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Origins of the Underclass (Part 2)

The first installment of this two-part article described why black urban ghettos are poorer and more isolated today than they have ever been. The question remaining is how to reverse the effects of what has become a self-sustaining culture

by Nicholas Lemann

I. European Norms

Today's black ghettos were created by two migrations: first the migration of rural and small-town black southerners to cities, usually in the North; then, for the past twenty years, the migration of the cities' black middle and working classes to middle-class neighborhoods. The problems that now seem overwhelming in the ghettos -- out-of-wedlock childbearing, unemployment, crime, poor educational achievement -- have existed in the ghettos for more than half a century. When the ghettos were multi-class societies, their leadership tried to keep the problems in check by preaching a classic immigrant ethic of assimilation -- if not into white society, at least into a society with middle-class values.

In the late sixties, however, when the leadership left the ghettos, it stopped preaching to those who stayed behind. In fact, far from preaching to the ghettos, the official voices of society, both black and white, began defending the ghetto culture, arguing that it was merely a rational response to social and economic conditions and would change only when those conditions were changed by whites, and that to condemn it was to impose white values on a distinctive, valid, resilient culture.

See each installment of this article:
  • Origins of the Underclass
    (June, 1986)

    The flight of middle-class blacks from ghettos has left a disastrously isolated underclass -- one formed less by welfare or a lack of jobs than by its rural-South heritage
  • Earlier this year Joyce Ladner, a professor of social work at Howard University, wrote in the National Urban League's annual report on the state of black America that no problem is "more threatening to future generations" of blacks than teen-age pregnancy. In 1971, though, in her book tomorrow's tomorrow, Ladner was writing, "Conceivably, there will be no 'illegitimate' children and 'promiscuous' women in ten years if there are enough middle-class white women who decide that they are going to disavow the societal canons regarding childbirth and premarital sexual behavior." The next year the National Urban League published a book called The Strengths of Black Families; in the foreword Andrew Billingsley, a sociologist who is now at the University of Maryland, wrote, "'The operation of General Motors, the State Department, and the Ford Foundation have more to do with the structure and functioning of Black family life than the attitudes, desires, and personal proclivities of all the young men and young women who have been the subject of sociological analyses." In his 1968 book Black Families in White America Billingsley complained about "the deeply held view that patterns of responses generated, practiced, or sanctioned in the white community are normal. and that any deviations from those norms which might be relevant or common in the black community are abnormal deviant, and to be highly disvalued." As a solution he suggested that "all the major institutions of society should abandon the single standard of excellence based on white European cultural norms."

    I saw this coincidence of the defense of ghetto culture and the migration out of the ghettos most plainly during time I recently spent in the ghetto in Chicago, when I met Al Sims, who was running a small branch office of the Urban League out of a former parochial school in the middle of the Cabrini-Green housing project, Chicago's most notorious. Sims was born in New Orleans and moved north with his family at the age of six. His father was a farm laborer in Louisiana; he came to Chicago in 1956, worked in construction, and after a year sent for his wife and nine children and installed them in an apartment at Cabrini-Green. "I remember very vividly getting off the train at Twelfth and Michigan and being picked up and taken here," Sims said. "It seemed like Shangri-la." Cabrini-Green was then all low-rise, and it housed many Second World War veterans and their families, both black and white. Today it is mostly high-rise and all black. The population of the high-rises is as much as 75 percent poor; 65 percent are under twenty-one and 80 percent are in female-headed families. The project has virtually no church attendance or legitimate business activity. The high school that serves it has a dropout rate of 89 percent. Four major gangs and close to a hundred subfactions are active there.

    All nine Sims children made it out of Cabrini-Green and into the middle class. "We were poor as dirt," Sims said. "But at a certain hour I had to be home. Mr. Sims wouldn't have it any other way. I credit my father. And the six or seven guys I hung out with, my buddies, they had smaller families, but they turned into zero. Tapped out. And they didn't have fathers."

    These days, he said, stories like his don't often happen. Why not? He said, "I believe America can make what it wants to work, work. White America would not allow white people to live like this. No way. The concept of genocide is very real, it gains meaning, when you think about black people in this town."

    He was fatalistic about ghetto culture -- it was not something within the power of the residents of Cabrini-Green to control, because the outside forces that had created it were so powerful. Couldn't teenagers stop having children, and finish school, and get jobs, and get out? "It's just not going to happen that way. We can't turn back the clock and have Ozzie and Harriet."

    Sims had mentioned that he had a young daughter; I asked him what he would do if, as an unmarried teenager, she got pregnant. He looked at me with utter shock; we were no longer talking abstract social forces. "I would die. That would kill me," he said.

    Of the millions of black Americans who have risen from poverty to the middle class since the mid-sixties, virtually all have done so by embracing bourgeois values and leaving the ghetto. So it is worth exploring why black and white leaders have fiercely resisted telling these secrets to the people left behind.

    One reason is pure compassion -- a feeling that anyone who understood where the problems of the ghetto had come from and how deep-seated they were could not expect lower-class blacks simply to set them aside. Another, maybe more important, reason is that for almost two centuries whites, especially in the South, have argued that blacks make up a separate caste, because they are immoral, irresponsible, and of inferior intelligence. In the black view, what whites have done, to justify keeping all blacks down, is to point to problems that the whites themselves have created, through centuries of slavery, segregation, and enforced poverty and ignorance. So a tradition has grown up of not discussing within the hearing of whites issues like out-of-wedlock childbirth, poor educational achievement, and crime. This prohibition was especially strong in the late sixties, when the old racial barriers were finally being broken down, and it is still strong. Over and over I heard from middle class blacks the belief that public discussions of ghetto problems would affect the way they were treated, or at least thought of, by whites.

