Not Making it

Stephen Fender

  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and how it changed America by Nicholas Lemann
    Macmillan, 410 pp, £20.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 333 56584 3

From 1940 the poor black sharecroppers of the Southern United States began to go north in large numbers. The movement seemed to resemble the great emigrations that had created America in the first place. Anxious to escape deteriorating conditions at home, the migrants were also attracted by opportunities far away. They wanted to better themselves, to extend their possibilities, and they were willing to uproot themselves in order to do so.

Nicholas Lemann’s judicious, well-written study concentrates on the poor blacks of Clarksdale, Mississippi, who moved to Chicago. The invention and production of cotton-picking machines had begun to undercut the value of their work, while Chicago, deprived of cheap labour by restrictions on American immigration introduced in the Twenties, and by increasing demands on the work-force made by a country beginning to arm itself for the coming war, had many thousands of unskilled jobs awaiting workers in such labour-intensive operations as cleaning and domestic services, the Post Office and the large mail-order retailing-houses.

If the black migration had conformed to the pattern set (if only in the popular imagination) by the great immigrations from Europe, South America and the Far East, then blacks in Chicago and other Northern cities today would be living in two-parent, nuclear families, holding down steady jobs and saving to send their kids to college. Instead, they have become an underclass trapped in ghettos which (in Lemann’s words) their ‘self-destructive behaviour ... drug use, out-of-wedlock childbearing, dropping out of school’ have turned into ‘among the worst places to live in the world’.

What went wrong? It certainly wasn’t that American blacks lacked enterprise, courage, intelligence and plain decency – nor that the Federal Government failed to respond to these qualities when the blacks’ political acumen and skill at organising forced them into the public consciousness. From 1954, when the NAACP took Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education to the Supreme Court and won its judgment that state education could not be ‘equal’ if it was also ‘separate’, through a decade of Martin Luther King’s non-violent marches, boycotts and sit-ins against Southern segregation, American Presidents were forced at last to pay serious attention to the African American. If Eisenhower was reluctant and Kennedy visionary, it was Lyndon Johnson who turned black aspirations into fact – into government schemes like the Jobs Corps for training, the pre-school programme Head Start, and War on Poverty, which distributed over one billion dollars in welfare benefits to local communities in its first year alone. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places and threatened to withdraw funds from all Federally-assisted projects in which any kind of racial discrimination took place. A year later, the Voters’ Registration Act cut through the procedural barriers erected by Southern States to prevent blacks from voting.

Johnson saw black welfare in terms of his experience with Roosevelt’s New Deal; he wanted (as Lemann puts it) to ‘teach children and put adults to work’. Above all, black votes were to be the key to black advancement. As Johnson remarked to an old political ally, ‘if they give blacks the vote, ol’ Strom Thurmond’ – the segregationist Senator – ‘will be kissing every black ass in South Carolina.’ And so he did, in a manner of speaking. By the end of 1965 250,000 new black voters had been registered in the South; blacks began to take their place in Southern State Legislatures, and later as mayors and governors of cities and States in the South as well as the North.

In that same pivotal year of 1965 something else happened, however, something which shocked and enraged Johnson, dismayed public opinion, and fractured the old liberal consensus – if not for ever, then certainly for a generation. In Los Angeles the black ghetto of Watts exploded in a riot of looting and general mayhem in which 34 people were killed and over a thousand injured. Similar disturbances followed the next year, in Atlanta and Chicago and other cities north and south, east and west. Worst of all was the great Detroit riot of 1967: 43 deaths and 4700 Federal troops flown in to restore order. After that, it became easier for Presidents to direct their attentions to more pressing matters, like the Vietnam War. Though at first Nixon ‘threw money at the problem’ to equal the best efforts of his Democratic predecessors – setting up a housing programme and a scheme for temporary jobs in the ghettos, allocating block grants to cities and increases in welfare payments – he didn’t really believe it would do any good. Blacks, he thought, were genetically inferior. It wasn’t long before he agreed to consign the issue of race to a period of ‘benign neglect’. Time to revert to traditional Republican doctrine and get the Federal Government out of local problems. After all, as Ronald Reagan never tired of repeating, ‘in the Sixties we fought a war against poverty, and poverty won.’

