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.