Thursday, March 12, 2009

Does racism or bad behavior make you poor?

Is it racism that keeps poor folks in the ghetto poor? Or is it their own behavior?

There's a new book out that I have to read that argues that racism -- however you define it -- matters way less than changes to the economy over the past few decades and that cultural forces have all but isolated the poorest of the poor in ghettos. Here's a few highlights from the New York Times' review of Harvard sociolgist William Julius Wilson's "More than Just Race":
"State-enforced racial discrimination created the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods. Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing agencies engaged in racial red­lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto. Encouraged by recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and cheaper overseas labor."

Perhaps the most interesting point to be made comes next:

"The success of the civil rights movement inadvertently made things worse for the most disadvantaged...successful blacks began to leave the inner city for many of the same reasons whites did: in search of better schools, less crime, lower taxes and a leafier landscape. This left the least well off behind in ghettos that were both more socially isolated and more economically depressed than ever."

Think back to yesterday's post about the middle-class black couple outside Chicago driving 14 miles to buy groceries as part of their campaign to buy black. Families like theirs (and more to the point individuals like myself and most of my friends) help make the latter point. The legacy of the civil rights movement's legal and cultural gains made it possible for African-Americans to attain not just middle class wages but middle class housing in neighborhoods that aren't overwhelmingly black. I grew up in neighborhoods that were mostly black, and mostly poor but now live in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb where only 34.1 percent of the residents are black and the median income is almost $64,000 a year. Living here means better schools for my son and fewer worries about crime but to some extent it destabilizes neighborhoods like the ones I grew up in.

In any event, the book sounds like a good book. Hit the library or Amazon, and if you read it, let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Butterrfly said...

Very thought provoking indeed. I of course have a my own well informed opinions on this topic. However, I will reserve my thoughts and commentary until I get the opportunity to read this book. Stay tuned... :-)