On the Nature of Black Progress
To the Editor:
The question of whether or not most blacks are in the middle class is purely definitional. Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon [“Black Progress and Liberal Rhetoric,” April] have used such a wide-open definition that the only people who would not be included are professionals (who constitute only about one out of every eight of the black working population) and the unemployed. But the strongest argument against Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon lies in the untampered facts on the distribution of families by income-size class as published by the U.S. Bureau of the Census:
|FAMILY INCOMES AND EARNINGS, 1971|
|Race||Median Income||Percent of families with incomes|
|Under $5,000||$15,000 or more|
What emerges without stretching the facts is that in a society which preaches egalitarianism, incomes are grossly unequally distributed along lines which are fundamentally racial. And this is what the struggle is all about: although significant progress has been made, there is much left to justify discontent.
Both the authors, as did Daniel P. Moynihan before them, place considerable weight on the evidence that black families with male heads who are under thirty-five years of age and who reside outside the South have achieved income parity with comparable white families. Both they and Moynihan argue that this parity is evidence of progress and augurs well for the future. But this income gain is deceptive. As the authors recognize, the two groups lack full comparability on a very crucial point: young black wives outside the South are more likely to be working year-’round than young white wives. Hence, a considerable amount of the “equality” in family income is based upon the inequality in work effort.
. . . Second, black husband-wife families outside the South in which the male is under thirty-five years of age account for only 16 per cent of black husband-wife families throughout the country, and only 10 per cent of all black families—the other 90 per cent continue to be unequal. As a matter of fact, black families as a rule have found that the absolute gap between their incomes and white family incomes increased from roughly $2,500 in 1947 to just over $4,000 in 1971.
Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon state that when only men under thirty-five who reside with their wives outside the South are compared, the parity ratio is maintained. But these men account for less than 10 per cent (roughly 7 per cent) of all black men. Again parity affects relatively few blacks.
Moreover, there are reasons for being doubtful that even this will be maintained. Studies by economists have suggested that one of the main reasons for black income gains has been the migration of young blacks from the rural South to the North where wages are higher. There appears, however, to be little hope of further major gains from such migration since the black population of the rural South is now only 3.9 million.
While blacks were leaving the South at a rate of 10.6 per cent, the economic growth and income of that area was increasing faster than any other part of the country, and young whites were returning to the South at a rate of nearly 10 per cent to capture these new opportunities. One possible effect of this migration might be to increase the income gap between blacks and whites in the future if the industries to which whites are moving in the South continue to grow faster than the ones blacks are entering in the North. Unless blacks are able to take advantage of the economic growth in the South this situation could be exacerbated.
Another major factor in improving black earnings in the 60′s was the high level of demand for labor during that period. Economists have argued that economic growth . . . was the most important factor in increasing the relative wages of black men in the 60′s and they have also found that when the . . . aggregate unemployment rate rises above, say, 3.5 per cent, black family earnings are seriously threatened. The unemployment rate now hovers around 5 per cent, and to make matters worse, there is currently a tacit assumption that we must be prepared to accept this statistic as normal because of changes in the composition of the labor force. . . .
A foundation for the belief that the income gap will increase lies in educational attainment. While blacks have made great strides in education, some basic truths remain: among people under thirty-five, the college completion rate is four times higher for white males than it is for black males; it is twice as high for white females as it is for black females. The rate of high-school completion is 50 per cent higher for young white men than it is for blacks. These figures say that while blacks are busy in the labor market, whites are investing in themselves. Since the return on investment is always expressed in higher lifetime earnings, the parity which is currently observed . . . could disappear over the lifetime of this generation, for it has also been shown that the rate of return on education and experience is significantly higher for whites than for blacks. In addition, the children of this age group will not necessarily grow up equal. Otis Duncan, in a very careful and well-done study of the ability of parents to transmit income status to their children, shows that blacks are less likely to be able to do so than whites. In fact, the Duncan findings hold that while blacks may transmit occupational status as easily as whites, their children are less likely than white children to be able to convert this occupational status into income.
Historically, the black unemployment rate has been twice as high as the white unemployment rate. Messrs, Wattenberg and Scammon take comfort in the fact that the historical 2 to I black-white unemployment ratio has apparently been broken. Economists noted, however, that 1970 was an unusual recession year; those industries from which blacks were traditionally excluded were struck hardest. Moreover, 1970 represents a period when black men were leaving the labor force at a faster rate than white; hence, they were less likely to be counted as unemployed. The fact is that in 1972, the black-white unemployment rates returned to their 2 to 1 ratio. In 1973 the unemployment rate for blacks is 10.2 per cent, and this does not include those who have left the labor force. Furthermore, there are those (the subemployed) who are working part-time although they would prefer full-time work, and those who are working at substandard wages. The unemployment rate for whites is 5.2 per cent—again the rates arc 2 to 1.
It is not satisfactory for Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon to show an improvement in the relative unemployment rate of black and white men with wives present. . . . Similarly, the high unemployment rate (over 35 per cent) for black teen-agers cannot be dismissed lightly (in many black families this spells the difference between being in poverty and not; it also engenders criminal behavior and disproportionately high armed-services enlistment rates among black youths).
