Conservative black intellectuals speak
We are responsible for our own community development
The Hoover Institution recently transmitted an episode in the Heritage Foundation program, Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson. Entitled “The Black Experience in America,” the program consisted of a sixty-minute interview by Robinson of Glen Loury, Ian Rowe, and Robert Woodson.
Glen Loury grew up in Chicago’s South Side, obtained degrees from Northwestern and MIT, and now is Professor of Economics at Brown University. Ian Rowe is a product of the New York city public school system and holds degrees from Cornell and Harvard. A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he is the founder of Vertex Partnership Academics, which runs charter schools in the Bronx. Robert Woodson, founder of the Woodson Center, participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s; and since the 1970s, he has advocated neighborhood empowerment over government action. Two years ago, he countered The New York Times’ 1619 Project with the creation of 1776 Unites.
There is racial equality of opportunity in America today
Robertson defined the problem. Since 1980, the proportion of African Americans living in poverty has fallen from 30% to 19%. However, there is a racial income gap. In 2017, median white income in 2017 was $68,000 a year, while median black income was $40,000 a year. With respect to educational attainment, white students score 1.5 to 2 grade levels higher than black students.
In sum, Loury, Rowe, and Woodson maintain that the income gap is largely concentrated in the black lower class and is most fully experienced by that sector. They note that the racial income gap actually had declined in the 1950s and 1960s, in the era of segregation; but an increase in the racial income gap occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, during the era of the civil rights reforms and the adoption of the War on Poverty. The reasons for the gap, they argue, are the rise of single-parent families, a decline in family stability and functionality, the declining influence of the church, the prevailing belief that the government is responsible for rectifying social problems, and the emergence of a narrative that stresses black victimization.
Loury maintains that the source of the problem is not racism. In essence, he declared, U.S. society today is open, fair, and free with respect to race. The government has created a level playing field in equality of opportunity, non-discrimination, voting rights, and equal access. But there are things a government cannot do: the government cannot make families stay together, and it cannot raise children; the government cannot influence a culture that may encourage counterproductive behavior. The ball is in the court of African Americans. We have our work cut out for us in educating our children and taking care of our own business.
Rowe maintained that the income gap between blacks and whites points to a problematic (disadvantaged) situation of black society today that is better understood as a situation of the black lower class, not the black middle class of doctors, lawyers, and professionals. We need to break from the model that insists that disparity must be a consequence of racial discrimination, because that model shrouds all the other factors that are important in the black community and in all communities: strong families, access to school choice, and high expectations in curriculum. The impact of racism should not be ignored, but it should be placed in its proper context.
We need to understand the factors that made possible the success of black professionals and the black middle class. At the same time, we need to understand why children of all races, including whites, are not reading at grade level. Racism does not explain these dynamics, Rowe observed.
The historic achievements of the African-American community
Loury, Rowe, and Woodson maintain that, in the period of segregation between the Civil War and the 1960s, African Americans registered important achievements with respect to education, employment, and income, and they built strong neighborhoods characterized by family stability, active churches, and street safety. These achievements were attained in spite of patterns of segregation, discrimination, and the denial of political and civil rights. They were attained on a foundation of determination to succeed combined with the institutional support of family and church.
Woodson reports that he never heard a gun fired when he was growing up a low-income black neighborhood in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, 98% of households had a man and woman present raising children. He never heard of an elderly person being mugged in the neighborhood; and he never heard of a child being shot. Black Americans had the highest marriage rate of any sector of American society. Elderly people could walk safely in black neighborhoods. All this at a time when racism was enshrined in law.
Woodson argues that, although African Americans thrived in the period of segregation, the greatest declines have come in the period of desegregation. There was a decline in black poverty in the 1940s and 1950s, but it came to a halt in the 1960s with the War on Poverty, when we saw a dramatic change in the composition of families. One hundred years of segregation did not destroy our families, but the last fifty years have seen a rapid deterioration in black families.
In support of this observation, Robertson quoted Thomas Sowell, who has written that the black poverty rate fell from 87% in 1940 to 47% by 1960. In 1960, 78% of black children were raised in two-parent families; but by 1990, 30 years after the creation of the liberal welfare state, 66% of black children were raised by a single parent.
The perverse incentive of the black middle class
Loury maintains that awareness of black progress in the period before 1965, which could be presented as a great saga of ethnic upward mobility in America, has been politically inconvenient. The prevailing narrative wants to focus on the racial wealth gap, ignoring, Rowe adds, educational attainment and marital stability as factors creating the racial wealth gap. Loury points out that the prevailing narrative wants to nourish a sense of grievance and victimization.
