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12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Picture in your mind urban America at its most frightening, somewhere in Bedford-Stuyvesant or North St. Louis or the West Side of Chicago: open-air drug markets flourishing in the daytime, 30-year-old single grandmothers who have never worked, teenagers with AK-47s ready to use them in a fight over a pair of shoes.

If you are at all human, you can't help asking a few simple questions: How on earth did we arrive at this pass? None of these neighborhoods was like this a generation ago. Most of the people who lived there were poor, but they held jobs, married, and raised families. The streets, by and large, were safe. All of that has unraveled. Whose fault is it? And what can be done?

There are two simple answers. One is that the characters in this urban nightmare are victims of residual racism, trapped in misery by a white society that has deluded itself into thinking discrimination no longer exists. The other is that the quandered lives of the inner city are the plain fault of those who squander them, moral agents in a free society who lack the character and personal responsibility to conduct themselves in civilized fashion.

These are clear answers; they are also utterly incompatible. And they are pretty good microcosms of the larger ideological divisions in present-day American life. If you know what side somebody chooses to take on Who Lost Bedford-Stuyvesant? the odds are you know what he thinks about a whole range of political and moral issues.

William Julius Wilson, who has been studying the inner city for the past 30 years, takes neither side. In Wilson's view, the residents of America's most dysfunctional neighborhoods are victims neither of racism nor of their own moral failure. They are victims of economics. During the past generation, Wilson argues, the manufacturing jobs that provided the anchor to inner-city life have simply dried up: gone to the suburbs, or to the Arizona desert, or to Sri Lanka. In the 1990s, he argues, the honest work that once served to support struggling urban families in fragile respectability cannot be found. And all the pathology of the streets -- drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy -- flows from that one inescapable truth.

When Work Disappears, Wilson says in his new book by that name (Knopf, 322 pages, $ 26), middle-class residents pack up and leave the community. With few working adults, stores go out of business. Apartment buildings are abandoned, and banks refuse to lend money for renovation. Churches lose parishioners, and the civic organizations that once provided social control cease to function. Teenagers who see no hope for the future opt for the short- term satisfactions of sex and crack, and the consolations of juvenile motherhood. It is a vicious and familiar cycle. But it isn't a function of racism, in Wilson's view, and it isn't a function of individual weakness. It's a function of jobs.

Leon Dash does not explain things quite that way. He considers the residents of the ghetto to be victims more of caste than of global economics. But he shares Wilson's determined refusal to ascribe the problem to either current racial prejudice or individual moral failure. For Dash, as for Wilson, the true culprit is a larger historical force beyond the control of any individual in society, black or white.

Dash's book, Rosa Lee (Basic Books, 279 pages, $ 23), is the microcosmic companion to Wilson's volume of surveys, statistics, and generalizations. Based on the Washington Post series that won Dash a Pulitzer prize in 1994, it is the biography of Rosa Lee Cunningham, a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C., who has spent her entire adult life far outside the borders of respectability, and far from what virtually any human being -- including Rosa Lee -- would consider a decent existence.

Rosa Lee became a common thief at the age of 10, a middleschool dropout at 13, a single mother at 14, and a single grandmother at 29. Dash met her in 1988 in the D.C. jail, where she was incarcerated for the twelfth time, in this case for selling heroin. For most of her adult life, she had been a prostitute or a heroin addict or both, and she had taught virtually all her habits to her eight children, six of whom had never held down a job for any significant length of time.

Rosa Lee is the most powerful piece of reporting on modern ghetto life I have ever read. It takes the reader not only inside the physical world of Rosa Lee, the world of ratinfested apartments, crack houses, and endless visits to D.C. criminal court, but inside the minds of the inhabitants, so far as any middleclass reader, black or white, is ever likely to penetrate. It is difficult to complete this book without feeling deep despair, and yet it is almost impossible not to continue to the end.

Dash is a reporter, not a sociologist. And yet, like any intelligent reader, he feels compelled to ask the elemental question: How did this happen? Rosa Lee's parents were poor people, sharecroppers up from North Carolina, but they didn't live this way. They worked all their lives, and they stayed out of trouble.

In an effort to explain the enormity of Rosa Lee's plight, Dash dips into the work of Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s and into the concept of caste.

It's not that opportunity doesn't exist in a city like Washington for Rosa Lee and her people (he readily concedes that it does), it's that everything in her personal and family history -- the feudal power structure of rural 1920s North Carolina, the rigid segregation of Depression-era Washington, D.C. , the absence of any appreciation for learning on her parents' part -- all combined to make her less than a moral free agent.

"It is obvious to me," Dash writes on his last page, "that what happened to Rosa Lee, and continues with three generations of her direct descendants, is tied much more strongly to the low class and caste level to which her family was relegated before she was born than to her many admittedly bad choices."

