A remarkable development has taken place in America over the last dozen years: for the first time in the history of the republic, truly large and growing numbers of American blacks have been moving into the middle class, so that by now these numbers can reasonably be said to add up to a majority of black Americans—a slender majority, but a majority nevertheless.
This development, which has occurred against a historical backdrop of social and economic discrimination, is nothing short of revolutionary. Despite the fact that Southern blacks are economically still significantly worse off than Northern, and older blacks than younger, and despite the fact too that the economic and social gap separating whites and blacks is still a national disgrace, “middle class” has now become an accurate term to describe the social and economic condition of somewhat more than half of black Americans.
What does “middle class” mean in this context? Obviously any line that is drawn in the sociological sand must have about it something of the arbitrary and the artificial, yet there are a number of statistical criteria—notably in the areas of income, job patterns, and education—that serve to measure the relative standing of groups (as well, of course, as individuals) in society, and these indices have an unambiguous tale to tell about the recent economic and social movement of American blacks. Obviously, too, “middle class” as used here does not refer to a condition of affluence, to a black population made up of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen with cabin cruisers (although such blacks certainly do exist). It refers rather to the condition of that vast majority of working-class Americans who, although often hard-pressed, have safely put poverty behind them and are now looking ahead, no longer back; it refers not only to engineers and teachers, but also to plasterers, painters, bus drivers, lathe operators, secretaries, bank tellers, and automobile assembly-line workers: the kinds of people who, when they are white, are described as “Middle Americans” or members of the silent, real, or new American majorities. It refers, in the words of the economist Thomas Sowell, who is himself black, to “black men and women who go to work five days a week, pay their bills, try to find some happiness for themselves, and raise their children to be decent people with better prospects than they had. . . .”
To belong to this “middle class” means, first, to have enough to eat, to have adequate, if not necessarily expensive, clothes to wear, and to be able to afford housing that is safe and sanitary. But that is only the beginning. The advent of a majority of blacks into the middle-income class has triggered a domino-like movement throughout American society. Once the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing are provided for, a vast flow of secondary desires follows. A middle-income family wants not only a house that is safe and sanitary but one in a safe and sanitary neighborhood. Middle-income parents want their children to go to good schools, to stay in high school and graduate and, they hope, then go on to college. The young adults who come out of high school and college want better jobs than those their parents have held, the kinds of jobs that have always been available to whites in an equivalent socioeconomic position.
The middle-income blacks, as we shall see, have made much headway toward satisfying all these traditional middle-class desires. Their progress has hardly been trouble-free; as is the case with all forms of sharp economic movement, it has been accompanied by considerable social turbulence, much of it occasioned by race prejudice, and it has had a tremendous impact on the political life of the nation at large. But it is real progress, a massive achievement; and to all appearances it is here to stay.
This is a phenomenon of enormous portent for the future of American society. That it should have come about, as it has, at a time when many civil-rights leaders and liberals alike have insisted that conditions for American blacks are not improving at all, but actually deteriorating, is not the least astonishing aspect of the entire episode. It will be a great and tragic irony if this insistence on failure should in the end prove a hindrance to the continued upward progress of American blacks.
The first and most basic index of status in American life is money, and it is therefore to comparative income statistics that we must turn first to show the broad outlines of black upward mobility in the 1960's. According to the 1970 census figures, income for white families in America went up by 69 per cent in the 1960's, while income for black families1 went up by 99.6 per cent. If we round off the 99.6 per cent figure it can be stated that black family income actually doubled during a single decade!2
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 percent in 1971. It might be argued—and rightly—that 63 per cent is a long way from 100 per cent and still scandalously low, but what is open to little argument is that there has been sharp progress—a catching up—during recent years which was not at all apparent during the previous decade (the ratio of black to white family incomes was the same in 1961 as it had been in 1951). And the changing percentage of black families earning above $10,000 is even more startling, jumping from 13 per cent in 1961 to 30 per cent in 1971 (from 1951 to 1961 the percentage had increased from 3 to 13); these figures are in 1971 constant dollars, the effects of inflation having been factored out.
The median family income in the United States in 1971 was $10,285; today, it can be estimated at $11,000. This figure represents the middle-of-the-middle of family income distribution. Some lower figure—say, $8,000 outside the South—may be said to represent the bottom-of-the-middle or the beginning of middle-income status in America. In the South, where median income averages almost $2,000 lower, and where a disproportionate number of blacks still lives, the bottom-of-the-middle line may be drawn at $6,000. By these criteria, and again adjusting for recent income increases, just over half of black families in the United States are by now economically in the middle class (about 52 per cent).
