We’ve been here before: Both Lemon and Cosby approach the growing crisis of racial injustice and economic inequality in America from the view of “racial uplift.” In the 19th century, “racial uplift” meant that respectable black women and men projected an air of education and erudition that, in many instances, aped that of their white counterparts. The crucial difference was the way in which the “Talented Tenth” openly struggled against Jim Crow, racism and white supremacy. But even the most passionate black social reformers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, at times felt unease about the way in which poor blacks (and their behavior, penchant for crime, proliferating children) cast a long, negative shadow on the entire race.
Some went even further. Unable or unwilling to confront racism’s brutal institutional, political and cultural manifestations, they settled on demonizing poor blacks. Arguing that pathological behavior resulted in social marginalization and economic misery, the most conservative “race” men and women of the era distanced themselves from the black poor even as they fought mightily to gain access to predominantly white institutions.
By the 1960s, with the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the black family, myths of black pathology became enshrined in our national discourse. The erroneous idea that African Americans were stuck in a generational culture of poverty because of their own deviant behavior (reflected primarily although not exclusively in the high rates of out-of-wedlock births) informed debates over race and poverty in the post-civil rights era. What became known as America’s urban “underclass” was rooted in a long-standing racial, cultural and political stereotyping of the black poor.
This stereotype is deceptively simple. If young black men could just pull their pants up, stop using the n-word and go to school and get a job, their lives would be transformed. Similarly, if young black women abandoned teen-age promiscuity and delved instead into academic studies, black poverty rates would be dramatically reduced. What this story ignores is the links between institutions and behavior, the binds that tie public policy to positive and negative outcomes large enough to affect whole neighborhoods, towns, cities, states and nations.
Poverty and racial segregation remain at the core of the national crisis of race and democracy in the 21st century. Historically, this has always been the case. The civil rights movement’s heroic period focused on bread-and-butter legislation designed to produce good jobs, decent housing, effective public schools and thriving communities. Lyndon Johnson’s dream of America as a “Great Society” aided and abetted black strivers, as did the war on poverty and Medicare and Medicaid. These pieces of legislation were extensions of the New Deal, which passed the most important socioeconomic legislation (including Social Security) in American history.
The upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington should be a time for a research-driven conversation about racial inequality that asks tough questions not just about individual behavior but also about the collective stake we all have in transforming American social, political and economic institutions to include the poor blacks we dismiss as being personally unworthy of full citizenship and culpable in their own miserable fate.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.