Why we must get to the heart of poverty and race questions
This year we commemorate two landmarks in the social and political life of our nation: President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program and his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Poverty and race are the two explosive topics that people in search of scapegoats for our national problems too often hang up on. They are the festering sores in important national conversations about our humanity and community.
Beliefs about poverty and race lead some to suggest that minorities in general and blacks in particular are congenitally predisposed to crime, unemployment and single-parent homes. Others see poverty and race as the pathogens that lead to living locked in airtight pockets of concentrated deprivation.
Getting to the heart of poverty and race is important if our nation’s economic and education policies are to be sufficient tools for rebuilding our fractured inner cities and if we are to ever discover civil political discourse.
Consider Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his newfound concern for those in poverty. Ryan said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working …”
Yes, some might condemn this statement as racist — yet black progressives from Bill Cosby to Barack Obama have expressed similar sentiments.
Most recently, two high-profile columnists have engaged in a lively, and at times tense, debate on poverty and race. Jonathan Chait, with New York magazine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic have taken turns opining on the state of racial progress in the United States. Coates takes the side that suggests that poverty in the black community has nothing to do with black culture; rather, it is rooted in centuries of bigotry and oppression. Chait seems to hold with those who believe that black poverty has little to do with residual racism, but rather the type of inveterate laziness to which Ryan alludes.
But will the much-publicized Coates-Chait disagreement lead to any better understanding on either side?
The poverty gap between blacks and whites isn’t new. It has remained the same for nearly 40 years: 35 percent among blacks and 13 percent among whites; in the 1970s, it was 33.6 percent and 10 percent.
America’s dealings with black people are fraught with contradictions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
America insists that children of color excel in school absent the comforts or security of their white counterparts. America insists that blacks overcome poverty while isolated by that same poverty, begrudging them even cellphones to communicate. And it is cruel to question the work ethic of men who, after they do their time for crime, are all but robbed of their citizenship and learn that finding a job is near impossible.
The fact that 73 percent of children born to black mothers occurred outside marriage is sad. But it is hypocritical to refuse to take notice of society’s new moral culture in which single women of all races are making the decision to have children. According to a report in The New York Times, the fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education.
True equality of opportunity and freedom from old dogmas and hypocrisies will come only as we heed the words of President Lyndon Johnson: “We have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.
“Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God who is the father of us all.”
The Rev. Gerald Britt Jr. is vice president of public policy at CitySquare. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at changethewind.org.