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Randall Kennedy's otherwise excellent article "My Race Problem -- and Ours" (May Atlantic) is flawed by his premise of the "unencumbered self" -- the notion that individuals should not be bound by aims and attachments they did not choose for themselves. By that logic the siblings of a retarded person would have no moral obligation to care for him (or her), since they did not choose to give him birth and he hasn't done anything for them.
Fortunately, Kennedy's argument does not have to rest on such mean-spiritedness. His argument is not against obligations to a larger community; it is against defining community in terms of skin pigment. Indeed, some of his remarks suggest that we do have obligations beyond "chosen" ones. He contends, for example, that the difficulties that disproportionately afflict black Americans "are not 'black problems'. . . . They are our problems, and their solution or amelioration is the responsibility of us all, irrespective of race." A devotee of the unencumbered self would snort at that. "What do these problems have to do with me?" he would say. "I didn't choose them!" The logical reply is that none of us chose them but we're all stuck with them, and must work together to solve them.
The City University of New York
New York, N.Y.
At the core of my Harvard colleague Randall Kennedy's essay is a rather odd notion about America's having become in the post-civil rights era a "colorblind" society -- a notion widespread among conservatives. But neither Kennedy nor others who share this outlook can muster serious behavioral or institutional evidence to render it credible. Another odd proposition Kennedy offers is that African-Americans have a special obligation to facilitate the consolidation of today's presumably colorblind society. Although we blacks have surely struggled painfully for an American society free of racism, it must be remembered that we, not white folk, are also the gravely injured party. Which is to say that the main responsibility for rectification belongs to white Americans, and that Kennedy ought to be addressing them, not African-Americans.
In his article Kennedy chastises black scholars like me for viewing "certain students as [their] racial 'brothers and sisters' while viewing others as, well, mere students." This is a simplistic characterization of group-solidarity patterns, for Kennedy thinks that to help X is automatically to neglect Y. But that is not how it works. I and hundreds of black scholars who have assisted in the anxiety-laden and even traumatic adaptation process among black students on white campuses have done so pragmatically, not in a xenophobic way. We have done so in the same pragmatic way that Jewish-American scholars and Irish-American scholars did when they assisted Jewish and Irish students on WASP-dominated campuses. Using group-solidarity patterns at many levels of American life, past and present, is in fact quite common; the real issue is how they are used. Kennedy badly distorts this process.
Why should black kinship necessarily preclude genuine racial or ethnic integration any more than kinship in any other ethnic group has precluded its assimilation into American society? Indeed, it would appear that racial or ethnic kinship and pride have contributed to American social integration, rather than undermined it. So long as it does not evolve into an instrument of confrontation or hate, kinship would appear to promise more good than bad.
Peter D. Goldmann
Peter Edelman's article "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" (March Atlantic) was an amazing revelation to me. It contained such an old-shoe liberal tax-and-spend philosophy that I would have thought the era of big government was just beginning -- not over, as our President has told us. Edelman's shameless appeals in behalf of poor people who can be saved only by government are unfortunate and revealing.
His article's basic thrust is that there will be pain involved for those people who have lived off the blood, sweat, and tears of others all their lives. Edelman assumes that it costs more to put them to work (with all the attendant support systems that he deems necessary) than it does to keep them on welfare. Only a liberal could believe such a nonsensical proposition. It would cost nothing at all to let them solve their own problems and next to nothing to help them find work in sorely needed Work Projects Administration-style projects. (Many WPA programs paid less than minimum wage at that time.) Why should they not work for what they receive, like everyone else?
I grew up poor and white in northern Nebraska. As a child I knew men who never owned a suit but were proud to have raised a family in the Depression and never took welfare. This tremendous reservoir of stoic pride allowed a relatively free and open society to offer rather generous welfare benefits to the needy and not be swamped by the greedy.
Edelman's sixties dream -- that welfare should raise people above the level of menial jobs -- is the prime source of our welfare nightmare. We paid low-skilled workers more than their labor was worth to remain idle. If they developed marketable skills, they risked losing their handouts and being at least temporarily worse off. So they remained utterly dependent on a stipend that barely sustained them.
