Living black in America

MARCI MCDONALD January 20 1986

Living black in America

MARCI MCDONALD January 20 1986

He had a dream. It was a simple dream—the vision of a time when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” That dream of racial equality took Martin Luther King Jr. to the bus stops of Montgomery, Ala., where a 381-day boycott broke the back of the first of the South’s humiliating Jim Crow segregation laws 30 years ago. And it took him to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where sheriff’s deputies viciously wielded billy clubs and bullwhips against 600 civil rights protesters who were marching in support of black voting rights on the bloody Sunday of March 7,1965.

Bombs: But eventually, it took King to his death. After he had survived 31 arrests, a stabbing in Harlem and two bombs thrown onto his Alabama front porch, on April 4, 1968, he stepped out of Room 306 onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and James Earl Ray pumped a sniper’s bullet into his neck. In his 39 years King had mobilized the most massive civil disobedience movement in American history and won the passage of two landmark bills—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which forever changed the complexion of the United States. Because he lived, no black can now be denied a seat in a restaurant, a drink at a water fountain or a ballot at a polling booth. And, in the wake of his breakthroughs, a substantial black middle class has taken its place in the professions, business, sports, entertainment and on the nation’s advertising billboards. Blacks now hold 6,056 elected offices across the country, from rural Alabama county councillors to the mayors of 286 U.S. cities, including the nation’s capital.

Sombre: But on Jan. 20, as the country commemorates its first annual Martin Luther King Day—the first time a citizen has been honored with a national holiday since George Washington—America’s 29 million blacks will be tempering their celebration with sombre reflections on a future their leaders paint in tones that are bleak indeed. Said John Jacob, president of the New York based National Urban “ League, which is preparing to publish its annual forecast later this month: “The state of black America is grim.” Two decades after King’s legal and social victories blacks have still failed to translate them into economic equality. Black unemployment now stands at 16 per cent—more than double the national average. And more than one-third of all blacks now live below the poverty line—the highest figure since record-keeping began in 1966.

In fact, that mass of increasingly young black poor threatens to become a permanent “underclass”—barely literate, unemployable and awash on a rising tide of teenage pregnancies and black-on-black crime in the increasingly mean streets of inner-city ghettos. Said writer and former civil rights activist Roger Wilkins: “The black poor are more hopeless and isolated than they have ever been.” But even more disturbing for blacks is the fact that the Reagan administration—which finally authorized the King holiday 15 years after the issue first came before Congress—has used the courts for a systematic attack on many of the policies that were King’s legacy, including school desegregation and the hiring goals of affirmative action. “For the first time in 25 years there is an administration hostile to aspirations of racial equality,” said Georgia State Senator Julian Bond. “It’s a radical and frightening shift.”

Attacks: Encouraging those attacks from outside the black community are a new breed of attacks from within. Buttressing the administration’s manoeuvres, a handful of black neoconservative intellectuals, led by Harvard political economist Glenn Loury, 37, argues that the affirmative action and social welfare policies of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society failed to touch the problem of black poverty and that it is time for blacks to help themselves. Loury’s increasingly vocal pronouncements—which Benjamin Hooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has denounced as “treasonous”—have led to a fierce internal debate on whether blacks ought to demand more government aid or focus on their own economic development.

Still, few black leaders disagree that black Americans are currently standing at an uncertain and discouraging crossroads. Said Coretta Scott King, the slain civil rights leader’s widow, who now presides over his Atlanta Center for Non-Violent Social Change: “Many of the rights Martin fought for are now being eroded. Black people are beginning to understand that this is a continuous struggle. Freedom is never really won.”

Had King lived to his 57th birthday this month, Wilkins notes that he would not have been surprised that blacks have charted so little progress since his death. “Martin was a realist,” he said. “But he would have been heartbroken.” Indeed, part of the blame for the current declining fortunes of black America has been attributed to King’s very success. The massive strides registered by the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s convinced many of the middle-class blacks who had profited from them—and the white liberals who had marched with them—that the battle had been won. At the same time, many of the measures provoked a backlash among opponents, one that is just beginning to emerge in the relatively new conservative climate.

