Another Black Public Intellectual Gets It Wrong

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--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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[Stanford University law professor, Richard Thompson Ford, whose bio states that he is a regular contributor to Slate, came to my attention because of his review of William Julius Wilson's new book More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review. In Ford's review, he makes all of the "classic" mistakes that I identify in Getting It Wrong. The following is an open letter to him.]

Dear Professor Ford:

The second sentence of your New York Times book review of William Julius Wilson's More Than Just Race states: "The poverty, violence and hopelessness in America’s inner cities have become increasingly dire in the four decades since the height of the civil rights movement." This statement is not correct.

The Census Bureau reports that in 1966 the black poverty rate was 41.8 percent. In 2007, it was 24.5 percent, 17.3 percentage points lower than in 1966. The Center for Disease Control's Health, United States, 2008 reports that in 1970 the age-adjusted homicide rate for black men was 78.2 for every 100,000 men. In 2005, it was 37.3 per 100,000. For black females, the 1970 homicide rate was 14.7 and 6.1 in 2005. Many of the leading black public intellectuals are nostalgic for the past, but this is only because they do not accurately remember how rough the 1960s and 1970s were.

Just about every leading black public intellectual who discusses the black poor recently gets these and other basic facts wrong. The consensus among these black elites is that there is an epidemic of bad behavior among lower-income blacks that has led to a big increase in black poverty. Juan Williams states, "too many poor and low-income black people are not taking advantage of opportunities to get themselves out of poverty." Cynthia Tucker claims, "drug use, poor classroom performance and the embrace of outlaw culture have done nothing but cement the black underclass at the bottom of American society." Henry Louis Gates argues that America now has "the largest [black] underclass in our history" and "it’s time to concede that, yes, there is a culture of poverty." You see that your second sentence fits with this theme.

Apparently, none of these commentators took much time to examine the black poverty trends. Over the 1990s, when lower-income blacks were supposedly mired in a culture of poverty, they experienced the largest reduction in black poverty since the 1960s. In 1992, the black poverty rate was 33.4 percent. By 2000, it had reached its lowest level on record, 22.5 percent. The culture-of-poverty idea or the "tangle of pathology" as William Julius Wilson has called it does not help us understand this historic decline in black poverty.

It is my hypothesis that Wilson's work (as well as the work of others over the 1980s and early 1990s) is a major factor in why black public intellectuals keep getting the facts wrong about black America. Wilson's underclass theory shifted the analysis of poverty away from an economic theory of poverty to a cultural theory of poverty. People spend less time looking at economic data and more time looking for "evidence" of bad black behavior which, according to underclass theory, has been on the rise since the 1960s. Gates reported that America has "the largest [black] underclass in our history" in the middle of the historic 1990s decline in black poverty.

Please be aware that I am not just playing a silly game of gotcha. Blacks are much more likely to be poor than whites. But if we wish to reduce black poverty, we absolutely have to understand the 1990s decline. The only way we can have further reductions in black poverty is to know what works. The immensely popular culture-of-poverty idea does not.

You are based at Stanford University. I would like to direct your attention to a short article in Pathways magazine. Pathways is a publication of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. The Winter 2009 issue has a short article discussing research on the change in child poverty over the 1990s in 12 advanced countries including the United States. The Pathways piece concludes: "Much headway against child poverty can be made by combining full employment policy with aggressive income transfers." These are important findings that one sees over and over again in the economic analysis of poverty. Unfortunately, this knowledge seems to have been lost among the leading black public intellectuals in their culture-of-poverty haze. If we wish to reduce black poverty, we need to return to an economic analysis of poverty and heed its lessons.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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