Obama and the Asphalt Plantation

President Obama has done nothing to address the problems of the black community defined in a 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And by doing nothing, he's made the problems worse.

Forty-seven years ago, Moynihan (1927-2003) was the assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  In the context of helping formulate policy concerning Johnson's War on Poverty, he wrote "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action."  Later, he served four terms as a Democrat U.S. senator from New York (1976, 1982, 1988, and 1994).

Moynihan projected the image of an erudite born into wealth, with easy access to the finest Ivy League colleges.  In fact, he grew up poor, attended high school in East Harlem, worked nights as a longshoreman while in high school, once shined shoes on a street corner, and received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Tufts University.  Later, he studied economics as a Fulbright Scholar at The London School of Economics.  Concerning his education -- he built it.

His 17,000-word report is stacked with statistics that painted a dismal future for the "Negro" in American society, if the trends were not reversed. He wrote:

The fundamental problem ... is that of family structure. The evidence - not final, but powerfully persuasive - is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling[.] ... So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself. [snip]

A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the Federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.

Moynihan linked the erosion of the black family with chronic unemployment among blacks (italics in source version).

The fundamental, overwhelming fact is that Negro unemployment, with the exception of a few years during World War II and the Korean War, has continued at disaster levels for 35 years. Once again, this is particularly the case in the northern urban areas to which the Negro population has been moving. [snip]

[H]igher family incomes are unmistakably associated with greater [black] family stability - which comes first may be a matter for conjecture, but the conjunction of the two characteristics is unmistakable.

Moynihan's conclusion was controversial in 1965, and it still is today. 

In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation's business.

And should the reader have missed his point along the way, Moynihan ends with this paragraph (boldface in source):

The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.

To the debatable extent that the War on Poverty aimed toward "enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family," it failed -- miserably.  A case can be made that the effort led to an outcome opposite of its intention.

We are now in that worse future for the "Negro" community that Moynihan predicted would happen with the wrong "national effort."  For his presidential part, Barack Obama has done nothing to reverse the failed policies of the War on Poverty.

Had he truly been the transformational leader that some thought he would become, he would have declared the War on Poverty as lost and, therefore, over.  Then he would have led an altogether different approach to addressing a situation that has worsened since Moynihan's report.  But his response has been to push more of the same. 

A different approach would, surely, have involved engaging the American business community, large and small companies alike, as allies, rather than as greedy, tax-dodging capitalists (as a dirty word).

We now leave Moynihan's report and fast-forward to the September/October 2012 issue of The American Interest and (Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College) Walter Russell Mead's article entitled "The Great Compromise."

The election of President Obama marked both the definitive triumph of the 1977 racial settlement and the beginning of its end. A generation of national struggle against the spirit of race prejudice had created the closest thing to a color-blind electorate American politics had ever known. A generation of opening doors to talented blacks provided the opportunity for not just Barack Obama but a galaxy of African-American leaders in business, politics and culture to reach the summit of national life.

But the financial crisis that helped Obama win election in time devastated the black middle class and demonstrated the extent to which the core economic assumptions that shaped the new era in race relations were under threat. The housing bubble's greatest victims were striving minorities; a combination of well-intentioned efforts to increase home ownership among low-income and minority families with unscrupulous and irresponsible Wall Street lending products left millions of Americans stuck with pricey mortgages in overvalued properties.

Never mind that Professor Mead avoids the role of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and blames the lenders for bringing about the "housing bubble."  (He doesn't teach economics at Bard.)  And let's not quibble with his somewhat artificial time-stamping of 1977 as the end of the post-Reconstruction era that ran from 1877-1977.  Many of his points are, nonetheless, worth considering.

Although many blacks have entered the middle class, the problems within inner-city black communities are worse than ever.  Mead's analysis mirrors Moynihan's, but it is forty-seven years later and uglier.

Conditions in many American cities deteriorated dramatically as white flight, globalization (destroying the manufacturing base of many rust belt cities), poor governance and the drug trade ravaged urban America. The heavy police presence and law enforcement crackdowns sent a growing proportion of young black men to prison. Weak family structures, absent fathers, abysmal schools and the consequences of a culture in which drug abuse and violence were widespread placed almost insuperable barriers in the way of young generations of African Americans born into the inner cities.


[U]rban demographics are changing, and the politics of urban employment will change with it. In cities like Los Angeles, New York and even Washington, DC, black political power has begun to decline. Spanish-speaking immigrants and immigrants from Asia are exerting more power in local elections, and the patronage networks that have served blacks well in recent decades will now increasingly serve other client groups. An influx of affluent whites, who dislike machine politics and want to improve services like schools while cutting costs, puts additional pressure on the patronage networks. Add the squeeze on state and municipal government hiring together with a decline in relative black political power, and the future is not particularly hard to calculate.

By now, the reader may be asking: How much worse will things get before the consequences are so socially traumatic as to require a dramatically new direction in city, state, and federal governments' policies and practices? After all, isn't doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome one definition of insanity?

Upon his election in 2008, President Obama had the political capital to tackle this problem, but he wasn't up to the task.  In fact, the task doesn't, in retrospect, appear to have even been on his agenda.

The lack of interest he showed for the plight of the poorest constituents in his Illinois State Senate district should have been a clue as to his intentions -- or better, to his disinterest in the matter.

When Barack Obama said "I'm not the president of the black America," he was telling the truth.  He hasn't been blacks' president because he hasn't acted as the nation's president. 

And so it is that in the nation's urban centers today, too many black communities remain asphalt plantations where corrupt politicians are the overseers -- with most from the same political party that the president leads.