The authors also note that blacks have made remarkable strides into white-collar occupations. It is true that the black rate of upward mobility outstripped the white rate, but it should be noted that the greatest difference was in the rate of entry into clerical occupations—hardly the objective of most upwardly-mobile whites. . . . Blacks remain significantly underrepresented in high-wage occupations. In 1972 there were 35 per cent fewer blacks in professional occupations than would have been the case had blacks had as equal an opportunity as whites to enter. The underrepresentation in managerial occupations and in sales is nearly 70 per cent, in crafts it is about 30 per cent, and in clerical work about 21 per cent (all these figures are based on calculations using data in the President’s Manpower Report).
The authors take as a mark of progress the fact that 12 per cent of all union members are black; they conclude from this statistic that blacks are more likely than whites to be union members. But this is meaningless. Blacks are concentrated in blue-collar work and are therefore more likely than whites to be in jobs subject to unionization. Moreover, blacks have long been able to get into unions—particularly industrial and segregated locals. Indeed, industrial unions were always less discriminatory than craft unions. It is entry into non-segregated craft unions which has been the black objective. And this is the rub. Craft unions control entry as well as employment in high-wage blue-collar occupations. Blacks constitute only 5 per cent of workers in craft unions.
The authors take refuge in the statistic that 13 per cent of apprentices in the construction trades are black. Even this is not an unambiguous achievement. Apprenticeship programs are only the first hurdle in gaining full membership. And even after full membership is achieved (a process that can take years) blacks will have to confront another problem—a fair shake in referrals to jobs. Hence, the ultimate test is not apprenticeship, but the percentage of all union work hours going to blacks.
I do not wish to be cynical, but one of the items of “progress” Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon did not note is the catching up of white women professionals and managers with their black female counterparts. The median level of education of black females in these occupational categories in 1960 was 15.6 years and for whites it was 14.0. In 1972 the black figure was 16.0 and the white 15.3. This does not mean that black women are better educated than white women. It means that educated white women were more likely to be out of the labor market. Given women’s liberation, we will in all likelihood see a reversal of this ratio.
The article did not compare housing. It is important to note that the percentage of housing with inadequate plumbing occupied by blacks remained constant between 1960 and 1970—nearly 30 per cent.
Figures on vital statistics released by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare show that, if anything, the difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites in the prime age group (twenty-five to fifty-five) remained the same or increased only slightly during the decade. For example, a twenty-five-year-old black is expected to live six years less than a white of the same age. The difference in 1960 was 5.2 years. On this, the authors are silent. They are also silent on the remaining gap between blacks and whites in infant and maternal mortality. Indeed, both black and white rates fell sharply after World War I, but black maternal mortality has remained about three times the white rate and black infant mortality after the first twenty-eight days also remained roughly three times the white rate. The infant mortality rate for blacks during the first twenty-eight days is still a shocking 23 per 1,000 live births.
Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon do note a sharp increase in black families on welfare; they imply that this is partly due to the sharp rise in female-headed households. . . . More critically, however, the increase is due to high rates of unemployment (note the sharp rise especially between 1969 and 1970 during the economic downturn), the high rates of withdrawal of discouraged adult black males from the labor force during that period—a trend which warrants national concern—the demise of unconstitutional and inhumane welfare laws, and the vigorous attempt of public-interest groups to get eligible individuals on the welfare rolls.
Finally, the authors claim that blacks are more satisfied than whites, and it is true that some statistics support this point. But a major index of social dissatisfaction is suicide . . . and the black suicide rate among fifteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds doubled between 1960 and 1969; among black females in this age group it went up nearly three times. . . .
At the end of their article, Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon argue that liberals and civil-rights leaders have contributed to the demise of social programs by remaining mute—if indeed they have. There is a subtle dilemma here: to say the programs were unsuccessful is to invite their demise, but to exaggerate their success, as the authors have done, is also to invite the same adverse result. The fact is that the death knell of social programs will come as a result of the coming to power of a conservative philosophy which fundamentally opposes the programs as well as from many quantitative evaluations which have simply ignored some of the lasting benefits of these programs. One of these is the contribution of Community Action Programs to the participation of blacks in the legitimate public arena. This is not to deny, on the other hand, that some programs really did fail, for example, subsidized housing for inner-city residents.
My purpose in writing this letter is not to deny that progress has been made. But to cheer progress in a dynamic society where almost everything is constantly “progressing” appears to me to border on banality. It is really the exceptions and the remaining inequalities that are interesting, troublesome, and deserving of extra effort. While it is true that blacks have made progress, so have whites, and both groups have benefited from the events of the 60′s. Here at the Joint Center for Political Studies we note that there are nearly 2,600 black elected officials in the United States today; we note blacks being elected where they have never been elected before or since Reconstruction. Yet blacks remain less than .5 to 1 per cent of all elected officials.
In conclusion, we see very little reason for stretching or for hunting for isolated facts to defend the efforts of the 60′s. We have tangible evidence that both races benefited. We also have tangible evidence that the task before us remains immense.
Herringion J. Brycf
Joint Center for Political Studies
To the Editor:
. . . Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon have advanced the thesis that a majority of black Americans can now be considered “middle class.” While the 60′s have definitely brought significant progress for blacks and few would recommend a return to the more deplorable circumstances of an earlier era, I do feel that some qualifications and modifications of their thesis and data are necessary.
Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon use a number of income statistics to buttress their case. They argue that the ratio of black family income to comparable white income rose “dramatically” during the 60′s from 53 per cent to 63 per cent. The bulk of this rise, however, occurred within a few short years during the Johnson administration when poverty programs were extremely active and the civil-rights enthusiasm was at its height. Between 1963 and 1967 the ratio increased from 53 per cent to 62 per cent. This growth, however, was not sustained. Since 1967 little progress has been made toward racial equalization of income. Secondly, most of this relative growth in black income has occurred in the South. . . .
Our authors next note the “startling” jump (13 per cent to 30 per cent) during the 60′s in the proportion of black families earning more than $10,000 (in 1971 constant dollars). Perhaps they should have been more impressed by the relative growth between 1951 and 1961 when the percentage increased from 3 per cent to 13 per cent. Had this quadrupling occurred during the following decade, over half of all black families would be earning over $10,000 (as is true of white families). This indeed would have been a “startling” development.
Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon then concentrate upon a collection of variables that have contributed to the “middle-classing” of black America. They argue that when one combines the factors of non-Southern residence, unbroken husband-wife family, and youth, “a truly striking statistic” emerges. Black families approach parity with comparable white families. This generalization requires some explanation and modification. First, the economically depressed condition of blacks in the South is scarcely novel. The authors note that in 1970 black family income in the South was only 57 per cent of white family income there, whereas it was 74 per cent outside this area. While technically correct, the figures tend to mask the fact that the march toward parity advanced far more rapidly during the 60′s in the South than elsewhere. The Southern income ratio rose from 51 per cent in 1959 to 61 per cent in 1970, while outside the South there was little significant change in the ratio during the same period—it increased only from 71 per cent to 74 per cent, and in the Midwest the ratio actually declined from 74 per cent to 73 per cent. . . .
I must also register a complaint about Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon’s selective use of available statistics. On the same page of the government publication (U.S. Census Bureau, The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, 1971) from which their above-noted statistics for 1970 were taken, were figures for 1971. But these statistics reflect less favorably on Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon’s thesis and were apparently selectively censored by the authors. In 1971 the black-income percentages for the South and the rest of the country were 56 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively, as opposed to 57 per cent and 74 per cent in 1970. . . . Even more note worthy (and less optimistic) is the fact that the figures for 1971 indicate that Northern blacks were less equal to whites than they had been in those dark days at the end of the 50′s. In the Northeast, black income as a percentage of white income declined from 69 per cent in 1959 to 67 per cent in 1971 while falling even more seriously in the North Central states, from 74 per cent to 69 per cent. Only in the West did black family income advance, from 67 per cent to 71 per cent. . . .
The second variable encompasses unbroken black husband-wife families whose income was more likely to approach equality with comparable white families. In 1970 in the North and West, it was 88 per cent, up from 76 per cent in 1959. Furthermore, for complete families with the head of the household under thirty-five years of age (the third variable), the percentage outside the South rose to 96 per cent, or virtual parity with whites. Such advances, however, were heavily dependent on the active participation of the wife in the labor force. The greater tendency for black married women to work explains much of this growth. As the Census Bureau noted: “The income parity observed for young black and white families in the North and West holds true for families in which both the husband and wife worked.” In those young families in the North and West where only the husband worked, no significant gains were achieved in reducing the income differential between black and whites.
Finally, the number of black families combining all the required variables constituted a relatively small proportion of all black families in 1970. Only 6.7 per cent met the criteria, a modest increase over the 4.2 per cent of 1960. . . .
Harold X. Connolly
African and Afro-American Studies
To the Editor:
I agree with the basic thesis of “Black Progress and Liberal Rhetoric”: that we do not adequately recognize the extent of black economic achievement during the 60′s, though I also think a more balanced picture could be drawn. However, I strongly disagree with the reason cited by the authors for this failure: liberal rhetoric, and the crisis strategy of social change. The history of social change in America does support the theory that a perception of crisis is a prerequisite for substantial social efforts. Periods of substantial social legislation are brief and episodic. The reformist New Deal was dead by 1936 or 1937; it was followed by a brief postwar period of liberal legislation which itself was soon killed by the cold war and McCarthyism. Liberals who “allow” these periods to fade away prematurely are as culpable as those who carry crisis tactics to the point where they become counterproductive.
But the behavior or misbehavior of liberals is only a small element in the process. Two separable issues are involved: 1) have social welfare programs failed?; and 2) have conditions of life improved for some or all of our people? . . . To achieve a political majority around any program, it is necessary to phrase the goals broadly, grandly, and imprecisely. “End poverty, abolish dependence, full employment”—all such slogans imply impossibly grandiose goals. Such broad goals are necessary to shelter a coalition with divergent, perhaps conflicting, goals and very different priorities. . . . This oversell of multiple goals often produces diffuse programs with many sub-programs, each of which may be underfinanced, at least in terms of maximum achievement. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 with its many parts—Job Corps, Head Start, Community Action—is a prime illustration. Most programs almost inevitably fail to achieve their formal goals. But most pragmatic politicians and professionals accept this process, acknowledge its inevitability, call it “incrementalism,” and expect the program segments to grow, mature, provide modest benefits, and add strength to the social fabric without achieving total “success.” But all such programs can be called failures if this process is not understood.
