Nostalgia merchants vindicated: African-Americans

"The nostalgia merchants sell an appealing Norman Rockwell-like picture of American life half a century ago, one in which every household was made up of stable parents, two kids, a dog, and a cat who all lived in a house with a manicured lawn and a station wagon in the driveway.  I understand that nostalgia.  I feel it myself when the world seems too much to take."  –Hillary Clinton

The controversy about the 1950s has been rekindled by an article two law professors, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  They decry the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture and suggest that this has resulted in increase opioid abuse, homicidal violence, out-of-wedlock births, and a general decline in human capital.  They describe these bourgeois values as follows:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

They explain that "[t]hese basic cultural precepts ... could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities."  However, they are being accused of being "white supremacists," and their jobs have been threatened.  Of course, they have not come out and blatantly suggested that whites are superior.  They are using a "dog whistle."  The University of San Diego dean called their article "an unapologetic paean to segregationist era America."

Hillary continued, "There were many good things about our way of life back then.  But in reality, our past was not so picture-perfect."  The elite concentrate on these not so picture-perfect aspects.  James Bowman wrote about the trend among historians to scrutinize the social institutions of the 1950s: "The idea is to show us how, when you rip away the Ozzie-and-Harriet facade of that decade, you reveal beneath it an ugly scene of domestic mayhem that goes far toward explaining why the phrase 'family values' inspires only derisive laughter among the elite."  Newsweek magazine commented, "the '50s fantasy of mom and dad and 2.2 kids went the way of phonograph records and circle pins."  Historian David Halberstam explained, "One reason that Americans as a people became nostalgic about the fifties more than twenty-five years later was not so much that life was better in the fifties (though in some ways it was), but because at the time it had been portrayed so idyllically on television."

Hillary tells us to "ask African-American children who grew up in a segregated society" how perfect the '50s were, implying that they were far from perfect.  As it happens, prominent black American have written about their experiences growing up in the segregated South.  While conditions were far from ideal, they were not as dire as progressives would portray them. 

Margaret Bush Wilson, former chairman of the NAACP, reported, "I grew up in a ghetto in Saint Louis, but it was a safe and clean ghetto, if you can imagine that.  We had hardworking families living there.  We had a doctor, a lawyer, a bricklayer and a drunk on the same street.  But now those neighborhoods are gone.  Hardworking parents are losing control of their children.  The church and the family have deteriorated.  There is blood in the street." 

Ralph Abernathy, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, described the life of his childhood in almost nostalgic terms.  His father, he said, was a farmer, "but unlike some of our neighbors, black and white, we were not struggling to survive on a patch of hard-scrabble land.  My father owned approximately five hundred acres of good, black soil.  To get ahead, he did three things: worked as hard as he possibly could; led a severely disciplined and sober life; and married well[.] ... [He believed] in righteousness and self-reliance[.] ... In a rural area where land was available to people who were willing to work for it, it was possible for a few blacks to enjoy both freedom and a kind of equality – one based on mutual respect and a certain standoffishness.  [In the 1980s,] as I encounter these tragic young faces [of poor blacks] all over the country, I remember the faces of my brothers and sisters and cousins of half century ago.  The faces I recall are not as bitter and hopeless as the ones I see today, if only because my father and the other adults in my family understood that economic independence, our ultimate freedom and salvation, was achievable."

Black columnist William Raspberry recalls that a young man killed in a motorcycle accident was "the only contemporary of ours to die of any cause" during his late teens and early twenties (in the 1950s and '60s).  Raspberry's own middle-class children, in contrast, could name half a dozen deaths among their acquaintances, including several murders.  Conditions in poor black neighborhoods, of course, are far worse.

Today, more black Americans are murdered by other blacks on a yearly bases than all of the blacks lynched during an 87-year period.  Yet there is little protest. 

John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (Algora Publishing).  He has a master of arts degree in international relations from St. Mary's University.  He is retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

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