Breaking the Cycle: A Problem of Caste, Not Pathology
Jesse Jackson has been visible on the American scene since he was a top lieutenant of Martin Luther King during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. By all accounts, Jackson intends to again run for president. With the concentration of five southern primaries on the same day in 1988, the prospect of a heavy black vote for Jackson worries Democratic Party leaders who believe a centrist path is the road back to the White House.
It was just after a contentious session of the Democratic National Committee that we caught up with Rev. Jackson on a flight to Atlanta.
NPQ: As liberals contemplate the next social agenda, a consensus about new conditions is emerging. That consensus says the efforts of integration, the Great Society and affirmative action were successful to the extent of removing the barriers of racism, thus liberating a substantial black middle-class. But they were a failure to the extent of creating a dependent urban underclass.
What do you think?
Jackson: The Civil Rights movement, the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school segregation and the Great Society changes effectively struck down the legal caste system. Until 1964, blacks lived under apartheid. We could not use hotels, motels, public parks or libraries. In many southern states blacks, by law, could not earn as much teaching school as whites. In most places, blacks could not be policemen, firemen or bus drivers and couldn't go to schools of engineering, medicine and law.
Although the proportions may have been reversed, even then we had a middle-class and the very poor. We had teachers, doctors, lawyers, ministers and athletes who lived in single-family homes that they owned. There were the business people who owned barber shops, beauty shops, funeral parlors and small construction firms. We had our Sugar Hills.
I grew up in South Carolina. Across the corner from where my family lived, the people were very poor. Next door were the Edwards and the Walkers, both of whom taught school. Next to them was Dr. Smiley. These people gave us something to strive for.
But our people really began rising when the caste laws came down with school desegregation and the right to vote. When we could go to schools of the South en masse, there was more upward mobility because the greater the number who went to school, the greater their demands for full membership in society.
What the Great Society did was to begin to employ Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and enforce affirmative action. That opened some doors which had previously been closed, and was responsible for creating a whole new middle-class in the public sector. Blacks rushed into the post offices and the state and local government positions, in part because we were still locked out of the private sector. Also, the budgetary commitments of the Great Society to Head Start, Model Cities or various senior citizen programs created a generation of black administrators in this public sector middle-class.
In civil service jobs, we've done much better because the rules are clear and it is possible to define how to win and how to grow. Whenever rules are established, and blacks know what the rules are, we tend to do well. If we pass an exam to get a GS9 or 10 or 11 level, stick through a certain amount of time and get a promotion, we tend to advance. In the private sector where there are no defined rules and where everything is subjective, even though we may have greater skills, we don't do as well.
So, the Great Society did not create a black middle-class by dispensing a lot of free money. It pulled down barriers and allowed us to go in doors we'd been knocking on all the while. The new ability to get an education gave us a new opportunity to compete. That's what created the black middle-class.
NPQ: What about the successes and failures of the War on Poverty?
Jackson: Much of the War on Poverty was lost on the battlefields of the other war - Vietnam. The money shifted. That was one of Dr. King's seven reasons for opposing the Vietnam War. It shifted resources away from housing construction and training. Before we could attain the commitment to rebuild urban America and teach young people to be brick masons, carpenters and plasterers, before we could get to that part of the program, the War on Poverty dwindled to a skirmish.
Efforts such as urban renewal barely got started before they were stopped. I grew up in a three room shotgun barrel house in Greenville, South Carolina. We had a bathroom in the backyard, a wooden coal bin under the house and a fireplace - not as a luxury but as the only way to get heat. People in my neighborhood had been living in these kinds of homes for 40 years. With the 221b3 public housing projects, homes like this were torn down. But then nothing happened because the money commitment stopped. The removal took place, but the renewal never did.
The War on Poverty never had a chance. It only lasted three to five years. The Marshall Plan was a twenty-five year plan that cost 11% of our GNP. Surely, Europe had gone through a devastating war, but here in our cities were people who had been through 350 years of slavery and legal segregation. The success of Israel, with its four million people, reflects a 38-year investment and a continuing commitment at $ 3 billion a year. Japan's success reflects a favored nation trade status with almost none of their budget going to defense.
