Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
Moving America Beyond Race: Addressing the Problems of a Persistent Underclass
America appears to be in the process of moving beyond race, which is a healthy manifestation of the progress we have made in recent years.
U.S. News and World Report points out that there is a new generation of post-civil rights black political leaders:
. . . such as Sen. Barrack Obama, Newark's Mayor Cory Booker, and former Rep. Harold Ford. While they are ready to combat racism, they choose to accentuate the positive. In the context of dramatically reduced racial resentment, they espouse the traditional American virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility.
Improved prosperity in the black community has been dramatic. In 1940, 58 percent of black women with jobs worked as maids; today it is only one percent. At the same time, the median income for black females has jumped from 36 percent of that of a white woman to about 95 percent today. In the case of men, median income has gone from 41 percent to about 72 percent of white earnings today. Blacks are now represented in the top echelons of American business -- over 25,000 of them CEOs.
Still, there remain serious problems in certain segments of the black community. There is a growing black underclass trapped in poverty by failed schools, broken families, and endemic crime. Today, some 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers compared with about 25 percent 40 years ago. In urban areas, more than 50 percent of black men do not complete high school.
An important new book, Come on People (Thomas Nelson) by comedian Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical school, addresses and confronts these very real problems.
For more than three years, Cosby and Poussaint have been listening to community call-outs in cities across the country. Combining messages of personal responsibility with practical solutions, Come on People retells the stories shared at these call-outs. They tell a story about strong, resilient people who have overcome poverty and mistreatment.
With the demise in the 1960s of officially sanctioned forms of segregation and discrimination, there was a widespread feeling that black males would have greater access to the mainstream of American society. Cosby and Poussaint note that society:
. . . had fully expected that these young men would be in a better position in every way -- financially, psychologically, legally -- to sustain viable marriages and families. Instead, the overall situation has continued to go downhill among the poor who are mostly shut out from the mainstream of success. There is one statistic that captures the bleakness. In 1950, five out of every six black children were born into a two-parent home. Today, that number is less than two out of six. In poor communities, that number is lower still. There are whole blocks with scarcely a married couple, whole blocks without responsible males to watch out for wayward boys, whole neighborhoods in which little boys and girls come of age without seeing up close a committed partnership and perhaps never having attended a wedding.
A house without a father is a challenge, the authors note, but a neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe. Government can hardly solve a problem of this magnitude:
We saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help. "Governments" are things. Governments don't care. People care, and no people care like parents do -- well, except maybe grandparents and other caregivers, and thank God for them. . . . A mother can usually teach a daughter how to be a woman. But as much as mothers love their sons, they have difficulty showing a son how to be a man. A successful man can channel his natural aggression. Without that discipline, these sons often get into trouble at school because many teachers find it difficult to manage their "acting out" behavior.
The statistics of disarray within inner city black communities are stark:
* Homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age and has been for decades.
* Of the roughly 16,000 homicides in this country each year, more than half are committed by black men. A black man is seven times more likely to commit a murder than a white man, and six times more likely to be murdered.
* Ninety-four percent of all black people who are murdered are murdered by other black people.
* Although black people make up just 12 percent of the general population, they make up nearly 44 percent of the prison population.
The authors declare that:
This is madness. Back in 1950, there were twice as many white people in prison as black. Today, there are more black people than white in prison. We're not saying there is no discrimination or racial profiling today, but there is less than there was in 1950. These are not "political" criminals. These are people selling drugs, stealing, or shooting their buddies over trivia.
The media culture in which all Americans live is of particular concern to Cosby and Poussaint. They write that:
The Ku Klux Klan could not have devised a media culture as destructive as the one our media moguls, black and white, have created for black America. . . . What do record producers think when they churn out that gangsta rap with antisocial, women-hating messages? Do they think that black male youth won't act out what they have heard repeated since they were old enough to listen? Oh yes, then there's nigga a thousand times a day, every day. Martin and Malcolm and Medgar Evers must be turning over in their graves. They put their lives on the line. Why? So our young people can pick up where white people left off and debase themselves instead of being debased? Talk about lowering self-esteem.