The march of blacks across the invisible line into the lower-middle and middle classes may be seen even more clearly by looking at the data on the regional rather than on the national level, and by breaking down the figures by age and family characteristics. Thus, there is a sharp difference between black income in the South and black income elsewhere. Whereas in 1970 black family income in the South was 57 per cent of white family income, outside the South the corresponding figure was 74 per cent. A second variable affecting black-white income ratios is family status. As we shall note later, black families are much more likely than white families to be “female-headed,” but when they are not—when the families are “husband-wife” families—income is much likelier to approach equality with comparable white family incomes. Among black husband-wife families all over America in 1970, income was 73 per cent of white family income. Outside the South it was 88 per cent. But perhaps the most encouraging, and most significant, cross-tabulation of the income data concerns the economic status of young blacks. These young men and women have made striking educational gains in recent years; they have made gains in “occupation” as well, i.e., in the sorts of jobs they hold; and they have made gains in the amounts of money they earn. Black males aged 25-34, for example, earn 80 per cent of white levels of income on a national basis.
When one combines all these factors—youth, non-Southern residence, and an unbroken family—a truly striking statistic emerges. The median income of black husband-wife families, in the North and West, with the head of family under 35 years of age, rose from 78 per cent of white income in 1959 to 96 per cent in 1970. There is a word to describe that figure: parity. And if we add a fourth variable to the equation, and examine families in which both the husband and wife work, the figures come out to 85 per cent in 1959, and in 1970—104 per cent! For such families, parity has not only been achieved, it has even been surpassed: young, married blacks, outside of the South, with husband and wife both working, earn as much as or a trifle more than comparable whites.3
If income statistics are the most basic index of economic mobility in the United States, employment patterns follow closely behind. For the last two decades the reality of the black-white employment situation can be summed up, bleakly, as follows: black unemployment rates have been twice as high as white rates. But in recent years a massive shift has occurred in the identity of the black unemployed. A cross-tabulation of married men over age 20 reveals a far sharper drop in unemployment among blacks than for the population as a whole, as is shown by this comparison of two early years of the 60's with two early years of the 70's:
|Negro & Other Races %||White %||Ratio|
|1962||7.9||3.1||2.5 to 1|
|1963||6.8||3.0||2.3 to 1|
|1971||4.9||3.0||1.6 to 1|
|1972||4.4||2.6||1.7 to 1|
The drop in the ratio from 1962 to 1972 is 53 per cent (from 2.5 to 1, to 1.7 to 1—with 1 to 1 representing parity). Here, too, then, we see a steady and powerful movement into the middle class. Black family men are, like white family men, “at work,” that is, at least 95 out of 100 of them are, even during recessionary times.
At the same time, teen-age unemployment has gone up. Among the 1.9 million black teen-agers (age 16-19), unemployment rates in 1960 were 24 per cent; by 1970, the rate had climbed to 29 per cent, and by 1971 to 32 per cent. The rate for white teen-agers fluctuated between 13 and 15 per cent in the same years. These comparative data are discouraging, but there is something to be said about them that is not generally understood. In 1971, of the 1.9 million black teenagers, 1.25 million were “not in the labor force” at all (about a million were students, most of the rest housewives). They were neither “at work” nor “looking for work,” and thus not tabulated in unemployment statistics. Of the 650,000 remaining black teen-agers, that is, those actually “in the labor force,” more than two-thirds—about 450,000—were “at work.” That left about 200,000 actually unemployed, i.e., “looking for work.” The fraction 200,000 over 650,000 is what yielded the high “unemployment” rate—the percentage without jobs actively looking for work. But the fact is that even of these 200,000 unemployed black teen-agers, more than half—about 110,000—were in school, and about 90 per cent of these were looking for part-time work. That left about 100,000 black teen-agers—male and female—who were both out of work and out of school; this element represented not much more than 5 per cent of the total number of black teen-agers.
In other words, in 1971 about 70 per cent of black teen-agers were in school, about another 25 per cent were at work or at home as housewives; the rest—about 5 per cent—may be called the hard-core, full-time unemployed.4
On balance, then: teen-age unemployment rates are up, adult male rates are down, particularly among married males. Black teen-agers are mostly in school, adults are mostly supporting families. The net result would seem to be an important social and economic plus, despite the unfortunately large and continuing disproportion in black-white unemployment rates.
The overall employment pattern, of course, is made up of more than the statistics of who is at work and who is without work. Of equal significance is what kinds of jobs people hold. And here again we see major progress by blacks in gaining access to middle-class occupations, especially in the categories of “white-collar workers,” “craftsmen,” and “operatives”:
Over the same decade the numbers of Negroes in “other” work—primarily low-paying jobs in private households, as service workers, farm workers, and laborers—decreased from 4 million to 3.5 million. Comparing, then, the balance of occupational status for blacks in America in 1960 and 1970, we find that in 1960 blacks in “good” jobs totaled 2.9 million while blacks in “not good” jobs totaled 4 million; by 1970 the number of blacks with “good” jobs totaled 5.1 million, while those with “not good” jobs totaled 3.4 million—in short, a reversal, and then some. In 1960, 42 per cent of blacks held “good” (i.e., middle-class) jobs—less than half. By 1970 the rate had climbed to 64 per cent—almost two-thirds.