Harry E. Beemer
Peter Edelman has obviously never lived among those of whom he writes. I have. While an undergraduate and a divorced single mother, I lived for two years in a subsidized housing project. As I attended college full time and worked diligently in a part-time job, I was regularly ridiculed by my neighbors for improving my ability to support my family. My daughter was also derided for her academic efforts, because, as neighborhood wisdom had it, school don't do you no good. I watched my neighbors collect food stamps and then throw away perfectly good leftovers because the government was paying for it. I saw residents harass local churches to pay their utility bills and then use AFDC funds for cable television with every available premium channel. When, at a particularly desperate point, I considered applying for food stamps, the social worker actually chided me for my painful thrift measures: she encouraged me to run my air-conditioner, turn up the heat, make more long-distance phone calls, and subscribe to cable TV, because the larger bills would qualify me for more assistance. I was so appalled that I vowed never to participate in such a federal shell game.
Jane Williams Ballard
Colonial Heights, Va.
Peter Edelman writes that of the restrictions last year's welfare-reform legislation placed on immigrant access to welfare, "the SSI cuts are the worst." What he fails to mention is that immigrant abuse of SSI was one of the major reasons an outraged Congress chose to include immigrants in the welfare-reform process in the first place.
The number of elderly immigrants on the SSI welfare program skyrocketed 580 percent during 1982-1994. The recipients are typically sponsored for immigration by their adult sons and daughters, who immigrated earlier. The latter sign affidavits certifying that they have the financial resources to support their parents, but later they exploit a loophole and often put the seniors on SSI as soon as they are eligible.
Regrettably, Edelman omits any mention of the role of the senior immigrants' family sponsors. He also does not mention that they tend to be well off. My analysis of the 1990 census data indicated that 75 percent of the sponsors in California had household incomes above the state median. (Thomas MaCurdy, a professor at Stanford University, has found similar results, in more detail.) A recent Los Angeles Times article even noted that up to 40 percent of the clientele of Vietnamese-American travel agencies in the Los Angeles area consist of elderly Vietnamese SSI recipients -- certainly not fitting the picture of financial desperation we associate with welfare users.
University of California
Peter Edelman replies:
This group of letters reflects two major points: that the views of Americans regarding welfare are polarized, and that facts and examples can be used to support just about any position or conclusion a person wants to support. Some people cheat and some people have made welfare a way of life when other possibilities were available. But in some places relevant jobs are unavailable or inaccessible, racial discrimination takes a terrible toll, and bad schools and weak opportunity structures condemn all but the most resilient of the next generation to continued poverty. We all need to take care about the breadth of the brush we use to paint the picture of truth as we see it. We can and should insist on personal responsibility, but we need to understand and develop real responses to the structural economic and institutional problems that make so many people in America poor, including so many working people who have never taken a dime of public assistance.
These letters contain two accusations that I do reject: that I live in an ivory tower, and that I am just an old liberal with big-government solutions. I have spent time with and talked to poor people -- in cities and in rural areas; people on welfare and working people -- for more than thirty years, and I know how much poor people themselves hate the welfare structure that we had in place. Nearly everyone agrees it didn't work. The argument is over whether the cold-shower approach is the way out, especially when children are involved. We need public policy and public investment, including national standards and funding in some areas. Unlike old-fashioned liberals, I call for tremendous private and community involvement, I insist on personal responsibility, and I believe that the place where it all comes together is in the local community.
In your March issue Lester C. Thurow ("The Revolution Upon Us") supported an argument against "fads" such as deregulation and privatization by citing New Zealand as "a country with zero percent per capita growth in gross domestic product over the past seven years." He is misinformed. Per capita GDP growth in New Zealand was 6.6 percent in the seven years to 1995-1996.
His choice of time period is misleading. New Zealand's economic recovery, generated by a shift to open-market policies such as deregulation and privatization, did not kick in until late 1991. Per capita GDP growth in the past five years has been 0 percent in 1992-1993, 5 percent in 1993-1994, 3.9 percent in 1994-1995, and 1.5 percent in 1995-1996 -- an average of 2.6 percent a year.
The growth of real GDP in the fifteen years from 1977 to 1991 in New Zealand -- until the second half of the 1980s one of the most regulated economies in the Western world -- averaged only 1.2 percent a year. Since then new open-market policies have boosted growth in real GDP to the much higher annual average.
The improvement appears to be sustained and sustainable. During the current economic cycle New Zealand has just bottomed out at a growth rate of two percent, substantially in excess of what used to be our annual average. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand projects average annual GDP growth at 3.1 percent for 1999-2000.