Did Washington’s intervention actually exacerbate the problems of the inner cities, as American conservatives have always claimed, or did it simply fail to engage with them? Lemann takes the latter, more moderate line. In the North there was no ‘camera-ready’ segregation susceptible to legislative fiat, but there was plenty of the legal, less visible kind in housing and schooling. From the moment the black sharecroppers settled in private housing areas in Chicago, the whites began to leave. When a black family moved into a white neighbourhood in 1949, they were welcomed by a mob of two thousand whites throwing stones and fire bombs. City housing projects, monstrous high-rise blocks, quickly became de facto segregated. Black newcomers found that standards of education and public order went increasingly unenforced in then areas. Politics weren’t much help either. Black neighbourhoods only imperfectly fit Chicago machine politics, which are organised around ethnic groupings of longer-established European immigrants. Local politicians (Mayor Daley, for example) wanted to control welfare and sometimes blocked Federal programmes

In other words, you can’t ‘declare war’ on poverty and segregation in the North as you can in the South, or in rural as in urban areas. Come to that, you can’t wage the same kind of war on both poverty and segregation. Racial discrimination, where constitutionally illegal, can indeed be abolished ‘at the stroke of a pen’ (as President Kennedy once promised), but poverty remains a bit more intractable, especially if you rule out income redistribution, as Johnson firmly did. Government failures in the ghettos, and Johnson’s bitter disillusion, were founded on the assumption that American blacks – all blacks, of whatever background, region, occupation, wealth or generation, the non-violent Martin Luther King as well as Stokely Carmichael chanting for black power – were somehow the same, a class sui generis responding to the same political, social and economic stimuli.

Strictly speaking, this frame of mind is not racist, though it certainly fed racial prejudice, but (for want of a better word) ‘characterist’. American intellectuals have always been at ease with generalisations about the ‘American character’ (the current Books in Print lists 53 titles on the subject) – black as well as white. Throughout the period studied by Lemann, influential books kept coming out to prove that blacks behaved as they did because of a culture (or lack of it) conditioned (or not) by slavery. Hortense Powdermaker’s After Freedom argued that ‘the typical negro family throughout the South is matriarchical and elastic,’ characterised by common-law marriage and illegitimacy, because slavery had uprooted the blacks from their native culture, then sold parents and children to different masters. The historian Stanley Elkins darkened the picture by comparing slavery to the Holocaust. Like European Jews in the Nazi concentration camps, the American blacks had been so traumatised by the loss of all their old ‘family and kinship arrangements ... language ... religion ... values’ that they became childlike, irresponsible, dependent. A contrasting analysis was offered by Herbert Gutman, who argued in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom that stable marriage was the dominant institution during slavery, and for at least a short period after emancipation. John Blessingame followed this more optimistic line of argument even further in The Slave Community, detailing a rich variety of African cultural patterns which had survived the shocks of slavery.

These Conflicting learned opinions were not part of an arid debate going on somewhere in the academic wilderness. Whatever their original scope of enquiry, they were frequently taken as profound truths – contemporary as well as historical – about African Americans as a whole. And in the Sixties, when academics moved in and out of government with relative fluidity, these ideas found their way into government policy as well as public opinion. So when Elkins’s Slavery came to the attention of Daniel Moynihan, the ebullient social scientist who worked as an ideas man for both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, he began to examine statistics relating to the condition of black families in contemporary urban ghettos. The result was his devastating report, released by the White House, ‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action’. His findings? That despite strenuous government efforts, black out-of-wedlock childbearing was rising, that nearly a quarter of all black children were born to single mothers, that the restriction of welfare to single mothers was rendering the role of the black male irrelevant. The cause? The fundamental, irreversible fact of slavery. The report came out within weeks of the Watts uprising.

Moynihan hoped his report would fuel additional government assistance for the inner cities. The result was very different. Appearing so soon after Watts, its bad news seemed prophetic. By attributing its findings to such a remote historical cause, it made the ghettos’ ‘tangle of pathology’ (his phrase) seem intractable. Secretary of Labour William Wirtz remembers advising Moynihan not to use it ‘until we can suggest what to do with it’. The report, as Wirtz put it, ‘was very long on detail about the problem and very short on what to do’. What Moynihan was doing, said the Boston Civil Rights activist William Ryan, was ‘blaming the victim’.

Lemann avoids blaming the victim and the opposite extreme of ‘blaming Whitey’. One of his most engaging qualities is his willingness to admit to not knowing the answers. Yet when he writes, ‘Today the Moynihan Report stands as probably the most refuted document in American history (though of course its dire predictions about the poor black family all came true),’ one wonders whether his neutrality isn’t just a bit too poised, because of course that sentence is no more neutral than it is internally consistent. If the Moynihan Report was refuted, then it is not true; if only vehemently protested against, then it may be true, or not.

Another way of looking at the problem is to see it as a confusion of discourses. The very language of the debate – ‘migration’, ‘ethnic’, ‘ghetto’, and, most strikingly, Lemann’s title, The Promised Land – is borrowed from another rhetorical field, the dominant discourse of emigration which forms such a crucial element in American national self-definition. In the discourse of emigration, movement is always assigned a positive value. In order to move (whether geographically, economically or socially) the prospective emigrant had to plan ahead, to save, to defer gratification, to take risks, to maintain faith in future possibilities in the face of immediate frustration and danger. In other words, the emigrant had to be, or become, middle-class.