    Glenn Loury, a professor at Harvard who is a prominent member of a new generation of conservative black intellectuals, last year in an article in The Public Interest offered a more cynical explanation for the resistance of established blacks to soul-searching about the underclass:

    "More fortunate blacks benefit, through the political system, from the conditions under which the poorest blacks must live.... The growing black 'underclass' has become a constant reminder to many Americans of a historical debt owed to the black community. Were it not for the continued presence of the worst-off of all Americans, blacks' ability to sustain public support for affirmative action, minority business set-asides, and the like would be vastly reduced.... The evidence suggests that, for many of the most hotly contested public policies advocated by black spokesmen, not much of the benefit "trickles down" to the truly poor."

    Loury told me recently that after he wrote an earlier article criticizing the black leadership, Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called him. "He said, 'Look, I'm a civil-rights leader. Sure, I know these problems exist, but my job is to hold white people's feet to the fire. In these years of Ronald Reagan and turning the clock back, how can I go around criticizing little black kids?' Then I had a private meeting with a group of black leaders: Carl Holman, of the National Urban Coalition; John Jacob, of the National Urban League; Walter Fauntroy [the District of Columbia's representative in Congress]; Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Coretta King. I made a one-hour presentation. I said the real problem is the problem of the black poor, and civil-rights activism is largely irrelevant, though not" -- he winked -- "if you want to own a TV station. I said, 'You people have exhausted a lot of moral capital with your whining.' The reaction was quite amazing. I got no real rebuttal. They said, 'We appreciate your contribution. We're proud of you. A young black scholar like you being on the faculty at Harvard is what we were fighting for in the sixties. But you have to be careful of when and how you say these things."'

    It is not only the black leadership that has a strong interest in avoiding the subject of the underclass. The black equivalent of Middle America does too. The primary link between the black middle class and the underclass has been one of blood kinship. The underclass was not a neatly defined national issue -- it was Aunt Mary, whose husband had left her and who had gone on welfare and moved to the projects. That is changing now, as members of the underclass lose social and family contact with their better-off friends and relatives. But there is still a link during the workday. An unusual proportion of blacks work for government -- 27 percent as against 16 percent of whites. Many of these jobs are in the ghetto: schoolteacher, postal worker, social worker, bus driver, police officer. The middle-class black neighborhoods in Chicago are full of people who commute to the ghetto to work. The daily contact leads many middle-class blacks to see the ghetto as a collection of individual hard-luck stories rather than as a problem that would be solved through some sweeping new government policy.

    Because the bifurcation of black society is still young, for many middle-class blacks the subject of the underclass strikes close to home. Glenn Loury grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He fathered two children out of wedlock, and says that his family made economic progress in large part because his relatives ran speakeasies and sold marijuana. He says that he grew up being encouraged to keep a string of girlfriends and to refer to all women as "bitches." Although he does not bristle at condemnations of illegitimacy, crime, and the pimp ethos among ghetto blacks, many people with his life story would.

    II. Blaming the Victim

    The public debate about the underclass has for many years been dominated by two views of poor blacks, one considering them collectively (blacks are the victims of racial, economic, and welfare policies not in their power to change) and the other considering them individually (blacks can make their lives better through personal effort). In black politics and intellectual life the debate was symbolized for most of the twentieth century by a struggle between the followers of W. E. B. Du Bois and those of Booker T. Washington. Du Bois, whose family had been free for generations, belonged to the small group of blacks whose suffering consisted primarily of caste barriers, rather than ignorance, hunger, poverty, or social disorganization. He and the organization with which he was long identified, the NAACP, championed the cause of complete legal equality; although he was well aware of the social problems of the black lower class, they weren't at the center of his political agenda. Washington, born a slave on a plantation, was willing to put civil rights off for another day and concentrate on a program of self-help for the great mass of poor blacks, which was intended to turn them into a segregated but economically self-sufficient working and artisan class. Over the years, the Du Bois position gained ground. The idea of self-help for blacks was all but forgotten in the legal struggle over civil rights; the idea even became unrespectable.

    In the late fifties and early sixties, when the migration from the South swelled the urban ghettos until they were impossible to ignore, liberals began to discover the problems of the black lower class. At the time, the conservative and centrist position in the northern cities, articulated by Mayor Richard Daley, of Chicago, among others, was that blacks were just like any other immigrant group and would gradually move into the mainstream of city life. (Daley's own group, the Irish, had a large and troubled underclass in the nineteenth century.) Liberal intellectuals began to focus on how blacks differed from other immigrant groups -- the much greater degree of oppression they had suffered, as this country's only non-voluntary immigrants and only slaves, and the deep psychological scars left by the black experience. The implication was that society had to do something special for blacks, though it hadn't for other immigrants; the ghettos would not heal themselves.

    Three books that give the tenor of liberal thought at the time are Slavery, by Stanley Elkins (1959), Crisis in Black and White, by Charles Silberman (1964), and Dark Ghetto, by Kenneth B. Clark (1965). Elkins, a white historian, compared slaves to the inmates of Nazi concentration camps, as a way of showing the harshness of the system and the psychological devastation that was its legacy. Silberman, a white journalist, was prophetic about the coming explosion in the ghettos and about the underclass. Clark, a black social scientist, was still more prescient; he predicted in terms that must have seemed extreme that crime, unemployment, and a splintered family life would be characteristics of the ghetto for a long time. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous 1965 report to President Johnson on the Negro family was very much of this school of thought; its characterization of ghetto life as a "tangle of pathology" -- which some black scholars, including Andrew Billingsley, attacked as racist -- came directly from Clark. Its subtitle was, significantly, "The Case for National Action." Moynihan saw it as the intellectual underpinning for new government programs.