A second factor . . . is the invisibility of success. To a very large measure, our society runs on crises. It is a commonplace phenomenon that the media mainly report disasters, failures, violence, unemployment, inflation, and war. One effect is that the progress that Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon note is not as newsworthy as the continuing problems in these and other areas. Moreover, no one who wants a measure of social change can afford to lose public attention by talking in calm, balanced tones. The article illustrates this in its own super-optimistic reporting of the data. . . . Evidence of success is almost invisible in our daily lives; percentage changes in income and education among large numbers are not visible. The best example can be seen in the evolution of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “modest but adequate” income level. In 1951, an income of $4,200 for a family of four was considered to provide a modest but adequate standard of living. Such a family was not affluent—drinking beer, not Scotch—but neither was it poor. In 1970, a family of four earning $10,764 found itself in the same position relative to the rest of society. Forty per cent of this change in money income was due to inflation, 60 per cent reflected changes in living standards. The population experienced a 60-per-cent rise in living standards in one generation, a remarkable economic accomplishment. But this increase remains invisible and unfelt; the beneficiary feels no improvement in his own life circumstances. He feels no better off relative to his world than did his parents before him. And thus a great economic miracle simply disappears under the impact of relative living standards.
How can our society ever achieve any sense of success or accomplishment under these circumstances? Policymakers must and do expect to be asked, “What have you done for me lately?” That some choose to invoke a crisis strategy earlier or later than others feel wise should not be an occasion for heresy-hunting on either side. Who can deny that a crisis strategy is a necessity at some time in order to achieve political coalitions and public attention? The strategy debate is better served by recognizing the gains and costs involved, not by internecine blood-baths or breast-beating.
Sydney E. Bernard
Ann Arbor, Michigan
To the Editor:
In support of their contention that blacks have emerged into the “middle class,” Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon cite the following facts from the U.S. Census Report: “Income for white families in America went up by 69 per cent in the 1960′s, while income for black families went up by 99.6 per cent.” Though these figures are accurate, they fail to point out that it is an average heavily weighted by the huge percentage increase in the South for black families (112.6 per cent). The South, incidentally, is the one region where a 100-per-cent increase in median income results in a median income just barely above the poverty line:
|Black Median Income for South|
|Poverty Line 1913
(TNR, estimate June 1973)
The authors’ presentation seems like a bit of statistical trickery. They report that the median income for white families in 1960 was $5,835, compared to $3,233 for blacks. The median 1970 income for whites was $10,236, compared to $6,516 for blacks—a difference of $4,401 from 1960. For blacks, this difference (between 1960 and 1970) was $3,283. Thus, the white increase (69 per cent) was a net improvement in the difference between white and black incomes of $3,720. In 1960 the net difference between blacks and whites was $2,602. Consequently, the net difference in income since 1960 has widened, not narrowed, as the percentages would suggest. The important fact in terms of progress is that the gap between black and white incomes increased by $1,118 between 1960 and 1970! . . .
The authors also report in defense of their “middle-class” hypothesis that “the ratio of black family income to white family income also changed dramatically in the period, climbing from 53 per cent in 1961 to 63 per cent in 1971.” Again, their statistical facts are in order. It is the nature of the comparison which deserves our attention. The single concealed factor in these statistics is the strategic use of the terms black family and white family. Family income is a grossly misleading unit of comparison. First, black families typically have more multiple earners than white families (57 per cent versus 34 per cent in 1969) which skews the percentage upward. Additionally, the income of the average black family of three earners is not significantly different from the family income of the average white family with one earner—$9,794 for whites with one earner versus $9,027 for blacks with three earners. A comparison of incomes for black and white multiple-earner families reveals that the average black family needs an additional earner in order to earn substantially more than half of the income of a comparable white family. For those families with one earner, the median income of black families was about half that of white families. Black single-earner median income as a percentage of white income (for families with only a single earner) was only 52 per cent in 1969, not a particularly remarkable percentage. . . .
Concurrent with these facts is the important point that “while the median income of blacks and other races as a percentage of white family income has increased slowly since 1947, the dollar gap, adjusted for price changes, has widened.” The gap in 1947 was about $2,500; in 1969, $3,600.
The authors expand the family fallacy by using young families as a unit of comparison. They state: “When [black] families are ‘husband-wife’ families [meaning both the husband and wife work] income is much likelier to approach equality with comparable white family incomes.” Here the authors fail to make an obvious point clear, that these husband-wife teams are at the same low socioeconomic level, have the same socioeconomic needs, and perhaps are both forced to work for the same reasons: they are young, recently married, and need money to furnish their homes or apartments, etc. Consequently, these are perhaps the most alike low socioeconomic groups in America. . . . What seems more important is determining what happens to the respective couples after the newly-wed status is over. The statistics suggest that the white woman usually quits work to mother her 2.1 children while the white husband’s income increases to $11,000; whereas the black woman continues to work while giving birth to her 3.4 children and while her husband’s income remains essentially fixed at about $6,000. This is a slightly different picture from the one presented by the authors.
The authors seem to have adopted as a research strategy the technique of selecting the most optimistic statistics in a given category and using these as prima facie evidence of progress, ignoring all others. As a case in point, they show that “a cross-tabulation of married men over age twenty reveals a far sharper drop in unemployment among blacks than for the population as a whole.” This selection and its interpretation obscures the more important point; that blacks in all other categories have 100 per cent higher unemployment rates than whites. And even in the authors’ example, the rates are 70 per cent higher than those for whites. This can hardly be thought of as an index of “middle-classness” or as a startling indicator of black progress.
