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The toughest row to hoe; Nicholas Lemann takes us to the ghettos like no one else has. Now, how the hell do we get out?

The Toughest Row to Hoe

There's no miniseries, not yet anyway. But Nicholas Lemann's new book (*) has all the trappings of a major publishing event. His account of the black migration north has been featured on the covers of both The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times Book Review. Critics as politically diverse as George Will and Garry Wills have hailed it as a "classic of contemporary history" and "indispensable."

Not surprisingly, this response delights those of us affiliated with The Washington Monthly. Lemann may make his living as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, but he's also a former editor of this magazine and among its most prolific contributors. (Conflict-of-interest check: Lemann and I are just acquaintances.) But in the flood of reviews, many of his book's strengths and even a few weaknesses have been overlooked.

On the weakness side of the equation, Lemann has left a lot unanswered about the origins of the underclass and hasn't shown us how we can really help the poor. His great unheralded strength comes from approaching his subject in so many ways--as historian, reporter, and anthropologist. By wearing many different hats, he's jarred our assumptions about well-worn topics like what life is like in the ghetto and how the war on poverty was waged. (He's certainly done that in his revisionist portrait of a familiar figure, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, beginning on page 39.)

To understand what kind of culture five million blacks brought north after 1940--a migration larger than that of the Italians or Jews--Lemann went south to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the point of departure for the families he follows. With a reporter's shoe leather and an academic's ability to grasp technical studies--including page-turners like The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy: Summary of Field Studies and Statistical Surveys 1933-35--Lemann reveals a sharecropper culture rife with drunkenness, illegitimacy, and other problems fueled by racism. White planters, for instance, would usually cheat their black tenants, who would, in turn, reasonably try to "hustle" the whites by, say, picking cotton in a slipshod manner that allowed them to earn more when their harvests were weighed. Combining reporting and history, Lemann follows this ethic north where, he argues, it got worse. He notes how E. Franklin Frazier, the black sociologist, spied this hustling--"getting over," it was called--as early as the fifties. Yet Lemann gives us the ground-level view, too, by following Ruby Haynes, whose sad story ties the book together. For Ruby, Mississippi (to which she would eventually return) and Chicago were equally ridden with crime, poverty, and bad men.

To understand why policymakers failed the migrants, Lemann excavated presidential archives and the memories of veterans of Washington's war on poverty. In doing so he disabuses us of the conservative myth that government did everything it could to help the poor. On the contrary, Washington elites, convinced that prosperity was preordained, were myopic about the black ghetto problem until the early sixties, when the migration was almost over. John Kenneth Galbraith, for one, mentioned race just once in his emblematic 1958 work, The Affluent Society. When poverty programs were initiated under John Kennedy, they were undergirded by a shaky notion--community action programs run by the poor themselves. Lemann the historian shows how these ill-tested programs grew wildly under Lyndon Johnson. "It's not big enough!" Sargent Shriver, LBJ's top poverty warrior, would shout at his staff. Head Start may have worked, but many community-based programs were short on accountability and long on radical politics. A typical Lemann gem is his hysterical account of the patrician Shriver negotiating with the Blackstone Rangers, a murderous Chicago gang that received community action funds.

If Lemann's freshest material is his work on government, his most moving is his reporting from the Chicago slums, especially the story of Ruby Haynes, who lived for more than a quarter century in the mammoth Robert Taylor Homes. Life at Robert Taylor--arson and drugs, illegitimacy and welfare--seems familiar from newspaper headlines. But by writing about this ghetto with the painstaking detail of an anthropologist, Lemann convinces you of something truly startling: It's even worse than you thought. Lemann argues that American ghettos have become some of the worst places to live in the world, if not by monetary measures, then by the standard of sheer chaos. This is how Lemann describes a rite of passage for Ruby's son Robert: "[He] lost his virginity at the age of 9...courtesy of a 12-year-old girl in the building who initiated his brother Johnnie and another friend at the same time, each one taking his turns while the others held the stairwell doors shut." This dispassionate prose doesn't glamorize or demonize those living in the ghettos but makes them wholly sympathetic in a way that a newspaper story never could.

