The government cannot mend cultural decay through legislation. Laws alone will not fix our social ills. The application of force will not solve our problems, whether poverty, discrimination or inequality; a hammer cannot be our only tool. Disagree if you will on abortion or gay marriage but understand the value of private institutions: No Head Start program will ever overcome the importance of a strong family unit, and no food stamp program will do what private and religious charities and hospitals do. No programs born out of President Johnson’s visits to Appalachia in the name of the Great Society will ever do more than make grinding, abject poverty slightly more bearable if society itself crumbles away. Nor should they. If the state must do everything, the state will control everything.Or worse, the state will enable everything.
It is folly to think that every problem can be solved by sweeping legislation or grand pronouncements from the Rose Garden. Government cannot be the prescription for every ill, if for no other reason than that such an approach simply won’t work. No matter how large or small a role you believe the state should play in the daily lives of citizens, it is essential to understand the importance of building cultural institutions embedded in our society — families, churches, communities, schools, nonprofits and whatever else you may believe is necessary. We will never win the War on Poverty without a strong social order.Yes, and many on the Right have run with that argument, the better to call out Deep Thinkers who would see oppression in any social order.
To the Trotskyite left, the Great Society is a failed palliative.
The American ruling class responded to its long-term economic decline with a ruthless program of wealth transfer, deindustrialization and financialization. This process actually began within a month of Johnson taking office, when Congress voted to slash the top income tax rate from 91 percent to 70 percent, and cut corporate taxes from 52 percent to 48 percent. This was at the beginning of a continual series of tax cuts for the rich over the subsequent decades, to the point that major US corporations now pay an effective tax rate of under 13 percent.Walter Heller's stimulus tax cut: just the first wedge in a rollback of high tax rates.
Successive administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have stripped away corporate regulations and taken an axe to social programs. Wages have stagnated as millions of jobs have been wiped out. Social inequality has soared to levels not seen since before the Great Depression and the New Deal.
But the most intriguing post-mortems come from people who might be favorably disposed to the promise of 1964. Start with Jelani Cobb's "The Failure of Desegregation," in The New Yorker.
The damning images of Southern resistance to integration, and Northern riots against busing, obscure the fact that the decision to fight segregation was as fraught for African-Americans as the prospect of desegregation was for the whites who most violently opposed it. In the decades prior to Brown, the civil-rights establishment had fought a fierce and futile battle for the equal distribution of resources between black and white schools. It was only after attempting to force school districts to uphold the latter part of “separate but equal” proved to be a failure that the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund changed its tactics, and attacked separation itself. (It was for this reason, incidentally, that the effort to dismantle educational apartheid in the South came to involve Linda Brown, of Topeka, Kansas—a city where there was a parity of resources between black and white schools.) The tactical shift was not universally welcomed by African-Americans: critics like Zora Neale Hurston howled at the implication that black learning could be insured only by proximity to white children. Elijah Muhammad warned, ominously, that “only a fool allows his enemies to educate his children.” But decades of fruitless lawsuits seeking equal resources for black and white students had taught the N.A.A.C.P.’s lawyers that the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.The fundamental challenge, to this day, is in squaring freedom of association with freedom not to associate.
To the extent that the word “desegregation” remains in our vocabulary, it describes an antique principle, not a current priority. Today, we are more likely to talk of diversity—but diversification and desegregation are not the same undertaking. To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.Yes, I'm starting with Brown, ten years before the Great Society. In my view, the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act are attempts to codify the legal principle that separate but equal is impossible. In practice, though, treating people in unequal circumstances equally is difficult ... thus the tax code and the minimum wage enter. First, though, Brown plus desegregation leads to trouble, according to Slate's Tanner Colby.
And so, sixty years after Brown, it is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naïve. The intervening decades have shown, in large measure, the limits of what political efforts directed at desegregation alone could achieve, and the crumbling of both elements of “separate but equal” has left us at an ambivalent juncture. To the extent that desegregation becomes, once again, a pressing concern—and even that may be too grand a hope—it will have to involve the tax code, the minimum wage, and other efforts to redress income inequality. For the tragedy of this moment is not that black students still go to overwhelmingly black schools, long after segregation was banished by law, but that they do so for so many of the same reasons as in the days before Brown.
Because Brown v. Board was such a landmark decision, the idea of integration and the larger civil rights movement became somewhat synonymous, wrongly so. Black America wasn’t fighting for integration, per se. They were fighting for agency, the right to exercise control over their lives and, hopefully, to enjoy the full protection of the government while doing so. In education, that’s not what they got. They got a policy that demanded white schools produce statistical proof of significant progress, and one where whites were in charge of executing the burdens imposed on them by the courts. Black schools were unilaterally closed down, their students divvied up and distributed to whatever white school needed to adjust its numbers in order to avoid being sued, often over the very loud protests of black parents; at angry town hall meetings, integration was denounced as a white supremacist plot to destroy the black community. Some black students, fearing the prospect of a hostile white environment, dropped out of school rather than ride the bus.Does that mistake linger on in the diversity-mongering? The next two paragraphs will reward careful study.
Sending a couple dozen white kids to a majority-black school may offer a rewarding cultural experience, it may count as “diversity,” but it is not integration. A black school may offer a perfectly good education, academically speaking, but the one thing a majority-black school does not offer—not in America, anyway—is greater access to the social networks and cultural norms that govern the allocation of wealth and power. For integration to be taking place, by definition, you have to have a critical mass of middle-class, upwardly mobile people into which the marginalized group can then be integrated.Yes, and snob zoning and economic fences to keep the Other out follow, or more explicit gated communities where the economic fences alone aren't sufficient. What happened next was not pretty.
