From Black Power to Family Values
Those who have made it to the black middle-class feel that yesterday's job - the destruction of the legal system of segregation is done and attention must now turn to resolving the enormous crisis of the underclass.
While racism is still a problem and government intervention imperative, the black community does need a new sense of black kinship.
That's the view of Julian Bond, a founder of the militant
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and now a state legislator
Back in 1967 Charles Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael, in a book entitled Black Power, warned about the creation of an underclass. They said, "Integration means that a few blacks make it and leave the black community, sapping its leadership potential and know-how."
Hasn't what they warned about in the 1960s now come to pass?
Julian Bond: Before discussing integration, I would broaden the description of the Great Society's success. If we consider the twenty years between Eisenhower leaving the White House and Reagan entering the White House as the period of the Great Society, then we have seen in those two decades a tremendous increase in the education level, health care status, child development, job training and access to legal assistance of poor blacks. Infant mortality rates were sharply lowered. Head Start kids made real developmental advances. Had the Great Society remained at full funding or ever achieved the funding it needed - and had it been less plagued with cumbersome bureaucracy, it would have been an unqualified success.
Understanding that, we can then layer upon these advances the debate about integration vs. black community nationalism. There are some valid reasons to say that Stokely Carmichael's argument has come true. Some black professionals of the middle-class don't live in the ghetto. They have left, taking their sense of community improvement with them to their improved communities.
But the problem may even go further. For example, one of the negative effects of school integration has been the diminution of black professionals. In southern schools, for example, the number of principals who are black has diminished from figures in the thousands to the hundreds a class of people nearly wiped out. And why? Because integration has meant that when the black and white schools became one, the two principals became one principal and one coach, or principal and guidance counselor, or principal and assistant principal.
Now integration did help enlarge the black middle-class, providing access to certain kinds of professional training and some entrepreneurial opportunities. To some extent, this class has geographically distanced itself from the underclass with which it used to live in fairly close proximity, and with which it used to share a feeling of some community. It is an undeniable fact that there is a real physical class separation of black Americans that exists today which would not have existed had integrationist opportunities not come along.
NPQ: As I read Carmichael in today's circumstances, he sounds a lot like Glen Loury, the black neo-conservative intellectual, who argues that the pathological behavior of the underclass subculture (crime, drugs, out-of-wedlock pregnancy) is self-perpetuating because the middle-class values and "mediating structures" - what SNCC called the cultural integrity of the black community left with the outwardly mobile blacks.
Do you agree?
Bond: I think the description of what's happened is accurate, but I'm not sure if the reasons given are correct. I'm certainly not sure that we can blame this culture of criminality and antisocial behavior on the absence of the new class of upwardly mobile blacks.
There has always been an underclass in black America. It has grown larger, then smaller, then larger again. Today, the underclass is probably larger than at anytime in the last forty years. About 30% of all black people are poor by the government's poverty standard, and of that about half live in desperation. That is the underclass.
When I say "underclass,'' I'm not able to affix an economic badge or label to them, but 1 mean people for whom options and opportunity don't exist, either in actuality or in their own minds.
For many of America's black poor, as for the poor generally, poverty is an in and out condition. People move on and off the welfare rolls. But the underclass live perpetually in abject poverty. They're not starving, but they don't eat much. They're living in homes, although dilapidated. They wear clothes, but not many. Children may be getting an education, but not much.
So, at a glance, they have the things necessary to make it from day to day. But their education doesn't make them functionally literate and their ability to lift themselves off of government dependency is nonexistent. Their lives are stunted and they know it. They are locked into their condition. And what contributes to their status is that they know they are not going anywhere.
The renewed concern with the underclass is long overdue because it is a condition across America's urban landscape, not Just in the older, larger cities of the Northeast. Atlanta. WHERE!!!!!!!!!!!!! I live, is on its surface a magnet for upwardly mobile blacks. In fact we do have an enormously successful middle-class black community of people in white collar professions with two job families and two or more cars - often BMWs and Peugeots.
But we also have a persistent underclass whose condition has worsened since the civil rights movement even as that of most blacks has improved. Atlanta has violent gangs as bad as any in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Rochester, Hartford or Chicago. When former New York Mayor John Lindsay characterizes the violence in American cities as a ''slow motion riot" he is not exaggerating. He is exactly right. The crime rate and the high-level of antisocial activity generally - drug abuse, alcoholism, pregnancies where the boyfriend doesn't stick around - is just astounding.
The underclass, and the pathological activity that accompanies it, existed as a recognized phenomenon as long as 25 years ago when Kenneth Clark wrote Dark Ghetto. Yet, in those days, when I was active in SNCC, it looked as if the War on Poverty would ameliorate the worst of it.
