Perspective: Racial fault lines are real, but solutions aren’t found in despairing narratives
Black economic empowerment can be aligned with America’s founding principles
By many measures, the American economy is faltering. The inflation rate, while slightly down, remains close to a multidecade high, and supply chain disruptions have created food shortages and delays for products manufactured overseas. Interest rates are rising and the number of new mortgages is declining.
Black communities, which have historically suffered from higher unemployment and less financial security, share a palpable dread of this economic downturn. There is fresh urgency to the questions before us: What causes the economic uncertainty Blacks experience, and what long-term solutions can build resilience going forward?
“The State of Black America,” a collection of essays we edited and co-authored for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, answers these questions in a way that aligns Black economic empowerment with America’s founding principles. Moreover, we highlight the remarkable history of Black progress under the severe constraints of oppression and exclusion that followed the end of slavery in this country.
Rather than simply consider conventional responses to poverty, the writers explore creative and expansive possibilities rarely seriously examined in American discourse today, while pushing back on some of the despairing and dispiriting narratives that shape so much of how we discuss race today. This conversation necessarily begins with a frank assessment of where we are today.
In their examination of poverty in the African American community, professors Precious D. Hall and Daphne Cooper note that although poverty rates for Blacks and Hispanics reached an all-time historic low in 2019, inequality persists.
More than a quarter of American Blacks under the age of 18 live in households that experience food insecurity, 36% of American Blacks have no retirement savings or pension whatsoever and 21.2% live in poverty. And all of this was reported before the pandemic that hit our country crushed those already at the margins of society. Black, Latino and Indigenous people sickened and died from COVID-19 at higher rates. That reality showed the effect of concentrated populations in managed care environments characterized by indigence. That disproportionate impact revealed a disturbing reality: racial fault lines are real in America, especially when we look at economic power and wealth.
We must ask accordingly, have social policies helped or hindered the social conditions of American Blacks? Our report challenges the misdirected paradigm that was used by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his attempts to eliminate poverty. Although the legislation of “the Great Society” made an honest attempt to bring people out of poverty, it suffered from the fatal flaws of trying to fix the structural failures within government rather than reinforcing individual agency.
Some try to explain Black poverty as a result of exploitation, due to the unequal distribution of wealth; longstanding marginalization, due to the lack of access to social capital; powerlessness, due to the lack of opportunity; cultural Imperialism, due to incommensurate social values; or violence, due to hatred and attacks.
Thinking that the right “fix” is to reverse one of these phenomena, like redistributing wealth, only creates new artificial structures of oppression with vast unintended consequences.
Poverty exists; poverty is real; poverty can be remedied through an institutional paradigm shift. This paradigm shift requires the government to focus not just on institutional policies, but on moving beyond attitudes of dependent victimhood and encouraging opportunities for initiative within specific communities.
In addition, it is up to the government to understand that with regard to developing stronger policies to aid the Black community, nothing is being asked other than to rely on the intrinsic strengths of their unique American heritage as described by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells as long ago as 1893. All people benefit from genuine freedom; we all want equality and to be treated with dignity.
The first step in remedying the problem is to recognize not only the problem but its root causes, as well — to reflect the accurate history of institutions and institutional attitudes and their role not only in the lives of Black descendants of Africans, but also in the lives of all Americans. To this extent, our call to action requires that in the 21st century we move away from singular explanations for poverty as racially or ethnically unique.
Other points that are made in this book by a distinguished array of authors:
America should not give up on the project of a country united across racial lines.
Contrasting “those who believe that America is built on freedom and those who believe that America is built on oppression and exploitation,” Thomas Klingenstein begins the book entreating us to not give up on an image of “a country striving, however imperfectly, toward its noble ideals.”
“Are we are going to teach our citizens, black as well as white, that they should despise their country?” he asks. “Or will we teach our citizens the truth that, despite her sins, America is worthy of their love?”
Economist Glenn Loury argues that a “case can be made for unabashed Black patriotism, for a forthright embrace of American nationalism by Black people” — one that recognizes “The Fourth of July belongs to all of us.”
Loury continues, “The ‘America ain’t all it’s cracked up to be’ posture is, in my view, a sophomoric indulgence for Blacks at this late date. In fact, our birthright citizenship in what is arguably history’s greatest republic is an inheritance of immense value.”
There is room to see America’s racial history more generously.
“Are we going to teach our citizens that our founders were hypocrites who preached equality yet practiced slavery?” Klingenstein writes. “Or are we going to teach them the truth: that the founding was remarkable not for its hypocrisy but for the fact that a country saturated with slavery included in its founding charter the Declaration of Independence, a principle that would ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery as well as the abolition of other discriminatory practices?”
By proclaiming “all men are equal,” the founders, Abraham Lincoln said, meant to “declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
“Those who want to take Abraham Lincoln’s name off school buildings do not really understand the foundations of their own security and prosperity,” writes Loury, adding that “what happened in 1776 was vastly more significant for world history than what happened in 1619.”
He goes on to affirm that the history of blacks in America is that of “the greatest transformation in the status of an enserfed people ... that is to be found anywhere in world history” and calls on fellow Black Americans to wholeheartedly embrace the American project as “the most effective way to advance their best interests in the twenty-first century.”
We shouldn’t value government over faith.
Star Parker and Robert Borens draw attention to ideas that historically undermined “people’s confidence in their capacity to self-govern” and which “contributed to a culture among American blacks, post–civil rights movement, that reflected the conviction that they did not have the tools to live free. They needed the government to provide what was necessary for life.”
“Despite high church attendance in black America,” they continue, “it is an unfortunate historical fact that the civil rights movement coincided with the prevalence of a certain cultural arrogance which deemphasized religion and pretended that the federal government could solve all social ills.”
They go on to ask leaders to “trust these communities to govern themselves” and to see “the spiritual and moral strength that persists in communities of American blacks despite the social and economic difficulties some among them face.”
The family must be included in discussions of racial well-being.
Parker and Borens go on to argue that larger public conversations of economic well-being are missing something important if they disregard the role of the family unit. For instance, they note the “dramatic difference in incidence of poverty between people in households with and without a married couple” in the general population, “with people in single-female households registering a poverty rate more than five times higher than that of married households.”
That correlation applies to both white and Black American families, but with a higher incidence of Black households headed by a single female. Bottom line: “The connection between family structure and poverty appears to be fundamental, transcending racial and ethnic differences.”
They go on to note that the disparity in marriage rates between white and Black Americans is a relatively recent development, citing Pew Research that shows that in 1960, “the percentage of white Americans and American Blacks that had been never married was almost identical” but by 2012, there was a gap of 20 points.
They conclude, “In thinking about the problem of poverty in America, we should direct more focus toward family structure and marriage. The deterioration of marriage and the traditional family has been particularly severe in black America and is likely one of the main culprits behind persistently high poverty rates.”
None of this receives a great deal of attention in American discourse today. And Mikael Rose Good writes. “In the twenty-first century it is increasingly perilous to try to tell the truth about the state of black America.” But to forge the path to solutions, we must.
Austin Stone is managing partner at Beck & Stone. He is currently on assignment in Washington, D.C., serving as COO for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. W. B. Allen is emeritus dean and a professor at Michigan State University. Portions of this essay are excerpted from “The State of Black America: Progress, Pitfalls, and the Promise of the Republic,” published by Encounter Books.