Strains: And nowhere have the gains or the strains been more evident than in King’s native South, where 53 per cent of U.S. blacks still live. Last March, at the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the bloody Selma march which eventually led to the Voting Rights Act, white mayor Joseph Smitherman, who was also mayor in 1965, shared a hymnal with Rev. Jesse Jackson, the first black to make a serious bid for the presidency, in 1984. Smitherman proudly noted the number of Selma’s black elected officials. But except for the marchers, the city’s streets were deserted. White Selma—which still lives apart from black Selma and sends about 1,000 of its children to private academies founded during the uproar over desegregation—had not chosen to acknowledge the anniversary.

Dingy: In other states, blacks are still routinely directed not to first-floor public rest rooms, but to dingy basement urinals which once bore the placard “Coloreds Only.” And many Southern doctors still keep two waiting rooms, one white, the other black. Said Larry Farmer, director of Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE): “The new South is getting to be like the old North. Racism is taking a very subtle form.” Said Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded: “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.”

But most disturbing to black leaders is the fact that the Reagan administration’s justice department has actively challenged two of the most controversial civil rights cornerstones in a move that has even split the cabinet. William Bradford Reynolds, head of the department’s civil rights division, has already moved on school desegregation and affirmative-action hiring quotas which he calls “racially preferential” and “morally wrong.” In a letter to 56 state and local governments two years ago, he invited them to join the federal government in reopening their equal employment agreements—a process that could reverse previous court rulings on quotas. Most jurisdictions have refused on the grounds that, as Harold Juran, deputy city attorney of Norfolk put it, “We do not want old wounds reopened.” But Georgia’s Bond points out that the government’s efforts, if still largely unsuccessful, have sent a signal to businesses and universities that they do not need to fear federal reprisals if they disregard minority quotas. Said Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund: “It has created a mentality in the country which says it’s okay to discriminate.” For his part, Hooks of the NAACP said, “I don’t believe the President himself is a racist.” But he added, “His leadership has given covert aid and comfort to those who are.”

Crisis: But the major crisis facing black Americans currently is the battle for economic equality. Said Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a onetime King lieutenant and ambassador to the United Nations: “The struggle of the 1980s is to integrate the money.” In fact, King himself had shifted his attention to winning blacks a greater voice in the economy in the last years of his life. When he was shot, he was supporting Memphis’s striking garbage workers—90 per cent of whom were black—and organizing a massive Poor People’s March on Washington. “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he asked, “if one can’t afford the price of a meal?”

Affluence: But now, at a time when members of a small black middle class are enjoying a newfound affluence and a positive media image through sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, the gap is widening between them and the bottom third of the black American population. That polarization has further alienated what social scientists have begun referring to as a permanent black “underclass”—still light-years away from the “somebodiness” that King once preached. Twenty years after the devastating riots that ripped through the black Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in 1965—killing 34, injuring 1,000 and causing $40 million in property damage—a joint city and county study found that “conditions are as bad or worse. The community feels helplessness, despair and disenchantment.” Indeed, many observers wonder why more black outrage is not erupting into violence.

The most alarming statistic in the litany emerging from modern-day ghettos is that poverty is increasingly wearing a young black face. Over half of all black children are born poor. And 70 per cent of those are the offspring of single, usually unwed mothers who did not finish high school and depend on welfare. When they reach adolescence, they face a 40-per-cent black teenage unemployment rate and a one-in-six chance of going to jail before the age of 19. For the same age group, the second leading cause of death is murder by another black. Summing up the situation at an NAACP conference last May, Jewell Taylor Gibbs entitled her speech “The young black male: an endangered species.” Indeed, because of the high jobless and imprisonment rate, some social scientists have concluded that aside from crime, becoming fathers may be one of the few ways for young blacks to win self-esteem—in the process pushing the illegitimate birth rate in some inner cities as high as 75 per cent. Acknowledged Wanda Barnes, a 16-year-old unwed mother of two in Washington, her boyfriend “wanted a child so I gave him one. The time that baby was born I didn’t never see that baby because he be showing her off everywhere.”

