Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Focusing Attention on the Real Impediments to Black Progress
In February, President Obama launched an initiative for black young men. As he announced a $200 million, five-year initiative, "My Brother's Keeper," he declared:
I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.
He called the challenge of ensuring success for young men of color a "moral issue for our country" as he presented troubling statistics: black boys are more likely to be suspended from school, less likely to be able to read, and almost certain to encounter the criminal justice system as either a perpetrator or a victim. "These statistics should break our hearts," he said, "and they should compel us to act."
The president challenged black men to do better themselves, and said they must not make excuses for their failures or blame society for the poor decisions they have already made:
You will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society's lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future. It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say if the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype. Nothing will be given to you.
In a show of support, leaders from more than a dozen nonprofit foundations and executives from some of the nation's largest companies joined the president, along with Magic Johnson, the retired basketball superstar, and Gen. Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State.
The initiative features $200 million worth of commitments by organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies to invest in programs that help young black and Hispanic men.
Some black critics have argued that the problems faced by young African Americans are primarily a result of racism in American society. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, for example, said the president's initiative did not focus enough on the more systemic forms of racism in America. He said:
These young men weren't killed because of structural situations that didn't give them opportunities. It's other kinds of racism that those boys were dealing with. The initiative is not addressing those things.
No problem in society can be properly addressed if it is misdiagnosed. To blame "racism" for the problems of young black men addressed by President Obama is to miss the point of what is, in fact, taking place in contemporary American society. This is not to say that no racism exists - that it has been completely eliminated from our society. Sadly, wherever men and women of diverse backgrounds live together, tensions are often to be found. It is to say, however, that the real dilemma is more complex.
The reality is, as the respected black economist Walter Williams points out:
. . . that black Americans as a group have made some of the largest gains over some of the highest hurdles in the shortest time of any group in history. If black Americans were a nation, they would be the sixteenth richest on earth. Some of the richest, and most famous, people in the world are black Americans. Colin Powell led the mightiest army in human history. In 1865 neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed this kind of progress was possible in a little over a century, if ever. As such it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people and, just as important, to the greatness of the nation where such gains were possible - gains that would have been impossible anywhere except in the United States.
Yet, Williams notes:
For many blacks, these gains are elusive - perhaps for 30 percent of our community. It does the poor no favors to blame their problems on racism - which has been diminishing as the pathologies got worse. In 1940, the black illegitimacy rate was around 14 percent. Now, it's 75 percent. In 1870, right after slavery, 70 to 80 percent of black families were intact. Now, only 30 percent of black kids live in two-parent families. Some 51 percent of homicide victims are black, as are 95 percent of their killers. You can't blame this on white people. The rotten schools black kids attend are mostly in cities where black adults are in control and spending a lot of taxpayers' money on those schools.
Census statistics indicate that nearly 70 percent of black children have single mothers, and estimates are that an even larger percentage will grow up without a father in the home. As comedian Bill Cosby said during a visit to Milwaukee, a city with a high murder rate, black children are hurt by the absence of parents and eagerly follow any example of leadership - from gangs to older friends to parents who offer bad examples. So they get a gun, and then, as Cosby described it
. . . you're asking for trouble . . . you have guns in the hands of people who are already angry because they've been abandoned by a father or mother, or they have lives with very low self-esteem, the anger level is so high.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times in June 2004, Cosby asked:
What can the future hold for us with a 50-percent high school dropout rate in many urban areas and with a 60-percent illiteracy rate among inmates and a prison population that is 45 percent black?
His goal in speaking out at the time of the commemoration of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, said Cosby, was to "ignite righteous indignation" as a basis for action against this scourge. He was embraced by Washington, D.C.'s police chief Charles Ramsay (now police chief of Philadelphia). Ramsay, who is black, declared:
I'm with you 100 percent. Behavior has to change. Responsibility for your own behavior has to change. We have people who just let TV and video games and music raise their kids and instill values . . . and then we wonder why we have a problem.