Although final and detailed comparative figures on jobs are not at this writing available from the Census Bureau, the specific data we do have are enough to give a flavor of changes that have transpired over the decade. Thus, the 1960 Census reported 143,000 non-white teachers (other than college); the 1970 Census gave 223,000 Negro teachers. In 1960 there were 16,000 non-white social workers; in 1970 there were 41,000 black social workers. There were 12,600 male “plumbers and pipe-fitters” in 1960, 18,000 in 1970. The figures for machinists were 15,000 versus 23,600; for welders, 24,700 versus 44,200.
Many of the new and better jobs held by blacks are union jobs, and many of these are in the much-discussed construction trades, including the most highly skilled of these trades. Of particular interest are the apprenticeship figures—for these signal the way of the future. Today 13 per cent of the apprentices in the construction trades, and 20 per cent of those enrolled in the first half of 1972, are non-white. Curiously, despite all the talk about blacks and unions, one central fact is generally ignored: blacks are somewhat more likely—not less likely—to belong to unions than are whites. In 1970, black workers were 12 per cent of all union members. (Blacks are 11 per cent of the total population.)
Along with higher incomes and better jobs the 1960's also saw a great breakthrough in the area of education. Thus in 1960 only 36 per cent of young black males finished four years of high school, the educational level that seems to separate Americans into “middle class” and “non-middle class.” By 1970 the rate was more than half—54 per cent. Among young black women the increase was even greater—from 41 per cent in 1960 to 61 per cent in 1971. If we take a longer range view, say over the last thirty years, the great educational leap forward of young American blacks becomes even more impressive:
In 1940 the young black was typically an elementary-school dropout; a decade later he could be described only as an elementary-school graduate. Not until 1960 did the young American black typically reach even the level of high-school dropout, and not until 1970 did he typically become a high-school graduate—a bona-fide member of the educational middle class. To give a sense of the speed with which educational parity—in terms of years of school completed for young Americans5—came about, we may note that the gap between young whites and young blacks in 1950 was 3.5 years; twenty years later the gap was 4 of one year. The significance of these data cannot be discounted by arguments, however valid, that blacks are behind whites in reading levels, or by the view that education has little to do with economic success. In the real world, a young man cannot even get interviewed for a job as a bus driver unless he has a high-school diploma.
Finally, the leap into the educational middle class can be seen in college-enrollment statistics. In 1970, there were over half a million young blacks in college, slightly more than 9 per cent of the total. Over a short six-year period—from 1965 to 1971—the comparative figures are as follows:
Again, there is a gap and it is still large—but it has narrowed considerably.
By most of the standards by which Americans measure middle-class status, then, blacks in the last decade have made mighty strides—both absolutely and relative to whites—and the time has come for this fact to be recognized. The image of the black in America must be changed, from an earlier one of an uneducated, unemployed, poverty-sticken slum-dweller, to that of an individual earning a living wage at a decent job, with children who stay in school and aspire to still-better wages and still-better jobs, living not in a slum (but still in a ghetto), in a decent if unelaborate dwelling, still economically behind his white counterpart but catching up.
But to say all this, while indeed correct, is not to say that the situation is uniformly good; that all blacks are in the middle class; that blacks as a whole have achieved parity with whites; that poverty is largely a thing of the past; or, last but not least, that there is cause for complacency in the realm of social and economic policy. None of these conclusions, in fact, is valid.
The high incidence of broken families among blacks—regarded by some observers as the key to the pathology of the black slums—has increased substantially in recent years. The figures chronicling the rise in the number of black female-headed families are stark:
|White %||Black %|
Today, close to a third of black families are headed by females; twenty-odd years ago it was about a sixth. The white rate has changed only marginally in the same period.
The phrase “black female-headed families” is too often interchangeable with a more succinct term: “poor.” In 1971, more than half (54 per cent) of such families were living below what the government calls the “low-income level”; only 17 per cent of male-headed families could be so designated. And the brutal fact is that from 1959 to 1971 the number of male-headed families in poverty decreased by more than half, while the number of female-headed families in poverty increased by a third. Thus, by 1971, almost six in ten black families in poverty were female-headed. As male-headed families exited from the poverty class, female-headed families entered it in growing numbers.
As the numbers and relative percentages of black female-headed families soared, so too did the numbers and rates of blacks on welfare.6 In 1960, there were 3.1 million total welfare recipients in the United States. Of that number it is estimated that 41 per cent—roughly 1.3 million—were black, or about 7 per cent of the 18.8 million Negroes in America in 1960. As the decade progressed, the overall figures rose precipitously:
Of the 10.6 million on welfare in 1971, 45 per cent were black—4.8 million. Of the total black population of 23 million, 21 per cent were on AFDC—up from 7 per cent only eleven years earlier.