    Blacks did not like being characterized as devastated and pathological, especially by whites; it was insulting. Also, it seemed a short step from the liberal position that the ghettos were horrible and needed help to the conservative position that the ghettos were horrible and should be given up on. And so emerged an odd, hybrid ideology that had the force of absolute consensus: Yes, the ghettos were devastated, but from without; there was nothing wrong with the people in them. The final nail in the coffin of Booker T. Washingtonism was a brilliant three-word phrase: "blaming the victim." Its inventor, William Ryan, a psychology professor at Boston College, wrote an early, influential attack on the Moynihan report, and in 1970 published a book titled Blaming the Victim. Explaining the phrase, he wrote, "This is how the distressed and disinherited are redefined in order to make it possible for us to look at society's problems and to attribute their causation to the individuals affected." In other words, ills that are society's fault are attributed to the people suffering from them, whose fault they manifestly are not.

    The growth of the idea that the ghetto was a valid "community" came just at the time when it was ceasing to be a community, because its leaders and institutions were moving away. Nonetheless the idea was responsible for the federal Community Action Program, a part of the War on Poverty, in which ghetto residents, instead of intrusive social workers, were supposed to be the agents of their own progress. In Chicago this led to the awarding of federal communication funds to "community leaders" like the Blackstone Rangers (forerunner gang of the El Rukns) and the Vice Lords. Silberman, who caught some of the early community action enthusiasm, ended his book with a glowing chapter on the regeneration of the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago through the organizing efforts of Saul Alinsky's The Woodlawn Organization. At the time, TWO was widely publicized as a model of effective community development. Today TWO is still respected in Chicago, but it certainly did not revive Woodlawn. The census figures available when Silberman was writing showed that Woodlawn had 81,000 residents. In 1970 it had 54,000, and in 1980 it had 36,000 -- 38 percent of its black residents moved away in ten years. The way up was not through community development. It was through getting out.

    The view that conditions in the ghetto would change only when white society decided to change them seems contradictory to the creed of community development, but it really isn't. The connection is this: if there is not a self-defeating culture in the ghettos, and if the ghettos nonetheless have problems, then white society must be to blame -- who else could it be? The changes by white society that would heal the ghettos were usually described as "deep," "sweeping," and "structural." Ryan wrote that "the solution lies in action to change the balance of power." The trouble with this argument is that it is defeatism clothed in hope. This country so far has been unideological and uninclined to engage in deep, structural change except by accident and in order to meet pressing needs. To single out poor blacks as the one group in our society that will really suffer unless deep, structural changes are made, or unless an entirely different value system takes hold, is to consign them to suffering for the foreseeable future.

    I got to know a group of people in Chicago who had grown up in the town of Canton, Mississippi, migrated north in the fifties, and mostly done well there. They regularly talked to me about the importance of making something of oneself, with a fervor that would cause Norman Vincent Peale to blush. But they also felt entirely comfortable with the view of black problems in America as collective ones: they were comfortable with the opinions voiced by the black leadership, and they reflected the collective view in the way they talked about their own lives. The view of blacks as masters of their own fate and the view of blacks as objects of the will of whites exist simultaneously. I often heard conversations salted with references to "Mister Charlie" and "Miss Ann" or just "the Man," symbols of the all-powerful white. That all whites can be consolidated into one symbolic personage suggests a feeling among blacks that whites work in perfect concert while blacks work individually and often quarrelsomely -- exactly the opposite of a view common among whites. The persistence of black anti-Semitism long after the Jewish merchants have left the ghettos -- replaced in Chicago by Arabs, ironically -- further testifies to the enduring appeal of the idea of an all-powerful white villain, in this case not "Mister Charlie" but "Goldberg." The sneaking admiration that some middle-class blacks who would never dream of joining the Nation of Islam feel for Louis Farrakhan is stated in terms of his standing up to whites, being unintimidated by them. He's what St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, in their 1945 book about the Chicago ghetto, Black Metropolis, called a "Race Man": "Negroes tend to admire an aggressive Race Man even when his motives are suspect. They will applaud him, because, in the face of the white world, he remains 'proud of his race and always tries to uphold it whether it is good or bad, right or wrong.'"

    III. The Ghetto Today

    Black Americans at every level -- even those in the very bosom of the bourgeoisie, who work for white companies and live in affluent and sometimes integrated neighborhoods -- still feel themselves to be apart from white America. It is impossible to imagine any other ethnic group able to support a slick commercial magazine like Ebony wanting to -- the other groups are too much a part of the mainstream culture. (Ebony, by the way, constantly preaches both self-help and collective action for blacks.) As apart as all of black life is, ghetto life is a thousand times more so, with a different language, economy, educational system, and social ethic. White society, though physically less than a mile away from the Chicago ghetto, is so distant that in the ghetto I rarely heard an, hint of the intense race consciousness that pervades the rest of black society. Everything that has happened to lower-class blacks over the decades, every new twist, from segregation to the migration north to the civil-rights movement, seems to have separated them from society even more -- separated them from whites, from the South, from middle-class black life, and finally even from uplifting preachment. They are immigrants who not only have not assimilated in the new land but may even have become more insular there. The ghetto today has schools and hospitals, heat and running water; those of its residents who use the system of welfare and food stamps have enough to eat. But the institutions that are supposed to ameliorate ghetto life (schools, public housing, the police, welfare agencies) give off a feeling not of hope or progress but of containment -- of not letting things get out of hand to the point where life outside the ghetto would be directly affected.

    Orr High School, on the west side of Chicago, was designed by Mies Van der Rohe. It is a good example of his institutional style, with exposed steel girders, brick walls, and broad expanses of glass windows. Inside it is divided into several "houses" with their own libraries, cafeterias, and other facilities, in order to foster a feeling of educational intimacy. "The design of this building is not the design needed in a neighborhood like this," says the principal, Kenneth Van Spankeren, and it has been altered. Most of the glass has been replaced with an unbreakable plastic material called Lexan, which has turned cloudy. The parking lot is surrounded by a fifteen-foot wire-mesh fence and kept locked during the school day. An unarmed security guard is posted at the entrance, one of five on duty in the school every day and an armed policeman patrols the corridors. The interior stairwells are kept locked and are monitored by teachers.