W. F. Birch
Minister of Finance
Wellington, New Zealand
Lester Thurow replies:
Minister Birch had better coordinate with the International Monetary Fund and its publication International Financial Statistics on New Zealand data, because they report one percent growth in real per capita GDP from 1989 to 1995, which rounded off is zero percent per year. Perhaps the Minister has forgotten to make a correction for inflation.
It is also elementary statistics that one has to make income comparisons peak to peak or trough to trough to eliminate the effect of the business cycle. Starting in a recession, 1991, and stopping in an upswing, 1996, isn't statistically kosher.
New Zealand's economic recovery may not have begun until late 1991, but its reforms were all in place five years before then. One has to start keeping track of effects based on when the programs started, not at some arbitrary but convenient date that leaves out all the bad years.
Looking forward, even if the New Zealand economy were to grow at a rate of 3.1 percent, that would not be a performance justifying a ranking at the top of the world competitiveness tables.
In Abortion in American History (May Atlantic), a review of Leslie J. Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime, Katha Pollitt writes,
Reagan suggests that the abortion debate is really an ideological struggle over the position of women. How free should they be to have sexual experiences, in or out of marriage, without paying the price of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood? How much right should they have to consult their own needs, interests, and well-being with respect to childbearing or anything else? (italics mine)I am one of those obscure and ordinary women to whom Reagan refers. Why should I have to pay the price for caring for my aging parents? Why should I, the result of their sexual experience, be expected to care for them? Don't I have the right to consult my own needs, interests, and well-being?
This leads me to high thanksgiving for the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who is paving the way to the happy answer for us all! A modest proposal: once a person becomes unwanted for some reason -- too much of a burden, too expensive to provide with care, or (heaven forbid!) infringing on the rights and freedoms of women -- let's drive him or her to a life-termination clinic. We can staff each clinic with a doctor who can administer a lethal injection, a grief counselor, and maybe an ecumenical chaplain.
If my mother had the legal right to stop my beating heart, why shouldn't I have the legal right to stop hers?
Mary Vassar Hitchings
Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Katha Pollitt replies:
Mary Vassar Hitchings's letter exemplifies the very argument she attempts to ridicule. She mocks Professor Reagan's well-documented contention that, historically, opposition to legal abortion has been connected to fears that women would reject traditional roles and create social havoc; but she herself seems to think that legalization may encourage a woman to refuse to care for her elderly parents or even to have them murdered! Abortion is legal right now, yet women continue to shoulder most of the burden of caring for the sick and the old, not to mention children; no movement of daughters and daughters-in-law calls for the right to kill their aged relatives. But, of course, a woman may decide for herself how involved she will be in eldercare. Surely Ms. Hitchings approves of this, and would not favor a law forcing women, and only women, to shoulder this burden -- and to do so no matter what the cost to themselves.
As a recently retired English teacher, I found your April cover and its implications deeply insulting. The woman with the chalk and the badge is obviously the stereotypical English teacher. The picture ranks right up there in subtlety and wit with responses I've encountered when people learn my occupation -- such as the sensitive "English was my worst subject" and the ever-popular "Oh, you're an English teacher. I guess I'd better watch my grammar, huh?"
Having known hundreds of English teachers in my life, I can say with certainty that they are, as a profession, the most varied, the most interesting, the most humane, and the most caring single group of men and women I have met or can imagine. Not every one is all of those -- but you get the picture. And I'd venture to say that most of us oppose English-only laws because we recognize that they are prompted by thinly disguised racism and xenophobia.
Presumably your cover was meant to be amusing -- an attention-getting caricature. But I say, with Queen Victoria, "We are not amused."
I would like to point out an error in "The Man Who Counts the Killings," by Scott Stossel (May Atlantic).
On pages 87-88 the author refers to my longitudinal research, in which we studied children at ages eight, nineteen, and thirty. Whereas he states the results obtained at three different stages accurately, he says that although the "study did not make a special effort to control for other potentially violence-inducing variables, other longitudinal studies have done so." In the next sentence he cites Monroe Lefkowitz as producing one such study. Actually this is the very same longitudinal study; I was the second author of the reference cited as an example of such controls.
Leonard D. Eron
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; Letters; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 6-10.