The authors’ use of education as an index of progress is perhaps the most accurate of the indices except for one glaring contradiction. They have rightly pointed out that the gap between white and black median years of education has been practically closed (U.S. Department of Labor reports a difference of only 0.4 of one year in 1970). This is surely a symbol of progress. Their limited, and rather parochial, interpretations have led them to make the following erroneous statement: “The significance of these data cannot be discounted by arguments that education has little to do with economic success.” Had they investigated the soundness of these arguments, however, they no doubt would have uncovered the following rather startling fact: the median income of the highest educated blacks in professional job categories is equal to that of their white counterparts who have only an eighth-grade education. It is one of the cruel contradictions of this society that in every occupational category (except, ironically, professional black women in the South), whites are paid more—often with much less education—than their black counterparts. . . .
The authors’ strategy of presentation changes a bit in explaining occupational statistics. The consequence of the interpretation is nevertheless the same. The authors are quick to point out that since 1960 the number of blacks in “other” work—“not-[so]-good” jobs—decreased from 4 million to 3.5 million, while there was a corresponding increase in white-collar jobs (“good” jobs) from 2.9 per cent to 5.1 per cent. (It is interesting to note that within the same sentence the authors have here switched their presentation from percentages to raw numbers.) Here the authors have abandoned the U.S. Census job-classification labels for a more expeditious and vaguer set. The terms “good” jobs and “not [so] good” jobs are inserted both to “lump” professional and craftsmen categories (this has the effect of inflating increases) under the “good” job category as well as to obscure the large numbers in the service and labor categories under the “not-[so]-good” job category. The utility of this relabeling procedure is readily seen when one realizes that though blacks represent only 11 per cent of the labor force, they constitute 61 per cent of the “not-[so]-good” category. This category consists mostly of day laborers, chambermaids, dishwashers, janitors, and so on. . . .
The cold implication of this matter is that no amount of token employment in white-collar occupations can offset the magnitude or the effect of having so many blacks in a servant status. It is ironic that in the authors’ exuberance over “middle-classness” they fail to include this rather important fact of class status. After all, “middle-classness” requires a certain class status related to one’s occupation line, and if blacks constitute 61 per cent of the lower-class jobs they must in some important sense constitute the lower class. It is hard to imagine in America that chambermaids and janitors would fit into the middle class. Black hustlers typically earn closer to the white median income but they are not considered middle class. In order to achieve a consistent improvement in the income differential between whites and blacks, and a concomitant change in class status, one of two things must occur with regard to occupation: either wages for service and labor categories (“non-good” jobs) will have to be substantially increased (accompanied by a change in attitude about the status of such jobs) or substantial numbers of blacks will have to be shifted to other occupational categories. The impact which this kind of occupational discrimination has had on the psyche of blacks is incalculable. . . .
Self-congratulations by white liberal Americans are hardly in order if black advancement is based upon effort and behavior greater than that required of the white community. It seems that it is here that the authors’ interpretations are most deficient. It is plausible to assume that liberal legislation in the 60s’ has in certain ways affected the progress of blacks in America. It is a gross oversimplification—if not an error—to attribute black progress solely to this one concern.
The statistics surely do not suggest such a simpleminded interpretation. Quite the contrary: they suggest that much of the black progress—if it can be called that—is due to an intense desire among blacks to “make it” in this society, whatever the cost. The statistics suggest that the costs are still very high. The facts show that there is a larger percentage of blacks working per family than whites while earning considerably less and while finding it harder to become employed and harder to hold employment. . . . In 1970, 8.5 per cent of blacks who had two or more earners had median incomes less than the established poverty line! In many areas of the country, the actual median take-home weekly pay for blacks is less than the weekly welfare allotments. . . .
We would also be remiss if we ignored the nature and relationship of racism in America to black progress. . . . The logic of the statistics dictates that as the gap in median years of education between blacks and whites closes (as it has been doing in the last twenty years), so should the gap in median income. This has not happened. The “liberal-legislation” interpretation provides no answer to this peculiarity. The mechanics of racism does.
The stability of the index showing the ratio of black to white median income is perhaps more important than any other observation about it. The explanation for such stability is apparently tied to the same mechanism which explains why black incomes do not change significantly with increased education. The same phenomenon exists—to an even larger degree—for women. Discriminatory practices seem fully to account for these differences in both cases. . . .
Similarly, the unemployment rate for blacks, which has been consistently double that of whites in all categories, cannot be explained by “lack-of-incentive” or “lack-of-education.” . . .
“Category of employment” is another indicator which can no longer be attributed to “lack-of-incentive.” . . . Fifty-eight per cent of service workers have from one to three years of high-school education or better. Yet 94 per cent in this category earn less than $10,000 per year (the white median income). The median years of schooling for blacks in professional categories is higher than that of whites, yet they earn $3,449 less for the same work. A reasonable interpretation of these facts would indicate that discriminatory practices account for these differences.
These facts taken together—the consistent stability of the ratio of incomes, the consistent nature of the high unemployment rate for blacks, the consistent allocation of and disproportionate number of blacks employed in lower-income and lower-status occupations, and the consistent lack of correlation between black educational advancements and increase in incomes relative to whites—are devastating indictments of the present system of discrimination. . . .
