Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass
by Christopher Jencks
Harvard University Press, 280 pp., $27.95
Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action
by Gertrude Ezorsky
Cornell University Press, 140 pp., $6.95 (paper)
The Black Elite: Facing the Color Line in the Twilight of the Twentieth Century
by Lois Benjamin
Nelson-Hall, 299 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession
by Studs Terkel
The New Press, 403 pp., $24.95
—One of every four young black men is currently behind bars, or could be returned there for violating his probation or parole.
—Among those not in prison, the most common cause of death has become homicide, a fate usually inflicted by a member of their own race.
—Black deaths from HIV infections, largely related to drug abuse, now stand at 3.3 times the rate for whites.
—In 1970, unemployment among black workers exceeded that for whites by a ratio of 186 to 100, hardly a happy situation. By 1990, the ratio of black to white workers lacking jobs had risen to 276 to 100. One reason is that more firms are choosing to hire immigrants rather than native-born blacks.
—Nor do black infants get an auspicious start in life. They are three times more likely to have late pre-natal care or none at all. And they are twice as apt to have low birth-weights, which in many cases leads to permanent impairments. One reason is that most black children now begin their lives in households below the poverty line.
The great majority of black Americans lead responsible lives, often despite daunting obstacles. They do not take drugs while pregnant; fire pistols in busy streets; or if out of a job, give up the search for work even in the toughest times. Yet the unprecedented incidence of violence, self-destruction, and the neglect of children described in the statistics I have cited show a despair about the very value of life among many members of America’s largest minority race. Even if freely chosen, these acts must also be seen as responses to intolerable pressures exerted by the rest of society.
Africans were brought here as chattels because their labor was wanted; soon much of the economy would depend on their services and skills. And for almost a century following Emancipation, from 1865 until about 1955, black workers had a firm place in the nation’s employment force. True, most were poorly paid, last hired and first fired. Or, as Gertrude Ezorsky puts it in her original and provocative essay, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, they continued to “predominate in those occupations that in a slave society would be reserved for slaves.” Since the mid-1950s, however, the economy and the nation as a whole have been sending a new message: the country has little if any need for its residents of African ancestry. It is bad enough to suffer slavery, segregation, and discrimination. It is even worse to know that most of your fellow citizens would feel a lot happier if you simply disappeared.
For their part, many white Americans can be heard calling for larger prisons and longer sentences, along with demands that black women stop having so many children and do some kind of work. Concurrently most white citizens have arranged to live far away from their nearest black neighbors. As a result, the nation’s two major races live largely in different worlds, ill at …
Importing Slaves July 16, 1992