Some critics blame the very success of the civil rights movement for the increased polarization of black society. With the exodus of the newly affluent black middle class to the suburbs, ghetto youth were left with role models who were either unemployed, or pimps and numbers runners. Said Wilkins: “You cannot teach a kid who has never seen a male work in his life the value of getting a job.”

And many critics accuse the Reagan administration of social program cutbacks that have drained hopes from a class already impoverished as its unskilled jobs on the nation’s assembly lines began drying up. In 1981 the government slashed job training funds by 60 per cent and switched most educational aid from grants to loans. As a result, black college enrolment dropped by 11 per cent last year—despite 29 per cent more black high school graduates. In the first three years of Reagan’s presidency 1.3 million blacks slipped below the poverty line.

But a handful of black neoconservative intellectuals have emerged to argue that federal poverty and affirmative-action programs have actually worsened the position of the black poor. Led by Harvard’s Loury, their current rising star, they contend that government measures have created a “ghetto pathology” which they say is characterized by passivity, dependence and the disintegration of the black family. Declared Loury: “If there is a problem within the black community, blacks have to address it themselves.” Loury’s personal history is his most potent weapon in his campaign for black self-help. The brilliant product of Chicago’s South Side ghettos, he dropped out of the Illinois Institute of Technology in his teens to marry his pregnant girlfriend and work as a factory clerk. But criticized by his father for wasting his talents, he pursued night courses and scholarships to finally win a doctorate from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Said Loury: “Nothing less than earned achievements can form the basis of equality in black America.”

Rejected: But most black spokesmen have rejected his theories. Said Princeton economist Bernard Anderson: “I don’t deny the need for greater individual responsibility. But if more of those black boys could get jobs, they’d marry some of those pregnant girls.” Said Wilkins: “When half the black poor are children under 6, what exactly does Glenn Loury mean by self-help?”

Traitor: Some blacks have called Loury a traitor to his race. But the bitter internal debate which he has opened may, ultimately, prove constructive. His pronouncements have reawakened anger and forced black leaders to turn the spotlight on government programs which have catapulted black youth across the chasm from chronic welfare to their first salary cheque. As well, he has focused attention on the resources of the black middle class: most benefited from the civil rights struggle, then promptly abandoned it to consolidate their personal gains—at a time when government funding is likely to shrink even more. Indeed, he may be provoking some blacks toward a new militancy.

Inspired by Loury’s argument, William Raspberry, a Washington Post columnist, predicted: “America’s black middle class is approaching a fork in the road. And the path it takes may determine the fate of the black underclass. Either we undertake an unprecedented salvage operation or we run for our lives.” Added Wilkins, one of Loury’s most fierce antagonists: “We’re going to have to develop the ideas we need to solve the problems. Black people have lived most of their history without the good will of white folks. The 1960s were an aberration.”

Some analysts forecast that the very pitch of the current debate may produce a new outlet for the frustrated political aspirations that blacks felt in the wake of the 1984 presidential election. After mammoth voter registration drives, record balloting and Jackson’s landmark bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, they found their leaders repudiated, their issues ignored and the candidate that 90 per cent of them had voted against swept into the White House. That frustration so far has channelled itself in two directions: into the mushrooming crowds soaking up the volatile racist and separatist diatribes of Black Muslim cult leader Louis Farrakkhan (page 19); and into the nationwide protests against South African apartheid which four black leaders began in Washington within a month of Reagan’s re-election. But Georgia’s Bond, who is running for Congress next year, predicts the emergence of a “more politically aggressive black community.”

Indeed, many black leaders say that they hope next week’s holiday commemorating King’s birthday may galvanize blacks and whites alike into breathing new life into his dream. Said Bond: “The message is going out: ‘Don’t just remember things. Do something about what he was fighting for.’ ” That message may be the most promising one in a bleak season for black America. But it was King himself who put his struggle in historical perspective once by looking back on the arrival of the first American slaves in Jamestown in 1619. Ending a speech, he sounded a note that might well still apply to black America now: “I say goodnight to you by quoting an old Negro slave preacher who said, ‘We ain’t what we ought to be, and we ain’t what we want to be, and we ain’t what we’re going to be. But thank God, we ain’t what we was.’ ”