Hopeless But Not Critical

The Problem of Race in America

We do not speak of the black underclass. We need to begin.

For over five years now I have gone as a reporter with the police, into the cities and the suburbs, into Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver. I have visited prisons and jails, spent night shifts in the precincts where whites don't go. What I have seen of the vast festering hordes of the black forgotten is grim. White America doesn't grasp the magnitude of the underclass, its isolation, its hopelessness, its resistance to change. Or its anger.

Go into the sprawling necrotic wastelands of the urban conglomerations. As you cross the racial divide, the world turns black, English changes, people walk differently, body language alters. In eight hours in a police car you will never see a white face. Broken windows in abandoned buildings gape at the night, home to crackheads and derelicts. Lean young men gaze at police cars with blank hostile eyes.

Go, say, to South Chicago (actually, don't: you wouldn't last an hour) where the city warehouses unwanted blacks in huge high-rise projects, ugly megaliths erupting from bleak concrete, with their own police stations and terrible schools with dropout rates of seventy-five percent. Go into homes where in mid-afternoon a half-dozen men sit listlessly before the television, along streets where they sit for hours on stoops, doing nothing. There is nothing for them to do.

The isolation of these people from the surrounding country, from anything at all except the ghetto, is near absolute. For months on end black kids here never see a white face, except on television. Nothing connects them emotionally with the greater society. They have nothing in common with the European heritage of the United States, know little of it. These are people who don't know that the English Channel separates England and France, can't tell you within a hundred years when World War I was fought or who fought it, aren't aware of ever having heard of the Bill of Rights, have never read an entire book. About anything. Ever.

If you think I'm exaggerating, think again.

Not European, not American in the usual sense, neither are they African, though they sometimes grasp at African-ness so as to have a sense of belonging. They can't name two African countries, or find Africa on an outline map of the world. They aren't African. They are urban blacks of the deep city.

The underclass does not change. Nice suburban whites hear of the growth of the black middle class, marvel at the sight of black men dating blonde Anglo women, and think that the country moves toward interracial amity. Don't kid yourself. The center of gravity of black America is the ghetto. It doesn't shrink as some few of its residents pull themselves into the middle class and leave. Maybe it grows.

The underclass is so large, so insular, that the slight mixing around the edges can't diminish it. The ghetto is self-sustaining, a world unto itself. The United States has become a first-world European nation with Kenya distributed throughout it.

The cultural gap probably widens. White America races ahead, measuring its advance in megahertz and the colonization of cyberspace. The black middle class largely keeps pace. The underclass barely knows how to read. Welfare and television, our latter-day bread and circuses, keep the lid on. Explosions come, as witness the riots in Los Angeles, but they are few. In the short term they will likely remain few. We have learned how to sedate the ghetto.

We have not learned what to do about it.

The newspapers, seldom much aware of what happens around them, speak of prejudice and oppression. Blacks of the huge, rotting, unseen downtown do not suffer from discrimination or oppression. Rather they suffer from abandonment. Nobody needs or wants them. They cannot do anything that anyone wants done. Whites feed them, talk solicitously when they remember the city at all, and live elsewhere.

If whites can do nothing about the underclass, neither can the underclass. The culture of the ghetto resists change. Many whites think of black culture as meaning an embarrassing incompetence that needs only to learn the superiority of advanced European ways. No. Black culture exists. It is rich, warm, vibrant, classy, pungent, and it is the same from Philadelphia to San Diego. Blacks like it. They don't want to be white. They don't speak the bastardized English of downtown because they couldn't learn to say, "He is" instead of, "He be." Even to white eyes there is a certain gelded quality to a black executive speaking precise white English.

We have become two nations sharing a country.

Economics works against change. No academic urge is found in the ghetto, no entrepreneurial vitality, none of the traits that make for success in a techno-industrial society. The ghetto is permanent. Hispanics seem to be pulling themselves up the ladder in the long tradition of America's immigrants, Asians do it readily, but the forgotten blacks of the ghetto don't.

What now? Do we expect things to remain stable forever? Have we, as seems to be the case, decided that no solution exists, and therefore we might as well ignore the problem? I think so. The enthusiasms of the era of civil rights have waned. Whites have moved on to other things. My circle of acquaintances, sophisticated in the ways of politics, seldom mention the chasm and, when they do, it is to concede its utter intractability.

People don't say it, not often, but they think it: There is nothing we can do. Meanwhile hatred gathers in the urban blasted heath. The riots of Los Angeles could have happened anywhere. The people of the ghetto believe that whites are the cause of their misery, and they are, just under the surface, very angry. One day this is going to bite us.