Middle-class white kids were never going to get on buses and go and “integrate” black schools because middle-class white people are already integrated, in the middle class. Their immigrant parents or grandparents likely started the process of assimilation for them, overcoming social and cultural barriers to give their kids the tools to move further up the ladder. Why would those families turn around and send the next generation in the opposite direction? White people weren’t going to let that happen. And since white people are integrated, with power, into every level of American life, they had the leverage to make sure that it never did. The day the U.S. government put the first white kid on a bus to a black school? This experiment was over.
Far less documented is the fact that black families with the leverage to get out often did the same. In Birmingham, where I grew up, middle-class blacks pulled whatever strings they could to get their kids into Ramsey, the top magnet program in the city. Failing that, they coughed up the tuition to send their kids to John Carroll, the relatively integrated Catholic school. Those parents hadn’t marched on Montgomery just to have their kids bused off to marginal county schools full of C-average white kids in order to satisfy some arbitrary metric of racial balance in the greater metropolitan area. They’d marched to gain control over their children’s education.Perhaps. it's about inculcating the life-management skills of the middle class in all children, irrespective of race, creed, or color (to invoke the language of a half century ago).
While the black bourgeoisie went about sidestepping the school bus to pursue integration on their own terms, many blacks who lacked the leverage to escape busing grew resentful at having their kids caught up in a system in which they had no say. As nationalist sentiments rose with the Black Power movement of the 1970s, parent groups in Harlem and elsewhere began demanding community-based control of their own schools to implement Afrocentric teachings and curricula. Resentment festered on both sides of the racial divide. In the end, once all the blacks and whites with the means to bail on busing did bail on busing, all you were left with was an ever-diminishing pool of lower income black kids and white kids being shuffled around the map in order for America to pretend it was solving a problem.
Instead, though, civil rights became codified into affirmative action. Mr Colby doesn't quite say affirmative action creates Asterisk-Americans, but he's not enthusiastic about the implementation.
Affirmative action offered the illusion of reparative justice wrapped up in the rhetoric of empowerment, but its net result was to absorb and neutralize black demands for equality, not fulfill them.Yes, and all the Good Intentions in the world cannot hold back the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Another effect of affirmative action was that it created a short-term labor shortage in the black middle class, because that’s who affirmative action was designed to help.
While some black people used quotas and set-asides as a foothold to climb into genuine positions of power, the effect of affirmative action overall was to funnel upwardly mobile blacks into a separate employment pipeline where their aspirations were held in check, where they exercised very little authority, and where their progress depended on government intervention. Thanks to affirmative action, the black middle class was now vested in the very system the civil rights revolution had sought to overthrow.But you can't get away from those life-management skills.
Affirmative action treats workplace discrimination like a bureaucratic, process-based problem. In reality, workplace discrimination stems from a very nebulous social and cultural problem. The government claims it can regulate the racial composition of our professional lives, but too much of what we call “work” is actually rooted in the messy, socially segregated realm of our personal lives. How many affirmative action compliance officers were stationed in Steve Jobs’ garage while he and his buddy Steve Wozniak assembled the first Apple? Zero. It’s possible to track what goes on in the human resources department and in the minutes of corporate board meetings, but too much of the economic life of this country transpires in the spaces in between. Racial preferences can provide just enough jobs and material support to keep up the illusion that we’re moving toward equality, but no program can give black Americans real, sustained access to the places where the prerogatives of wealth and power are exercised. Only social and cultural integration can do that—the kind of integration Nixon opposed while he was advancing affirmative action.That's Richard law-and-order Nixon, playing on fears of urban crime, otherwise understood as the people left behind by gentrification and rendered unemployable by the minimum wage. Developing life-management skills in difficult neighborhoods, however, has the potential to remove the asterisk.
Because of the thorny politics and stigmas that inevitably come with race-conscious remedies, those remedies should start aggressively at a very young age and then, for everyone’s good, taper off over time. If a 5-year-old from a disadvantaged background is given a leg-up to get into a good elementary school, that is not likely to be a stigma he will carry around as an adult—and you really have to try hard to begrudge helping out a 5-year-old. By contrast, for the thirtysomething black professional forced to walk in the door with whispers of “diversity hire” trailing her down the hallway, affirmative action can be a real problem. It serves as a diminishment of her talent and hard work. As much as affirmative action might help her get a foot in the door, it becomes a burden she has to carry from that day forward.Yes, and there may be more effective ways to raise people up.
You’ve got a legion of helicopter-parented white kids, their resumes crammed full with every AP course and extracurricular whatnot under the sun—up against black students from working- and low-income backgrounds whose resumes are more likely to show a lot of unrealized potential, because AP physics and summer language camps in Vermont simply weren’t available to them. We’re asking a hell of a lot of college admissions officers if we expect them to close that gap with nothing more than a weighted point system for processing applications. In the end, most colleges end up cherry-picking the black kids with the best SAT scores in order to show their “commitment to diversity,” while the real problems of inequality go unaddressed. That hardly seems like a solution.Indeed not. Mr Colby wants to start at the elementary school playground.
Not, in my view, to throw money at disadvantaged schools, but to persuade young people away from self-destructive behaviors that only elicit contempt from people who see only the behavior and not the circumstances leading to the behavior.