Looking back historically, the authors point out that:
For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it. One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves. When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores where segregated, black people opened and ran their own. Black life insurance companies and banks thrived, as well as black funeral homes. African Americans also owned and prospered on family farms. Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community with people working to help each other. In the era before welfare checks and food stamps and subsidized housing and Medicaid, families were strong too. They had to be. And if the nuclear family faltered, as sometimes happened, the extended family . . . reached in and lent a helping hand, because if they didn't no one else would. This was the world your authors were born into. It was far from free and even further from perfect, but it worked. As we all know, however, something happened, and it wasn't necessarily good.
Cosby and Poussaint are critical of those black spokesmen who tend to blame all problems facing the black community upon "white racism." They write:
Blaming white people can be a way for some black people to feel better about themselves, but it doesn't pay the electric bills. There are more doors of opportunity open for black people today than ever before in the history of America. Black people who thus far have not achieved must be made to realize that these doors are tall enough and wide enough for them to walk through with their heads held high.
Children today, they write:
. . . are coming into a country that, while imperfect, is one of the freest, most prosperous and most diverse in the history of the world. But with that freedom come temptations. . . . Yet, despite this opportunity we see so many of our black youth squandering their freedom. Crime, drugs, alcohol, murder, teen pregnancies, and drop-out rates in city high schools of 50 percent or more are devastating not only to black children but also to black communities, and the entire nation for that matter.
Education, Cosby and Poussaint point out, was once greatly valued in the black community:
On our path to victory, we have wandered off course. We were so busy worrying about the white man, we stopped paying attention to the black man. We remember the injustice of how slavers brought our people to America, but we have forgotten the brilliance of our response -- how we sneaked around late at night and taught ourselves to read, taught ourselves secret signals to resist, taught ourselves pride and will and love. We have to draw on that history of persistence. Black Americans have always used education as the chief weapon in their struggle for equal access to American society and civil rights. Education still provides -- as Malcolm X said -- our greatest hope for the future of African-American people. But illiteracy keeps people in chains -- our ancestors in real chains, our children in emotional ones. In either case, people who cannot read and write are more easily oppressed and are handicapped in their fight for freedom.
One of the complaints the authors commonly hear from children is that school is "boring." But, they ask:
. . . boring in relation to what? The Power Rangers? Our suspicions is that it is boring compared to the intense entertainment they are exposed to very early in life. Many kids have become entertainment junkies because the media have become such relentless pushers of addictive junk. . . . Excessive media violence plays a role in societal violence, but it is hardly a complete explanation. Many other factors -- like poverty, fatherlessness, motherlessness, unemployment, and the easy accessibility of guns -- contribute to the violence epidemic. Still, media violence is like a pollutant; it amplifies the toxic atmosphere that gives support to violence, and it undermines efforts at violence prevention.
Those in the gangsta rap industry, both black and white, are, the authors note:
. . . calling this a "culture." This co-called culture promotes the moral breakdown of the family. It deliberately influences women to become pregnant before they have finished their education and influences men to shuck their responsibility when this happens. . . . The gangsta rapper is saying, "I am somebody because my mother is a drug addict, and I don't know who my father is. I have been in three or four foster homes, and I have been in trouble, and that is okay because the rappers are saying that's who I am." The truth behind this kind of antisocial swagger is that swagger is all there is. It is no more than a cover for a life of sadness and frustration.
Sadly, as racism has declined, the dissolution of the inner city black community has steadily advanced. In 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, about 98,000 African Americans were in prison. Today, there are nearly ten times as many black people in prison. According to the Sentencing Project, 32 percent of the black men born today will go to prison at some point in their lifetime.
In the view of Cosby and Poussaint:
A lack of basic education severely limits your life options. No one can stop you from getting educated other than yourself. . . . Parents and caregivers, have you heard a kid say, "Well, I can either flip burgers or go out here and make some real money selling drugs"? When you hear that, do you stop that child and say, "Wait a minute, fool. You don't flip burgers for the rest of your life. You flip them to become the manager of the place. You flip burgers to move from manager to owner of the franchise"? You have to say this to your kids more than once. So do their teachers. . . . Please remind young people that there is no shame in hard work. . . . An unpleasant job usually leads to a better job, as young people develop working skills that are useful on any job. . . . The unemployment rate for black people is twice that of white people -- this has to change.
