The independent news organization of Duke University

The plight of black America

The greatest obstacle to the advancement of black Americans isn’t racism or past injustices but rather the black community itself. Instead of paving a road to prosperity, the self-defeating economic policies advocated for by the black community are shackles of poverty and disillusionment, miring blacks in a cycle of underachievement and social immobility. In addition to failed economic policies, there are also cultural issues within the black community such as the erosion of marriage that must be internally overcome. Because the economic and cultural problems are causally interrelated, they must be addressed simultaneously if any real progress for black Americans is to be achieved.

While well intentioned, the economic policies enacted to aid blacks in attaining success almost invariably serve to do the opposite. For example, President Johnson’s war on poverty with its slew of social welfare programs has not only failed to eliminate poverty but has exacerbated it to the detriment of blacks. The objective of the war on poverty, to end government dependency, remains unmet more than 50 years later and after having spent more than 22 trillion dollars. In fact, the official poverty rate in 2012 was higher than it was in 1966, and the black-white poverty gap has widened over the past decade despite the bevy of redistributive welfare schemes. It’s hardly surprising that paying people welfare subsidies to not work and punishing them for working with taxation results in a portion of the population voluntarily choosing to be unemployed. That’s not to imply that these people who choose a lifestyle of living off welfare are lazy or inept; they are actually making a rational decision given the costs and benefits of the welfare and work tradeoff. As is often the case with do-gooder legislation, welfare distorts incentives and produces perverse results. Black Americans should come to the realization that welfare is an anchor weighing them down and that true economic independence as envisioned by President Kennedy and Johnson, the originators of the war on poverty, can only be achieved by severing dependency on government welfare.

Another counter-productive economic policy is the minimum wage, which harms blacks more than anyone else. The minimum wage introduces an artificial price floor into the labor market making it more difficult to obtain an entry-level job. Not only is current employment immediately reduced by a minimum wage because the poor are priced out of the labor market, future employment is harmed as well because people who would have been working and gaining valuable skills and experience that they can parlay into a higher paying job are instead sitting idle. In effect, the minimum wage kicks out the bottom rung of the ladder to self-sufficiency leaving the poor, many who are black, to grasp vainly at a mirage of success.

Although the list of deleterious government policies is practically endless (e.g. occupational licensing, affirmative action, etc.), school choice is another remedy that should clearly be embraced by black Americans. For many black children trapped in failing, inner-city public schools, their only chance of obtaining a decent education is through voucher programs that allow them to attend a charter school. School choice introduces competition into the education marketplace putting pressure on schools to perform better and giving parents the ability to improve their child’s education instead of accepting the monopolized status quo of their local public school. In fact, even a limited school choice program providing only a $1400 voucher in New York City was able to improve the college matriculation rates of black students by a whopping 24 percent.

However, merely changing economic policies cannot, in and of itself, fully remedy the ailments of the black community. The internal culture of the black community must also be addressed.

First, the institution of marriage must be revived within black America. Today, 68 percent of black households are headed by single mothers, and 75 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. In 1940, the illegitimacy rate was only 14 percent. The effect of this astounding trend is disastrous. Compared to two parent households, children in single parent households are twice as likely to be arrested for a juvenile crime, twice as likely to be treated for emotional and behavioral problems and twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school. A leading cause for the decline in marriage within the black community are welfare programs since women are, in effect, paid by the government to not marry the father of their children. Because marriage raises household income due to the contribution of the father and thus decreases welfare payments, poor black women are incentivized to make the rational choice of being a single mother. In the words of Walter E. Williams, a black economist at George Mason University, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery could not have done, the harshest Jim Crow laws and racism could not have done, namely break up the black family.” Perhaps the most unforgivable aspect of the marriage problem is that the problem has been known for so long, yet black leaders have done nothing to address it. In 1965, the Johnson administration Department of Labor released the Moynihan report, which correctly identified that “The fundamental problem is that of family structure” and that “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” More than 50 years later, the black community has failed to prioritize marriage and has instead concentrated its attention on destructive efforts like rioting in the streets of Ferguson because a police officer fatally shot a black man who was assaulting the officer.

The dissolution of marriage within the black community and the proliferation of generations of fatherless children also help to produce a culture of contempt for the rule of law, which leads to a lifestyle of crime. Though blacks are only 13 percent of the population, they account for more than 50 percent of homicide victims, and 94 percent of the time, the murderer is black. Instead of disowning crime, black cultural leaders like hip hop and rap artists routinely celebrate thug culture as do popular black websites like Of course, the criminal justice system isn’t perfect and some reforms are in order such as the eliminating the disparity in penalizing the possession of cocaine versus crack. However, black crimes, by and large, are the product of a culture that glorifies illegal activities and are a direct consequence of the breakdown of the black family. Heaping blame on law enforcement officers or the criminal justice system, which seems to be in vogue recently, only distracts from addressing the root problems of black crime.

Lastly, and perhaps paramount to all other cultural issues, is the pervasive sense of crippling victimhood within the black community. Leaders of the black community, whether nationally like Al Sharpton or locally like the People of Color Caucus, ply the poisonous snake oil of victimhood to blacks, blaming problems on past injustice and racism. While racism certainly exists and past injustices like slavery were undoubtedly evil and a blight on American history, using those two excuses as a crutch keeps the black community stuck in the past and prevents it from moving forward in a constructive manner. As John H. McWhorter, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute who also happens to be black, argues, “the ideology of victimhood... rather than what remains of racism itself, is the biggest obstacle to further black progress in today’s America.” Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who also happens to be black, agrees with McWhorter saying, “The ‘legacy of slavery’ argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.”

Coupled with black victimhood is the equally pernicious phenomenon of white guilt as explored by another black Hoover Institution Senior Fellow, Shelby Steele. He describes white guilt as “the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative—that they are not racist—to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.”

Steele goes on to say, “To be black in my father’s generation, when racism was rampant, was to be a man who was very often victimized by racism. To be black in the age of white guilt is to be a victim who is very rarely victimized by racism. Today in black life there is what might be called “identity grievance”–a certainty of racial grievance that is entirely disconnected from actual grievance. And the fervor of this symbiosis with white guilt has all but killed off the idea of the individual as a source of group strength in black life. All is group and unity, even as those minority groups that ask much of their individuals thrive in America despite any discrimination they encounter.”

This column will certainly rile the feathers of many, but it is an accurate, forthright diagnosis of the problems that face black America. The prescription is twofold: first, calamitous government policies that make black success more difficult must be eliminated and, second, the black community must be truly introspective and confront its own internal deficiencies. On the former point, blacks (and Americans in general for that matter) must wean themselves from suckling on the teat of government largess, which only serves to ensnare blacks into stagnant dependency instead of liberating self-sufficiency. On the latter point, the black community must embrace societal institutions like marriage and the rule of law and also disavow the mentality of victimhood in favor of an outlook of empowerment. Only having done so can America truly achieve Dr. King’s dream of an integrated, colorless society.

Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity senior and the Editorial Page Editor. His column will run bi-weekly in the fall.