It would be blinding ourselves to reality to deny the seriousness of these figures. The rise in female-headed black families living in poverty, and the concomitant increase in the number of blacks on welfare, is a deplorable situation from whatever angle it is viewed. It is deplorable for the millions of black children who grow up without a father in the house. It is deplorable for the stigma it attaches to those receiving welfare, and for the scars it inflicts on their spirit. And it is deplorable because of all the other circumstances that poverty entails: bad diet, bad clothing, bad housing, inferior medical care, etc. It is deplorable for black mothers torn between the desire to devote time and care to their children—especially children of pre-school age—and the desire to earn a better living than what the often inadequate welfare payments provide. These “welfare mothers” are often trapped in deteriorating neighborhoods that are havens for addicts, criminals, drunks, prostitutes, vandals, rapists, and muggers; existence—indeed mere survival—under such circumstances is perilous and grim.
And the situation is also deplorable because of what it does to our politicans and our politics—particularly liberal politicians and liberal politics. Middle-class voters—including many black middle-class voters—don't want to pay the bill for families they believe are “shiftless,” for families they believe ought to be cared for by the (absent) man of the house. They especially resent paying when they believe that the standard of living they are providing for families on welfare has begun to approach their own, a standard they have toiled long and hard to reach. Politicians with liberal instincts feel compassion for the poor and the needy, but they also feel the hot breath of the voters on their necks. Caught between compassion and self-interest, liberal politicians also face torment from more conservative candidates who are perfectly willing, even anxious, to exploit the situation further.
Yet the welfare figures alone, deplorable as they are, do not tell the full story. For the increase in the percentage of blacks on welfare has occurred during a time when the rate of blacks in poverty has sharply decreased. The meaning of this apparent paradox is simply that those blacks still in poverty are more likely than they once were to be receiving aid. The percentage of blacks in poverty has gone sharply down from 48 to 29 per cent in the years from 1959 to 1971. That is an enormous change. At the same time, as we have seen, the percentage of blacks on welfare has gone sharply up—by about three times, from 7 to 21 per cent: another enormous change. A black person in the poverty range, then, is far more likely to be receiving welfare now than in the early 60's, perhaps as much as five times as likely. And whatever may be said about the deficiencies of AFDC as a program, not to mention the panoply of other welfare services like food stamps and Medicaid, it seems an unequivocal gain that poor blacks are now getting welfare whereas at an earlier time they were getting nothing at all.
That the condition of the black poor is better than it was can be seen in the following table, which quantifies the upward movement of the poor toward the exit-line from poverty:
|Year||White||Negro & Other Races|
In 1959, the median black family in poverty was $1,779 away from reaching the poverty line. Twelve years later the median poor black family was $525 closer to exiting from poverty, while the poor white family had advanced only $138 toward that goal (although in absolute terms it was still somewhat closer). Indeed, the same sort of pattern, although not quite as acute, was also apparent in the case of female-headed families:
The black female-headed family in 1971 was worse off by $125 than a white female-headed family; in 1959 the gap between them was $340.
What do all these figures on poverty and dependency tell us? First of all, there are fewer blacks in poverty. Secondly, those blacks in poverty are far more likely to be receiving help than was formerly the case. And finally, poor blacks are rising to levels closer to the line dividing poverty from non-poverty than before. Now, however, two additional factors must be considered which bear upon the current situation, and these are the changing demographic characteristics of the black poor and the problem of crime.
By and large over the last decade, people engaged in full-time work have left the poverty class. Thus the poor today are disproportionately the elderly and those in female-headed families; this holds true for whites and blacks alike. From 1959 to 1971 the percentage of all those in poverty who were over age 65 increased from 14 to 17 per cent, and the percentage of those families in poverty that were female-headed went up from 23 to 40 per cent.
It has been said that this change in the characteristics of the black poor amounts only to exchanging male poverty for female-poverty-plus-dependency, and that its net effect has thus been an increase, not a decrease, in dependency, as well as the creation of a vicious circle—what has been called the “welfare mess”—that drives more and more men away from home. But there is another side to the picture as well. As long as the poor are to remain with us—a notion that has outlived necessity but not, unfortunately, fact—it can surely be argued that it is better, all things considered, that their numbers be made up of those unable to work. Such a situation may be—is—a social tragedy of the first order; but an alternative situation—in which a husband-wife family, with the husband fully employed, was still on welfare—would be intolerable, both for the recipients and for the body politic as a whole.
Moreover, it is simply wrong to view every instance of female-poverty-plus-dependency as a net social loss. The “welfare mess” has also offered the woman who faces a drunk and brutal husband the option—however unpleasant—of telling him to pack up and get out. It may put her family on welfare, but it also dissolves a destructive relationship; this, after all, is an option that the upper classes have had, and used, for a long time.