In conclusion, I can state without reservation that the road to true progress—consequently the road to true liberal self-gratification—is the removal of the constraints imposed by the system on these indicators. When this finally happens, the rate of progress for blacks will no doubt be as startling as the authors claim. . . .
Herbert L. Calhoun
University of Washington
To the Editor:
As a black professional, I read Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon’s article with some bemusement. While there certainly is no doubt that blacks have progressed, the authors, by selective choice and adroit presentation, have obscured some realities in order to display a more roseate situation than the facts justify. One example is in their handling of income data.
In 1960, black family annual median income was $4,236, 55 per cent of white family income of $7,664. The authors purport to see a “. . . dramatic change in the decade . . . with black income rising to 63 per cent of white in 1971 . . . a sharp progress. . . . a catching up. . . .” But is it? Using their figure of $10,285 for median white family income in 1971, black median income in 1971 was $6,480. Thus an income gap (favoring whites) of $3,428 in 1960 increased to a gap of $3,805 by 1971. So much for “catching up.” Since people don’t buy meat with percentages or pay rent with ratios, why not deal with dollars instead of obscuring a worsening situation with a mathematical screen? Even U.S. government Census Bureau publications are honest enough to point out the misleading aspects of these “percentage gains” in light of the associated increase in the dollar gap.
Compare next the handling of data on unemployment and families earning over $10,000. The genuine decrease in black unemployment vis-à-vis whites is lucidly shown by changing percentage figures to ratios. Curiously, however, this technique is not used in the exposition of the “. . . startling jump in the percentage of black families earning $10,000 in the 1960′s . . . from 13 per cent increasing to 30 per cent compared with 3 per cent increasing to 13 per cent in the 1950′s.” Here only the percentages are given. While it is obvious that 30 per cent is better than 13 per cent, when one applies the ratio technique a less rosy situation emerges. At the end of the 1950′s, the improvement ratio was 4.3 to 1 (13 per cent ÷ 3 per cent); by the end of the 1960′s it had dropped to 2.3 to 1 (30 per cent ÷ 13 per cent). Had the improvement rate of the 1950′s been maintained, 56 per cent (4.3 × 13 per cent) of black families would have been over $10,000 by 1971. Logically then, the 30 per cent level actually attained is no “startling jump”; it really marks a declining rate of improvement (the authors admit this several pages later but never produce any figures to illustrate it).
By various adjustments and estimates, the authors arrive at $6,000 per year as the threshold value to enter the middle class. And lo, this value permits 52 per cent of black families to squeak in. Without commenting on the validity of the $6,000 figure, I found it odd that no mention was made of the percentage of white families who had “made it” into middle-classdom in 1971. The answer: 77.5 per cent of white families had incomes over $6,000 versus 52.2 per cent of black families. . . .
I think it is clear that the figures the authors present don’t always tell the whole story. . . . Moreover, thinking blacks know that a significant portion of progress is in reality limited tokenism or a veneer which, when scratched, quickly reveals the same old condition or a worsened one (see above). There is nothing “incredible” about the Julian Bond statement Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon quote: it is simply the truth. Bond acknowledges progress and especially how far the black has come from where he once was. But, quite correctly, he notes that, using the only meaningful measure—the condition of blacks versus that of whites in the U.S.—blacks as a group are still essentially second-class citizens. This is not liberal rhetoric; it is a fact which can be proved by using honest statistics.
The scenario the authors propose of the liberal community and blacks relaxing and toasting the “massive progress” they have made could easily lead to disaster. Going back to the 60′s doesn’t require repeal of the Voting Rights Act or any other such legislation. The same effect can be achieved by slowing even further the already reluctant, foot-dragging, time-consuming enforcement procedures usually associated with all these progressive acts; witness school-desegregation litigation still in the courts—nineteen years after the Supreme Court ruling.
Considering all that is yet to be done and what could have and should have been done, a case can be made for the “. . . failure of liberalism.” But unless or until something better develops, I don’t propose deserting liberalism. Nor, on the other hand, do I propose that liberals trumpet and rejoice because blacks finally are getting a larger part of the benefits for which we’ve been paying for generations—benefits long overdue us. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . The deliberate concentration on injustice, inequality, the unresponsiveness of government to the needs of the people, etc., are all working tools with which liberals and radicals have, quite successfully, labored to bring about the social and political changes they deemed necessary. Continuous dissent and the denial that any meaningful progress has taken place have become their most valued weapon. . . . To turn to rationality now would not be easy; it might seriously alienate all those who simply do not believe any more that anything good has happened, or can happen, in America under the present system. . . .
I would be grateful to Messrs. Wattenberg and Scammon for some more statistics on the future of black progress: namely, how many blacks are directly employed today in welfare programs and how many outside? . . . The crucial test will come when the vast army of clerks, social workers, consultants, and bigger and lesser bureaucrats will have to leave their desks and try to meet the usual free-enterprise-system standards of labor selection. After some initial unemployment, how many of them will make it and how many will slip back onto the welfare rolls? If in the end a great number of these jobs will prove to have been just another vehicle for welfare assistance, the general picture of the upward economic movement of blacks will have to be reviewed. And perhaps we should listen with more tolerance to the resentment of those workers who suspect that their tax dollars have been used to support an artificially-created middle class.
