In many ways, the US economy is faltering. The rate of inflation, though down slightly, has remained near a high level for several decades, and supply chain disruptions have created food shortages and delays for foreign-made products. Interest rates are rising and the number of new mortgages is declining.
Black communities, which have historically suffered from higher unemployment and less financial security, share a palpable fear of this economic downturn. There is a new urgency to the questions before us: what are the causes of the economic uncertainty black people are experiencing and what long-term solutions can build resilience in the future?
“The State of Black America,” a collection of essays we edited and co-authored for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, answers these questions in a way that aligns black economic empowerment with the founding principles of America. Additionally, we highlight the remarkable story of black progress under the severe constraints of oppression and exclusion that followed the end of slavery in this country.
Rather than simply considering conventional responses to poverty, the authors explore creative and expansive possibilities rarely seriously considered in American discourse today, while pushing back against some of the desperate and discouraging narratives that shape so much how we discuss poverty. race today. This conversation necessarily begins with a candid assessment of where we are today.
In their examination of poverty in the African-American community, professors Precious D. Hall and Daphne Cooper note that although black and Hispanic poverty rates hit an all-time low in 2019, inequalities persist.
More than a quarter of black Americans under 18 live in food-insecure households, 36% of black Americans have no retirement savings or pensions, and 21.2% live in poverty. And all of this was reported before the pandemic that hit our country crushed those who were already on the margins of society. Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous people have been getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates. This reality has shown the effect of concentrated populations in managed care environments characterized by destitution. This disproportionate impact exposed a disturbing reality: racial fault lines are real in America, especially when you look at economic power and wealth.
We must therefore ask ourselves, have social policies helped or hindered the social conditions of black Americans? Our report challenges the flawed paradigm used by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his attempts to eradicate poverty. Although “Great Society” legislation honestly attempted to lift people out of poverty, it suffered from the fatal flaws of trying to fix structural failures in government rather than empowering individual action.
Some try to explain the poverty of blacks by exploitation, due to the unequal distribution of wealth; long-standing marginalization, due to lack of access to social capital; helplessness, due to lack of opportunities; cultural imperialism, due to immeasurable social values; or violence, due to hatred and aggression.
To think that the right “solution” is to reverse any of these phenomena, such as the redistribution of wealth, only creates new artificial structures of oppression with vast unintended consequences.
Poverty exists; poverty is real; poverty can be solved by a change of institutional paradigm. This paradigm shift requires government to focus not only on institutional policies, but on overcoming attitudes of dependent victimization and encouraging opportunities for initiative within specific communities.
Also, it behooves the government to understand that when it comes to making stronger policies to help the black community, nothing is being asked of others. than to draw on the intrinsic strengths of their unique American heritage as described by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells as early as 1893. All people enjoy true freedom; we all want equality and to be treated with dignity.
The first step in remedying the problem is to recognize not only the problem but also its root causes – to reflect the exact history of institutions and institutional attitudes and their role not only in the lives of black descendants of Africans, but also in the life of all Americans. To that extent, our call to action demands that in the 21st century, we move away from singular explanations of poverty as racially or ethnically unique.
Other points that are made in this book by a distinguished range of authors:
America should not abandon the project of a united country across racial lines.
Opposing “those who believe America is built on freedom and those who believe America is built on oppression and exploitation”, Thomas Klingenstein begins the book by pleading with us not to abandon the image of a “country striving, however imperfectly, towards its lofty ideals.
“Are we going to teach our fellow citizens, black and white, that they should despise their country? he asks. “Or will we teach our citizens the truth that, despite its sins, America is worthy of their love?”
Economist Glenn Loury argues that a “case can be made for unabashed black patriotism, for a frank embrace of American nationalism by black people” – a case that recognizes that “the 4th of July belongs to all of us”.
Loury continues, “The ‘America isn’t all it’s supposed to be’ posturing is, in my view, a second-grade indulgence for black people at this late date. In fact, our birthright citizenship in what is arguably the greatest republic in history is a legacy of immense value.
There is room to view America’s racial history more generously.
“Are we going to teach our fellow citizens that our founders were hypocrites who preached equality but practiced slavery?” writes Klingenstein. “Or are we going to teach them the truth: that the foundation was remarkable not for its hypocrisy but for the fact that a country saturated with slavery included in its founding charter the Declaration of Independence, a principle which would ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery as well as the abolition of other discriminatory practices?
By proclaiming “all men are equal”, the founders, said Abraham Lincoln, intended “to declare the law, that its application might follow as speedily as circumstances would permit”.
“Those who want to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name from school buildings don’t really understand the foundations of their own security and prosperity,” writes Loury, adding that “what happened in 1776 was much more important to history of the world than what happened in 1619″.
He goes on to say that the history of black people in America is one of “the greatest transformation in the status of an enslaved people…to be found anywhere in the history of the world” and calls out his fellow black Americans to wholeheartedly embrace America. as “the most effective way to advance their interests in the 21st century”.
We should not value government more than faith.
Star Parker and Robert Borens draw attention to ideas that have historically undermined “people’s confidence in their ability to govern themselves” and “contributed to a culture among black Americans, post-Civil Rights, that reflected the belief that they lacked the tools to live free. They needed the government to provide what was necessary for life.
“Despite high church attendance in Black America,” they continue, “it is an unfortunate historical fact that the civil rights movement coincided with the prevalence of a certain cultural arrogance that downplayed religion and claimed that the federal government could solve all social ills”.
They then ask leaders to “trust these communities to govern themselves” and to see “the spiritual and moral strength that persists in communities of black Americans despite the social and economic hardships some of them face.”
Family must be included in discussions of racial well-being.
Parker and Borens go on to argue that broader public conversations about economic well-being are missing something important if they ignore the role of the family unit. For example, they note the “dramatic difference in the incidence of poverty between people living in households with and without a married couple” in the general population, “people living in households of single women registering a poverty rate of more than five times higher than that of married people. households.”
This correlation applies to both white and black American families, but with a higher incidence of black households headed by a single woman. Conclusion: “The link between family structure and poverty appears to be fundamental, transcending racial and ethnic differences.”
They go on to note that the disparity in marriage rates between white and black Americans is a relatively recent development, citing Pew Research which shows that in 1960, “the percentage of white Americans and black Americans who had never been married was almost the same” but in 2012 there was a 20 point difference.
They conclude, “In thinking about the problem of poverty in America, we should focus more on family structure and marriage. The deterioration of marriage and the traditional family has been particularly severe in black America and is likely a major contributor to the persistence of high poverty rates.
None of this gets much attention in American discourse today. And Mikael Rose Good writes. “In the 21st century, it is increasingly perilous to try to tell the truth about the state of black America.” But to pave the way for solutions, we have to.
Austin Stone is Managing Partner at Beck & Stone. He is currently on assignment in Washington, DC, as COO for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. WB Allen is Dean Emeritus and Professor at Michigan State University. Excerpts from this essay are taken from “The State of Black America: Progress, Pitfalls, and the Promise of the Republic,” published by Encounter Books.