I recently re-read My People Is the Enemy, a 1964 book by a white lawyer named William Stringfellow, who’d spent the previous seven years providing legal services in a poor neighborhood in Harlem.
He wrote about black people in New York City were barred from decent jobs, were denied credit and were harassed by police. This couldn’t go on much longer, he wrote. Things were about to blow—which, in fact, they did.
But as I read the book, I was struck by what was missing. He didn’t give any example of an unarmed black person being killed by police. He didn’t give any example of police cruising up and down the streets and arresting young black men for trivial reasons or not reason at all.
He wrote about how a young black man found life in the Rikers Island prison more comfortable than the slum he came from. He had a clean cell, nourishing meals and access to a gym and a library. That’s a far cry from the hellhole of violence that Rikers Island is reported to be today.
Which raises the question: Why is it, in spite of all the civil rights laws and all the social pressure against racist language and behavior, that things haven’t gotten better?
My answer is that things have gotten better, much better, but only for a certain segment of the black population—what W.E.B. DuBois called the “talented tenth”.
Thanks to changes in the laws and in white public opinion, someone like Barack Obama can be President of the United States and someone like Ursula Burns can be CEO of Xerox Corp. No longer do black people with college degrees have to earn their livings as janitors and live in slums. The black middle class as grown, and black people participate in the highest levels of government and business.
But for the great mass of black people, there was only a limited window of opportunity to move up the income scale. Corporations such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and General Motors Corp. opened up well-paying jobs to black people in the 1960s and 1970s. But then those companies started downsizing, and there were few good jobs for anybody.
It is hard for minority workers to move up the economic ladder when they are competing with members of the majority on the way down.
The other thing that kept poor black people down was the white fear of black crime, symbolized by Willie Horton, which generated the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration, all of which targeted poor black people.
I don’t see a realistic way to change the job situation except to work for a full employment, high-wage economy for everyone. I personally am not bothered by affirmative action, but I don’t think members of a majority group will be sympathetic to special efforts to help a minority unless they themselves feel secure.
The other problem is mass incarceration. Habitual violent criminals should be locked up, and, if a higher proportion are black than are white, so be it. But that doesn’t justify locking up minor black offenders or people who’ve committed non-crimes such as “loitering”.
Surveys indicate that white people use illegal drugs as much as black people, but the arrests target poor black people rather than middle class or white people. And while it is not legal to discriminate against people because they are black, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against people with criminal records, including non-violent drug convictions.
I can’t say for sure what would have happened if American working people as a whole had continued to make gains after 1980 and if there hadn’t been a law and order campaign that targeted poor black men.
Neither can I say for sure that poor black people would respond well to a full-employment economy, with good transportation and child care, and to a criminal justice system that treated all people fairly.
What I can say for sure is that I am thankful I don’t have to endure what poor black people do, that a rising economic tide is needed to lift all boats, and that equal justice under law should be unconditional.
The William Stringfellow Project: My People Is the Enemy by Richard Beck for Experimental Theology. [Added 5/25/2015]
Poor People Need a Higher Wage, Not a Lesson in Morality by Greg Kaufmann for The Nation.
These ten charts show the black-white income gap hasn’t budged in 10 years by Brad Plumer for The Washington Post.
Willie Horton Revisited | Thirty years later, does he still matter? by Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller for The Marshall Project.
1.5 Million Missing Black Men by Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy for The New York Times.
I made some minor edits, including a change to the title, after I published this post. [5/25/2015]