, hold a job, and do not have children until they are 21 and have a steady partner are almost never poor. We must make it so that more poor black women have the opportunity to follow that path. The data is in: Studies in St. Louis and Colorado have shown that these devices sharply reduce unplanned pregnancies. Also, to reject this approach as “sterilizing” these women flies in the face of the fact that the women themselves rate these devices quite favorably.
4. We must revise the notion that attending a four-year college is the mark of being a legitimate American, and return to truly valuing working-class jobs. Attending four years of college is a tough, expensive, and even unappealing proposition for many poor people (as well as middle-class and rich ones). Yet poor people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make solid livings as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, and many other jobs. Across America, we must instill a sense that vocational school—not “college” in the traditional sense—is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in.
Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.