Commentary Magazine

The Promised Land, by Nicholas Lemann

The Racial Dilemma

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America.
by Nicholas Lemann.
Knopf. 410 pp. $24.95.

The seeming intractability of black poverty has vexed our political life for nearly 30 years, ever since inner-city riots jolted Americans out of the assumption that the country’s race problems had been put to rest by the adoption of federal laws outlawing legal segregation. Complicating matters have been the various taboos placed on discussion of racial affairs—most notably the black family structure—along with a tendency to confuse the anxieties of the black middle class with the much more troubling predicament of the black poor, and a continuing penchant among blacks and liberal whites to ascribe America’s racial dilemma almost exclusively to white racism. Part of the appeal of Nicholas Lemann’s much-praised book may lie, in fact, in the refreshing intellectual honesty and reasonableness he brings to the story he has to tell, characteristics which stand in marked contrast to the dissembling and arrant dishonesty so often encountered in the debate over racial policy.

The Promised Land is organized around the lives of individual blacks, from their origins in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a cotton sharecropping center which provided thousands of recruits for the migration northward, to their experiences in the Chicago ghetto where many came to settle. It is in the biographies of Ruby Haynes, Uless Carter, and George Hicks that Lemann’s considerable journalistic talents are most sparklingly on display. The individual experiences he narrates, along with his cogent observations on the culture of Mississippi sharecropper society, drive home a crucial point: that the roots of today’s urban crisis can be traced to the pattern of black social existence in the segregated Deep South.

As Lemann relates it, the “tangle of pathology” to which Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred in his ill-fated 1965 report on the black family was clearly in evidence in the lives of Negroes of the Jim Crow-era Mississippi Delta, in large measure due to the state of dependency imposed by segregation and the plantation economy. Out-of-wedlock births were commonplace and life revolved around fornication, petty crime, fighting, and the consumption of illegal alcohol. Men proved unreliable as husbands and providers. Ruby Haynes, who endured a series of unfortunate romantic liaisons after moving to Chicago, recalls only one happy marriage among her Clarksdale friends, and that only on the third try.

By this account, then, the high percentage of female-headed families among inner-city blacks is not the result of the destruction of a once-stable family structure by the relentless pressures of city life and Northern prejudice, but a case of a bad situation migrating from one region of the country to another, and made much worse by the absence of those uniquely black institutions which had brought a measure of cohesion to Negro society in the South.

To those Southern blacks who fled North—driven from their homes by the mechanization of the cotton industry and encouraged by white segregationists—a city like Chicago seemed very much like the biblical promised land, a place of fabulous wealth where jobs and dignity awaited. Initially, those jobs were not only easy to come by, they were ideally suited to uneducated farm boys seeking a decent living by performing unskilled labor in the stockyards, meat plants, and steel factories.

Eventually, however, the march of technology all but eliminated these typically blue-collar jobs. Like the sociologist William Julius Wilson, Lemann sees in the decline of smokestack America a crucial factor in the failure of blacks to rise with the relative ease of other immigrant groups. This is a debatable point. The 60’s ghetto explosions, after all, took place during a period of high growth, nearly full employment, and dramatic reduction in poverty, a time when the maxim, “a rising tide lifts all the boats,” seemed altogether appropriate. Yet it was precisely at this juncture, when semi-skilled unionized jobs were readily available and blacks were being hired in unprecedented numbers, that America was informed that its inner cities were seething with fury and economic despair.



Still, Lemann hardly restricts himself to economic factors in explaining the dire straits of the black poor. He is keenly sensitive to so-called cultural factors, including family structure, in the growth of the black underclass and of the devastating phenomenon he labels black racial isolation. Nor, in analyzing the dynamics of that isolation, does Lemann stress white prejudice. Instead, he emphasizes a series of political decisions taken both by those resisting any change in the black condition and, paradoxically, by liberals who saw themselves as radical advocates of black progress.

Exhibit A is federally sponsored low-income housing. In Chicago, high-rise housing projects were not initially perceived as a program exclusively for blacks; it was only after a series of violent confrontations over extremely modest attempts at neighborhood integration that a decision was made to limit construction to the ghetto. Yet few people objected to this policy, least of all the prospective black tenants, who saw the new buildings as offering a quality of life beyond their wildest imaginings. Ruby Haynes, who had lived in a series of slum buildings since moving to Chicago, recalls the day in 1962 when she moved into a newly-built project as one of the happiest in her life.

The enthusiasm for the projects was not unjustified, for up until that time low-income housing was a government program that seemed to work. This was owing in no small part to the scrupulous attention paid to the screening of tenant applicants in order to keep the projects free of criminals and the unruly. To gain approval for her application, Ruby Haynes actually married her common-law husband because of a regulation barring the admission of unwed mothers. But it was precisely at this time that the standards for admission and tenant behavior began to crumble, victim in part of the assault on welfare rules launched by the civil-liberties movement. The disappearance of such standards transformed the projects into outposts of high-density poverty, populated by welfare mothers and their children, ruled over by gang members, and notable for the absence of working-age males.