But just how obvious is it? Perhaps the most powerful argument Dash presents in favor of his caste theory is the fact that six of her eight children are living the same squalid life she lives. All six use hard drugs; all six have been in jail. Only two sons, Alvin and Eric, a D.C. bus driver and a National Park Service employee, have managed to fashion stable and productive lives. Dash believes they are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that the burdens of caste and class are simply too much for the average ghetto resident to overcome.

But this whole line of argument is challenged by another piece of information Dash does not give us until the last few pages of the book, and even then he presents it in a peculiarly offhanded way. The success of Alvin and Eric, Dash says, is "a testament to what can be achieved under the most dire circumstances. So are eight of Rosa Lee's ten brothers and sisters, who moved from poverty into the working and middle classes."

Could that be true? Eight out of ten? Apparently it is true, because Dash repeats it, although he gives next to no information about where all these siblings are or what they are doing. But it is pretty clear that if, among Rosa Lee's children, the norm is imprisonment, virtual and literal, then among her many siblings the norm was escape. Rosa Lee was the exception.

This in no way minimizes the diffculties these siblings faced in the Washington, D.C., of the 1940s and 1950s, marked as it was not only by racial prejudice but by formal segregation. All of Rosa Lee's brothers and sisters were confronted with the temptation to make a series of foolish choices that precluded their rising into the middle class. Rosa Lee made every one of them. Obviously, these temptations were much harder to avoid in the slums of inner- city Washington than they would have been in the neighboring suburbs of Maryland or Virginia. But the ability of Rosa Lee's eight siblings to avoid these traps suggests that it is reasonable to treat her own life as a sequence of genuine choices -- and to portray her six failed children as products not merely of ghetto conditions but of life with a mother who had rejected stability and chosen degradation.

Dash does not see it this way, and neither does William Julius Wilson, whom he brings in from time to time to comment on the story. Wilson says he is " not at all" surprised by Rosa Lee and her family. He says that this is "what happens when you have people who live in these kinds of neighborhoods."

As a statement of literal fact, this is unassailable. These things happen all the time in the D.C. ghetto of Anacostia, and they don't happen very often in the wealthy suburb of Chevy Chase. But does that allow us to relieve the inner-city inhabitants of all responsibility as individual moral agents -- as choosers -- and label them as the virtually helpless victims of a global economic order?

I don't think so. Consider teenage pregnancy, the most important issue in this entire debate. Rosa Lee became pregnant at 13, and by age 20 she was a single mother with six children by four different men. It isn't too big a stretch of the imagination to view all of her subsequent problems as consequences of that first pregnancy. If she had not become pregnant, she might perhaps have had a chance at a stable life, even as a sixth-grade dropout. Once she was pregnant, that slim chance was pretty much gone.

But in what way was that decision a product of economic circumstance? For one thing, it was made in 1949, long before, in Wilson's terms, work in the ghetto began to "disappear." In those immediate postwar years, in Washington as in all large American cities, industrial jobs for black people were more plentiful than they had been before the war or would be a generation later. It is perhaps plausible to argue, as Wilson does, that teenage girls in the ghetto have babies these days because they realize there are no decent jobs for fathers and thus no opportunity for a conventional family life. But this is not the situation Rosa Lee Cunningham confronted nearly 50 years ago when she had her first baby and set all the tragic events of Dash's story in motion.

Segregation or no segregation, ghetto or no ghetto, I think it makes sense to treat a pregnancy such as Rosa Lee's first one in 1949 as an act of individual choice. What is more, most of the ghetto would treat it that way as well.

In painting his portrait of innercity Chicago, Wilson draws upon mounds of statistics, survey data, and personal interviews. The interviews are quite revealing. "The project don't make nobody," a 28-year-old welfare mother tells her interviewer, "you make yourself. Now, if you want to get out there and carry that project name, be tough and rowdy and sloppy, disrespectful, well, shoot, that's lowlife." A 33-year-old unemployed woman, living in a public housing project in which a majority of the residents are not only unemployed but destitute, makes exactly the same point. "I think that everybody has a chance to get ahead," she says, "but it's all where your mind's at."

Wilson offers this testimony to make the argument that ghetto values are much closer to middle-class values than most of the middleclass thinks. What he succeeds in proving is that they are closer to middle-class values than Wilson's own. The residents of the ghetto, unlike Wilson himself, tend to treat one another as free agents and hold themselves responsible for the decisions they make in life, regardless of the vicissitudes of the global economy. Wilson, for all his sophistication in analyzing the urban predicament, refuses to make the simple assumption of moral agency that his subjects make almost as a matter of course.

