Crying wolf

Ellis Cose's Newsweek cover story set out to celebrate America's racial good news. So why did it wind up singing the same old despairing song?

Published June 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ellis Cose is at it again. Six years ago the Newsweek reporter zeroed in on an intriguing social paradox: The higher African-Americans climbed on the corporate and social ladder, the more alienated and pessimistic they became about race relations in America. He wrote a Newsweek article on the topic, and later a book, "The Rage of a Privileged Class," which was alternately moving, provocative and maddening. Cose seemed torn between criticizing the tragic myopia of the blinkered black elite -- because indeed its worldview is deeply sad, and deeply wrong -- and arguing that it was justified.

Now Cose has written a kind of follow-up piece, "The Good News About Black America," on the cover of Newsweek this past week. He lays out statistics that chart the amazing turnaround in the African-American community over the last decade: Teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births are down, and school achievement and employment rates are up. Crime has plummeted while home-ownership rates have climbed. More blacks are in college than ever, and fewer are on welfare. Cose talks for a while about that transformation, and skims over some of the fascinating details of what's behind it. But then he spends more than half the piece talking about how things aren't as good as they seem, outlining the gaps in family income, school achievement, incarceration rates and substance abuse between blacks and whites. These gaps are disturbing, of course, but they're not the news.

What's up with that? Why would a piece on "good news" spend more than half of its ink on bad news? Why are writers like Cose, and many black leaders, so afraid of good news? Cose asks the question himself, less than halfway through the piece: "If the news in black America is so good, why are people not dancing in the streets? Why are civil-rights leaders not proclaiming it from the rooftops? Why has the dialogue on racial relations not fundamentally changed to accentuate the progress instead of the lingering problems?"

But having asked the question, Cose doesn't much like what he hears. California's anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly (whose "Racism is dead" rap is another kind of myopia) tells him the civil rights establishment "is locked into the mind-set of the '60s that society is racist." The much more thoughtful and persuasive sociologist Orlando Patterson basically agrees.

Cose does not. He lets Urban League president Hugh Price answer critics who accuse the black establishment of harping on the bad news. "We have celebrated the economy, the reduction in unemployment, the reduction in teen-pregnancy rates," Price says flatly, with no mention of where, or when, or how, or to what end the good news has been celebrated. And Cose leaves it at that. The rest of the piece is a litany of what's wrong in black America, most of which he argues is caused by good old-fashioned racism. The article itself is an example of the muddled, and all too predictable, thinking about race that Cose sets out to explore.

Cose's article reminded me of a story I wrote two years ago about a sharp decline in the black teen birth rate -- 30 percent over five years -- in Oakland, Calif. I had seen the data, and I went around to service providers and community advocates to ask what they thought was going on. They told me I was wrong. "If anything, black teen pregnancy is way up," a respected pediatrician told me. "If that's true, we ought to hold a press conference and a party," a longtime community health worker said sarcastically. "But I don't think it's true."

I checked the data, again and again, and it was true. But nobody ever held a press conference or a party. The short-sightedness of service providers I understand. The black teen pregnancy problem is still sizable in Oakland, and they're still swamped dealing with it. Besides, government funding contains few incentives for success. Show that your program has solved the problem it was funded to solve, and you'll lose your funding; show that the problem has only gotten worse, and you'll get more.

But what's understandable in beleaguered service providers is unforgivable in pundits and political leaders. The reason to celebrate good news from black America, and to try to understand what's behind it, is more than intellectual honesty. The biggest barrier to helping the black poor in America isn't racism, but the conviction among white Americans -- shared by many black Americans -- that nothing can be done.

A decade ago, Ronald Reagan reversed a generation of social programming with the sorry refrain "We fought a War on Poverty, and poverty won." Pundits proclaimed the existence of a new urban underclass, impervious to economic opportunity and bent on self-destruction. Welfare and other efforts to help the poor were said to have hurt them by encouraging idleness and promiscuity and discouraging marriage and old-fashioned hard work.

That defeatism led to an era of malign neglect under which cities festered and the poor were left alone. The silver lining was a new commitment by low-income community leaders and advocates to forget about the federal government -- for a while -- and devote themselves to salvaging a generation of children on the verge of being lost to crack, crime and despair.

In Oakland, that meant a push to get health workers in the schools and mentors into the city's worst neighborhoods, to convince kids they should wait to have babies. In Savannah, Ga., an amazing success story that Cose mentions but doesn't visit, black nationalists teamed up with white Republicans to zero in on the city's poorest neighborhood with a home-grown plan to rebuild families from the ground up. Welfare reform, which Cose counts as one of the threats to black America, helped too, by forcing federal and state government to pay attention to inner-city neighborhoods they had previously known as a ZIP Code on a welfare check.

All these explanations pale, of course, beside the impact of a humming economy. Even young black men, who've been left behind during previous economic recoveries, are finally joining the party, getting jobs and going to school in impressive numbers.

None of this means black America's troubles are behind us, or that black-white gaps -- in school achievement, family income, crime, health and wealth -- have been closed. But the fact that a growing economy has absorbed more of the urban poor and reduced the so-called underclass proves that the existence of a work-resistant underclass, trapped in a culture of poverty, was a pernicious myth, crafted by conservatives and assented to by compassion-fatigued liberals. Such incredible progress in a decade should encourage us that more progress is to come. Why use the occasion of great good news to harp on what hasn't been achieved?

It's the same gloom Cose traded in throughout much of "Rage of a Privileged Class." It's not that he was wrong about what he reported. The poll data was fascinating, the interviews rang true and my own experiences bore it out. In fact, I read the book because I'd seen several black friends get more bitter about race the more they achieved in their careers, and I wanted to understand it better. I watched a successful investment banker, who'd achieved more than any white person I was close to, increasingly harp on how the best business was going to whites in his office. To me, the issue was as much class as race: the best business tips passing between Stanford buddies and Harvard cronies and fraternity brothers -- a world that my brother, for instance, isn't part of either, although he is white.

Likewise, the black professionals Cose interviewed seem strangely unconscious about class, and about the many other sorting mechanisms -- gender, ethnicity, religion, geography -- that limit access to the top. And few of them were focused on changing the rules, for everybody, that let privilege reproduce itself and lock so many people out; they just wanted in. They'd gotten theirs, but it wasn't enough, and other people had more, and their self-pity, in a world where people -- disproportionately black, by the way -- still have to sleep on the streets was really sad and shocking.

But if reality-resistant pessimism about the prospects for blacks at the top is sad, when it's extended to the prospects for blacks at the bottom, it's irresponsible. The black civil rights leadership should be proclaiming the good news from every rooftop, and keeping the nation focused on what is needed to continue the progress. It's as if black leaders, and black pundits like Cose, are afraid of losing the victim franchise, as if they fear that the nation's attention -- and most of all, its guilt -- will disappear if they acknowledge progress. But at this point, talking up the good news, not guilt-mongering, is the best way to get the nation to tackle its unfinished racial business.

By Joan Walsh

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Paul Shirley