    A few years ago the Chicago Tribune published an article about Van Spankeren, presenting him as an unusually successful inner-city high school principal. What this means is that he has been able to maintain order. The students have to wear plastic ID cards at school, can't wear gang symbols (the Vice Lords control the area), can't leave the building, and can't move freely inside the building. "We have a very close relationship with the Eleventh District police," Van Spankeren told me. "The area outside is under constant surveillance." On the morning when we met, preparations were under way for a school dance, to be held at three in the afternoon and under tight security in order to avoid violence. The next morning, during first period, Van Spankeren's voice came over the loudspeaker, congratulating the students on the fact that the dance was held without incident. "We appreciate that, and we expect it," he said. "Students, make sure you have your ID cards, and they're on. Teachers, check and take attendance. Thank you, and have a nice day."

    There are 2,000 students at Orr, 800 of them freshmen; as at all the ghetto schools nowadays, the faculty has to worry less about how to handle overcrowded classrooms than about whether there will be enough students to maintain the ratio needed to avoid layoffs. Eighty percent of the students are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and most are from poor, single-parent homes supported by welfare. The great majority are well below their grade level in achievement. In most recent years about 200 have graduated. The PTA has twenty members. Because it is virtually impossible for a Chicago teacher to be fired or even transferred, Van Spankeren has little leeway in picking his faculty. Most of the teachers I met at Orr were dedicated, but they had almost given up on teaching the students -- instead, their emphasis was on maintaining a cheery atmosphere during class.

    I dropped in on Cindy Slevko's remedial mathematics class for freshmen. The students were working at their desks. "Right now they're working on homework they didn't do," she told me. "We're supposed to have eighteen in the class, and we have twelve today, which isn't too bad. In the sophomore demote class we'll have eighteen and only six will show up." She had me look at some of the students' answers to problems: 4/8 = 1/4; 15 14/10 = 15 4/10; 21/12 = 19/12. Sleyko said, "Now, look at problem twenty-nine here. They'd all get that wrong." The problem was 7 minus 4 2/3.

    In Pat Michalski's earth-science class the students were watching the movie Forbidden Planet as a lesson in astronomy and also as a reward for finishing a difficult part of the course; it would take up three full class periods. Michalski, sitting in a small office off the classroom, said, "You have to regulate everything with these kids. Rules all the time. A lot are used to being hit. Their homes are constant noise." A deep voice came out of the room where the students were watching the movie: "Where Miss Michalski at?" She walked in, consulted with one of the boys, and came back to her office. "He wanted to know if that was the monster. That kid's a senior!" She pointed to a hand-lettered sign she'd hung over her desk, which said:

    YOU Ever Know
    That Your My
    And Everything
    I'd Like TO Be:

    "That's by a junior! I know it looks like third grade," Michalski said. She motioned me into a corner of the classroom and whispered, "You wouldn't believe which of these kids are parents." I counted while she pointed: seven.

    In Joe Valenziano's American-history class, the students were finishing their homework from the night before, which consisted of answering a series of questions by copying the answers out of textbooks. For handing this in the students would get five bonus points on their next exam. Valenziano said, "This is the old rote method of learning. You read it, you write it down. It seems to be working for me. I've been here sixteen years, and I've tried everything. "

    A student put a paper on his desk. Some of the answers were copied correctly and others were not: Who was George III? "He was a spy." Explain the role of blacks in the Revolutionary War: "forming of America." Valenziano glanced at the paper and wrote a 5 on it. "If it looks good and they answer the questions, they get five points," he said. "I want them to copy! I call it sharing. See, these kids can't do homework like you and me. I learned this from working in an inner-city school. Sure, when I first came here I had all these pie-in-the-sky ideas. People might say it's cheating, but we all copy as adults. We all plagiarize as adults. There's nothing wrong with it."

    Du Sable High School, which has 1,900 students, has even worse demographics than Orr -- its parents are 100 percent poor -- but the atmosphere is warmer, perhaps because it has a long history as one of the linchpin institutions in what was once a real community. The assistant principal, Luke Helm, who has been at Du Sable for twenty-five years, told me one morning, "Historically, this has been the stepping stone to the black middle class -- from poverty to the middle class. But we're no longer working with the same population. The people we're getting now, sixty-eight percent come from Robert Taylor Homes [a massive housing project across the street]. We have a fifty-one percent dropout rate. The reasons are legion; pregnancy is the biggest. [Du Sable became famous last year because its clinic began to dispense birth control to students. ] There's one gang here, the Disciples. We do not have gang problems in the building. We've been very lucky. We're pretty much in control of the building. They understand turf. This turf is ours. We know who the gang leaders are, we do talk to them, and we do have an understanding."

    The overwhelming majority of Du Sable parents live within two blocks of the school, but the PTA, called Parents United to Save Du Sable, has just fifteen members, and it exists only because of the efforts of an energetic mother named Brenda Holmes. In 1982 it didn't have any members. Only 60 percent of the parents come in to sign their children's report cards, which is a three-times-a-year duty. Of the 800 boys at Du Sable, as many as a hundred are former inmates of a home for juvenile criminals.

    One of the classes I went to at Du Sable was an introductory English class made up of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old students who read at between the third- and the sixth grade level. The teacher, Anthony Eirich, a big, energetic man, was teaching Julius Caesar. "'And he will, after his sour fashion, tell you what great events have taken place today.' See, he's saying, 'What's happening?' Remember when we had a fighter named Cassius?" No response. "Cassius Clay." He went around the class asking the kids to read lines out loud. Some did pretty well, but a couple obviously couldn't read at all. One wouldn't even open his book when Eirich asked him to read. "Why doesn't he like Cassius -- because he's what?" Eirich said.