Migration headaches

Notably, Lemann says that any attacks on poverty should be head on, not camouflaged in big entitlement programs for the poor, as many liberals often urge. For that to work, however, consciences will have to be pricked. And by simply laying out what goes on in the ghetto, without mawkish rhetoric, Lemann has shown that the story of today's underclass can be rendered honestly and yet in a way that can provoke people to help. Indeed, on a subject that fuels the passions, Lemann is among the least polemical writers around. Even when he's skewering people like Moynihan or the conservative Charles Murray, his writing has a give-them-their-due quality that makes it both admirable and all the more devastating. By contrast, The Promised Land has plenty of characters, like Robert Kennedy, who found themselves unfairly mau-maued during the sixties. In fact, Lemann has been through some of that himself. His alleged crime: embracing a kind of cultural determinism that condemns blacks to a miserable future because of their sharecropping past. The charge is spurious, but it's still to Lemann's credit that he hasn't had some bristling, neoconservative reaction. He's managed, instead, to retain a tone that's liberal and charitable.

When it comes to the question of how to help the poor, Lemann has some good ideas. He makes a convincing case that programs designed to save neighborhoods, rather than individuals, are doomed. Trendy conservative bromides like enterprise zones hold out little more promise than discredited liberal solutions like community action because ghettos are too big and far gone to be helped by them--a fact that the upwardly mobile poor, black or white, have always intuitively understood as they packed their bags for better neighborhoods. He also makes the familiar but timely point that affirmative action--a topic that has consumed so much of the energy and efforts of civil rights groups--does nothing for poor people like Ruby Haynes.

Lemann's best recommendation is to screen public housing applicants. Not without reason, the notion of deeming some people unworthy of government benefits makes a lot of liberals uneasy. It summons up Dickensian images of the poorhouse or of some turn-of-the-century settlement-house lady doling out thin gruel. In the 1960s, the ACLU saw an abridgement of rights in the screening requirements used by the Robert Taylor Homes. They had them overturned. But Lemann shows that elementary standards--such as giving building managers the muscle to kick out unruly tenants without unduly complex proceedings--aren't cruel; in fact, they're the only way to help those on their way up. Ruby has left the projects, but her daughter-in-law, Connie, is still there. She's as close to "model poor" as you can get. Her daughter, a high school valedictorian, won a new Chrysler courtesy of Jet magazine and sold it to help pay for college. But Connie's efforts to get ahead are constantly jeopardized by the other tenants. Her daughters are taunted as "bitches" because they do their schoolwork. More ominously, gangs try to shanghai her son into membership. Even social workers won't visit the Robert Taylor Homes. Without filtering, the projects have become a place where those who do the right thing barely survive. Of course, screening alone won't solve all problems--one of Ruby's sons was kicked out of the Navy and wound up destitute for a time--but it would make life easier for those who try to get ahead.

Lemann aid

With the exception of a few novel notions, though, Lemann's prescriptions aren't very compelling, certainly not when compared to his descriptions. That failure is somewhat ironic given that Lemann skewers Moynihan for failing to add lengthy recommendations to his famed 1965 report on the black family--recommendations that Lemann says would have spared Moynihan the charge that he was "blaming the victim" and would have allowed the country to sensibly debate the disintegration of the black family rather than shunting it aside for a generation. Instead, Lemann confines his thoughts to a small "afterword," an awkward compromise between adding a thorough set of recommendations and skipping them entirely. In it he calls for another antipoverty crusade. Its goal is to ensure that "every ghetto child is born healthy, learns to read and write in elementary school, graduates from high school, gets trained for the job market as it now exists, puts off parenthood ... and has a job waiting at the end of the process." Lemann's concession to the daunting nature of this challenge is that it would require "painstaking, detailed work." But he may be short-shrifting the difficulty. First, the political problems associated with launching a new war on poverty may be even greater than he allows. One need only look at The Promise Land itself. Had Lemann elaborated on his poverty proposals, chances are good that the conservative-liberal consensus that this is a great book would have been shattered.