An important part of the success of Europe, Israel and Japan reflects an economic formula: aid, plus trade, plus development, plus time. If you cut aid, short circuit development and give the effort no time, the result is self-evident. When you cut the water off on the hill, the bones dry up in the valley. There's nothing mystical here about why the War on Poverty failed.
NPQ: Busting the legal caste system and the Great Society fostered the growth of an upwardly mobile, at least public-sector, black middle-class. Both the lost War on Poverty and the outward bound middle-class have left the poor in the ghettos intact.
Isn't this split in the black community exactly what Stokely Carmichael warned of in the black power days? He opposed integration on the grounds that those who made it would leave the others behind, taking leadership and know-how out of the ghetto.
Other militants argued it would destroy the black community's "cultural integrity."
Jackson: First of all, this split is fragile. The college degrees that the middle-class got in the 1960s resulted in public-sector jobs, for the most part. With that, and with both husband and wife working, they were able to get credit and own non-business items - a house on a thirty-year mortgage, a car, clothes. They could even go into debt for their children's college tuition. By and large, the black middle-class is not a property-owning or entrepreneurial class. They are only a payday away from poverty.
In the end, there is not a radical gap between that class and the very poor.
Secondly, because of the caste system, the black middle-class ain't going nowhere except to another black neighborhood. Sometimes the same neighborhood. Black doctors still basically have black patients. Black lawyers have black clients. Black ministers, black parishioners. Black politicians have black districts.
So, nothing has happened that has taken the parts of the black community substantially away from our relationship with each other. In some instances we've built new housing in the removed neighborhoods. In our fatigue and anxiety we've kind of gotten away from the ghetto, but the facts of life keep driving us back to our history and our people. Our children still need the cultural orientation and security that can only be transmitted from one generation to another. I think, though, we've found that we can now effectively intermingle with the rest of society without disintegrating out of our own culture, our religion, our rhythm. We are now appreciating the rhythm and rules of pluralism more and more.
NPQ: You don't, then, accept the argument that the "mediating structures" of the black community have pulled out with the middle-class?
Jackson: In part it has been true and is related to urban renewal, which dissected the old black communities. In Chicago, for example, urban renewal projects cut right across 63rd and Cottage Grove, the area where black business institutions were concentrated. But there are now new institutions developing. Churches have blossomed. There are more black-owned banks than ever before. More black-owned radio stations, and more black-owned TV stations than ever before.
NPQ: Do you agree with former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb, speaking for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), when he says that the barriers blocking black Americans from entering the mainstream have largely been removed. Now it is time for the social agenda to shift the primary focus from racism to the self- defeating patterns of behavior of a mostly black urban underclass?
Jackson: Black Americans are still victims of a caste system and a class system. As we've discussed, there has been some class mobility. But nothing has altered the caste system because we're designated and slotted by race.
Let's look at some facts that illustrate more than stasis, even regression in some cases. In 1976 the University of Michigan had a student body that was 7.7% black. In 1986, it had fallen to 5%. They had 2200 faculty members, but only 63 blacks. The University of Chicago has 1300 faculty members and 11 blacks. Harvard had 97 black freshmen last September, down 30% from 1976. Princeton had 645 faculty members, only 7 of whom were black. It had 1600 graduate students, 22 of them black.
Why have all these figures gone down? Because of Bakke. Because allies who were with us in the freedom movement have been against us in the justice movement and the equality movement. And the government has withdrawn the troops for civil rights enforcement. So, there is a cutback in recruitment, hiring and promotion of blacks.
NPQ: ... and about the self defeating enemy within the black community?
Jackson: When people's backs are against the wall, some choose to fight back. Some have the dogged determination to fight for more education. Some tend to fight back by making the most of their meager income. Some tend to withdraw in despair and cynicism, believing that nothing will work. They turn to liquor, drugs and the pursuit of pleasure to escape the pain.
Others find their basic fulfillment and gratification in sex without love, discipline or education. Or they make unwanted and unhealthy babies. Some turn to violence, turning on each other instead of to each other.
But there is nothing congenital about this kind of behavior. And since it is not natural, but social or environmental, there are ways of stemming it. But, when you cut back on college opportunities, cut back on job training, preschool education and Head Start, cut back on public sector employment and union apprenticeship programs and then shift $32 billion from the poor to the upper class through tax policy, the result is self-evident.