    One kid called out, "Fat!"

    "No, he's lean and hungry. Cassius is smart. What wouldn't the slavemasters let the slaves do?" No response. "Go to school! Can Vrdolyak roll over Mayor Washington?" A chorus of nos. "Why not? Because he's smart! Look at Ebony. Forty years of progress. People speaking their mind. Cassius thinks too much. Julius Caesar was a famous man. See, Doctor King, they'll be writing plays about him one day."

    In another English class, while the students were busy copying the definitions of words out of the dictionary, the teacher, Gwendolyn Jones, showed me some homework she had graded A. The students were asked to summarize famous short stories. One was Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place": "He old man is a deaf man who is tiring to make a living." "He don't cares about anything but his self.... When the clock hits 3 o'clock he get very mad." "He tries to kill his self by hanging his self by rope." On Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart": "He don't want to kill the old man.... When he do kill him cuts off the head."

    Jones showed me the TAP (Test of Aptitude and Proficiency) reading scores for the class, which rank them by national percentile. Most were in the 30s; the lowest was 4; but one was 92. I asked to meet that last student, and Jones called her over. Her name was Lorese Lewis. She didn't live in the Robert Taylor Homes: she lived in a two-parent home, and her father worked. It was my strong impression that the gap between her and the other kids was one of sociological conditions much more than of basic intelligence.

    The usual feeder school for Du Sable is the Beethoven School, which is in the middle of the Robert Taylor Homes. As with other schools in the area, its enrollment is dropping rapidly, down from 1,400 in 1977 to 900 today. Its budget, linked to enrollment, is dropping too, but it is still generous. Sue Fowlkes, the principal. told me, "My total budget in '85 was three-point-two million. In the early eighties additional funds were channeled into the school as a result of a desegregation decree. It was felt that otherwise our low achievement levels would never go up. But they have not gone up with more money. The scores fluctuate up and down. Up through third grade we're running about six to eight months below median. In the middle grades it's a year, a year and a half. In seventh and eighth it's at least a year and a half or maybe more. The discipline problems start in the primary grades. Every now and then a kid will start acting out in the first grade -- hitting the next child. I start to see gang signs with around fourth or fifth graders. In second and third grade you may see them calling out the gang names on the playground. Pregnancy generally starts in the eighth grade. This year" -- and it was only three months into the school year when we talked -- "I'm running five."

    Of the students who manage to get as far as high school graduation perhaps half will go on to college, but most of these will attend a nearly all black two-year community college in Chicago. The transfer rates from the community colleges to four-year colleges is very low -- at the one with the lowest rate, Malcolm X College, on the West Side, only 5.8 percent of the students go on to a four-year college. Most of these students attend Chicago State, which is 80 percent black and has a de facto open admissions policy. By far the most common choice of career for its graduates is education (Chicago State began as a teacher's college), and most of those who become teachers go to work in the Chicago public schools.

    Housing projects in the ghettos, like schools, have such a terrible reputation today that it is easy to forget that as recently as a generation ago there was an aura of hope around them. Even the Robert Taylor Homes, which were meant to contain the tide of black migrants from the South inside the traditional ghetto (an interstate highway runs along their western border and the old ghetto abuts the other three sides), were opened in a spirit of some optimism. For years reformers had believed in Le Corbusier's precept that high-rise housing built in "superblocks" with no through streets would be the ideal form of urban life. More prosaically, the Robert Taylor Homes replaced an old black lower-class strip of shanties and junkyards with clean, modern, well-constructed buildings that had reliable plumbing and heating. Even today the apartments there, though spartan, are pretty nice. Almost from the start, however, the Robert Taylor Homes had problems. The reason is that they were designed and filled according to what now looks like a perfect recipe for sociological disaster: large-family apartments in high-rises, and little or no screening for residents.

    In its early days public housing was in practice barred to the underclass. When the first black public-housing project in Chicago, the low-rise Ida B. Wells Homes, on the South Side, opened in 1941, single-parent families were excluded as a matter of policy. Beyond that, as Devereux Bowly, Jr., wrote in The Poorhouse, a history of subsidized housing in Chicago, "An elaborate investigation was made of Chicago Housing Authority applicants that included: 1) an office interview by a social worker, 2) employment verification, 3) check for a police record, 4) home visit by an investigator, and 5) scoring on a CHA formula giving preference to applicants in substandard apartments with insufficient income to get good housing on the private market." It is common in Chicago to meet successful blacks in their late thirties and early forties who spent part of their childhood in the projects.

    In the mid-fifties, after the reformist director of the CHA, Elizabeth Wood, was forced out and replaced by a retired Army general named William B. Kean, the CHA began to de-emphasize screening. At the same time, it was becoming committed to high-rise buildings, to large-family apartments, and to building only in black ghettos. J. S. Fuerst, a professor at Loyola University who worked at the CHA in those days, says, "You can't put four thousand units in a place. And if you do, you can't suck it with the most troubled families. But Elizabeth Wood left, and General Kean said, 'Oh, no, it's got to be first come, first served.' And then they proceeded to accept people twenty years old, with three, four, five kids, and no husband." In the Robert Taylor Homes the buildings that were completed first are still, twenty-five years later, considered the best, because there was more screening. The ones completed last, and filled using virtually no screening, are the worst. As in the ghetto as a whole, so in the projects: where they became all lower class and cut off from the rest of society, everything fell apart.