Beyond politics, there are intellectual hurdles that we have yet to clear. It's true that we now know, as Lemann points out, that food stamps really do stem hunger and that Head Start helps children, at least in the early years. One could add that poverty among the elderly can be virtually abolished since their benefits can be hiked without fear of creating a disincentive to work. But many social woes still baffle scholars. How can we ensure that a ghetto youth "puts off parenthood" when no one really knows why so many adolescents, despite the availability of abortion and contraception and the obvious perils of unwed parenthood, nevertheless choose to bear children out of wedlock? Indeed, after Lemann's exhaustive and beautifully rendered treatment of the Haynes clan, it's still a mystery why their behavior has such a self-destructive cast. Conversely, we don't know why most blacks managed to migrate quite nicely from the sharecropping culture into the middle class while others seemed to be stymied by the social baggage of the plantation. Perhaps we can make progress of the kind Lemann hopes for, but it's going to take much more intellectual firepower than we as a society have thus far brought to bear.

There's just a lot we don't know. For instance, it's impossible to read The Promised Land and not be convinced that there's some link between the sharecropping culture and what we see in today's ghettos. But the connection is perhaps not as strong as Lemann suggests. Other ethnic groups, notably Puerto Ricans, suffer from some of the same woes, and yet they don't hail from a sharecropping culture. What accounts for their plight? Urban Institute economist Ronald Mincy estimates that non-Hispanic whites constitute 28 percent of the underclass in cities of less than a million. Clearly, then, there are forces forming the underclass that are not explained by the sharecropping experience or by the migration north or even by the black experience.

Yet the complexity of those forces gets buried in Lemann's narrative technique of focusing on a few families. While it's an elegant device for giving us a sense of how the migration affected real people, it skews the sample. Since Lemann concentrates largely on Ruby Hayne's odyssey from the very worst of the South to, arguably, the very worst and most isolated of all public housing projects, it's not all that surprising that he would find a strong connection between yesterday's sharecropping and today's underclass. But what about other cities--say, Los Angeles--that were less of a terminus for black migrants? A story about a family in the Watts underclass who migrated from South to East to West might read quite differently. Lemann, of course, isn't obliged to tell the story of every black family; but neither does he flag the fact that the families he's chosen to follow are representative of just one part of the great migration.

Other issues also go unresolved. Lemann's notion of migrants-lost-in-the-wilderness defies what we know about other immigrant groups--that they're likely to be the pluckiest, best-off members of a particular group. And when it comes to statistical evidence, Lemann presents conflicting data. Some numbers support the contention that black migrants to the North fared worse than those born there; others don't.

Again, Lemann deserves applause for exploring the sharecropping-ghetto connection, a link few commentators have adequately considered--though Lemann is hardly the first to spot it. W. E. B. Du Bois's 1899 tract, The Philadelphia Negro, is just one of many works dealing with the woes of sharecroppers come north. The Promised Land explains a lot, but it also demonstrates that the ghetto's genesis remains murky.

The paradox of The Promised Land is that it simultaneously saddens and gives hope. By explaining some of how we got to our current racial woes, it demystifies our despair over depressing headlines. If daily crime and poverty stories weren't disheartening enough, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently ran a report that reminds us how far our racial problems extend: Black car dealers, it turns out, are disproportionately hurt by the recession. Still, it's worth noting that black car dealers exist at all. As Lemann so rightly observes, 40 years ago no one, not even the most starry-eyed liberal, could have imagined that blacks would, for the most part, be a northern, urban, and middle-class people. Sharecropping once seemed indispensable, so too segregation. Lemann doesn't delve into it, but one need only think of the Irish, whose condition once seemed equally hopeless. As the economist Thomas Sowell notes, in 1890, 42 percent of the Irish were servants. As recently as 1914, half of the Irish families on Manhattan's West Side were fatherless. (That favorite son of Hell's Kitchen, Pat Moynihan, was raised in a fatherless home.) The Irish, with their high crime rate, gave us the term "paddy wagon." If their seemingly insoluble problems can evaporate in a couple of generations, then who's to say today's black poor are forever doomed? By showing in so many ways how much has changed, Nicholas Lemann makes a good case that they aren't.

(*) The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. Nicholas Lemann. Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95.

Matthew Cooper is the Atlanta bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Title Annotation:'The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America'
Author:Cooper, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:2483
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