If you withdraw the water from the pool, the fish will die. They engage in all kinds of frantic behavior because they are living in an unnatural environment. Some fish cannot bounce back and will drown even with the resources.
NPQ: No one respectable is saying behavior is congenital. Are you saying that there is not a self-perpetuating dynamic to it?
Jackson: It's a pattern of behavior because of a pattern of circumstances.
But let's just look at the realities first. Most poor people are not black or brown. By 4 to 1, they are white. They are also young and female. And who talks about their behavior? They are the ones who dominate the welfare rolls.
This is significant because as long as poverty has a black face, profound questions about the class nature of this country aren't raised. It reminds me of the Al Jolson act I would see growing up in the South. Put a black face on a white situation and you can laugh at it, you can throw balls at it and hope it falls over in the water when you hit it in the face. When Al Jolson takes the black off his face, it ain't so funny. When John Kennedy held a black baby in his arms in Harlem in 1960, he was a nice guy Catholic. Do-gooder. When he held up a white baby in West Virginia, exposing the ribs, it started the War on Poverty.
Most poor people, with all the talk about dependence and pathology, are not on welfare. They work every day. They drive cabs and clean garbage cans. They clean other people's bathrooms. They change beds in hotels. They change the clothes of the feverish and empty bedpans in the hospitals. And when they get sick, they can't afford to lie in those beds! They die in emergency rooms because they don't have a green or yellow card to go upstairs where empty wings are waiting for the rich to get sick. The poor raise other people's kids, but can't raise their own.
Pathological? They catch the early bus in the morning. They can't be choosy about where they work, and when they get work, they're still below the poverty line. Pathological? Somehow, we do not illuminate their faces. We don't give them credit for being the hardest workers on the nastiest jobs, in the most hazardous conditions for the least amount of money.
That's who the poor really are.
So, when Chuck Robb and the DLC - what I call Democrats for the Leisure Class - come up with some fundraising angle for Democrats, they are speaking about something of which they have no in-depth appreciation.
NPQ: What about the pattern of circumstances and welfare?
Jackson: I think there is something wrong with the welfare system, far more than people think. The biggest problem is that contempt of the people it serves is built into the system. The assumption is that those who get welfare cannot be trusted while those that get subsidies elsewhere - farmers or military contractors - can. So, people are paid more money to administer those on welfare than is spent to give welfare recipients a way out. A whole delivery class has been created instead of just giving the resources to the poor. Instead, the poor should be targeted - targeted for Head Start education, college scholarships, trade training, chances for travel and cultural exposure. That's where the money should be spent.
As I said before, we know how to target when it is important. We targeted Europe with the Marshall Plan and subsidize Israel.
The welfare system should have in it incentives to earn and to learn. Let's say a 17-year-old mother with a child is in the tenth grade. She gets $200 a month on welfare. If she stays in school and finishes eleventh grade, she should get $225. That's an incentive. The more education she gets, the mote welfare payment increment she should get. If she goes to college, maybe the first year it should be $240 a month, and then $260 in the second year. It can help pay for child care and help her on her way to stable employment. In the end, it's all cheaper for society because it breaks the cycle of dependence and gives her a way out.
Now, if she makes $200, they take $200, so why work? And if she goes back to school without enough money to pay for child care, she's called an unfit mother.
An earn and learn system would get her past the curve where it is more profitable to work than not work.
So, there are things that can be done. And we should do them, providing concrete forms of help instead of thinking up these little cute sociological terms and sociograms.
The poor are not immune to stimulus. I know because I was one of them. I don't speak as one who has read or heard, but one who has lived through breaking out of the cycle.
I was born to a teenaged mother, who was born to a teenaged mother. When I was 13, we moved to a public housing project. It was the first time we had a bathtub in the house. It was the first time we had central heating, a doorbell, an individual mailbox. The step up gave us an incentive.
My daddy had only finished third grade, but he was a veteran. He got ten points on the veteran's exam and got a job at the post office as a custodian. My mother was able to go back to school and become a cosmetologist. Then mamma could do hair cultures. With both of them working, we had a comfortable home in the projects. It helped stabilize the family. I was able to graduate from high school and go to college with a football scholarship.
With help, we were able to break out. There was nothing pathological about us. Cold air was coming through the walls and up out of the floor of our house. But there was nothing wrong with us. There was something wrong with the house.