Within the black community more and more respected voices are speaking out against those who tend to blame the problems we face upon "white racism." In his book Enough, the journalist and commentator Juan Williams laments that in the face of mounting crime rates:
. . . civil rights and black church leaders pointed a finger at white cops, prosecutors, judges, and jailers as the source of the black crime problem. They said the increase in incarcerated black people was largely the result of an unfair increase in sentences for drug possession and drug dealing as part of the late-1970s and early-1980s "war on drugs.". . . Instead of speaking out against gangs, drug dealers, and pimps - and the clothes and hip-hop music that celebrated these outlaws as black heroes - left-wing intellectuals preached against the sins of the white racist American establishment.
Williams laments that:
Never a word was spoken about the need for black Americans to take up their own war on drugs and on crime as a matter of personal responsibility. And no one testified that crime by black hands undercut the advances in racial justice and the opportunities opened up by the great civil rights movement. . . . By 2004 federal data showed that black Americans - 13 percent of the population - accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent of murders. Most of the victims of these violent criminals were their fellow black people. . . . Oddly, the increase in the black prison population begins around the time of the 1954 Brown decision. At the start of the 1950s, 65 percent of all state and federal prisoners were white and 35 percent were black. At mid-century, poverty, bad housing, racist cops, legal discrimination, and high unemployment all were cited as the reasons that the percentage of black people in prison was more than triple the percentage of black people in the nation. By the end of the century the percentage of white prisoners had declined to 35 percent, while the black inmate population approached 50 percent. Something terrible had happened.
If the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative seeks to examine the real dynamics at work in the problems faced by young people in minority communities, all of us will be the beneficiaries. If it simply recites the clichs of the past, it will not move us forward. All Americans have an interest in promoting the upward mobility of all our citizens. But a proper diagnosis of the problems we face is essential if we are to succeed.
Economic Inequality, Upward Mobility, and the Decline of the American Family
The subject on everyone's lips at the present time seems to be growing income inequality and a decline in upward mobility. President Obama appears ready to make this question central to the remainder of his term.
There are, of course, many examples of excess at the top. JPMorgan Chase, after a year immersed in scandal, has decided to award its chief executive, Jamie Dimon, $20 million in compensation for 2013. This amount is 74 percent higher than the $11.5 million he earned in 2012. Under his leadership, JPMorgan suffered a series of major legal setbacks, including a record $13 billion settlement with the Justice Department. JPMorgan, under Dimon's leadership, paid this amount to resolve allegations that the bank knowingly sold faulty mortgage securities that contributed to the nation's financial crisis. Other senior executives at the bank got lush compensation packages as well.
Wall Street, which played fast and loose with the nation's economy, was bailed out by the U.S. Government. American taxpayers were called upon to pay the bills for financial institutions that failed. This is hardly free enterprise at work. What would Adam Smith - or Milton Friedman - think of the concept of "too big to fail?" They might have a name for it, but it wouldn't be free-market capitalism. The excessive salaries earned by those who presided over failed institutions which taxpayers rescued is certainly a legitimate cause for concern.
Still, wretched excess by a few at the top has little to do with our larger economic problems. It is important that we not misunderstand the real challenges we face.
While many politicians argue that upward mobility in our society has declined, the evidence seems to paint a different picture. According to a large new academic study, the odds of moving up the economic ladder have not changed appreciably in the past 20 years.
Both President Obama and Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan have recently argued that the odds of climbing the income ladder are lower today than in the past. Yet, a new study, based on tens of millions of tax records, finds that the mobility rate has held largely steady in recent decades.
Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Harvard and one of the authors, suggests that any advances in opportunity provided by expanded social programs have been offset by other changes in economic conditions. Increased trade and advanced technology, he points out, have closed off some traditional sources of middle-income jobs.
