The Urban Poor

So worked up was I by the situation in New Orleans that I found myself up all night — I just couldn’t sleep. As such, I used the time to reflect on my views re the current situation. I wondered if my assessment of the situation and the current political storm brewing was accurate — I am after all in London and no longer living in the United States. Over here in Europe I detect a bit of gloating about the American response to the situation but overall people seem to be supportive and extremely sympathetic to the people affected.
So as I watched more CNN last night against my better judgment, I stood my ground as it relates to my assessment of how things played out in New Orleans. Especially as it relates to whether or not racism was a major factor in the delayed response. I still think not. In fact, I am more adamant that a more important factor here is class. This has been a growing problem for black America yet our so called leaders are still obsessed with race.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that race and racism are not still a problem in America. Indeed they are. As such, what I am saying is that since the civil rights movement, the issues related to class have become a bigger problem for the black urban poor than racism. Former University of Chicago now Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson made that argument in his 1978 forward thinking book: The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. As I reflect of his then controversial argument, I think his theory is even more valid today. As he points out in his follow up book: The Truly Disadvantaged the Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy:

the problems related to inner-city decay and the black people who live there, cannot be explained by racism along but instead to a complex web of factors involved in the urban economy, the most important of which is the changing class structure of ghetto neighborhoods. The movement of middle-class black professionals from the inner city, followed by the exodus of increasing numbers of working-class black, has left behind a concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the black urban population. At the same time, urban minorities have been particularly vulnerable to broader changes in the economy that have produced extraordinary rates of joblessness, which in turn has exacerbated other social problems.

Since reading Professor Wilson’s books during my college years at the University of Michigan, I have become increasingly disillusioned with politicians like Reverend Jesse Jackson. Having met the Reverend at my inner city high school in Boston, I once worshipped him — but I have come to realize that his race rhetoric over the years has not always been helpful to the black community. We cannot discount race completely but we need to openly acknowledge that there are other social issues at play instead of crying racism all the time. If we continue to do so and not address these new economic challenges, then the black urban poor who are worse off than middle class black people who by the way benefit disproportionatley from affirmative action and other race based programs will never get the help and assistance they truly deserve.

5 Comments
  1. Hey, am a Chicago native myself- from the South Side- and caught your writings. I appreciate your attempt to unpack the myriad factors working to leave thousands of poor Black Americans clinging to their roofs in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama in the wake of the hurricane. William Julius Wilson also writes that it is the long history of race-based segregation that put Black Americans into the inner city neighborhoods in large numbers in the first place, beginning during the Great Migration in the early days of the 1900s. Those Black Americans with the wherewithall to leave their homes in the south left behind less well off parents, grandparents, cousins etc. in search of greater opportunities then, and many found them in the meat packing industries, sewing factories etc of the North. That a few of us have in more recent days begun to leave those inner city neighborhoods due to increased economic opportunity and hard won legislative changes that outlawed race-based segregation is a testament to our owngoing resourcefulness and desire to improve the lives of our selves and our families. It is also true that state, local and federal governments have conspired together to let innercity neighborhoods fall into states of severe decay. Look at the roads, sewer systems, number of schools in need of repair? Infastructure is often the first and last thing city officials think to maintain in poor areas, prefering to blame the residents lack of “responsibility” for their own failings. Certainly pre-1950s the black owned businesses segregated into innercity ghettos created a vital network- a heartbeat and a pulse- that drove those communities forward from New York to Chicago to Detroit and on. My point is that the so-called “flight” of the black middle class out of the innercity cannot be looked to as the sole cause of decay in those neighbhorhoods. Historical social, economic and political factors have all conspired to destory black inner city neighbhorhoods across the country.
    I also think part of the problem in the areas affected by Katrina is that the Bush-appointed head of FEMA is utterly incompetent. He’s a close friend of Bush’s who helped steer his campaign for the presidency, not necessarily a bad thing, but that he was fired for MISMANAGEMENT at this prior job should have been a big heads up that he was the wrong person for the job. Plus, Bush’s most recent budget, despite warning from sources in LA, AL and MS, cut funding to reinforce those same levees that failed and now have covered those low-lying areas.

  2. Lisa, I am by no means trying to justify, rationalize or even defend the current Bush Administrations actions. In fact, I am completely disgusted with their response or lack of it for that matter. What I am advocating is that as difficult as it may be, let us be rational in our argument and not let emotions get in the way. We need to acknowledge all mitigating circumstances that led to this tragic disaster – instead of immediately screaming racism. Not only did we have a category 4/5 hurricane, but we also had massive flooding that left 80% of the city under water. Was it foreseeable that this might eventually happen someday? Absolutely. Should the local/state/federal government then have 1) built up the infrastructure to insure minimal damage and then 2) have a better plan in the eventuality that this did occur? Without a doubt. Did their failure to do so have something to do with the race and socio-economic status of the community? One could make that arguement. As such, I find their failure to act and plan accordingly almost unconscionable. Therefore, it is my hope that in the upcoming elections in 2006/2008 those politicians who failed to act will be held responsible. Having said that, now is not the time to politicize this issue. So instead of taking the debate down a path that just creates a lot of noise, lets do all we can to make sure that the government steps up and takes care of these poor destitute people. America is the richest national in the world and no American regardless of race or socio-economic status should have to suffer like this.

  3. Very intelligent writing. I agree… the response at ALL levels of government was atrocious and politicians SHOULD be held accountable for their respective failures. And I think you’re right on that class is as important if not more important topic of discussion than even race. Class would certainly explain why the primarily black local government in Louisiana seemed to forget about the “lower class” of their own race. Even black people of power aren’t immune to labeling as unimportant the less fortunate of their own race.
    With all the black communities in America that are profoundly challenged economically and educationally, I don’t understand why black leaders are the most visible when playing blame games and the “race card”. Why don’t we see them promoting effective strategies to eliminate the disparities and elevate the situation of all black Americans. Perhaps YOU should be leading the effort, Ursula! 🙂

  4. Cranky Chick,
    Thank you for your kind words. Also know that I in my earlier years, I had a passion for politics and had hoped that I would one day find my place on the Hill. But that desire has long since passed.

  5. I do not believe class is the most important issue, but I know race is not the only issue affecting black people. It never has been and it definitely is not now. People can’t focus solely on race anymore because that leaves out issues of class. But people cannot ignore race and the expense of class because the focus on class may take attention away from existing race issues. Those issues need to be focused on at the same time to get a clearer picture of conditions in modern African/Black America.

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