Wilson avoids the trap of regarding ghetto residents simply as victims of racial discrimination. In so doing, however, he comes close to writing them off as significant actors of any sort. The book's title itself says a great deal. "Work" is what has disappeared -- not initiative or discipline or character. "Work" is the protagonist. Wilson avoids calling people victims only to re-label them as economic pawns.

But even the reader who is sympathetic to Wilson's arguments about urban deindustrialization -- and I am one -- can't help reflecting that the disappearance of work is more than simply an economic problem. Why does Citibank, a New York City institution, handle its credit card processing in Sioux Falls rather than Brownsville or the South Bronx? State tax rates undoubtedly have something to do with it: Doing business is cheaper in South Dakota than anywhere in New York state. But the values of the work force have even more to do with it, as I think Wilson would concede. If the South Bronx were a safe place with a literate and disciplined work force, employers would be returning there right now.

According to Wilson's survey data, 74 percent of white employers in Chicago expressed negative feelings about the character and discipline of ghetto workers and ghetto job applicants. Ninety percent of black employers expressed the same feelings. "It's an attitude problem," one of the black employers said. "That's all I can tell you."

In other words, it is a circle. Jobs leave the inner city, and the residents become demoralized, in every sense of the word. Under those conditions, jobs do not return, no matter how many people in the community are unemployed and say they want to work. Is it economics or is it culture? The question hardly matters. It is both.

It would be unfair to accuse Wilson of not understanding this. For the most part, he understands it perfectly well. It is only the ultimate leap, from cultural analysis to moral judgment, that he is stubbornly unwilling to make.

As a result, the laundry list of policy solutions he offers in the concluding chapter of his book is a collection of tasks for governments to perform, not a call to moral renewal on an individual scale. He calls for national school performance standards, a federal school-to-work transition program, resumption of federal revenue sharing with local governments, regional mass transit to take inner-city residents to suburban jobs, universal health care, and a massive expansion of Head Start into a fully subsidized preschool program covering virtually all of the children in the country.

Training for the chronically unemployed would take place at a network of centers distributed at convenient inner-city sites, designed to "make persons who have been persistently unemployed or out of the labor force "job ready," so that a prospective employer would be assured that a worker understands and appreciates employers' expectations such as showing up for work on time, and on a regular basis, accepting the orders of supervisors, etc."

There is no denying that programs such as these would help a significant number of people; all poverty programs help somebody. But could they help more than a tiny fraction of the 150,000 residents of Chicago public housing projects, many of whom long ago lost any real contact with the values and disciplines of working life? Could they help Rosa Lee Cunningham and her children, who among them have spent more than a century making their living only from the combined proceeds of drugs, prostitution, larceny, and welfare?

What would help these people? The beginning of wisdom, it seems to me, is to say that nobody knows. But in the absence of good ideas, it seems a serious failing to leave out, as Wilson does, any prospect of an inner-city moral revival, religious or otherwise, that would spread the simple message of Wilson's respondent: "The project don't make you, you make yourself."

To return to the notion of ghetto residents as free actors is not to deny the truth of much of what Wilson says about how the ghetto got this way. Yes, the disappearance of jobs has something to do with it. Yes, the historical legacy of groundless discrimination in northern cities like Chicago remains a factor. Yes, Dash is right, the caste mentality imposed on rural African Americans in the old sharecropper South is still an obstacle.

But knowing the roots of a problem doesn't necessarily point the way out. Of all the organizations swirling around present-day ghetto politics, the Nation of Islam is the one that seems to understand this. It is the world champion when it comes to ascribing the plight of the ghetto to evil outside forces -- greedy Jews, racist white governments, genocidal plots that wind their way implausibly back to the slave trade of the 1700s. But for all the preposterous rhetoric, the black Muslims don't preach that dwelling on the origins of squalor is the best way to return communities to health. They preach that even under the worst circumstances, residents of the ghetto remain free moral agents -- even 13-year-old girls tempted to pregnancy, even parolees thrust back onto the druginfested streets where they first got in trouble. It isn't easy to straighten out in those circumstances, but it is possible. So the Muslims say, and for all that is offensive about them, they have turned around more lives in the last generation than all the federal community-action programs put together.

It isn't very comfortable or satisfying to reduce the problems of the ghetto to individual moral choice, and in many cases, as Wilson and Dash point out, anyone who seeks to make such a case inevitably runs up against the heavy baggage of historical injustice. And yet in treating people, even the most degraded people, with the respect due them as free moral agents, one can at least see a glimmer of hope somewhere down the line. Proposals based on massive government intervention don't offer even that.

In the end, what can one say about the notion of moral responsibility in the ghetto? Perhaps something akin to what Churchill said about democracy: It is the least likely answer, except for all the answers that have been tried.

Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing and the author, most recently, of The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America (now in paperback from BasicBooks).