Before the polls closed Tuesday night, frenzied “social justice” news commentators hailed the possibility of the first black governors in Florida and Georgia, implying that the results would be a “win” for black America. In fact, for those who have the least and are trapped in poverty, a surge in the number of black elected officials at city, state and even presidential levels throughout the past 50 years proves such political victories have had no consequence for their lives.
The myth of a “Black America” ignores the truth that the black community is not monolithic and belies the fact that the greatest — and steadily widening — income gap is not between blacks and whites but between upper-middle-income and impoverished blacks.
Nearly 30 years ago, I was a guest on the PBS NewsHour with a panel that included former Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Urban League president John Jacob, and Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, responding to the Urban League’s study “The State of Black America.” Host Jim Lehrer turned to me and asked, “Mr. Woodson, what is the state of Black America?” I responded: “For those of us on this panel, life ain’t so bad! We are in the top 10 percent income bracket in the country, we live in stable, safe neighborhoods, and our children are well-educated and in good schools. Our lives have prospered, and will continue to, regardless of which white man is in the White House.”
Since the mid-Sixties, there has been no single “Black America” in which all equally suffer from racial oppression, as it was in the days of Jim Crow laws.
It is demeaning and patronizing to assume that the electoral victories of black candidates are equivalent to addressing the crucial needs of those whose incomes are at the bottom third of the nation. In fact, the plagues of street violence and poverty have sharply increased in cities that have been under the control of black officials for decades. The answer to black poverty, black-on-black crime, the disintegration of families, drug addiction and high unemployment cannot be found at the ballot box, and to celebrate the election of a state’s first black governor, mayor or any other elected official as a victory for impoverished blacks is a cruel hoax.
This has been known for years, but it is a fact that has been hidden from public view and forbidden as a topic for discussion because it does not fit the prevailing “race grievance” narrative. The disgraceful disparity in the conditions of two “Black Americas” was recognized more than 50 years ago by syndicated columnist William Raspberry, who wrote an eight-part series of commentaries in 1965, launched with the headline, “Civil Rights Gains Bypassing Poorest Negroes.” He chronicled how conditions were not improving in predominantly black, poor neighborhoods and that many of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement who had sacrificed the most did not benefit from victories won.
Even more disgraceful, as conditions in poor neighborhoods continued to deteriorate, they were used as “bait” to justify demands for increased funding for “anti-poverty” programs and the bureaucracies they engendered. Money was not channeled to the poor but to those who served the poor — typically black social service, middle-class professionals.
In the five decades following Raspberry’s ignored warnings, replacing white elected officials with black officeholders was continually hailed as the great pathway to improving conditions in America’s devastated inner cities. How successful has that been? Poverty programs, racial politics and black political control has led to a dead end.
The greatest suppressor of the black vote has not been restrictive voters’ requirements but apathy among black voters. In the last mayoral election in Washington, D.C., less than 6 percent of blacks in the city’s two poorest wards voted. This low turnout is echoed in city after city, around the nation, where governments have become self-serving monopolies.
In a scenario in which the government is posited as the great “deliverer from disadvantage” and blacks have vacated the private economy, the incomes of poor and middle-class blacks have been intertwined with government entities. Six out of 10 blacks with college degrees work for the government, in contrast to two out of 10 whites, and a disproportionate number of low-income blacks are dependent on some form of government assistance. There are powerful lessons from the past that could offer a way out from the hollow promises of race-based electoral politics, the debilitating mantras of the race-grievance narrative, and the trap of dependence on government assistance.
Any group’s participation in the American economy is, in part, related to its small-business formation rate. A healthy rate is 2.5 businesses per 1,000 people per year. Today, in black and Hispanic communities the rate is closer to three businesses per 100,000 per year. And, though government has been cast as a savior, it often has been an inhibitor of small-business formation.
Before the era of infatuation with the government, the spirit of enterprise and self-determination was a hallmark of the black community. In the late 1800s, there were remarkable examples of resilient blacks who positioned themselves to succeed in the post-slavery economy of the South. In his book, “Changing Course,” Clint Bolick documents the manpower shortage that existed in the aftermath of the Civil War. In this scenario, many blacks who, as slaves, had acquired skills as craftsmen began to set up businesses. Others contracted their labor to plantation owners. There was intense competition, so for a very brief period, wages and business profits began to soar for blacks in a free-market environment.
In response, some plantation owners came together to form a cartel that would undermine black enterprise. But, as with most cartels, self-serving people began to break the rules and the market competition remained intense. The plantation owners then demanded that the state government intervene to suppress competition. Their demands were met with a spate of repressive vagrancy laws, licensing requirements, entry fees, and all sorts of arbitrary restrictions on black businesses. This climaxed in 1872, when the federal government took on the states’ role in matters of economic activity and entrenched these restrictions with “Jim Crow” laws.
Yet, even in the face of these oppressive barriers, the entrepreneurial spirit of blacks was undaunted and triumphed. Between 1889 and 1920, in response to segregation in public transportation in 24 towns and cities in the South, blacks created, owned and operated their own public transit systems. Local government imposed more licensing restrictions that drove many out of business. When white banks refused to approve loans for black enterprises, blacks established more than 103 banks and savings and loan associations. When they were denied medical care, they established 230 hospitals and medical schools. And, when white businesses refused to provide accommodations for blacks, more than 1,000 black-owned and -operated inns and hotels sprung up, among them the Carver and Calvert hotels in Miami that I visited in 1958.
It is ironic that, in an age in which those onerous obstacles have been removed, black enterprise has stagnated and declined. Rather than fixating on the news for electoral victories to celebrate, or searching for evidence of institutional racism, blacks seeking to uplift their lives and communities should set their sights on the examples and models throughout their rich history of entrepreneurship and self-determination.