Monday, January 16, 2017

More Proof That the Problems of Inner Cities Are Not Caused by Black Culture

In an earlier post of mine, “The Cause of Urban Ghetto Violence Cannot Be Placed on a Failure of the Black Community,” I argued that while many, especially Republicans, criticize Blacks for the violence in the urban ghetto community, that causal connection is false.  It is not a function of Black culture.  It is instead the product of poverty and the soul-crushing experience of life in the modern urban ghetto.  This is what has caused the supposed “failure” of Black culture and families.  An argument supported by the existence of violence and gangs in every urban ghetto around the world.

Here's more proof.  Recently a friend shared with me something startling from a book he was reading, There Are No Children Here, about the devastating life in a broken Chicago housing project - the Henry Horner Homes - in the 1980s.  This project was completed and first occupied in 1957.  Describing her experience as an early resident in the 1960s, the children’s grandmother, Lelia Mae, “told the children, to their disbelief, that families used to keep their doors unlocked at night.  During the summers, she told them, they might even spend the nights outside, sleeping on the lawn.  The old days she spoke of seemed bright and cheery.”

And Lelia Mae’s experience was not an anomaly, as shown by a New York Times article in 2009 about lives in the early years of the city’s housing projects.  Here two quotes:  “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, a sense of pride and community permeated. Far from dangerous, the projects were viewed as nurturing.”  “Doors were kept unlocked as kids bounced from one apartment to the next on rainy Saturdays to watch Laurel and Hardy and Hopalong Cassidy on television. People did the right thing, or they could force you to leave.”

What a difference from life in the projects in the mid-80s when the book was written.  What a difference from life in the projects, or generally in the inner city ghetto, today.

What has caused this extreme deterioration in the quality of life for everyone living in the inner city ghetto?  (I know that’s probably not a politically correct phrase, but that is in fact what it is.) 

Once again, it is not a function of Black culture or a failure of Black one-parent households.  Or even just of poverty.  All of that was present in the 1950s.  The experience of Lelia Mae when she first lived in the Henry Horner Homes, together with other stories such as those noted in The New York Times article, is proof positive that the cause of the problem does not have the word “Black” attached to it.

Actually, just the opposite.  It was the strength, faith, values, and resilience of Black culture that enabled generations to endure poverty and discrimination in the aftermath of slavery and still retain a remarkable life-affirming attitude and quality of life.

So what happened?  The deterioration was caused instead in large part by the morphing of black social gangs with their limited turf violence into criminal drug syndicates.  This had two consequences.  It brought the violence that marks the battle for money and turf in any criminal environment, whether it’s within the Italian-American mafia or between Black gangs.  And it made drugs readily available to vulnerable ghetto residents.  When gangs such as El Rukn, the most notorious and violent of the Black Chicago gangs of the period, brought heroin into the ghetto in the mid80s, followed by other highly-addictive drugs, things got even worse … the violence more pervasive, the addiction darker.

The reader may ask, “Why haven’t Italian-American neighborhoods been devastated by mafia-related violence and drugs like inner city neighborhoods?  Isn’t the difference due to the nature of Black culture?”

No, the reason is that the mafia kept their drugs and violence mostly away from where they lived, seeking out instead vulnerable communities.  But the zone of activity of El Rukn and other Black gangs was limited to the inner city ghetto because that was the only community available to them, as Blacks, to infiltrate.  Also, the poverty and joblessness in the ghetto created a vulnerable group susceptible to the addictive quality of drugs, despite the strength of Black culture.

The other prominent cause were changes in the way the housing projects and welfare were administered.  Incomes were capped in 1971, forcing less poor tenants to move out.  Funds were cut in many housing agencies creating serious, ongoing, maintenance problems which degraded the buildings and apartments.  In Chicago, because of funding cuts, tenants were no longer carefully screened resulting in people with criminal records moving in.  In general, the projects stopped being tightly administered.

Also, until the early 1960s, the black family had been stable for decades, with roughly 80% being headed by two parents.  That changed dramatically in the 1960s due to a combination of the disappearance of jobs traditionally held by many low-skilled Black men and the new welfare rule which prohibited aid to families if there was an able-bodied man in the house.  This rule forced many unemployed men to move out so their families could receive aid.  

Although the rule was declared unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1968, it continued to be used in many localities for years.  For example, I know for a fact that it was used in Chicago, where I was a Legal Aid lawyer in the early 70s, even if a man visited occasionally.

All of this combined to greatly change the nature of the housing project community and the environment they lived in.  It changed it from safe and nurturing to dangerous and demeaning, open to infiltration by the gangs and drugs.

Previous eras of inner-city ghetto poverty were hard, and certainly many black men found it impossible to have a semblance of self-esteem in that environment.  Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun is eloquent testimony to that struggle.  

But this was something new. This violence turned the ghetto into a war zone, both in the sense of people fearing for their lives and in the sense that the worst-hit neighborhoods looked like war zones.  That and the epidemic of drug addiction the gangs fostered turned the ghetto into a truly degrading place for humans to live and it has spawned generations of damaged, highly dysfunctional children who grow up to be lost adults.  

How could anyone grow up in that environment and not be so impacted?  Yes, of course there are those who manage to rise above it and escape, whether it’s because of an exceptional parent or the good fortune of having had a mentor in school who believed in them.  But no part of society should be so structured that it is the exceptions who grow to become healthy, reasonably fulfilled, responsible adults and citizens.  

It should be everyone’s birthright in our democracy to have an equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  And as the Declaration of Independence states, it is the role of government to secure that opportunity.  It is society’s responsibility … for government is just an expression of the society from which it springs.

But as I said in the previous referred-to post, society prefers the ease of finger-pointing at Black culture to place blame.  “If it wasn’t the fault of the poor, if the problem wasn’t self-inflicted, then the larger society would have both a social and a moral obligation to correct the situation, to remove or at least ameliorate the causal factors.  

But we do not want to drastically change the way our societies are structured, the way resources are distributed by government, the deeply embedded racism against the ethnic poor, and the pervasive discrimination directed towards all poor.  And so life for the poor continues more or less as it always has, even while receiving meager assistance in the U.S. and other countries from the government.

This is just one more example of the impact of the lack of humanity in our society  (see my post, “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves”).  And our nation, as well as the rest of the world, will not move forward unless the essence of humanity is rediscovered by us humans, individually and collectively.”

We have so far to go.  And after the recent election, we have just taken many steps backward.

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