The point is not that emigrants actually experienced such a transformation in their lives (many didn’t), but that it was in these terms that emigration was promoted, described in letters home, and celebrated ever afterwards as part of the American founding myth. Unsurprisingly, Americans tended to generalise the experience they felt had made them what they were, to promote it to the status of natural law. Trying to justify his Indian Removal Act of 1830, which uprooted five Indians tribes from the American South-East and marched them to new lands across the Mississippi, President Andrew Jackson said: ‘Doubtless it will be painful’ for the Indians ‘to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did, or than our children are now doing? ... Does humanity weep at these painful separations from everything, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it.’ Jackson was the son of an Ulster immigrant driven out of Ireland by English injustice, and he was speaking to the sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of other immigrants, who knew what he meant. To the Indians he was speaking a foreign language, in more senses than one.

The African Americans, too, were held up against a template they couldn’t fit. Washington politicians kept expecting blacks in Chicago and other Northern cities to respond to stimuli as European immigrants had. Robert Kennedy’s ideas for the urban Community Development programme were based on the notion that the ghettos could be converted (in Lemann’s words) ‘into the kind of launching-pads for immigrant upward mobility that the Irish neighbourhoods of Boston had been for Kennedy’s own forebears’. Moynihan himself thought that ‘what building contracts and police graft were to the 19th-century urban Irish, the welfare department, Head Start, and Black Studies programmes, will be to the coming generation of Negroes.’ But blacks moving north in the Forties and Fifties could not be inscribed within the discourse of migration to America. These were not the hopeful European poor seeking independence on a frontier freehold. Though jobs of a sort were plentiful at first in the Northern cities, no ethnic groups bonded by a common language and religion were in place to assist the new arrivals in their assimilation. What ethnic consciousness remained belonged to more long-standing immigrants, and it was used to organise resistance to blacks moving into jobs and neighbourhoods which these groups had already appropriated for themselves. By the Sixties, blacks in big cities became trapped in the process of urban depopulation and the erosion of the tax base afflicting American big cities generally. So they had to fall back increasingly on public housing and jobs created by the Government. The discourse of emigration had celebrated the emigrant’s transformation from feudalism to capitalism. For the blacks it was just a case of feudalism moving house.

Sharecropping, which formed the background of so many of Lemann’s sample, was the cruellest instance of this confusion of discourses. When first introduced after Reconstruction, it looked like a new deal for the freed slaves. The planter who owned the farm would give the black family an allotment of up to forty acres, seed money, tools, and a ‘furnish’ for living expenses. At the end of the year, when the cotton had been ginned and sold, the planter would reckon the sharecropper’s share and pay it. Sounds like a perfect initiation into capitalist enterprise for the poor – a sort of Southern version of cheap land for the European immigrant. It wasn’t. Without the vote, with no access to the law to force an independent scrutiny of the planter’s accounting, constrained to pay company-store prices for food and other supplies, the sharecropper was in actuality little more than a serf

Indeed, if any black experience can be said to have confused white perceptions of the African American ‘character’, it is sharecropping rather than slavery. At least with slavery you knew where you were, and it wasn’t America. Not even the Founding Fathers could pretend that slavery was consistent with the great ideals on which the country was being built. But sharecropping mimicked the enterprise of the American dispensation without offering the reality; the sharecropper was judged by the standards of capitalism without ever having been afforded its opportunities. So the blacks remained a ‘problem’, an embarrassing failure to pass the great American initiation. In turn, this supposed failure gave rise and lent weight to a pervading fatalism about their prospects for self-help, even among their progressive, white political allies – perhaps even among themselves, for who can say that they did not begin to internalise the fatalism in at least part of their consciousness?

Fortunately there is another story to tell. It peeps in through occasional chinks in Lemann’s narrative, whenever he refers to the black middle classes moving out of the ghettos. The irony, to which he returns again and again as though it somehow mocked the best efforts of Washington, was that the more money the Government pumped into the inner cities, the more the better-motivated blacks saved it to move out. But why not, since that’s what white city-dwellers were doing at the same time? And wasn’t this at least a form of aid that worked, a much closer analogy to the 19th-century government’s offer of cheap land to the European immigrant than the planter’s furnish ever was? To tell the story of the ‘Great Black Migration’ without following the process into the more affluent suburbs around the great Northern cities is like trying to understand Hamlet by going to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead or telling the story of American immigration from the vantage-point of the dreary areas left behind. No one who has lived in or regularly visited the United States over the last thirty years can deny the enormous progress made by African Americans as a direct result of legislative gains achieved in the Sixties: progress above all in employment options, and not just in government and other public-service jobs, but in all kinds of clerical, technical and administrative work – banking, insurance, education, the media.