Responses to racial unrest, most recently in Baltimore, aren’t surprising given what we know about conservatives and liberals. Conservatives focus on rioters calling them thugs and feign surprise at the violence. Liberals on the other hand point to asymmetrical law enforcement in white and black neighborhoods and question why cops are killing so many unarmed poor kids.
Here’s a little history to try to figure out what is going on.
This country was founded on slavery. The slave trade in North America grew right along with European colonization. It was written into our founding documents right along with inalienable rights. The United States fought a civil war to force an end to slavery in southern states. That ended two hundred years of institutionalized and constitutional slavery.
A war weary country, however, failed to eradicate institutional racism. Whites successfully regained the political and economic power that they lost briefly during reconstruction. They exercised that power with impunity for another 100 years until the civil rights movement began to win a series of Supreme Court victories. The pinnacle of that movement was the voting rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration.
Coincident with that legislation was widespread racial unrest. During that period of time there were two seminal studies on poverty and racism.
The Moynihan Report in 1965 blamed the violence on poverty. They blamed poverty on pathological and cultural deficiencies in black families. This report shifted the onus from institutions and policies to families. It coined the term “benign neglect” in recommending that government had done pretty much all that it could to. Rights had risen as far as the study’s authors felt they could. Fixing families required an attitude adjustment by government and blacks. Government had to stop trying to supplement poor incomes. Instead government should encourage poor black families to fix themselves.
The Kerner Commission Report in 1968 took a much more scientific approach. It was based on extensive interviews of all those involved in rioting – young black men, shop owners, police, citizens, leaders, and elected officials. That report said the root cause of rioting was institutional racism. The solution to racial unrest was simple and obvious – social justice and economic redistribution. People rioted because they felt oppressed by the police, persecuted by the courts, and taken advantage of by the business community. Provide those same people good jobs, fair law enforcement, and color-blind courts; and everyone will happily live a peaceful law abiding life.
The riots of the 60’s also terrified white people. They fled the cities for the suburbs and took their jobs with them. Nixon and Lee Atwater invented the Southern Strategy in 1968. It played on white fears. Republicans successfully mined white backlash and rage right up until Obama’s election in 2008.
Reagan famously put another twist on the Moynihan report when he claimed that poverty itself was the result of dependence. He invented the specter of the welfare queen living large on the state. He based that characterization in a bi-racial con artist who was hardly a black stereotype. But the narrative was more powerful than the reality, and a whole series of reforms all the way through Clinton dismantled the social safety net for the poor that was part of the Great Society’s War on Poverty.
So what is the reality? Pathology or Economics.
As always the numbers give us some insight.
Let’s start at the same place that Reagan started, with the welfare queen. Everyone is familiar with this claim. Poor minority women bear lots of children so that they can live off government assistance rather than work. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact Clinton eliminated this sort of permanent assistance. There is a much simpler way to blow up this myth. If it were true, we should be able to see increases in the birth rates of poor black families during difficult economic times. We have just gone through the most difficult 8 years since the Great Depression. The birth rate in poor black families plummeted just like it did across the rest of the socio-economic spectrum. In other words, while there may be individuals who successfully defraud the government, aid to the poor does not create a pathological dependence which encourages women to, in effect, “live” off their children.
The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.
If that’s true, we should be able to see the same social disruptions in white families over the past eight years. If you go look at the numbers, it’s there. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more across the racial spectrum.
As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”
The pathology of “bad choices” that conservatives have used to blame the poor for their condition is now being replicated in large segments of the poor white population. They have suffered the same economic displacement over the last eight years that blacks have experienced for generations. That includes shorter life spans, increased violence, broken families, increased drug abuse, less education, decreased home ownership, increased financial instability, and increased chronic illness.
Conservatives cluck about the failure of minority communities to adopt middle class values, but those values depend in large part on access to middle-class jobs. Those jobs are simply not available in poor communities and the poor can’t afford to move to where the good jobs are. Instead you have the spectacle of a Detroit man who spends all his non-working hours getting to and from his minimum wage suburban job.
Finally, you have Republican leaders like John Boehner suggesting that the riots in Baltimore are evidence of the “50 years of failed Democrat policies”. While it is clear that he is reaching back to the Great Society, half of those 50 years Republicans were in the White House. So if policies are to blame, that blame should be shared equally by Republicans and Democrats.
The numbers again come to our rescue here. In this case, Paul Krugman.
Federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.
Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.
In other words, the problem was not too much money. They problem was not enough money, and perhaps money spend on the wrong things.
So where does this leave us?
The “pathology” that has been the mainstay of Republican pronouncements about race and poverty from Ronald Reagan through John Boehner are not supported by the facts. Instead of dependency, we have predictable effects from job loss, mass incarceration, and economic disruption.
Instead of a post racial society, we have the daily experience of young black men who are targeted by the police and persecuted by the justice system.
Instead of confronting the realities of the living conditions that we have forced the poor to endure, conservatives use the myth of pathology to absolve society from taking meaningful action. The myths of the welfare queen, Willie Horton, middle class values, and personal responsibility allow us to ignore the fact that we have effectively walled off poor communities from prosperity.
Baltimore is a good example. It spent $130M over the last 20 years in an attempt to transform one of its poorest neighborhoods. While well intentioned, 1000 new affordable houses, new schools, and new clinics did not attract the employers necessary to support the families in those new houses. Without jobs, the neighborhood eventually reverted back to the same despair, crime, and drug abuse that every other job-poor neighborhood displays. Just fixing housing, schools, and healthcare, regardless of how much money is spent, isn’t enough.
“Having a well-maintained home doesn’t get at the larger issues that prevent self-sufficiency,” said DeLuca, the Hopkins sociologist. “The labor market and drug markets really destabilized Sandtown.”
The problem is institutional racism reflected in over-zealous law enforcement and lack of opportunity in the only neighborhoods that poor black people can afford to live.
The solution is jobs.
The rest is just myth and the conservative pathology of confirmation bias born of moral fundamentalism.