As for the problem of crime, it hardly needs repeating, and scarcely needs to be documented, that crime rates—particularly violent crime rates—are high among blacks. Blacks comprise only about a ninth of the U.S. population, yet more blacks were arrested for crimes of violence in 1970 than whites—105,000 versus 96,000. This means, essentially, that the rate of violent crimes among blacks is about ten times the rate among whites. Furthermore, the victims of crime are also disproportionately black. In 1965, blacks were two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be the victims of rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. In 1970 more blacks than whites were murdered: 7,490 blacks compared with 5,999 whites.
But as with the issue of dependency, so with the issue of crime. The negative side is bleak—bleaker in this instance than in years past, bleak to the point of horror and social morbidity. Yet it is important to note that while the rates of violent crime among blacks have soared, they have not done so equally throughout the black community. As blacks make economic progress into the middle class they tend to leave their old inner-city slum neighborhoods for better, safer environments. The old neighborhoods, like Hough and Watts, have often actually lost population in recent years. As the upwardly mobile leave the slum, its character undergoes an important change. It used to be a generally unsafe and unpleasant neighborhood, but one with a sizable quotient of hard-working, law-abiding families that provided some sort of social leavening and stability. Now it has become a place made up disproportionately of the dependent poor—the female-headed families and the elderly—and social derelicts: winos, addicts, hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, criminals, and bums. And the crime rates are high beyond imagining.
Yet one of the most significant aspects of the inner-city slum nieghborhoods may turn out to be not the people who live there, but the people who live there no longer, the increasing numbers of middle-class blacks who now live in neighborhoods where crime—while still an enormous problem—is one that can be borne. It would be barbaric to contend that the near-safety of the black middle class, even if it is now a slim majority, somehow justifies the continued fear and degradation of those remaining in the slum. But it would be merely demagogic to pretend that the progress of any group of people can be accomplished all at once and without class fragmentation. The history of group progress in America tells us otherwise—as the present condition of the poor Irish, the poor Jews, and the poor Wasps testifies. The point we make is a simple, if harsh, one: the fact that some blacks have been “left behind” does not in itself negate the fact of massive black success.
Judging progress is of necessity a cold and comparative discipline. We believe, however, that on the basis of the statistics we have examined, it is fair to say that for American blacks generally in the 1960's a huge amount of progress was made—although there is still a substantial and necessary distance to traverse before some rough level of parity is reached. Moreover, those three in ten blacks who remain trapped in poverty also made statistical economic progress in these years, although on balance this progress may with justice be considered nullified by the stunning rise of violence in the worst areas of our nation.
Now, is all this better than what it replaced? The answer is an uncompromising “yes.” In a society that prides itself on being middle class, blacks are now moving into the middle class in unprecedented numbers. In a society that scorns the high-school drop-out and offers work to the high-school graduate, blacks are now finishing high school and significant numbers are going on to college. In a culture that has a clear idea of what is a good job and what is not, blacks are now moving into good jobs. There can be little doubt that all these socioeconomic developments are better than what they replaced.
But what of the future? Two scenarios seem plausible to us; a third—an unpleasant one—seems unlikely.
The first scenario envisages continued progress for American blacks, not only absolutely as the rest of the nation progresses, but 1960's-style, in the form of a continued march toward statistical parity with whites. At least two good sets of reasons can be adduced to confirm the likelihood of this taking place. There are, first, the structural reasons. Black income levels are lowest in the South, yet rising relatively fastest there (up 113 per cent from 1960 to 1970, versus rates of from 70 to 80 per cent in other regions). A majority of all blacks still live in the South (compared with 31 per cent of all Americans), yet out-migration has been substantial and seems to be continuing. Blacks outside the South make more money than blacks in the South. There is no basis for supposing that any of these trends will change: blacks will continue to live disproportionately in the South where black earnings are climbing fastest, and they will continue to leave the South, thus getting an automatic boost toward income parity. From a broad statistical point of view, then, the “Southern” situation argues favorably both for blacks in the South and for blacks leaving it.
Another structural consideration is the status of young blacks. As noted earlier, the sharpest relative gains in the last decade were made by black families under 35. If this pattern continues—and there is no reason to believe it will not—it will of its own weight continue to move the total black-white numbers closer to parity. Elderly blacks will leave the labor force and ultimately die, and will be replaced by the new cohorts of young blacks (who happen to be a disproportionately large group today). These new young black families will enter at the present close-to-parity rates now held by young black families as a whole. Further, it seems likely that the now-young but soon-to-be-middle-aged blacks will continue to retain some, most, or all of their present relatively high standing as they reach their late thirties and early forties. This seems especially plausible if one assumes that young black families have made income progress in large measure because of their greater educational attainments and because they hold better jobs than they used to; the same jobs and the same educational background will continue to serve them in good stead as they move into middle age. A black who enters the civil service,. or a labor union, at age 25—because he had suitable education or apprentice training—will not only not lose ground as he ages, but will gain all the normal advantages of seniority. What this means, in effect, is that the progress that is now discernible is due not to the sheer youth of young blacks, but to the fact that something happened in America that opened up paths of mobility for young blacks. As the proportion of those able to take advantage of this new situation becomes an ever-greater share of the total black population, the black-white statistics will look better and better as the years go on.