The notion that "poverty" has driven young people to violent crime is, Cosby and Poussaint declare:
. . . too much like those folks in times past who would claim that "the devil made me do it." The victim posture -- gussied up with words like "disadvantaged" and "at-risk" -- leads people to deny personal responsibility for self-defeating behaviors. Such attitudes overlook the great advances made by black communities when they have adopted the philosophy of self-help even as they fought racism. We have too many examples over the centuries of black achievement under hardship to deny our own capabilities and to embrace a victim mentality.
Addressing the black community in particular, Cosby and Poussaint state that:
The most important thing that is within the reach of just about everyone is to make sure that every black child has two active parents. . . . A two-parent home is less likely to be poor, and the children it produces are much less likely to end up in prison. If, a generation from now, every black child grew up in a functional two-parent home, the problems of crime and poverty in black communities would greatly diminish. . . . This is the base we build on. Children who are loved will have the confidence to succeed in school, to succeed on the job, to succeed in life. . . . By doing things we can do, we can make the future much brighter for poor black youth, much brighter for everyone. No more excuses, no more delays. Come on people.
This is a call to arms well worth heeding from two distinguished black Americans who have devoted their lives to helping men, women, and children take advantage of the opportunities now provided by our free society to all of its citizens. All of us will be the losers if the steps they urge are not taken.
Post-Communist Poland Embraces Freedom and Democracy and Is Witnessing a Revival of Jewish Life
Visiting post-Communist Poland, as this writer recently did, is to witness a long-repressed society coming to life and embracing the freedom, democracy, and openness which it has long been denied.
Poland, as many have pointed out, has had the geographic misfortune of being located between Germany and Russia. The Polish society lives in the shadow of World War II and the post-war Communist era. Rather than acquiesce in the Nazi occupation, Poles fought back. On August 1, 1944, the Polish Home Army attacked the German garrison in Warsaw. It lasted for 63 days with the Russian Army passively observing it from across the Vistula River. When the army capitulated on October 2, 1944, the casualties to the civilian population amounted to around 180,000 and 85 percent of the city was totally destroyed. No nation in Europe was to suffer more than Poland during World War II. Twenty-five percent of its population was destroyed.
In the Russian occupied part of Poland, the NKVD began arrests of the "enemies of the people," including officers of the Polish Army. They were sent to Russian equivalents of German concentration camps. More than 1.5 million Poles were deported to remote parts of Russia in what we would now call "ethnic cleansing."
The Russians captured 15,570 Polish officers, including 800 medical doctors. All but 448 were murdered in April 1940 on the orders of the Soviet government. Two years later, the bodies of the officers were accidentally discovered in a forest near the village of Katyn. The Soviet government denied any complicity in what came to be known as the scene of the greatest single war crime committed in modern history. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian authorities admitted responsibility for the crime.
Now, with democracy progressing, with a free press and freedom of religion, Poland is emerging as a modern European society. The re-emergence of a vibrant Jewish life in Poland -- where more than 3 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, the most of any country in Europe -- is one important example of the progress which is being made as Poles confront their long, complex, and often tragic history.
Poland is now witnessing what the Washington Post has called "a small but remarkable renaissance of Jewish life." Poland now has a chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, a native New Yorker who has returned to the country of his ancestors. When he moved to Warsaw in 1990, he described the country's Jews as "a broken population." Many doubted whether Warsaw -- home to 393,000 Jews prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland, but only 5,000 in 1945, after the Nazis were driven out, would ever have a visible Jewish population again. Slowly, however, with the end of Communism, Poland's Jews have slowly rediscovered themselves.
Though community leaders are reluctant to provide estimates, it is believed that there are perhaps 30-40,000 Poles who identify themselves as Jews. A Jewish primary school has opened in Warsaw, as have several Jewish kindergartens, youth centers, and summer camps across the country. Eight rabbis have been assigned to Poland to serve the revived population.
In many ways, Poland is moving to embrace its Jewish past. The government, alongside the Polish Jewish community, is planning to build a $58 million museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka says:
Our goal is to return to the light of memory the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland which has almost been forgotten. . . . The museum will show that not only were people killed, but their culture was killed, and even their memory was destroyed.
