Why inequality still exist for a large portion of the US Black population
The economic progress of black America has stalled or declined in the past twenty years.
Blacks have failed to narrow the wage and employment gap during this period, even controlling for educational attainment. More critically, the wealth gap between blacks and whites is now wider than ever – by some estimates white Americans have over twenty times the wealth of the average black American. Furthermore, Blacks constitute about twelve percent of the U.S. population, yet account for less than 1% of GDP, and declining.
This is a surprising state of affairs given the progress blacks have made in other aspects of American life: blacks have made many valuable contributions in politics, art, religion and entertainment. For the most part, they can vote freely and are no longer subjected to de jure discrimination. What then accounts for their stalled economic progress?
To address the first question, it might perhaps be useful to triangulate a bit. When adrift upon a sea of uncertainty, it’s often useful to pick two points on land and point your ship between them. For sake of argument, let’s pick as our two points of reference the age-old debate as to whether black American culture is essentially a surviving African culture or a wholly separate culture born of their experience in this country.
On one point, anthropologists such as the liberal Melville Herskovits and the structural-functional school studied African culture, and came to believe that black Americans are essentially Africans. People in the Herskovits school point to surviving traits in African language patterns, religion and music as evidence of a “cultural focus” that is strong in some areas. On the surface, this might appear to be true, as music, religion, sports and entertainment are areas in which blacks have most successfully excelled in this country. Business and commerce, Herskovits believed, were not part of that cultural strength Africans brought to America. Herskovits’ beleaguered black graduate assistant at Columbia University, Zora Neal Hurston, found herself often the object of his study — as he closely observed her and tried to detect so-called “Africanisms” in her language and behavior. Hurston went on to receive her doctorate and made important contributions to the fields of anthropology and literature, and would later assert that some of the traditions Herskovits ‘observed’ in black Americans were not rooted in African traditions at all, but were actually practical adaptations to antebellum life.
At the other point, you have sociologists such as the renowned Howard University Professor E. Franklin Frazier who argue that the structure of slavery obliterated any trace of African culture in black Americans. Under this strain of thought, black American culture is wholly the product of their experience in America, stemming from slavery, through de jure discrimination, and continuing to present. He dismissed the black so-called ‘bourgeoisie’ (really a limited professional class) as a fake entity – as they did not control the means of production of any significant sector of goods and services in the U.S. Any political or economic advantage they managed to secure, he noted, came as a result of protection by the Federal Government. In fact, the largest sector of this class consisted of government employees. Frazier aroused the ire of the landless ‘Negro’ gentry when he pointed out that in 1960 all of the assets in black-owned banks in the United States amounted to less than the assets of one small white-owned bank in rural New York. They were bourgeois in appearance only; they had crudely mimicked the behavior and mannerisms of upper class America in an effort to assimilate that never quite panned out – precisely because they lacked any economic power.
He further asserted that the culture of the lower strata of black society was the result of neglect, racism, and poverty, and not a reflection on any African heritage. He credited many of the observed behaviors among poor blacks as stemming from the conditions in which they found themselves – landless, jobless drifters with no real political or legal rights, and living under the terror of state-sanctioned vigilante organizations like the Klu Klux Klan; in fact their very names – Washington, Jefferson and Adams — were taken out of reference from the plantations on which they had been enslaved (curiously, you rarely hear of blacks with the surname Lincoln). Thus, their tendency to shuck and jive, to make ostentatious displays of clothing and jewelry, to dance and perform ‘chittlin circuit’ theatre, and indeed the practice of eating chittlins’ (pig intestines) – were no throwback to the days of Africa, but stemmed from a situation in which they were denied human and property rights until relatively late in America’s history (essentially since the civil rights movement).
Frazier was especially keen on noting the destruction of the black family under slavery and the conditions of Jim Crow in the American South. Since the end of slavery, there has always existed inequality between the labor force participation of black women and men, which caused an imbalance in the roles of husband and wife, even before desegregation. But since 1980, the black family institution has declined precipitously. The vast majority of blacks born in this country are born into single parent households, mostly run by single black women.
Why is that? In an age in which blacks are free to marry each other, and enjoy drastically expanded education activities and political rights, it would seem that there would be a blossoming of middle class black culture in this country. Well, let’s go back to Herskovits and liberalism for a minute. The logical extension of the anthropologists’ love affair with the native tends to perpetuate dysfunctional traits. Liberals in many ways defined what ‘real’ black culture was in this country, and it was the ‘noble savage’ mentality that they depicted. I’ve seen this over and over again in practice; liberals go out of their way to find the most dysfunctional aspects of black culture and celebrate them. When they see a black person who displayed any evidence of culture and refinement, they dismiss him as inauthentic. They want a slave narrative to make them happy, and will stop at nothing until they get one.
Unfortunately the black community has been all too willing to give them what they want. ‘You want me to speak Ebonics?’ Fine, I’ll show you Ebonics in return for a government education grant. You want to fund welfare instead of businesses? Fine, we’ll make sure and have plenty of children out of wedlock so as to qualify. The effect of liberal intervention into almost all aspects of black American life, while in some ways well-intentioned, has suffered from the law of unintended consequences: despite the billions spent on government programs for minorities, fully fifty years after the ‘Great Society’ was instituted, the majority of black Americans are worse off both politically and economically than before the civil rights movement began.
Herskovits other implication: that blacks in Africa did not have a cultural focus on trade and economics also bears criticism. A look back in the history of Africa, whether one is talking about Egypt, the great civilizations of Timbuktu or Mali, reveals a rich history of trade and commerce. It is a matter of historical record that the Malian emperor Mansa Musa nearly destroyed the economy of Saudi Arabia when he loaded camels with Gold and went on Hajj there. In fact, the Gold-Salt trade across the Sahara was one of the chief economic movements in the world during the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. Herskovits’ mistake is that he essentially observed a fallen African civilization at one discreet period in time and tried to imply that somehow these traits were innate or immutable – authentic.
As noted above, nothing could be further from the truth. Bud sadly, many American blacks, even among the educated classes have set about trying to make themselves seem more ‘authentic.’ The blast gangster rap, have taken to calling women out of their name, and call other educated blacks who fail to submit to the cultural stereotypes ‘Uncle Toms.’ The pernicious effect of this false consciousness starts at home and extends to the commercial sphere. Prominent American blacks such as Bill Cosby, who dare criticize this sad state of affairs, have been roundly chastised.
Many black children, after the fashion of so-called black authenticity, grow up fatherless. It’s gotten to the point where in many communities it is actually rare for a two parent household to exist. They largely become wards of the state, whether through welfare, school lunch programs, or, ultimately incarceration. It is telling that over a hundred years after the passage of the thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, there are more blacks imprisoned today than there were slaves in 1850. And the route back to slavery for most of them is pretty clear. It starts with keeping it real, failing to go to school and study; it proceeds to a maladaptive language pattern, Ebonics, and its attendant cognitive deprivation; it proceeds to joblessness and poor economic opportunities for those who do not educate themselves; and it finally descends to crime and jail.
This space does not permit me to address the myriad other factors that could account for blacks lack of economic progress – lingering effects of labor market discrimination, lack of intergeneration wealth, and so on – but I wanted to focus on something that at least black Americans can have some control over improving. A strong family life is the single most important factor in building wealth in America. Married households tend to earn far more than their single counterparts. Children in two-parent households are far more likely to receive cognitive stimulation and moral guidance. And families are the primary transmission vehicles of intergenerational wealth in this country. Education is the second-most important aspect of building wealth. I don’t believe it’s going too far to suggest that watching less television, reading more, and engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as dinner table conversations could go a long way towards closing the wealth gap.