Beyond the structural reasons for assuring continued progress are the political and psychic ones. Something did indeed happen in the 1960's: the logjam broke—politically, legally, socially, economically, even spiritually—and there is no going back. Not Richard Nixon, not Barry Gold-water, not even Strom Thurmond or James Eastland wants to return to Little Rock, to Birmingham, to Selma. The logjam having broken, according to the first scenario, things will never be the same; continued progress is inevitable.
In the second—less optimistic—scenario of the future, the broad structural factors just mentioned are taken into account, the broad political-cultural factors are minimized, and two other factors are introduced.
First, insofar as it can be measured sketchily over a short period of time, progress in the Nixon years of 1969, 1970, and 1971 was less dramatic than in the Kennedy-Johnson years. True, the slowdown was not aimed at blacks; there was a national economic recession, and if the sinking rate of blacks in poverty stopped sinking, so, roughly, did the rate for whites. The rates of black families earning $10,000 a year or more in fact continued to climb, although more slowly than earlier. Black income viewed as a fraction of white income seemed to reach a plateau. Unemployment rates climbed for both blacks and whites—somewhat more so for whites. On some fronts progress continued strong—very strong—despite the recession: high-school drop-out rates for black males fell markedly from 1970 to 1971 (for 18-year-olds the rate fell from 30 per cent to 23 per cent; for 19-year-olds from 44 to 29 per cent).
The record of the first three Nixon years cannot be called much better than mixed. The key question, of course, is whether these three years signal a general and continuing slowdown or merely a partial and temporary one. The answer will have to wait until the economy heats up again, but according to the second scenario the 1970's will begin to bear a structural resemblance to the economic plateau of the 1950's, rather than to the sharp ascent of the 1960's.
Aside from the recent figures, as the second scenario would have it, there is further reason to be concerned about the new Nixon budget for fiscal 1974. That budget has been described as the death knell of the Great Society, and while the description is no doubt overly dramatic, it is clear that if the President has his way many of the Great Society programs will be cut back or cut out. If these programs were indeed what was responsible for the great progress made by blacks in the 1960's, it follows that progress will decrease as the programs are eliminated or starved. Doing away with the programs, in effect, will presumably do away with some if not all of the relative gains that are likely to accrue from structural forces alone.
No one really knows how much good (or bad, for that matter) was accomplished by the Great Society programs of the 60's, and debate over the question is likely to go on indefinitely. Our own view—which owes something to political considerations, something to statistical ones—is that the programs accomplished a good deal; their sharp curtailment would probably be sufficient to prevent the future of steady progress envisaged in the first scenario, yet probably not sufficient to insure the future of total stasis envisaged in the second. This view, and its political implications, will be spelled out in detail in a moment.
The third and final scenario of the future course of events asserts confidently that the Great Society programs were in fact so important that their partial demise will not only eliminate the projected structural gains, but insure an absolute retrogression. Things for blacks will get relatively worse in the 70's according to this scenario.
In our judgment this is an improbable prognosis. President Nixon neither wants to, nor could, undo all the progress of the 60's. No one, for instance, has proposed repealing the Voting Rights Act, which wields enormous political clout. No one has proposed repealing the Public Accommodations Law. Nor the new minimum wages. Nor Medicaid. Nor aid to higher education. In addition, while no one can accurately quantify the impact of the New Frontier and Great Society, we believe it a mistaken analysis that the programs alone were responsible for the progress of the 60's. A key anti-poverty remedy in the past, and one likely to remain so in the future, is a steadily strong economy. The Great Society programs were a central ingredient of progress, but not so central that repeal of some of them now would actually reverse the tide.
It has been our contention, and one which we have attempted to document, that enormous progress has been made by American blacks in the past decade, so much so that a thin majority of American blacks now belong to the middle class. But we noted early in this essay that a blanket of silence seems to envelop the liberal community on this point, so that the economic and social advances made by blacks, far from being trumpeted or even acknowledged, are simply ignored when they are not actually denied. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, not a few liberal spokesmen and civil-rights activists have claimed that blacks are in fact worse off now than they were ten years ago.
