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On April 3, John H. McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute delivered the eighth of the 2005-2006 Bradley Lectures. Edited excerpts follow.
One of the main sources of the stalemate on the race debate in America today is that among many, it is considered a mark of enlightenment to understand that poor black Americans are incapable of playing a significant part in changing their own lives. It is thought that external factors–mainly the economy and racism–have determined poor black Americans’ fate and always will. We can therefore say that these problems are structural, or due to flaws in social structures. Those who believe in structural problems blanch at the thought that anyone supposes that poor black America’s problems are cultural rather than structural. They are aware that the cultural analysis is the more immediately intuitive one, most like that of the man on the street.
A purported analysis of race and society that is based on emotion has little chance of corresponding more than approximately to reality, and in my research, I have found it impossible to avoid the conclusion so many others have reached: that the structural analysis has more than a grain of truth in it, but that in 2006, poor black America’s main problems are cultural.
In my latest book, Winning the Race, I argue that this is important because it points us to different directions in seeking to help poor black America than the structural notion does.
A March 20, 2006, New York Times article, “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn,” exemplifies the philosophical contrast between the structural and cultural notions, and describes the growing trend for black men in their teens and twenties to remain mostly disconnected from the workforce, regardless of the state of the economy and employment market.
The proposed notion that young black men are suffering an unemployment crisis due to relocation of low-skill manufacturing jobs is mostly false. In fact, in cities where factories did not move away, black communities developed the same unemployment crisis as other cities. This suggests, quite simply, that factory relocation was not the cause of the unemployment crisis, which squares with the intuitive objection just about anyone might have on some level to the whole idea: are manufacturing jobs the only, or even close to the only, jobs available to men without college degrees?
Why not consider how we can bring the men discussed in the Times article into being sound technicians, mechanics, building inspectors, repairmen, mail carriers, or even (yes!) commercial fishermen? Today we associate these jobs with immigrants, who live thoroughly decent lives and provide for their families. These are the jobs our young black men who are not on their way to college should be doing.
Since the late 1960s, a cultural trait has arisen in a large segment of the black male population that sees no shame in not working for a living. We should try to eliminate that cultural trait.
It also appears that a major reason such men refrain from serious work is that they have been pursued more aggressively for child support payments, which often eat up so much of their earnings that they start to wonder what the point of working is.
The reason these unemployed men owe child support is because of a new culture in which men like them can make babies very early in life, simply because this is normal in their neighborhoods. Up until the mid-1960s, there could be no culture of babies making babies for the simple reason that no government program existed to pay for the children’s upkeep indefinitely.
In Brooklyn during the summer of 2005, an aspiring rapper was shot by rival rappers. The man had four children by three women and lived with none of them. And yet, he only worked part-time. He was a great father in terms of how he interacted with his children, but he felt no responsibility for paying for their upkeep. In his community, this guy was normal. Even newspaper headlines fostered this, announcing the shooting of a “Brooklyn father,” as if he were a pipe-smoking insurance agent married to one woman who had given birth to all of his kids.
That man, and what he and his neighborhood have come to think of as normal, is the problem we are faced with. To describe him is not to evoke a stereotype, as supporters of the structural theory often claim when faced with uncomfortable yet quotidian cases like this man. Instead, he is a sadly common reality. It is time to address the simple fact that an awful lot of these guys do not want to work, do not know how to find work they could do, or do not know how to keep work when they find it. What the problem is today is an aspect of what they are like, not what society is like.
With full awareness of the dangers of stereotyping, and with full awareness that negative cultural traits can begin as a response to oppression, we will openly acknowledge that behaviors can live beyond their original stimulus. Able to dwell in this fact without hesitation, we will realize that we can try to correct a cultural trait of a group–including African-Americans–while still remaining concerned and empathic citizens.
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