NPQ: The fact that your family held together was undoubtedly an important factor in breaking out. Isn't family breakdown one of the problems of poor urban blacks today?
Jackson: Families are under real pressure. When men can't get jobs or an education, it severely impacts their ability to sustain mature relationships. When young men and young women have extreme sex stimulus without sex education and sex discipline, babies are irresponsibly made. When the mass media titillates our nerves and keeps us sexually stimulated from the age of five or six on, that is a factor.
There is a crisis of values in the family structure of all Americans, not just blacks. Listen to the radio and hear where mass education comes from. Look at TV By age fifteen, a child is estimated to have seen 18,000 hours of TV, listened to 25,000 hours of radio, been in school for 11,000 hours and in church fewer than 3,000 hours. That media has more access to the minds and impressions of our children than church or school, and sometimes even more access than the mother or father. We've never before had so much stimulus coming from an alien, centralized force outside the family and community. More and more, it sets the tones and values of our common culture.
The image of the family reinforced by the betrayals, casual sex infidelities and materialism of such programs as "Dallas" is damaging. You can find children in the ghetto being socialized to these aspirations and acting like messed up Hollywood actors. Only recently have programs like "The Bill Cosby Show" come along that display some degree of family continuity, integrity and ambition.
There are other misdirections and signals coming from the elites and models in this society that mess up the values of our kids and our families.
Drug use and theft don't only have the face of a black underclass. What about Ivan Boesky and all those Wall Street values? What about the epidemic of dope consumption among stock brokers and investment bankers' What about Battery Park? Our youth see these men as models.
New York Senator D'Amato went up to the Bronx dressed in street clothes and bought some crack, reinforcing the image of pathology in the black community. He could've bought some crack in the building where his office is' Wouldn't that have been a better contribution to revealing the drug problem?
NPQ: In 1986, what is the fundamental issue? Can we say it is more one of values instead of economic structures? Is the issue government aid or self-reliance and moral leadership in the black community?
Jackson: It's a combination. A certain rhythm is created if you have second and third generation people who have never had a steady, mainstream job. That has to be broken.
Government can help provide an outlet. Employment training is an outlet. Business opportunity is an outlet. Educational opportunity is an outlet. Better housing - a foundation. Access to health care - a factor.
But it is also a question of values, self-reliance and moral leadership. We need an environment that doesn't saturate our children's minds with drugs, sex and violence as the daily cultural menu. Since 1976, Operation PUSH has been visiting four high schools a week. We tell children that when you are behind, you have to be superior in your efforts to be equal. When you are behind you have to run faster to catch up. Nobody will save you for you but you.
Whatever the environment is, you must never let the fire of your will to be free go out. Down with dope, up with hope. I am somebody - a sense of self-esteem. You must fight for opportunity, but effort must exceed opportunity for progress to take place.
What does it matter, we ask these kids, if the doors of opportunity are wide open, and you're too drugged to stagger through the door? What does it matter if you have opportunity if you watch five hours of TV every night and choose TV over education? If the same minds and bodies that practice basketball for four hours every day after school without radio or TV were directed toward reading and computation, you could slam dunk thoughts the way you slam dunk basketballs.
It is a matter of values and priorities. The society rewards black athletic achievement. You get big scholarships, big glory, big recognition. But it's short term pleasure and, by and large, long term pain.
So, we need values. But we also need more. Values and affirmative action. Values and investment.
NPQ: Your summary response to liberals thinking about a new social agenda?
Jackson: The black underclass need not be looked upon as an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Face it. We know how to stimulate people, open up doors. Moral leadership, mass education, balanced nutrition. We understand that.
As the trillion dollar deficit looms over any commitment to this effort, something else must be understood. The immorality of letting people languish in poverty is not cost-efficient. Jails cost more than schools. Ignorance costs more than intelligence. Dropouts cost more than graduates. A diseased body costs more than a healthy body.
NPQ: The black agenda?
Jackson: The black agenda is equity and parity. If freedom was a horizontal movement from outside in, justice and equality is a vertical movement from bottom to top.
We've run into tremendous resistance seeking equity. Many who supported freedom do not support equality. They would agree to "Free Mandela" but not "Elect Mandela."
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