For Woodson, there are perverse incentives for the prevailing narrative. We have spent $22 trillion dollars in the last sixty years, he notes, and 70% of it has gone not to the poor but to those who serve the poor. Many black professionals are in the sector that is delivering those services. Rowe confirms that the false narrative has perverse incentives. If the racial wealth gap disappears when controlling for educational level and marriage rate, then perhaps race is not the only factor here; if we identify all the factors, perhaps we could collectively come up with solutions. But if the narrative through which you attain and maintain power is based on the idea of a victimized community, then you have a preserve incentive to ignore these other factors and to say that America is inherently racist and oppressive.
In this vein, Robinson quotes Thomas Sowell at the 1980 Parkland Conference. “One of the problems in dealing with programs for blacks is that vast empires can be built on these programs. These programs definitely prevent poverty among bureaucrats, economists, statisticians, and others.”
Woodson maintains that the underemphasis on historic black achievements is an unintended consequence of winning civil rights laws. He explains that in the struggle for civil and political rights in the courts, it was necessary for blacks to argue that segregation harmed them, in order to provide a legal foundation for the elimination of segregation. Although a necessary argument at the time, it had the result of erasing from collective memory the achievements of the black community, and it became the foundation for the later prevailing narrative of victimization. This has had nefarious consequences, because a people that does not know of its past achievements cannot believe in its future accomplishments.
The 1619 Project
The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project asserts that the nation’s true birth date is not July 4, 1776, but 1619, when the first slaves arrived in North America. Loury maintains that the narrative is historically inaccurate. The narrative states that the quest of the American Revolution for independence was driven by a concern that the British would eliminate slavery in the American Colonies, but several distinguished historians have come forth and have demonstrated that this was not the case. The false claim was used by The 1619 Project to claim that racism is central to the foundation of the American Republic, casting aside the concept of liberty as a motivating factor and as a foundation for the Republic.
Loury maintains that racial income disparity is the reason that The 1619 Project and similar narratives have appeal. The disparities fuel the political bonfire that we saw following the killing of George Floyd. The disparities are a political reality with political consequences. Rowe agrees that the disparities need to be addressed; but the question is, what are the causes of the disparities, and what is a valid theory for addressing them? Loury concurs. Rowe maintains that The 1619 Project argues that anti-black racism is in the DNA of the country, and therefore, racism explains the disparities, ignoring issues like family structure and the expectations established for black children.
Rowe charged The 1619 Project with “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He observed that in his work as an educator in the Bronx, he has never encountered a parent who wanted to ensure that their children be taught that they are going to be victims of the white power structure, thus abandoning their agency.
Woodson maintains that the 1619 false narrative is driven by elites on both sides who are victim signaling. The narrative claims that family disintegration is a legacy of slavery and discrimination; but this is false, as family stability in low-income communities in the 1940s and 1950s demonstrates. In the past, blacks performed and outperformed in the presence of obstacles. People are motivated to improve when they see that victories are possible, not when they are reminded constantly of injuries to be avoided.
What can be done?
Loury maintained that improving the situation of low-income blacks requires attention to three things. (1) Personal physical safety and security with respect to property and possessions. (2) A place where children can realize their potential through assiduous attention to their development. (3) A stable home environment with forty-eight hours a day (not twenty-four) of parental supervision time; with two salaries to provide for nutrition and housing needs; an environment that models for children what healthy family life looks like, with norms and expectations about behavior that are passed from parents to children. For Loury, moral teachings are fundamental, and the family and church are the sources of moral teachings.
Woodson stressed the importance of indigenous institutions and grassroots leaders. We must look at examples of “islands of excellence,” in which people have demonstrated the capacity to regenerate themselves and their communities. We should study the 30% of functional families to learn how they are achieving against the odds. It requires imagination, but you have to believe that development is possible in order to invest in it. Woodson envisions that a new social entrepreneurship will emerge from inspiring examples, making possible the regeneration of the community.
Rowe stresses education in his work and advocacy, an education that stresses discipline and establishes high expectations. However, he observes, success in education relies on strong families and strong faith commitments.
What is America?
Loury affirmed that the United States was conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. The USA, he declares, is a great nation. It is the most powerful force for human liberty in the history of the world. Of course, there was slavery; but there also was emancipation. The USA defeated fascism in two oceans in the middle of the twentieth century. It stood down the Soviet Union on behalf of a free world. It has the greatest engine for prosperity in the history of humanity. Anything is possible in this country, which is why people come here from every corner of the world.
Woodson supports these patriotic declarations. Black people have fought in America’s wars because they believe in the virtues and promise of the country. We must remind our people of what blacks have been able to do by embracing the principles of our founders.