We also believed then in the promise of political and economic integration. We felt integration would eliminate the problems, that when blacks had equal access to schools and jobs the desperately poor would no longer be with us. Of course, that not only didn't happen, the poverty is now worse. Conditions are more extreme and intractable. Seventy percent of black society integrated itself into the mainstream - except geographically, but the remaining 30% is even further removed from the mainstream than it was in 1964.
Those of us who have made it now feel that because a certain part of yesterday's job is done the destruction of the legal system of segregation - we must now turn our attention toward resolving this enormous crisis of the underclass. There is a new urgency because we in the middle-class are threatened. We are all likely victims of crime and violence the longer the situation is neglected.
In my neighborhood in Atlanta there is a mix of nice homes and tumble down places. Mrs. Martin Luther King lives nearby, but some of my near neighbors are on public assistance. There is also a big, ugly, sprawling public housing project nearby.
For the past twenty years, there was never a time when I had to worry about a break-in, purse-snatching or other criminal menace from my neighbors. But now I have to be fearful. I have to lock some doors and watch out when I pull up in the driveway at night. I have to look around to see who is there. I have to look in the back seat of the car before I get in. Before, we were never fearful of our neighbors. If criminals were preying on somebody, it wasn't anybody we knew, and it was probably somebody white.
There used to be places in white Atlanta where I wouldn't go day or night. Now, there are places in black Atlanta that I would not go.
NPQ: Would you agree, then, with former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb when he says that, "It is time to shift the primary focus from white racism, the traditional enemy from without, to self-defeating patterns of behavior - the enemy within"?
Bond: No. I would say it is time to adopt a new emphasis, but never, never to diminish our concern with racism. Racism is still pervasive and responsible in a very real way for exactly what we are talking about. What we have to do is continue the attack on racism while at the same time try to uplift this section of the community that has been absolutely left behind, ignored and forgotten the victims of yesterday's slavery, segregation and today's racism.
Now, of course, that uplifting effort has to do with economic and cultural matters, not just racism. It is too easy to say that we had slavery at one time and now, 150 years later, we have an underclass. I'm saying more than that.
We have to acknowledge that, throughout American history, the effort to integrate the poor and underclass - not just blacks - into the mainstream was never more than half-intended. The structural changes in the capitalist system necessary to eliminate poverty, such as more equitable distribution of wealth and full employment, are not part of President Reagan's vision and they weren't part of Lyndon Johnson's vision. So, the well meaning attempts to provide more and better schools and better housing, as much as those were unquestionably needed, were doomed to failure as a means of ultimately eliminating poverty.
There is something to be said about the need for "mediating structures" so lacking today in the underclass communities, that sense of community we recall where Grandma used to watch out for the kids on the street.
But what can be done to go back to that? The whole nature of the country has changed as part of urbanization and job market mobility and changing family values. We can't hire Grandmas and sit them on the front porches. The Grandma that used to sit on the front porch is in a nursing home; and the pharmacist who used to own the biggest house on the block and was a symbol for young people to aspire to, and whose insistence on keeping some kind of norms and standards in the education system was a measure of the community's integrity, has moved to the suburbs.
NPQ: Again, it strikes me that the remedies for uplifting the underclass sound a lot like the old black power rhetoric of SNCC and other militants. The logic is similar: paternalist liberalism and dependency on the welfare system created the problem. It's up to the black community and its own institutions to help itself out of this situation. The more we rely on government assistance in dealing with black poverty, which is fundamentally a question of cultural integrity, the more we are going to perpetuate dependence.
What the black NEO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -conservatives say today sounds like what black militants and you, Julian Bond, were saying in 1967.
Bond: It's a little different. In the mid-60s, I was eager for government to play an intervening role. I still would be today. That's the real difference with the NEO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! - conservatives.
Today, Loury and other neo-conservatives seem to have a predisposition against government intervention. People like myself, and Stokely in those days, tended to view the government's anti-poverty program as an attempt to divert the movement from its aggressive, system - challenging stance. Of course, we thought we were challenging more than we actually were, but we were suspicious of government for that reason. That reaction on our part caused us to appear more ''antipoverty program" than would have been the case if someone had asked, "Don't you agree that government ought to provide job training and a maintenance system for people who aren't in the job market?" We would have said yes, as we would today.
But, if the question was put differently, ''Do you think black people ought to let the government pull blacks out of poverty and this pathological behavior, or do you think the black community ought to do it itself,'' Stokely and I would say that the community should do it.
The parallel between Stokely and people like Loury today is their insistent "Garveyite'' cry: "Up you mighty race. You can be what you will, but you must do it.''
