ABC reporter Ann Compton sounded almost apologetic during President Barack Obama‘s news conference last week as she said, “May I ask you about race?”
As if there were any way in the world that he could say no?
Kudos to Compton for calling attention to a big elephant in the room. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder might have overstated his case when he recently called us “a nation of cowards” in talking about race, but not that far over. He would have stirred less heat from whites, at least, if he had pointed out more explicitly that he was talking about black folks too.
Black Americans usually are more eager to talk about race than white Americans, but we African-Americans have our own PC too. We don’t like to talk about the growing gap between those of us who are making it and those whom the civil rights movement left behind.
As Obama spoke, the National Urban League released its annual “State of Black America” report. Predictably, as with previous reports that the 99-year-old league has conducted since the 1970s, the state of black America is pretty miserable.
Blacks were twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned compared with whites, the study said. Blacks also lost their homes due to foreclosure at a greater rate than other ethnic groups. This is partly because many blacks had been targeted for subprime loans during the economic boom, civil rights groups charge, even when their credit was good enough to get them into conventional loans.
That’s why Compton echoed the curiosity of many other Americans in wondering whether the issue of race had come up during Obama’s two-month-old presidency. Yes, he said, there was “justifiable pride” that Americans had “moved beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination. But that lasted about a day.”
Since then, Obama said he’s been engrossed in “steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen” and “keep America safe.” As he should. After all, hard times are hitting everyone, and a healthy economy helps everybody.
You don’t have to look back very far to see how the biggest boost to black prosperity since the 1960s came with the 1990s economic boom. Ah, those were the days.
In fact, the Urban League, like most of America’s old-guard black leadership, focuses on race while playing down how closely the fortunes of America’s new black middle class match those of their white counterparts. The biggest statistical drag on black progress comes from the approximately 25 percent of black Americans still in poverty.
America’s great race debate, inflamed by heat-seeking cable TV and radio talk shows, remains bitterly divided over which is the biggest obstacle to black progress: racism or a self-defeating culture within the black community?
Mainstream black leaders tend to blame black poverty on external barriers like racism, discrimination and the disappearance of low-skill jobs.
Conservative critics tend to blame black poverty on black behavior, attitudes and other “cultural” conditioning.
In fact, writes Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson in his new book, “More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City,” each side makes good points to which the other should listen.
“This book will likely generate controversy,” he writes, “because I dare to take culture seriously.”
Dare he does, despite the risk of being accused of “blaming the victim.” That’s the typical and unfortunate response in academic circles, he points out, if you even suggest that shared values, attitudes and behaviors in poor, socially isolated neighborhoods are a significant reason why a lot of poor people stay poor.
It is not “blaming the victim,” Wilson argues, to acknowledge that growing up in a social environment of drug dealing, single parenting, welfare dependency and poorly performing schools leaves new generations unprepared for the mainstream world of paychecks and traditional family structures.
Nor is it coddling the victim, he argues with several decades worth of studies and statistics, to acknowledge that, for whatever reasons, a lot of employers think immigrant workers are more reliable than blacks—which feeds a cycle of despair and resentment that encourages some poor blacks to drop out of the work force.
Instead of fighting over culture vs. racism as the pre-eminent one-stop cause of black poverty, Obama and other lawmakers need to work on legislation that acknowledges the power of both—and won’t be too hard to sell to the public.
Can that be done? Obama won the presidency by insisting that racism was no longer powerful enough to stop him. But is it still powerful enough to stop those whom the civil rights movement left behind in poverty? Or is that too hard to talk about?