Public housing was not the only program launched with noble intentions which worsened the conditions it was intended to alleviate. Indeed, Lemann devotes a long and thoroughly fascinating chapter to a history of the War on Poverty, a program which he attacks not for the standard reason that it resulted in a waste of money but rather for its role in exacerbating the isolation of blacks from the rest of America.

By its very concept, Lemann contends, the War on Poverty discouraged integration. On the political level, the stress on the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the administration of local antipoverty agencies was preordained to create enemies among local officials like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Nor was this an unforeseen consequence. The idea—preposterous in retrospect—of using federal money to stimulate an alternative and presumably radical inner-city political leadership was deliberately built into the program by its Left-liberal architects.

Lemann shows how the community-action approach fit in with the racial atmosphere of the 60’s, dominated by urban disorders, the rise of militancy, the Black-Is-Beautiful movement, and the practically unchallengeable idea that “ghetto society was not in any way weak or flawed or in need of middle-class outsiders to take it by the hand.” In the public discussion of race, no event was more crucial than the furious response to the Moynihan Report, with its prescient warning about the looming crisis of black female-headed families. Instead of helping to point the way toward a government strategy, the report, called by Lemann “the most refuted document in history,” earned its author a torrent of vituperation, which in turn chilled the intellectual atmosphere for a generation to come.

If Lemann agrees with the Moynihan Report’s intellectual thrust, he nonetheless is harsh in his judgment of Moynihan, whom he accuses of intellectual opportunism and of lacking the courage to defend his conclusions. Indeed, Lemann’s treatment of Moynihan is much rougher than his assessment of the anti-poverty officials who blithely doled out federal money to Chicago street gangs, liberals who declined to support Lyndon Johnson’s racial initiatives because of their antiwar views, and black leaders whose hysterical chastisement of America at a time of unprecedented opportunity contributed to a general disillusionment over civil-rights issues. Lemann seems to believe that, had alternative ideas prevailed in the shaping of the War on Poverty, the result would have been much greater progress in reducing black poverty. In fact, however, once the riots began, rational and honest debate on race relations was foreclosed.



Nicholas Lemann is an integrationist. Although he recognizes the futility of coercive, government-mandated policies like busing, and can be scathing on schemes for the political or economic empowerment of the inner city, or for a drastic overhaul of the welfare system, he believes that the federal government still has a major role to play in ending black isolation. In particular he makes a strong case for a federal jobs policy which would give blacks the resources to get out of the inner city, now rendered beyond renewal by the pervasive violence and general deterioration of businesses, schools, and other institutions.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that Lemann does not subject his own policy ideas to the same degree of rigorous analysis he devotes to competing proposals. For leaving aside the cost of a policy revolving around federally-funded jobs for the inner-city poor (extremely high, one would imagine), and the total absence of political support for such a policy, there are serious doubts as to how much of the underclass would be reached by it. One may question, for instance, whether such an undertaking would appeal to the crucial population of unemployed black males, young men who have often disdained employment opportunities during periods of high growth and low unemployment. Lemann does not linger on the subject, but The Promised Land is replete with examples of male irresponsibility toward work and family. While one can certainly envision some energetic mothers pulling themselves out of the welfare system by working as, say, school paraprofessionals, the idea that such jobs would draw inner-city men into the work force will strike many as too optimistic, to put it mildly.

Another objection is that blacks are already overly dependent on government employment, an apprehension reinforced by statistics in this book regarding the heavy reliance of blacks, particularly college graduates, on government jobs. And to those engaged directly in government work should be added those who owe their employment to private-sector affirmative-action plans, another indication of the thoroughly unhealthy degree to which the employment situation of black Americans depends on the political mood of the country.

Finally, Lemann’s abiding faith in the ability of the federal government to stimulate the massive transformation he calls for is open to serious question. His assessment of the War on Poverty can easily be read as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of the most idealistically motivated state initiative. The jobs approach favored by Lemann was by his own reckoning hardly considered, nor was it pressed even by the civil-rights lobby. And had the Johnson administration launched such a massive jobs program, one can easily imagine how it would have been subverted through the piling-on of rights, the inevitable clamors for inclusion by other “oppressed minorities,” and demands for more and more expenditures as the program was seen to be failing its goals.



If Lemann’s policy prescriptions are not always convincing, however, he does challenge those with alternative solutions to deal honestly with certain hard facts about the ghetto poor. Particularly cogent is his refutation of those who believe that blacks can emulate the experiences of immigrant groups and escape poverty through entrepreneurship. By Lemann’s account, the limited experience of Southern Negroes with private enterprise has been fatally eroded by life in the ghetto; the one successful businessman in his book, who appears in the concluding chapter, got his start through the anti-poverty program.

Nor is it necessary to concur with Lemann’s policy proposals to appreciate the achievement of The Promised Land as a work of historical journalism. Lemann does not have the answer to today’s racial dilemma, but he addresses the full dimensions of a crisis which so many others would prefer to shun.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.