NPQ: Is the essential condition of the black underclass today a result of economic structures or a crisis of culture and family values?
Bond: Fundamentally, today, it's a question of family values. By family values, I don't mean an imposition of what most Americans take to be the family - mom and dad and four kids. I mean family values in the larger sense of communal values. The welfare mother with four children as difficult as her life is so close to the margin of survivability - has found herself outside of any kind of community. She has no sense that, "We're all in this together, so we can pool our resources and make some effort at lifting ourselves out of this mess.''
I cannot overestimate the importance of that sense of community which carried black America through the civil rights struggles. Of course that has splintered apart today among black people just as it has in American society as a whole.
NPQ: Eleanor Holmes Norton agrees that the crisis of the black underclass is fundamentally one of community and family values. She also says that a "non-governmental, inter-community, black initiative is the main, indispensable ingredient'' to moving toward a resolution of that crisis. Do you agree?
Bond: I hesitate to say that it's the main ingredient, but I think it is awfully important.
In my neighborhood, there is a YWCA. In recent years, it has radically changed from a place where lower-middle class girls found a place to play and learn basket weaving to a place where classes are held for pregnant teenagers and which dispenses a wide variety of social-welfare services, some with government sponsorship.
So, this has become a different kind of asset and a very helpful mediating force in my community. That's the kind of adaptation to need that we'll see more of in the future from local black institutions. What form these new non-governmental initiatives will take I can't say because the conditions we're facing now have never before arisen.
For example, when I talk to college students about cutbacks in federal student aid. It's!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! easy for me to recall when the kid who wanted to go to college in this community would go to the church and the congregation would raise the scholarship funds. But now, every kid wants to go to college, not just one kid. So, we can't raise the funds from church anymore. It's a mistake to compare then and now, saying, ''We did it then. so!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1 let's do it now.'' We didn't do it all then.
NPQ: What is the strength of existing "mediating structures" in the black community?
Bond: My sense is that they are weak, and even at their strongest they are insufficient. But at least we can use the remaining spirit of community one sees in the churches. FOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11 example, to build on.
In my neighborhood, within a twenty-block radius of where I live. THERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! are thirty churches, most with fairly small congregations. But only about one-third of black Americans are regular churchgoers.
So, even at their best these institutions are insufficiently involved with the population to meet the task. And it is the rare instance when a church is more than just a place of Sunday morning worship, a place that really involves itself in community service. The potential is there. BUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! it's untapped and unorganized and I don't see anyone tapping or organizing it.
If every church and every voluntary citizens' organization like the NAACP, of which I am president, became seven-day-a-week advocates for mediating crime, drugs and other pathologies, a dent in the problem would be made. But, more has to be done.
Existing structures from the Boys Club to Big Brothers need to be strengthened. But new community organizations for the re-involvement of upwardly mobile blacks in the underclass areas need to be created. But, no matter what the mechanism, the membership, direction and participation in the mediating structures that arise must be indigenous. It can't be done in a patronizing way. "Do as I do and you will be successful as I've been'' doesn't work with any group of people. Fundamentally, a new sense of black kinship needs to be established.
Why couldn't the guy who is an account executive at Southern Bell Telephone help Joe's shoestore to be a success and thus enable Joe to hire a couple of kids that need summer jobs? Why couldn't the young woman who is a police officer in Atlanta go beyond the crime prevention program and help people defend themselves against crime? Why couldn't the minister use his enormous space that stands empty six days a week as an after school study hall? Why couldn't the retired school teachers run a two-hour-a-day after school program in the church basement?
NPQ: You've been asking the question rhetorically. Let me ask you, is Dr. Huxtable willing to re-involve himself in the black ghetto?
Bond: I think he is. The fact that he doesn't may mean he doesn't have the opportunity to do so. It is probably not something he's going to do on his own. Someone has got to say, "Look, Doc' spend half-a-day a week at the free clinic teaching sex education to these girls and boys." Someone has to say to his wife, the lawyer, that legal aid to the poor is needed in this community and here's a way in which you can provide it.
One of the reasons the Civil Rights movement was successful was because organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SNCC, Freedom Summer and others provided conduits for involvement. There is nothing like those organizations now to help pull in black leadership and talent to face this new crisis of the black community.
NPQ: The other side of what you are saying is that there are limits to what the government can do?
Bond: Yes, absolutely. Government can provide all of the necessary training and it can guarantee equality of opportunity. It can do pretty much what the War on Poverty did with successful programs like Head Start.
But government can't erase this pathology. It can't redirect a people. That takes leadership and enormously diverse private efforts that government just isn't temperamentally equipped to perform.