The study notes that "it is not true that mobility itself is getting lower," said Lawrence E. Katz, a Harvard economist and mobility scholar who was not one of the study's authors, but has reviewed the findings:
What's really changed is the consequences of it. Because there's so much inequality, people born near the bottom tend to stay near the bottom, and that's much more consequential than it was 50 years ago.
Incorporating results from a previous study dating back to the 1950s, the authors concluded that that "measures of social mobility have remained remarkably stable over the second half of the 20th century in the U.S."
A leading voice on mobility issues, Manhattan Institute economist Scott Winship, said that he found a similar trend in mobility - no change for children born in the 1980s compared with those born in the 1940s - using a different set of data.
"The facts themselves are pretty unassailable," said M.I.T. economist David Autor. For example, the study found that about 8 percent of children born in the 1980s who grew up in families in the bottom fifth of income distribution managed to reach the top fifth for their age group today. The rate was nearly identical for children born a decade earlier. Among children born into the middle fifth of the income distribution, about 20 percent climbed into the top fifth as adults, also largely unchanged over the last decade.
One factor that few have discussed is how the decline of the American family has had an impact on economic mobility. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births that have harmed the upward mobility of working-class families.
Some liberals seem to have a vested interest in misunderstanding the real problems we face - as do some conservatives and their allegiance to large business interests. New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio speaks of New York as being composed of "two cities," one rich and one poor. One of the speakers at his inauguration called it "a plantation." Time columnist Joe Klein, hardly a conservative, calls this "myopic inaccuracy."
In Klein's view:
New York contains multitudes. It is the very opposite of a plantation. For the past 25 years especially, it has been a fierce incubator of opportunity for a kaleidoscope of new immigrant groups who have come and worked hard and succeeded. Studies show that the American Dream of upward mobility is more alive in New York than in much of the rest of the country - a fact that its new mayor should not only acknowledge but also crow about.
Another respected columnist, also not a conservative, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, declares that:
Conservatives are, I think, correct to highlight family stability as a fundamental issue that goes to the welfare of children as much as food stamps or anything else. Children raised by a single parent are more than three times as likely to live in poverty as those raised by two parents, according to census data. After Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the issue in 1965 in the context of black families, he was condemned in liberal circles as intolerant, if not a racist. Over time, though, there has been a growing appreciation that he was ahead of his time, and as the Urban Institute notes, the percentage of white babies born to unwed mothers is now the same as it was for black babies when he sounded his alarm.
Almost 36 percent of births in recent years in the U.S. were to unmarried women, according to census data. The birthrate for unmarried women is up 80 percent since 1980. Census data also shows that a majority of high school dropouts having babies are unmarried; only 9 percent of college graduates are. Two-thirds of black women giving birth are unmarried; just over a quarter of white women are.
How to improve marriage rates is something we don't seem to know how to do. Perhaps there is a way to improve parenting skills. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution argues that if we could teach the weakest parents to behave like average parents - by reading more to their children, speaking more, using consistent, encouraging discipline - then millions of children might have more secure attachments, more structure, and a better chance at upwardly mobile careers.
Robert Putnam of Harvard believes that when we design early education programs, they need to be "wrap-around" - to have formal and informal programs that bring parents in and instill communal skills. With teenagers, more guidance counselors are needed to help them understand how to advance and to respond when their needs are not being met. Putnam emphasizes skills for toddlers and teenagers. Human capital development is, in his view, what is really necessary to improve mobility and to help those who are born with disadvantages to advance.
There is no doubt that the twin problems of income disparity and the stagnation of the middle class must be addressed. But the many causes - technological advances, free trade with countries such as China, whose factories do not have to meet our environmental and other standards, and the decline of the American family - and of our educational system - must be understood as ingredients in the problems we face. Too much of our political rhetoric, unfortunately, tends to downplay the complex factors at work in order to come up with simple "solutions," which are unlikely to have positive results since they seem to purposely misunderstand the real and complex, dynamics at work.