Algernon Austin Explains How Black Public Intellectuals Get It Wrong About Black Progress and the Black Poor

One of my favorite blogs is The Thora Institute. It’s the work of Dr. Algernon Austin, a social scientist and economist who works for the Economic Policy Institute.

One issue that Dr. Austin has addressed on numerous occasions is the mistaken beliefs held by some black intellectuals concerning black progress, or the lack thereof.

For example, consider these comments from Austin’s blog, regarding a review by Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford of the book More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson.

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.

Just to be clear: Austin would be the first to say that the African American community faces a number of challenges, including internal ones, in dealing with problems such as poverty, crime and violence.

But even so, the idea that black people are stuck in a hopeless and helpless pathological spiral is unwarranted by the facts. The fact is, the black community has made significant social progress over the past 50 years.

It seems that we place an inordinate of effort in articulating what’s wrong with the black community, as opposed to detailing our successes, and pinpointing what works.

We need to talk more about how black people can win.

Why We Can’t Get Ahead: It’s All Our Fault.

Why can’t we get ahead? According to most black folks, it’s all our fault.

That’s one of the findings in a report by the Pew Research Center titled Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class – Optimism about Black Progress Declines. The report is based on a survey on racial attitudes was conducted by the Center in the fall of 2007. The Center is a nonpartisan think tank.

According to the report:

Why Some Blacks Lag Behind: Personal Factors or Discrimination?

Fully two-thirds of all Americans believe personal factors, rather than racial discrimination, explain why many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life; just 19% mostly blame discrimination.

While clear differences exist between white and black views on this question, these racial disparities are significantly less pronounced than those observed in other areas covered by this survey, including questions that measured perceptions of the overall levels of discrimination faced by blacks.

Overall, most whites (71%), Hispanics (59%) and a narrow majority of blacks (53%) believe that blacks who have not gotten ahead in life are mainly responsible for their own situation. At the same time, three-in-ten blacks (30%) blame racism for failures to advance, a view shared by 24% of all Hispanics and 15% of whites.

The survey also suggests that attitudes about what is more to blame for the failure of many blacks to advance appear to be strongly related to perceptions of discrimination against blacks.

For example, about four-in-ten blacks (37%) who believe African Americans are often discriminated against when applying for jobs also say discrimination is the main reason why some blacks don’t get ahead. But among blacks who say employment discrimination is relatively infrequent, only 15% believe bias is the major obstacle for black advancement.

A similar pattern is apparent among whites. About a third (34%) of whites who believe job discrimination against blacks is common say discrimination is mainly to blame for the fact that many blacks fail to advance. This view is held by just 11% of whites who say this form of racial bias is uncommon. Similarly, four-in-ten Hispanics who say blacks frequently are discriminated against when seeking work say discrimination is to blame for lack of black advancement, roughly double the proportion of Hispanics (19%) who say anti-black bias in employment is rare.

The report has of food for thought. Highly recommended reading. I’ll make another post based on the report in a day or so.