In 1896 a brilliant scholar who received his PhD from Harvard and went on to study in Europe with such luminaries as Max Weber was engaged by wealthy philanthropists to prepare a sociological study of Philadelphia’s black population. Their motives were suspect; he believed they were operating on the “theory” that “this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely centered in the slum at the lower end of the seventh ward” near Lombard and South Streets. Despite his misgivings, W.E.B. DuBois prepared a remarkably detailed analysis of the city’s black population—an exhaustive study with dozens of tables and charts illuminating all aspects of Negro life, including income, occupations, wealth, education, literacy, religion, social classes, crime, rents, amusements and housing. Just the chapter on crime had thirty charts and tables. DuBois ended his study with a prescient meditation on the “Duty of the Negroes” and the “Duty of the Whites.” Concerning the former, he wrote,
“Against prejudice, injustice and wrong the Negro ought to protest energetically and continuously, but he must never forget that he protests because those things hinder his own efforts, and that those efforts are the key to his future. . . . In Philadelphia those efforts should first be directed toward a lessening of Negro crime; . . . . Efforts to stop this crime must commence in the Negro homes; they must cease to be, as they often are, breeders of idleness and extravagance and complaint. Work, continuous and intensive; work, although it be menial and poorly rewarded; work, though done in travail of soul and sweat of brow, must be so impressed upon Negro children as the road to salvation, that a child would feel it a greater disgrace to be idle than to do the humblest labor. . . . “
As for the duty of the whites, DuBois observed:
“There is no doubt that in Philadelphia the centre and kernel of the Negro problem so far as the white people are concerned is the narrow opportunities afforded Negroes for earning a decent living. Such discrimination is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly. It is the duty of the whites to stop it, and to do so primarily for their own sakes. Industrial freedom of opportunity has by long experience been proven to be generally best for all. Moreover the cost of crime and pauperism, the growth of slums, and the pernicious influences of idleness and lewdness, cost the public far more than would the hurt to the feelings of a carpenter to work beside a black man, or a shop girl to stand beside a darker mate.”
Unfortunately, DuBois sound advice was not followed by whites; Philadelphia’s major companies hired very few blacks in the first half of the twentieth century.
On the Run in West Philly
Fast-forward to the present, and we have another fascinating study of Philadelphia blacks, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by sociologist Alice Goffman. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania and later Princeton, Goffman fell in with a group of West Philadelphians who were involved in drug dealing, robbery, gun play and occasionally murder. While certainly not representative of all low-income black males in the city, they were not exceptional either; 60% of black males who do not finish high school go to prison by their mid-thirties. What stands out in Goffman’s account is the perpetual entanglement of poor crime-prone black families with an expansive criminal-judicial-penal-industrial-complex. While middle class kids, white or black, go to grammar school, middle school, high school and college, these folks graduate from juvenile detention to jail to prison, with innumerable dealings along the way with street cops, detectives, parole officers, warrant officers, judges, etc.
Black males are almost constantly “on the run” because they are seldom “clean.” Perhaps there is a “body warrant” for a crime they allegedly committed, or a “bench warrant” because they missed a court date, failed to pay court fees, or violated their parole. They are ever on the lookout for cops, planning their next escape if a squad car pulls up in front of their row house. When they get shot or beat up, they do not go to a hospital for fear of arrest. They drive cars without a license, because it is too difficult and risky for them to get ID. The same goes for bank accounts. They are, in effect, “undocumented” citizens. Constant legal entanglements make it tough to get a job; frequent trips to court make it tough to keep one. None of the people Goffman hung out with held a job for long, let alone developed a career. (She mentions only one individual who worked in a company owned by his family—not surprising, because fathers were scarce in the community.) Income from short stints working at a fast food joint or a warehouse were supplemented by dealing drugs. Which was dangerous: Most of the men in Goffman’s group were eventually murdered, maimed, committed suicide, or went to prison for long stretches.
Bottom Line: W.E.B. Dubois exhortation to blacks to “Work!” is not operative for many (though not all) poor black males in Philadelphia. This conclusion is confirmed by official data; the employment population ratio for black males in the U.S. is 60.4% versus 68.8% for white males. This is a disaster for all concerned; poor blacks stay poor while tax payers of all races pay immense sums to maintain the criminal-judicial-penal-industrial-complex.
Racial Correctness Is Part of the Problem
Finding solutions is impeded by liberal race-mongering. When Congressman Paul Ryan correctly observed that many men in inner cities were not connected to the labor market, Paul Krugman accused him of racism. On “Meet the Press” the ever-repulsive David Gregory subtly leveled the same charge at Ryan. But what do you expect from racially correct white liberals? More troubling to me was the response of Fox News’ Juan Williams to Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that kids in inner city schools should learn about work by getting paid to do janitorial work. This was a constructive suggestion that would save money and introduce teenagers to workplace norms—showing up on time, dealing with a boss, and getting a paycheck. Williams opined that this idea was “insulting to all Americans but particularly black Americans.” Huh? How can it be “insulting” for a teenager, of whatever race, to do work previously done by an adult? (Memo to Juan: As an undergraduate at a fancy college, I did not find it demeaning to perform “janitorial work” such as wiping table tops, sweeping floors, serving food and putting out the garbage.)
What should be Republicans’ approach to the problem? First, go on offense. Blame Democrats for failed policies that inhibit hiring and poverty reduction. Philadelphia is a Democratic city in a Democratic state; taxes are through the roof; only 3 of the 15 biggest employers are private firms. Democrats there, as in other big cities, are more interested in enriching public employees than promoting economic growth. As for specific policy suggestions, here are four: 1) push for school vouchers for inner city parents; 2) Embrace reforms suggested by Rand Paul, such as reducing sentences for having small amounts of marijuana; 3) Reform entitlement programs that phase out with higher incomes; they impose enormous marginal “tax rates”—the more you earn, the less you keep of the incremental dollar, because you lose benefits. 4) Encourage job growth with such reforms as repealing Obamacare, corporate tax reform, and an “all of the above” energy policy that creates jobs and lowers energy costs.
Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2014. All Rights Reserved.