To the Editor:
The refusal of liberal politicians to accept at face value the evidence of their considerable achievements leaves Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon understandably puzzled. . . . I submit that this behavior may lose much of its puzzling quality if instead of attempting to understand it by the criteria of the pragmatic politician we look at it in terms of the stance of the “true believer” and the “committed idealist.”
I am not suggesting that either of those two designations fits the average liberal politician but only that he was mesmerized by the rhetoric of those who were not merely looking for a reasonable amelioration of conditions at hand but rather for a total, almost messianic, transformation of our society. . . .
To put it crassly, the liberal politician was brainwashed into accepting as the voice of the electorate only those voices which totally condemned America. . . . The hapless liberal politician, to whom listening to the “voice of the people” is the bread of survival, mistook this chant of total, irredeemable American evil as true coin and joined it publicly to insure his standing with the electorate as he perceived it. . . .
The McGovern debacle must have come as a shock. Speeches had to be rewritten and verbal habits of a decade had to be discarded. But all this takes time. Even now, the scornful words still come forth in a kind of Pavlovian compulsion, and the habit of bad-mouthing American achievements across the board seems hard to break. Thus, for example, the end of our direct military involvement in Vietnam is given only the most grudging recognition. . . . Nevertheless, a new day in public utterances by the liberal politician is upon us. . . . The public praise of Lyndon Johnson by well-known liberals is telling evidence that liberal politicians have been doing their survival-directed homework. . . .
It is a no-risk bet that by the time of the next Congressional elections liberal politicians will have completed this metamorphosis and may well own up, publicly and audibly, to the considerable success their programs have achieved in recent years. . . .
To the Editor:
It is reassuring to read in your pages that the 60′s were not quite the absolute failure COMMENTARY has been busy claiming them to be: Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon argue that significant sections of the black population have made considerable economic progress since 1950.
Of course, it is important to remember that this interpretation of the census data does not go far enough. Mobility assessments which focus entirely on one isolated part of the population tend to misrepresent the overall socioeconomic state of the nation—they do not, for example, take into account those black and white Americans for whom severe relative deprivation and serious intergenerational immobility have been and continue to be a constant reality.
Nevertheless, it is good that COMMENTARY readers are finally being informed about the potential of planned social intervention on behalf of an egalitarian agenda. The next step is to recognize that limited results come from limited programs; with more time, more resources, and a clearer understanding of what works and how, perhaps “progress” can be a nationally experienced phenomenon.
New York City
Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon write:
Before dealing with the Specific items raised by COMMENTARY readers, it seems useful to make several general points about their comments as well as about a great number of other comments that have appeared in the press and on television since the publication of “Black Progress and Liberal Rhetoric.”
First, we must stress, even more firmly if possible than we did in the article, that we are talking about progress, not parity. As early as the second paragraph in our article we say that “the economic and social gap separating whites and blacks is still a national disgrace.” This theme is repeated again and again and again throughout the article.
If the economic and social gap is still a disgrace, it follows—as a number of our critics have pointed out—that there are some disgraceful aspects to it. We concur. But what our article is about is progress. Having read the rebuttals and the other comments as well, we still maintain that there has been a great deal of progress in the black community over the last decade or dozen years. That is the critical, substantive point of the article.
Second, there has been a tendency on the part of some critics of the article to say, in effect, “Well, the Julian Bond quotation is only one remark of one man; there really has been no effort to downgrade or downplay the nature of black progress in America. Name your names or drop the charges.” It seems to us that most of the readers’ letters printed above would serve rather well on a list of those who deny the facts of black progress. Moreover, although there have been some very favorable remarks by civil-rights and black leaders, some of the comments in the public press, including those by Vernon Jordan of the Urban League and Dr. John Morsell of the NAACP, as well as the statements by the Congressional Black Caucus, would also qualify for such a list.
Third, there is something very saddening about the spectacle of civil-rights leaders making light of legitimate progress. This progress was not bestowed upon the poor black masses by their leaders, or by Lyndon Johnson’s programs, or by a hot economy. It was progress made by people who, when finally given a chance, worked like hell to make something of it. They succeeded; and the deprecation of such progress, particularly at a time when we hear so much about the need for “black pride,” is painful to observe.
Fourth, and finally, our article was an article and not an encyclopedia. We attempted to deal with good data and bad data, but not all data.
Regarding the specifics, let us deal first with some of the loaded comments, from Left and Right, before moving on to more legitimate inquiries.
Herbert L. Calhoun is living in a statistical dream world. He talks of the “consistent stability of the ratio of incomes,” while the facts show a catching-up. He says we place chambermaids and janitors in our definition of “middle class”; we do not, of course. He misreads, claiming we switch from percentages to millions, when in fact the sentence he refers to deals only in millions. He says that we obscure the fact that black unemployment is about twice the rate of white unemployment, when we stated just that in the first sentence of our section on employment. Finally, Mr. Calhoun sees blacks in a “servant status.” That is harsh language, sure to be resented by blacks, and whites, in the service jobs to which he refers (and which we, and the Census Bureau, include in our “bad” job category) as well as by policemen, firemen, and airline stewardesses who also happen to fall into that occupational pigeonhole.
