--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.
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[In the Future of Black America debate, I began by pointing out three blatant errors in the dust jacket of John McWhorter’s Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. These errors are very common, and their presence on the dust jacket is evidence of that fact and evidence of what I see as a crisis of misinformation about black America today. After the Future of Black America debate, John McWhorter graciously invited me to send him my critique of his book. I accepted. Rather than have the main point be obscured by the many problems I find in the book, I have decided to send him three short, focused pieces and make them open letters. The first one is below and gets straight to the heart of the matter.]
It was very gracious of you to invite me to comment on Winning the Race. I’m quite serious when I state that I believe that there is a crisis of misinformation about black America today. I hope that you can join me in working to correct this misinformation. If I am “getting it wrong,” I hope that you will show me my errors.
You invited me to offer my critique of the book because it seems that you presume that my focus on the errors in the dust jacket avoids the main points of the book. This assumption is not right. The dust jacket does a fine job of providing an introduction to the book as it is supposed to. The errors in the dust jacket are the erroneous assumptions of the book.
Let’s look at the key issue of poverty. The dust jacket argues that “conditions for many blacks have grown worse since 1965: Desperate poverty cripples communities nationwide.” Now certainly there are impoverished black communities today, and certainly there were impoverished black communities in 1965. The real issue therefore is whether there is more black poverty today than in 1965.
I harp on this point because it is the essential assumption of Winning the Race. You write:
My argument, then, unabashedly assumes that there is such a thing as a culture of poverty. We must be under no illusion that this book only ‘implies’ this or that it is ‘dressing up’ the culture of poverty argument in new clothes. My explicit aim is to argue that poor blacks indeed have been waylaid by a culture of poverty. I unhesitatingly agree with all those before me who have analyzed poor blacks post-1970 in that way. The only ‘new clothes’ I intend is in my attempt to get at just what led poor blacks to fall into this culture of poverty so deeply at a particular time. This book is, most definitely, one more in the line of arguments that poor blacks’ problems are primarily due to culture rather than economics. Its argument stands or falls on whether my particular argument is effective. (p. 112, emphases in original)Winning the Race is an attempt to explain why there is more black poverty and unemployment today than in the 1960s. Thus, one sees why the dust jacket claims that there is more black poverty today than in the 1960s. The entire book rests on this claim being true.
I state over and over again, that there has been no sustained increase in black poverty since the 1970s because Winning the Race is premised on this false idea. In 1966 (a 1965 estimate is not available from the Census Bureau’s “Historical Poverty Tables”), the black poverty rate was 41.8 percent. In 2005, the year Winning the Race was published it was 24.9 percent—nearly half of what it was in 1966. This rate is still way too high, but I see no evidence here that blacks “have been waylaid by culture of poverty” post-1970.
It is also wrong to presume that we can read cultural values from economic outcomes. The leading black public intellectuals like you, Juan Williams, Orlando Patterson, Bill Cosby and too many others divorce black economic outcomes from the goings on of the American labor market and the American economy. This is incorrect.
If we examine the statistics on the economic state of black and white America, it is clear that we cannot treat black economic outcomes as a “black thing” that has nothing to do with the American economy. Below is a graph of the black and white unemployment rates. Blacks have a higher unemployment rate than whites. I will address reasons why this is below. What I want to first focus on is the relationship between the black and white unemployment rates. The rates are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. [click on image for a better view]
Source: “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What should be clear is that the black and white employment rates move in sync. When the black unemployment rate increases, so does the white. When the white decreases, so does the black. If a presumed crisis of cultural values produced the black unemployment rate and presumably good white cultural values produced the white unemployment rate, we would not see these parallel trends. It is the overall changes in the American economy, not black culture, which drive the largest changes in the black unemployment rate.
The increases in the black unemployment rate and the white unemployment rate are caused by economic recessions. All of the nearly vertical increases in the black and white unemployment rates correspond to recessions. The overall economic condition of blacks is strongly shaped by the overall economic condition of the American economy. The false idea that culture determines black economic outcomes obscures this important fact.
If we turn to poverty rates, we can see the same points illustrated again. It is harder to see the parallel trends between the black and white poverty rates because the black poverty rate has been roughly 3.5 times the white rate. An increase of 1 percent in the white poverty rate corresponds to about a 3.5 percent increase in the black rate. For blacks and whites respectively, the highest poverty rate is in 1966 and the lowest in 2000. The relatively slight increases in poverty in the graph correspond with economic recessions. The recession of 2001 reversed some of the poverty reduction experienced in the 1990s.
Source: “Historical Poverty Tables, Table 2, All People,” U.S. Census Bureau.
One comes across a startling finding if one examines the ratio of black to white poverty rates overtime. It is important to note that before 1973, the Census figures did not separate white Hispanics from white non-Hispanics. White Hispanics have had higher poverty rates than white non-Hispanics. White Hispanics increase the white poverty rate, and therefore lower the black-white poverty ratio before 1973 by some unknown degree. Beginning in 2002, blacks who identify as being of more than one race are not included in the statistics. This removal of multiracial blacks increases the black-white poverty ratio slightly, because multiracial blacks have a lower poverty rate. In 2005, for example, the black-white poverty ratio including multiracial blacks was 2.88. Excluding multiracial blacks, it was 3.00.
While the black-white poverty ratio historically has been roughly 3.5, when one looks closely one sees that it has actually been trending downward. You can see this more clearly if you look at the average by decade. The black poverty rate has been 3 times the white rate since 2000. This is a huge disparity. But when black public intellectuals wax romantic about earlier decades, they are simply not looking at the evidence. The black poverty rate was 3.8 times the white rate over the 1970s. Again, the presence of Hispanics in the white category likely means that the ratio in the 1960s and 1970s is actually higher than what we see in the graphs.
Contrary to what you claim in Winning the Race, that black poverty has worsened since the 1970s, in both absolute and relative measures there is less black poverty today than in the 1960s. There is a very positive downward trend in the black-white poverty ratio. This finding is exactly the opposite of what one would find if blacks were afflicted with a culture of poverty. Black public intellectuals should be celebrating this declining ratio but instead they are condemning poor blacks based on fictions.
Even with these improvements, the economic condition of blacks is still far from ideal. Unfortunately, we cannot look to the leading black public intellectuals for solutions to the high rates of black unemployment and poverty because they have ignored the facts, misread the trends and misdiagnosed the problems.
The economic conditions of blacks improve when the America economy improves. We need policies that strengthen the American economy and that reverse the growing income and wealth inequality. Blacks are worse off than whites economically to a significant degree because blacks have lower educational outcomes than whites. The major reason for the lower black educational outcomes is because of the lower quality of black educational opportunities which begin from even before kindergarten. There are effective programs that reduce these disparities running today. We need to push policy makers to make them widely available. And last but not least, there is considerable evidence that blacks still face discrimination in the labor market. We have unfinished business in the area of black civil rights. Improving the economic state of black America requires that (1) we improve the American economy, (2) improve the quality of black educational opportunities, and (3) eliminate anti-black discrimination in the labor market. Spending all of our energy fighting a mythical culture of poverty is a waste of time and resources since it does not exist.
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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.
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