In December of last year the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin was host to a Civil Rights Symposium on the occasion of the opening of the monumental collection of papers and documents concerned with civil rights during the LBJ era. It was a major event at an institution that had already become known as a first-rate center of scholarship, and it was attended by many of the great and the near-great, the famous and the near-famous, of the civil-rights movement. Among those on hand were Roy Wilkins, Earl Warren, Vernon Jordan, Burke Marshall, Julian Bond, Richard Hatcher, Barbara Jordan, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, plus a host of panelists. Each had his moment before the microphones, each participated in this most recent collective attempt to evaluate the past, present, and future of the black man's struggle for equality in our time.
Two general themes emerged as the conference went on. The first was a celebration of Lyndon Johnson (a theme which, since his subsequent death, has been sounded as well by those who scant years before had proclaimed him a “honky” and a murderer of children). Homage was paid to Mr. Johnson for the Civil Rights Acts of 1958 and 1960, passed when he was Senate majority leader, for the Voting Rights Act of 1964, for the Public Accommodations Act of 1965, and for the Housing Act of 1968. All this legislation, it was correctly noted, broke the back of legalized discrimination in America. For the first time blacks could vote everywhere in the nation, could eat at a lunch counter, could legally buy a house in any neighborhood. For this great formal progress, LBJ and the civil-rights movement were to be awarded accolades.
Yet curiously the talk was exclusively of new rights gained by blacks in this period, not of any achievements made by them as a consequence.
The second theme of the conference was one of condemnation, and its object was the new President, Richard Nixon. Even before the new budget had been announced, it seemed clear to most of the participants at this conference that President Nixon's aim was to roll back progress, undo economic gains, and reduce blacks once again to their former status of servitude and povetry—all in the name of what the participants viewed as his infamous “Southern Strategy.”
In a departure from the general chorus of voices Senator Hubert Humphrey addressed himself to new Congressional strategies, stressing that the next round of liberal legislation must be aimed at helping not just the poor or the black, but all Americans, including those, black and white, in the middle class. And the late former President Johnson himself, in his last public address, uttered a stirring plea for reconciliation and a new commitment to equality for all.
But, astonishingly enough, no one—no one—thought it necessary, wise, or advisable to take as a theme the remarkable progress—economic, educational, occupational, social—made by blacks over the last decade.7 Julian Bond, in noting the current statistical condition of blacks in America, said, incredibly:
. . . We are no longer slaves. Secondly, we can sit at lunch counters, sit downstairs at movie theaters, ride in the front of buses, register, vote, work, and go to school where we once could not. But in a great many ways, we are constantly discovering that things have either not changed at all, or have become much worse. A quick look at all of the facts and figures that measure how well, or how poorly, a people are doing—the kinds of statistics that measure infant mortality, unemployment, median family income, life expectancy—demonstrates clearly that the average black American, while better off in comparison than his father was, is actually worse off when his statistics are measured against similar ones for white people. It is as though black Americans are climbing a molasses mountain in showshoes, while the rest of the country rides a rather leisurely ski-lift to the top. It is these depressing figures, and the accompanying pathology which results from them, that causes so much discontent and depression in black communities today. The realization is that separately over the years the diverse strategies of Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X have not appreciably improved the material lot of the masses of black folk.
Why have the data of black advancement been kept secret by those who presumably have an interest in making them known? After all, the black man-in-the-street is perfectly aware of the gains that have been made. A Potomac Associates/Gallup Poll taken in 1972, for instance, revealed that whereas whites on the whole said life in America had gotten worse in recent years, blacks said things were getting better (they were the only group of 31 sub-categories who thought so). The answer is of course that civil-rights leaders do know what has happened, and even acknowledge it in private; but they have elected as a matter of policy to mute any public acknowledgment or celebration of black accomplishments in order to maintain moral and political pressure on the administration and on public opinion.
This strategy, we submit, is a mistaken one, counterproductive of its goal; the only people who have been kept under pressure by it are liberals themselves. As has been the case with many aspects of the liberal agenda in the last half-century, civil-rights leaders who refuse to claim credit for the successes they have earned only lend themselves to the purposes of those who declare the bankruptcy of liberalism altogether as a political strategy.
Here is the dilemma in which liberals find themselves. Forty years have passed since they became the driving force of American politics, frequently occupying the White House, always influential in the Congress. In this period of time a remarkable body of legislation has been placed on the statute books, as a result of which great economic and social progress has been made in the country at large, from which all Americans have benefited. And this progress liberals now deny, claiming that the programs for which they fought and lobbied have not worked (but at the same time denouncing Richard Nixon when he says they haven't worked).
In short, the liberal battle-cry has become, “We have failed; let us continue!”