The Financial Times reports that:
The museum is part of a wider trend in Poland of nostalgia towards the Jewish presence, coupled with a decline in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents. . . . Krakow is now home to one of the most vibrant festivals of Jewish culture in the world, and museums are springing up across the country, most of them founded and run by non-Jews to remember that Jews were once an integral part of Poland. . . . For centuries Poland's relatively free society made it home to the largest Jewish community in the world and took in immigrants who had been expelled from Spain, England, Russia, and other European countries.
Feliks Tych, head of the Warsaw-based Institute of Jewish History, argues that critics have too harshly judged the role of Poles during the Second World War. In Warsaw, some 30,000 Jews were hidden by Poles during the war, implying that some 100,000 Poles risked execution to help hide them. However, most of the 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the war left the country when they were faced with anti-Semitism by Poles who did not want to return Jewish property obtained during the war.
In June, President Lech Kaczynski broke ground on the museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Jewish newspaper The Forward reported that:
The scene would have been hard to imagine just a generation ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir famously quipped that Poles suck anti-Semitism in with their mothers'milk. Indeed, the convergence of Jewish and Polish support for a museum dedicated to Polish-Jewish history -- built in large part with public Polish funds, no less on the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto -- has drawn little protest from two peoples long distrustful of each other. In a land that for many Jews is synonymous with Auschwitz, the common vision for the Museum of the history of Polish Jews extends all the way to the decision to give minimal curatorial attention to the Shoah. The Museum's mission even passes muster with Marek Edelman, the man with perhaps the greatest claim to guardianship over the museum site.
Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, states:
I don't know what percent -- 15 to 20 percent -- of the museum's exhibits should focus on the Holocaust, but I know it has to be a museum about the entire long history of Polish Jews. The rich history has to be recalled, not only the disaster.
"The museum will help people all over the world learn not just how we died in Poland, but how we lived for nearly 1,000 years," said Stephen Solender, co-chairman and president of the museum's North American Council. "Visitors will also learn what contribution Polish Jews made to Poland and the world."
Former foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski says, "I remember the time when 30 percent of Warsaw's population was Jewish. The world must know that this museum is being raised by Polish hands."
The history of Jews in Poland is long and complex. In his book Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Abba Eban writes that:
Jews must have been among Poland's 12th century German colonizers: excavations in Poland have unearthed coins for the period with Hebrew inscriptions. This suggests that at least some Polish Jews must have enjoyed considerable wealth and influence. Another general upsurge of German immigration came after the Mongols overran Poland in 1240-41. No doubt many Germans and Jews at this time crossed the border into Poland because there was no centralized authority to stop them.
But the Jews also came by invitation. In 1264, the Polish King Boloslav V issued a charter protecting the Jews and guaranteeing their right to take part in commerce. The charter was ratified and then extended by Casimir III ("Casimir the Great," 1333-1370), a formidable administrator who befriended Jewish settlers, as well as the peasantry. According to legend, Casimir had a Jewish mistress and their daughters were raised as Jews.
The role Jews played in Poland placed them in an often tenuous position, between the nobility and the peasants. The fact that Polish noblemen nearly always had Jews as managers of their estates and collectors of their taxes drew down upon the Jews the resentment and hatred of the peasants. When the Ukrainian Cossack leader Chmielnicki attacked Poland and conquered the Polish Army in 1648, the half-enslaved peasants took the opportunity to rebel. Among their first victims were the Jews, and they treated them with inhuman cruelty, venting all the hate they felt for their lords and the lords' Jewish agents. Jews were massacred by the thousands.
The epidemic of religious hatred penetrated into Poland. During the 15th century, regional church councils periodically issued anti-Jewish decrees that forbade Jews to have any social intercourse with Christians and forced them to pay a special tax for the support of the churches. As in other parts of Europe, the church laws forced the Jews into ghettos.