    Ron Gate, a freelance writer and former radio reporter who grew up in the Taylor Homes (he credits Luke Helm, at Du Sable, with motivating him to get out), was an example of the unscreened Taylor tenant. He is one of nine children who in the early sixties were living with their grandmother in a house on the West Side. Their mother had severe psychological problems (once she was found wandering aimlessly down the street, wrapped in a bedsheet), and left the family. Later the family was evicted from the house and for a while lived at the Salvation Army. From there they moved to the Robert Taylor Homes. Tate doesn't know where either of his parents or any of his brothers and sisters are today, and he doesn't know anything about his parents' families in Mississippi.

    One day Date took me back to his old building in the Taylor Homes. Though turnover there is high, a few of his friends were still around. The male contemporaries of his that I met were all unemployed or working odd jobs, and invariably they asked him if he knew where there were any good jobs. His female contemporaries were all single mothers, or single and pregnant.

    The worst part of daily life in the Taylor Homes is the constant crime and fear of crime. In a typical four-week period last year seventy-nine felonies and one hundred misdemeanors were reported there -- far fewer than the real number of crimes, because in the projects the gangs are more powerful than the police and are known to retaliate against informers. Sergeant Leroy O. Grant, a police-community liaison officer with the Chicago Police Department's public-housing unit, which has its headquarters in the Taylor Homes, told me, "Once, a mother wouldn't prosecute a rape of her fourteen-year-old because of fear of retaliation. I don't know if that happens in any other place in the world. But around here, if somebody knocks on your door at four in the morning to say 'Don't go to court,' there's no man to answer."

    I got a look at what they were talking about one night when I was with two policemen from the Second District, which includes the Taylor Homes. There was a report of a shooting in a small apartment building. Inside the apartment from which the call to the police had come were four boys in their late teens, two girls, two small children, and an old woman in a wheelchair. A coat lay in the bathtub with hot water running over it, forming reddish pools in the tub. One of the boys was shot in the wrist. His story was that he had been standing on the front steps of the building and was shot by a stranger in a passing car. Everybody had a slightly different version of the incident, always skimpy on the details. "Who do you run with, man?" one of the policemen asked the boys. "The Ds." The policemen took the boy who was shot to the hospital, where, tight-lipped and grimacing in pain, he refused to file a complaint against anyone or to say anything else about what had happened.

    There have always been high crime rates in black ghettos, and a casualness about them in the rest of society. In the early years of this century the black ghetto in Chicago, like those in many cities, was the prostitution and gambling center, and it is courthouse lore that when a black kills another black it is a "misdemeanor murder." Police foot patrols, which do seem to reduce crime, are intermittent: the corridors of the Tavlor Homes are "visually checked" (a cursory patrol) daily and thoroughly patrolled twice a week. The Second District has four men on foot patrol, but only during the day and only in the commercial strips.

    There's ample evidence in the ghetto to support the liberal theory that poverty and unemployment cause crime, and also for the conservative theory that lax punishment causes it. In Chicago in 1985 there were 277,000 crimes serious enough to be listed in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report. Because Illinois doesn't keep "offender-based statistics," which track criminals from arrest through prison, it is impossible to say exactly how many of these crimes were punished, but it was certainly a small fraction. The chance that a criminal will get away with it in Chicago, assuming he is not a murderer or a rapist, is thought to be somewhere between 90 and 95 percent. And these are the odds after an attempt was made to increase punishment: in 1978 the Illinois legislature instituted mandatory minimum six-year sentences, without parole, for major crimes other than murder. The law has had no dramatic effect on the crime rate. The hiring of many new black policemen in the seventies, as the result of a court order, did not affect the crime rate either, though it is rare today to hear the police described as racist. In the vicinity of the Robert Taylor Homes crime has dropped in the past couple of years, but the police attribute this to the depopulation of the area. Nobody in the ghetto has a sense that any kind of reform of legal procedure would significantly reduce crime.

    IV. Ways Out of the Ghetto

    Discussions in Washington about how to overcome the problems of ghettos through national policy-making tend to flit almost randomly in and out of relevance to real ghetto life. But they cannot be dismissed. Ghettos are a national problem, and aside from continuing to change on their own, they will change because of what happens next in government.

    A number of ideas about improving ghettos have been put forward, but two have particular momentum right now: workfare and self-help. Both are conservative causes of long standing that, because of the tenor of the times, are being taken seriously by liberals, too.

    Workfare means tying government welfare benefits to work by the recipients. It is an old idea, dating back at least to the workhouses built for the "undeserving poor" of early-nineteenth-century England. The philosophical justification for workfare is that it is wrong for anyone to get money from the government without doing something in return; the practical justification is that welfare dependency does exist, as almost anybody who lives in a ghetto will tell you, and something should be done to guard against it. Ten years ago workfare was routinely dismissed as "slavefare." Now thirty-nine states have some form of work program for welfare recipients. These range, to cite the two best-known examples, from Massachusetts's program, which requires signing up but no further participation, to California's brand-new system, which actually penalizes welfare recipients for not working or joining a training program.

    It is a natural guess that the comprehensive study of the welfare system that President Reagan commissioned earlier this year might end with a recommendation for a national workfare program -- for example, all welfare recipients except mothers with children under school age might be required to work in order to receive benefits. National workfare won't happen, however because it would conflict with a deeply held conservative principle: that welfare policy should be made by the states or, if possible, by local governments. The Administration will probably propose giving welfare grants to the states and letting them make their own policy, with a strong hint that workfare is the path of virtue. "I don't believe it's possible for the federal government to run a workfare program," says Robert B. Carleson, who was the architect of President Reagan's reform of the California welfare system and has been consulted on the welfare-reform study. "The country is too big, with too many variations in the labor market. Detailed federal regulations won't work for New York City and rural Idaho and Puerto Rico at the same time." In 1981 the Administration succeeded in rescinding a federal ban on state workfare programs -- Carleson, then working in the White House, spearheaded the effort. It is possible that the big northeastern states, which have the worst ghettos, will decide against mandatory workfare programs if given the choice, and the system will stay essentially the same as it is now.