I share with Loury, Rowe, and Woodson the understanding that liberty is the founding principle of the nation, even though never fully implemented in reality. In my view, social movements of workers, women, and blacks were driven by the demand to expand the implementation of the concept of liberty in practice, and in doing so, they were expanding and deepening the meaning of democracy in America. The founding constitutional principles have to be the foundation of all of our social change efforts, as they have been throughout the nation’s history.
Secondly, I would like to supplement what Loury, Rowe, and Woodson are saying with the observation that there were definite moral gains in white society from 1965 to 2008, during which time there was a significant decline in blatant racism. To be sure, subtle forms of racism existed, in which doubts concerning the general capacities of some sectors were harbored; and there were a few thugs, entirely unrepresentative of white society, who engaged in racial violence. But the prevailing view, followed in practice, was that citizenship rights and educational and employment opportunities should not be abridged on account of race. There was overwhelming acceptance of a racial reality different from what had existed in law and custom prior to 1965. In thirty years of college teaching in the white South beginning in the 1980s, I never once heard a white student express the view that the nation ought to return to the racial customs and laws that existed prior to 1965.
Thirdly, although we have the moral duty as responsible citizens to protect and defend the constitutional foundation of the nation in the concept of liberty, we also as defenders of truth and justice have the duty to fully acknowledge and explore the extent to which the USA has violated its principles of liberty and justice for all. And here the issue is not primarily the violation of the rights of some citizens on the basis of race or gender, with respect to which it has made great strides in recent decades. Rather, the primary issue is the fundamental fact that in the twentieth century the nation continued its spectacular economic ascent by advantageously inserting itself into the economic structures that had been forged by European colonial domination of the world, thus establishing itself as the dominant imperialist power in a neocolonial world-system.
If we are rooted in an understanding of the global structures of neocolonialism and imperialism, we can more fully understand why so many people are migrating to the United States, and it is not merely that they are attracted by a beacon of liberty. The structures of neocolonial domination ensure that the core imperialist powers have the highest standard of living, and they ensure that the people in semi-peripheral and peripheral zones of the world-economy often live in desperation, At the same time, in the neocolonial world-system, the ideologies of the core powers are disseminated throughout the world, and many internalize such notions as “the American Dream.” As a result of these dynamics, the imperialist centers function as migratory magnets.
So I would suggest that we need to rethink a notion that we all have been taught as American citizens, the notion that the USA is a defender of liberty in the world. Yes, we need to appreciate the constitutional foundation of the nation in liberty. But at the same time, we need to formulate an alternative narrative that recognizes imperialist social sins of the past and the present; a narrative that calls the nation to a different policy of cooperation with the nations of the world.
Why should the nation embrace a foreign policy of cooperation? First, because it would be consistent with the nation’s foundational principles and values. And secondly because the neocolonial world system itself is no longer politically, economically, or ecologically sustainable. Humanity must search for an alternative, post-colonial, and post-imperialist road.
Thus, we need to formulate an anti-imperialist narrative that is based in the American constitutional foundation of liberty and justice for all, affirming the greatness of the nation without blindness to its social sins.
The American power elite was unpatriotic in turning since 1980 from the guidelines that were central to U.S. economic ascent and material prosperity, without concern for the economic consequences for the nation. Their individualist conduct in defense of their wealth and privileges must be denounced. However, we cannot return to the historic moment of their treason. We must today understand that we cannot reestablish American greatness through an apparently patriotic renewal that would defend American fortunes in restored structures of global neocolonial domination. Rather, we must redefine American greatness with leadership that builds upon the nation’s traditions of liberty, justice, and republicanism in order to join with other leading nations in the building of a different post-neocolonial and post-imperialist world with more sustainable forms of production and commerce and with international relations that respect the principle of the sovereign equality of nations. The current political and ideological crisis of our nation makes possible such an ideological reconceptualization.
I have written several commentaries on race in America, on the anti-racist theory now in vogue, and on black conservative thought. They can be accessed through the Thematic Index; look for the links in the section on the USA.
Finally, I would lie to observe that Loury, Rowe, and Woodson belong to a long and dignified tradition in the black community that emphasizes self-help, which includes Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X. A voice that has proclaimed that, although it is necessary to demand justice from American society, the African-American community itself must assume responsibility for its own socioeconomic development, drawing upon its own spiritual and material resources. In the current historic moment, in which the mainstream tendency of the African-American movement has lost its principled foundation, and in which the nation is in the midst of sustained crisis and decadence, that alternative black voice is absolutely indispensable. Its insights must be appropriated in a reconceptualization of the American understanding of itself and its role in the world.
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