Poland's history has been a tragic one. In 1654, Russia invaded Poland and expelled or slew all Jews in the towns she conquered. On the West, Poland was being attacked by another enemy, Charles X of Sweden. The Swedes had no special enmity to the Jews, but Jews suffered from both the Russians and the Poles. In the ten years of warfare from 1648-1658, over 100,000 Jews lost their lives. Poland itself was doomed. Its king was nearly powerless, its Diet (or Congress of Noblemen) was inefficient. In the 19th century, the occupying powers abolished many of the laws that protected the Jews, but the patriotic feelings toward Poland of most Jews prevailed and they supported the struggle for independence, fighting in the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794), the November Uprising (1832) and the People's Spring (1848-49).
Out of this bleak physical and spiritual landscape, Abba Eban writes:
. . . arose a Jewish religious survival that would change the face of Judaism as no sectarian movement had since Roman times. The movement was Hasidism -- literally pietism -- and its father was Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700-1760), better known as the Ba'al Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"). . . . Hasidic tradition has it that he was born in Ckop, a small town of Podelia, a region then part of southeastern Poland and today within the Ukraine. The legends emphasize his love of nature and of solitary contemplation. . . . Unlike the rabbis of his day, he believed that even a simple unlearned man could approach God directly through prayer and worship. Some recent writers have pointed to the influence of Polish peasant ways on his thinking.
The most influential of all the yeshivot (Jewish religious schools) in the world at the time of the Renaissance was the one in Krakow, made famous by the educator Moses Isserles (1520-1572). A man of considerable secular culture and strong character, he defied the religious fundamentalism of Polish Jewry in his time. He introduced to the curriculum not only the study of astronomy, history, and mathematics, but also the highly controversial Aristotelian philosophic method of Maimonides, the foremost Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, for whom he had unbounded admiration.
The tragic events of World War II had a dramatic impact upon the Jews of Poland. Both heroic efforts to rescue Jews, and harsh anti-Semitic acts were witnessed. The revelation in 2001 that the Jewish residents of the town of Jedwabne were killed by Polish villagers, not occupying Nazis, shocked Polish society. Some Polish intellectuals say that the country has now started to face its past. "This really happened with Jedwabne," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a professor of logic at Warsaw University and a member of the Union of Polish Jewish Communities.
Everything has been said, there are no taboos. All the things of Poles murdering their neighbors have been discussed, and no one can say "I haven't heard about it," as they could have even two years ago.
In 2001, President Aleksander Kwasniewski traveled to Jedwabne to make a formal apology to the Jews on behalf of Poland.
Poland has honored its citizens who tried to aid victims of Auschwitz. At a ceremony outside the former concentration camp in January 2007, residents of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz was located, and Holocaust survivors listened to a letter from President Lech Kaczynski praising the efforts of those who risked their lives to help those persecuted by the Nazis. "World public opinion has often held that the residents of the area were completely indifferent to the fate of the prisoners," Kaczynski said in a letter read on the 62nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A presidential aide awarded medals to some 40 people from Oswiecim and surrounding villages to honor them for trying to help Nazi victims.
In March 2007, a 97-year-old woman credited with saving 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust was honored by Parliament at a ceremony during which Poland's president said she deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Irena Sendler, who lives in a nursing home in Warsaw, was too frail to attend the special session in which senators unanimously approved a resolution honoring her and the Polish Underground's Council for Assisting Jews.
The new movement of awareness of Poland's rich Jewish heritage comes, in part, in Rabbi Schudrich's view, from the teachings of Pope John Paul II against anti-Semitism, and Poland's admiration of the United States, where anti-Semitism is scorned. "A third reason," he says:
. . . is more speculative. Among the younger generation there is a rejection of everything their parents and grandparents stood for. They believe the opposite of the older generation, which was Communist and anti-Semitic. . . . There is a growing understanding that the Jews were part of the Polish landscape and that the Germans killed them, to some extent with Polish collaboration. This also leads to a feeling of obligation to perpetuate Jewish memory.
Jewish life is experiencing new growth not only in Warsaw and Krakow but also in Lodz, Katowice, Wroclaw, and several other cities. As Poland emerges from the occupation of the Nazis during World War II and the tyranny of Communism during the post-war years, let us hope that a new and hopeful chapter in Poland's often tragic history is now under way. And we in the U.S. and other Western countries should do what we can to assist its progress. *
"The government solution to any problem is usually at least as bad as the problem." --Milton Friedman
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