    The new self-help movement is essentially a renascence of the old Booker T. Washington creed, minus the acceptance of legal segregation. Its main proponents are conservative black intellectuals outside the old-line elite black national leadership: Glenn Loury; Robert Woodson, of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, in Washington; Thomas Sowell, of the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University; Walter Williams, of George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. Self-help proponents believe that poor blacks have been crippled by the habit of looking to government for salvation and that they need to develop a tradition of self-reliance, perhaps through small-scale entrepreneurship. They would have the government and the black leadership promote self-help not by passing legislation and spending money but by pointedly refusing to do these things, and talking about values instead.

    Among the many other current ideas about policies for the ghettos two deserve mention. One, which in any Democratic Administration would receive more attention than it does now, is the classic liberal solution: trying to achieve full employment and creating special job-training and public-service employment programs in the ghettos. A working ghetto population would mean less crime and less out-of-wedlock childbirth. The other idea is conservative in origin: creating enterprise zones in the ghettos -- small and nearly libertarian states that would have radically lower levels of taxation and regulation than the rest of the country, and would produce many jobs. Enterprise zones, like liberal suggestions for policy, are supposed to help the ghettos by reducing unemployment.

    None of these solutions takes as a given the idea that the ghettos have a separate, self-sustaining culture. Therefore none has the goal of wresting people in the ghettos from the grip of the culture. Even the self-help movement, one of whose axioms is the importance of culture in shaping behavior, promotes ideas like the privatization of housing projects -- implying that the ghettos can be made to function as real communities. The evidence of black success so far, however, seems to indicate that the best hope for people in the ghettos lies in their establishing some link to the outside world.

    Both of the most pressing problems -- unemployment and out-of-wedlock childbearing -- illustrate how difficult it will be to heal the ghettos without taking on cultural issues directly. More than twenty years ago Kenneth Clark wrote of Harlem. "If all its residents were employed it would not materially alter the pathology of the community." The statistic that best shows how pathology has outrun unemployment is the rate of labor-force participation -- a statistic that includes not only those working but also the unemployed who have looked for work during the past month. The rate of labor-force participation for black teenage boys fell from 60 percent in 1940 to 36 percent in 1970, a fall too great to be accounted for by just unemployment or by the increasing proportion of black teenagers in school. There was a sharp drop in teenage labor-force participation in the ghettos in the late sixties, when national unemployment was quite low.

    There is some evidence that participation in the labor force does increase when more jobs become available. In 1980 Houston, which then had a very low unemployment rate and many unskilled blue-collar jobs, had a labor-force participation rate for all blacks that was 13 percentage points higher than Chicago's. And the percentage of households made up of single mothers was lower in Houston, which might indicate a correlation between more jobs for men and less out-of-wedlock childbearing.

    But today a national boom, and even a labor shortage, is under way in unskilled, low-paying, non-industrial jobs. This is bad news for steelworkers but should be good news for black teenagers, as it has been for the new wave of immigrants from foreign countries. The standard argument about why the labor shortage has not affected labor-force participation in the ghettos is that most of the jobs are in the suburbs, and that kids today watch TV and see a swank way of life that makes working for "chump change" seem pointless to them. But these kids' parents and grandparents saw the sweet life at much closer range, because they often worked inside rich white people's houses in the South, and still many were motivated enough to move hundreds of miles away, for jobs slaughtering cattle.

    A fundamental reason that so many unmarried teenagers have children in the ghetto today seems to be that having them has become a custom -- a way of life. The story I heard over and over from teenage mothers was that their pregnancies were not accidental. Their friends were all having babies. Their boyfriends had pressured them into it, because being a father -- the fact of it, not the responsibility -- is a status symbol for a boy in the ghetto. Welfare does provide an economic underpinning for out-of-wedlock childbearing, but it is rare to hear about a girl who had a baby just to get on welfare. Out-of-wedlock childbearing in ghettos existed before there was any welfare. It is the aspect of life in the ghettos over which the people there have the most control, and it will be the last and hardest thing to change. It is today by far the greatest contributor to the perpetuation of the misery of ghetto life.

    Although the problems of the ghettos seem to resist economic solution, they do seem to respond to the imposition of a different, and more disciplined, culture. People who joined the Army or the Marines right after high school credit the decision with getting them out of the ghettos. The Black Muslims, in their heyday, were widely respected in the ghettos for being the only people who could turn around prostitutes and heroin addicts, and they accomplished this through severe dress codes, strictures on drinking, smoking, sex, and diet, and a round-the-clock regimen of work. In Dark Ghetto Kenneth Clark proposed, somewhat apologetically, establishing a paramilitary "cadet corps" in Harlem, which he said would be valuable because of "the relative ease with which uniforms, disciplined organization, and regulations can be used to bolster the self-esteem of young people."

    In the Chicago ghetto today the only institutions with a record of consistently getting people out of the underclass are the parochial schools. They pay their teachers much less than what public-school teachers are paid, but they can screen their applicants, their principals can hire and fire, and they can and do impose many rules on both the students and their parents. (Ghetto public "magnet" schools that are allowed to screen are also successful.) Father George Clements, the pastor of the Holy Angels Catholic Church, describes the regimen at its elementary school this way: "We have achieved honors as an academic institution above the national norm in all disciplines. We bear down hard on basics. Hard work, sacrifice, dedication. A twelve month school year. An eight-hour day. You can't leave the campus. Total silence in the lunchroom and throughout the building. Expulsion for graffiti. Very heavy emphasis on moral pride. The parents must come every month and pick up the report card and talk to the teacher, or we kick out the kid. They must come to the PTA every month. They must sign every night's homework in every subject. They must come to Mass on Sundays. They must take a required course on the Catholic faith. The kids wear uniforms, which are required to be clean, pressed, no holes. We have a waiting list of over a thousand, and the more we bear down, the longer the list gets."