A classic illustration of this tendency was provided by Senator Edmund Muskie in a speech delivered at the Liberal party dinner in New York in October 1971:
We meet tonight in a time of failure of American liberalism. You can see the failure everywhere in this city and across the country. For too long, the sound of liberal alarms has been answered by little more than the echo of our own voices. . . . The blunt truth is that liberals have achieved virtually no fundamental change in our society since the end of the New Deal. We have made strong efforts, some of them even inspiring. We have made good speeches, some of them even great. And we have even made some advances . . . too many of them half-measures. So in 1971, we continue to live with institutions . . . that serve the few who are comfortable at the expense of the many who truly are in need. How have we gained so little after so long a time and so much work? It is easy to blame others. But the fault is not primarily in others . . . it is in ourselves. Too often, we have assumed that we would win because we should win. Too often, we have equated a hard fight for progress with the hard fact of progress.
Now let us suppose that, instead of the institutionalized gloom pervading liberal thought today, a different analysis—an accurate analysis—were substituted, and a different rhetoric adopted to conform to it. Of what would it consist? It would begin, first of all, in the recognition that in 1960 and in 1964, the nation elected Presidents who were pledged to get America moving again, to give a better deal to the poor and the black, to break a decades-old legal, political, and social logjam. Thanks to these Presidents, thanks to a liberal impulse in the Congress in the mid-1960's, thanks to the tireless efforts of liberals all over America, the legislation was passed to fulfill that pledge: manpower programs, poverty programs, and a stunning array of health, education, and legal services. Now, more than a decade later, we can look back and see—results. The census and the other statistical indices of our time show success in many crucial areas; in particular, a better deal has been given to the poor and the black to the point where many of them are now in the middle class, just as the Presidential pledges and the legislation promised. The confirming data have been presented above. To be sure, we cannot say absolutely that the legislation was totally responsible for the progress made, but we can say absolutely that it was crucial. Liberalism worked.
Normally, given a situation such as the one we have described, the political burden of proof would be on him who wished to deny it, in this case a Republican President with an analysis and a strategy of his own to promote. He would be the one forced to show that life in America has deteriorated, or at least that liberal programs had failed. Instead—at a moment when history and data show victory for their ideas—liberals loudly compete with each other to do his work. Instead of proclaiming success, liberals can only assert that America is a failure, that things are as bad as ever and maybe worse. And President Nixon smiles in agreement.
The problem is more than just political in the narrow, partisan sense. At issue finally is the possibility of achieving a rational and peaceful resolution of the enduring racial problems of this country. By refusing to acknowledge the facts of success, liberals give further currency to the old stereotypes of black poverty—slums, ratinfested dwellings, a self-perpetuating welfare culture—and thereby help to confer legitimacy on the policies of those who would shirk the hard task of social and economic integration. It simply makes no sense to demand of white middle-class Americans that they welcome into their hearts, let alone into their neighborhoods, schools, or places of work, such stereotyped examples of human misery and degradation as liberals proclaim the majority of American blacks to be. It makes eminent sense, on the other hand, to demand of white middle-class Americans that they extend a fair and equal chance to those who have, like them, earned their way into the middle class, as well as to all those millions who stand ready to do so once given the chance. Integration, still the only realistic solution to the race problem, will proceed only as economic class gaps narrow, and are publicly acknowledged to be narrowing. Trumpeting failure, the best deal liberals are likely to get, from this or any other administration, is one that amounts to standpatism. Acknowledging those successes that have in fact been achieved, demanding the means and the money for the completion of the job, liberals might legitimately hope for action, and an extension of their political writ.
1 These figures are for “Negroes and other races.” Throughout this essay the data used are either for “Negroes” or, when not available, for “Negroes and Other Races” as defined by the Census Bureau. Since “Negroes” comprise 90 per cent of this latter category, the index may be considered relatively reliable for American blacks as a whole.
2 The statement, however, would be accurate only if inflation had not eroded everyone's income. Taking inflation into account we find that the actual income increases come out to 34 per cent for whites and 59 per cent for blacks.
3 Some, but by no means all, of these remarkable husband-wife family gains are due to the fact that young black wives outside of the South are somewhat more likely to work year 'round than young white wives (52 per cent versus 36 per cent). However, it is important to note that in those same families the husbands were also making progress. They earned 76 per cent of comparable white husbands in 1959—and 90 per cent of comparable white husbands in 1970.
4 To be sure, many of those who were in school or at home wanted, and needed, work, particularly part-time work, and could not get it. They needed money to help support themselves through school, to provide a second income to make ends meet, to help out their parents and siblings struggling at home with too little money and too many mouths to feed. But they were not the primary breadwinners, and their relative position has to be judged accordingly.
5 For Americans of all ages there is still a disparity, reflecting earlier years of inequity. Median school years completed for all adult Negroes was 10.1 years in 1971 as compared with 12.2 years for all adult whites.
6 “Welfare” as the term is generally used refers primarily to aid disbursed under the category “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC)—and numbers for that program are the ones used here.
7 Less than two months later the annual Civil Rights Leadership Conference dinner was held in Washington, and once again no public mention was made of black achievements—other than legal—over the decade.