L. Templeton also seems to have misread the article. We do not establish $6,000 per year as the threshold value to enter the middle class. Our cut-off line is $8,000 per year throughout the United States, except in the South where it is $6,000. He also demonstrates a Malthusian knack with statistics. If black progress toward bridging the $10,000-plus family-income level were to continue at the rate he suggests, by 1980 almost 130 per cent of black families in the United States would be earning over $10,000 per year—a nice trick if you can do it.
We do not agree with Ella Jacin that the “vast army of clerks, social workers, consultants, and bigger and lesser bureaucrats” make up the core of black progress. In fact, as we pointed out, we are “pro-programs”; we think the bureaucrats have, on balance, helped the situation, and we are not anxious to see them “leave their desks and try to meet the usual free-enterprise-system standards of labor selection.”
Now to the more solidly grounded comments of Harold X. Connolly, Herrington J. Bryce, and Sydney E. Bernard.
First, the notion of “absolute gap” versus “relative gap” must be understood. It is true that the absolute dollar gap is increasing, but the ratio of black to white income is also closing. In our judgment, the relative rate of closure is far more important than the absolute rate. Suppose, for example, that black income were $5,000 a year and white income were $10,000 a year in a given year. Suppose then that a decade later black income had increased to $40,000 and white income had increased to $50,000. Given such data, the absolutists could claim that the absolute dollar gap had doubled. In point of fact, in the decade of the 1960′s, in current dollars, white income went up by 69 per cent and black income went up by 100 per cent, and that seems to be a fairly decent rate of closure. Were black income to have fully closed the absolute dollar gap, it would have had to go up by 136 per cent; were black income to reach total white-income levels, black income would have had to triple, an unlikely occurrence over the course of a single decade.
In short, what we are saying is: you can’t get there without passing through here. Even a substantial rate of catch-up would, for a certain time, have to proceed relatively, not absolutely. That is an unfortunate law of mathematics, but it is a law nonetheless.
Something also should be said about the South. As it happens, the South is where more than half the blacks in the United States live—53 per cent in 1970 to be exact. As defined by the Census Bureau, the South includes such places as Baltimore, Washington, Wilmington, Charleston, Miami, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, and El Paso, as well as more obvious locales. If black income is going up more sharply in the South than elsewhere, what is wrong with that? White income is going up sharply in the South as well. Statistically this helps blacks because blacks live disproportionately in the South.
But Mr. Connolly’s statement about the way we use Southern data does have some validity. We were leery of making extensive use of the data Mr. Connolly cites, and the regional cross-tabulations therein, because they do not seem to square. Thus, the national Negro-to-White income ratio from 1970 to 1971 falls by a single point, but the component regional parts fall much more sharply. The 1970 data also do not add up convincingly. This is a statistical phenomenon apparently caused in part by the size of the sample and in part by the nature of the weighting procedure used in calculating the regional ratios. Accordingly, because the other, macrocosmic data were clear and solid, they are what we used, and properly we believe.
Mr. Connolly’s point that in the income field there has been a plateau since the late 1960′s is correct—which is why we clearly made the same point: “The record of the first three Nixon years cannot be called better than mixed. . . . Black income viewed as a fraction of white income seemed to reach a plateau.”
It is also true, as Mr. Bryce points out, that the question of “middle class” is purely definitional. That is why we attempted to define it. We would stick by our definition. But we disagree with Mr. Bryce that “much of the black gains . . . might easily be reversed.” Earlier black gains held because they were built on a solid structure—in large part due to the move from a rural to an urban society. The more recent gains we believe will hold because they also are built on a solid structure: increasing education and better jobs.
We do not “dismiss lightly” the high black unemployment rate. All we say is that given a choice of who should be employed—a married man with children or a teen-ager looking for a part-time job—we would opt for the married man. This is not, however, a choice we like to make, and indeed we believe that government efforts can eliminate the necessity for having to make such choices in the future.
The evidence we have seen concerning union-referral of black apprentices would indicate that once a black is in a union he gets a square shake.
Mr. Bryce is dead wrong when he says that housing with inadequate plumbing occupied by blacks remained constant from 1960 to 1970. In fact, it fell from 41 per cent in 1960 to 17 per cent in 1970.
Mr. Bernard’s idea that the beneficiary of a 60-percent rise in living standards feels no improvement in his own life circumstances is simply not backed up by available attitudinal studies.
We would agree with Mr. Bernard that a “crisis strategy” is a necessity at some times in order to achieve political coalitions and public attention. The key question is: Is this one of those times?. We think not. We would favor a “problem/progress” strategy—there is a major problem to be confronted, we have been confronting it, we have made headway, we will continue to make headway. A crisis strategy works best when there is a crisis, not the ongoing amelioration of crisis. Voters are smart and they know the difference.
Finally, to our friend Ronald Gruen in Dallas, Texas—thanks. It’s nice to know that someone understands.
A postscript: On July 2 the Brookings Institution released a study by Richard B. Freeman that found “dramatic” improvement in the economic situation of black Americans over the past decade. The study, according to a New York Times report, ascribed the improvement primarily to the Great Society programs of the 1960′s, while also acknowledging the general prosperity of the period as a large contributing factor. This study by the Brookings Institution would seem to bear out completely the substance of our own article and to add further confirmation to the fact of black progress in recent years.