    Programs based on the idea of making the ghettos bloom again as communities -- in other words, creating a new, healthy, indigenous culture there -- should be regarded with extreme skepticism. Enterprise zones would certainly do no harm, but it is hard to believe that even with tax relief employers would want to locate where crime rates are so high. Turning housing projects over to their residents might foster pride, but it would also lead to physical deterioration unless there were heavy subsidies -- in the Robert Taylor Homes the tenants' rent doesn't even cover the heating bill. Several black leaders, including at one extreme Louis Farrakhan, favor some form of black economic nationalism, in which people in the ghetto would trade only with black firms, in the supposed manner of other immigrant groups. Even if such a nation came into being, it would be a pathetically poor one, because the black middle class wouldn't join -- it is already too reliant on the national economy. Community development is the most appealing idea of all. Everybody knows a story of a great teacher or organizer who made ghetto kids blossom through pure love and encouragement. The trouble is that such people are one in a million and they cannot be legislated into existence. The programs in the ghetto that work best on a mass scale -- most notably Project Head Start, the one poverty program widely acclaimed as a success, which starts giving special instruction to children at a very early age -- represent not the ghetto's taking care of its own but an intervention by the mainstream culture.

    The best solution for the ghettos would be one that attacks their cultural as well as their economic problems, and that takes place away from the ghettos. One such idea would be to bring back the Work Projects Administration. The original WPA was a big success in the ghettos. In 1940 in Chicago 19 percent of the black male labor force was working for the WPA, and this seems to have helped prevent an unmanageable underclass from developing at a time of catastrophic unemployment; the WPA did function as a conduit into real jobs. In Black Metropolis Drake and Cayton wrote, "During the Depression years an increasingly large number of Negroes were absorbed into the Federal and State Civil Service.... [M]any of these received their first contact with white-collar work on various WPA projects." The wartime boom seems effortlessly to have absorbed the WPA workers, as well as many people who were on welfare.

    A new federal program like the WPA would create jobs where workfare programs only require people to find them. It could pay workers less than the minimum wage, so that private employment would always be more appealing. The work it would do would be outside the ghettos, like repairing highways and operating word processors; this would require, however, overcoming the union opposition that has kept most government jobs programs confined to make-work within the ghetto. Some people now on welfare would be required to join the program or get a job -- for instance, single people, and parents whose children are old enough to get home from school and be on their own for a couple of hours. Welfare benefits would have to be adjusted nationally to make the incentives come out right, but that probably should be done anyway.

    The great advantage of such a program is that it would enter the lives of ghetto kids when they were eighteen or nineteen and would affect them at a time when most still feel more hopeful than resigned, even if some have been overwhelmed by the traumas of growing up in the ghetto. It would not have the explosive potential to rend the fabric of adult life, the way busing and the scatter-siting of housing projects have done, but it would take the people involved out of the ghetto culture, one big step closer to the national mainstream. (Ideally, the program would be combined with a universal national-service requirement for young people that would bring many middle-class kids to the neo-WPA too.) It would be expensive, though not unrealistically so if it became a conduit to private jobs and supplanted welfare payments for many people. And it is not a wacky scheme requiring a departure from the whole American political system; it is something that America as already done once. It worked and, just as important, it is widely remembered as having worked.

    No matter what the specific policies adopted by this or the next Administration, one issue will substantially determine their success or failure. Once it was the simplest of all issues in race relations, and now it is one of the stickiest: integration. Ethnically homogeneous industrial societies can sustain high unemployment rates and operate extremely generous welfare systems, rich in dependency incentives, without creating an underclass. (And when an immigrant group that is looked down upon comes into such a society -- West Indians in Britain, Turks in West Germany -- the first signs of an underclass appear.) The single overriding factor in the creation of the American ghettos is racial prejudice. The ghettos could not have developed their strongly self-defeating culture in the heart of urban America during the height of the postwar boom if the people who lived in them were of the same color as most of our society. The ghettos are the product of many generations of complete segregation from the neighborhoods, educational institutions, economy, and values of the rest of the country.

    The most invisible of all the ghetto's ills is the sense of racial inferiority that develops there. The endless references in the black official culture to pride and beauty, which to whites may seem to be obvious points not requiring constant restatement, can be explained only by the hold that their opposites, shame and ugliness, had on the minds of blacks for years. John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony, was asked on its fortieth anniversary how he would like to be remembered. He said, "I hope future historians will say that we changed the negative image black people had of themselves."

    The feeling is widespread among blacks that whites will always treat them as inferiors and that they will inevitably have to struggle against internalizing this attitude and turning it into self-hate and failure. Thus the appeal of keeping apart is very strong. (It is for many whites, too -- for different reasons, of course.) In the black underclass and among blacks thinking about helping the underclass, the pull toward separatism is especially powerful -- there is a feeling that any first foray into the wider world is likely to fail and that any such failure would be crippling.

    The separatist path, though, often begins by looking in ghetto life for sources of pride, and, given the suite of ghetto life, this is dangerous. It leads to ennobling what people should be escaping, so that whatever pride is generated is misdirected toward staying put. Separatism doesn't work in the long run -- immigrants do stick together in the early stages, but after that the road to success is through assimilation into the fluid national mainstream. The self-loathing that every ethnic American knows as the underside of assimilation is much more corrosive for blacks than it has been for others. If the price of expunging this feeling is staying in the ghettos and giving up on trying to enter ordinary working life, however, it is much too high. People don't like living in ghettos. They want to get out. Society should be pushing them in that direction.

  • See Origins of the Underclass (June 1986)

    Copyright © 1986 by Nicholas Lemann. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1986; The Origins of the Underclass.

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