2005-09-11 20:25:51 UTC
remember something about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions
Focus: White do-gooders did for black America
September 11, 2005
Black poverty is the result of 30 years of misguided welfare rather than
racism, says John McWhorter
As it quickly became clear that there was a certain demographic skew among
the people stranded in New Orleans, journalists began intoning that
Hurricane Katrina had stripped bare the continuing racial inequity in
The extent to which this was hidden is unclear, actually. An awareness that
a tragic disproportion of black Americans are poor has been a hallmark of
civic awareness among educated Americans for 40 years now.
The problem is less a lack of awareness than a lack of understanding. The
publicly sanctioned take is that "white supremacy" is why 80% of New Orleans
's poor people are black. The civics lesson, we are to think, is that the
civil rights revolution left a job undone in an America still hostile to
In fact, white America does remain morally culpable - but because white
leftists in the late 1960s, in the name of enlightenment and benevolence,
encouraged the worst in human nature among blacks and even fostered it in
legislation. The hordes of poor blacks stuck in the Superdome last week
wound up there not because the White Man barred them from doing better, but
because certain tragically influential White Men destroyed the fragile but
lasting survival skills poor black communities had maintained since the end
Few thinking people regret the flower children's opposition to the Vietnam
war, sexism and racial discrimination. But these advances also spelt the
demise of old standards of responsibility. Taught that criminality and
violence must be judged in proportion to the extent to which poverty and
discrimination have coloured one's existence, the enlightened white person
saw black violence as "understandable".
This meant a largely theatrical black separatist ideology, drastically short
on constructive aims, had a public sanction that it had never had before.
Hating whitey for its own sake now had an ear among the influential and
quickly became the word on the street.
There was a new sense that the disadvantages of being black gave one a pass
on civility - or even achievement: this was when black teens started teasing
black nerds for "acting white".
Behaviour that most of a black community would have condemned as
counterproductive started to seem normal. Through the late 1960s blacks
burnt down their own neighbourhoods as gestures of being "fed up". But
blacks had been "fed up" for centuries: why were these the first riots
initiated by blacks rather than white thugs - when the economy was flush and
employment opportunities were opening up as never before? Because the
culture had changed, in ways that hindered too many blacks from taking
advantage of the civil rights revolution. Meanwhile, the most grievous
result of the new consensus was black American history's most under-reported
event, the expansion of welfare. Until now, welfare had been a pittance
intended for widows, unavailable as long as the father of one's children was
able-bodied and accounted for, and granted for as little time as possible.
In 1966, however, a group of white academics in New York developed a plan to
bring as many people onto the welfare rolls as possible. Across the country,
poor blacks especially were taught to apply for living on the dole even when
they had been working for a living, and by 1970 there were 169% more people
on welfare nationwide than in 1960.
This was the first time that whites or blacks had taught black people not to
work as a form of civil rights. Politicians and bureaucrats jumped on the
new opportunity for political patronage and votes, and welfare quickly
became a programme that essentially paid young women to have children.
Only in 1996 was welfare limited to five years and focused on training for
work. But by then generations of poor blacks had grown up in neighbourhoods
where there was no requirement that fathers support their children. Few grew
up watching their primary parent work for a living. Most people paid nominal
subsidies as rent and were thus less inclined to treat their living spaces
The multigenerational welfare family with grandmothers in their forties
became typical: young women had babies in their teens because there was no
reason not to with welfare waiting to pick up the tab.
This is the hell that most of the people in the Superdome either lived in or
knew at close hand, and none of them could help being stamped by it. Welfare
reform was only nine years ago. The women now past the five-year cap are
mostly struggling in dead-end jobs. This is better than living on the dole.
But these women are weighed down by too many kids created under the old
regime to have the time or energy to get the education to get beyond where
they are. Poor black neighbourhoods are not what they were at the height of
the crack epidemic in the 1980s, but they are still a crying shame.
The poor black America that welfare expansion created in 1966 is still with
us. Poor young blacks have never known anything else. People as old as 50
have only vague memories of life before it. For 30 years this was a world
within a world, as is made clear from how often the Katrina refugees mention
it is the first time they have ever left New Orleans.
What Katrina stripped bare, then, was not white supremacy, but that culture
matters - even if what created the culture was misguided white benevolence.
Social scientists neglect that before the 1960s poor blacks knew plenty of
economic downturns and plenty more racism.
But before the 1960s the kinds of behaviour so common among the blacks
stranded in the Superdome, possibly including multiple rapes, was a fringe
phenomenon. Only after the 1960s did it become a community norm.
Wise people tell us that poor blacks in New Orleans went to rack and ruin
when low-skill industrial jobs left the city centre, a common argument about
cities nationwide. But in cities like Indianapolis where the factories
largely stayed close, the same degradation began - starting in the late
Wise people tell us that housing projects destroyed poor black communities
by concentrating too many poor people in one place. But in city after city,
these projects were peaceful places until welfare recipients were allowed to
move in in large numbers.
All indications are that the reform of welfare in 1996 is bearing fruit in
terms of income and the life conditions of children. Hopefully, legions of
poor black people who return to New Orleans will take advantage of the job
opportunities that rebuilding a city will offer. But what we should all
remember from Katrina is a tragic close-up of a group of people staggering
after, first, a hideous natural disaster but, ultimately, an equally hideous
sociological disaster of 40 years ago.