There it goes again. Bob Herbert does his roughly annual piece where he deigns to allow that The System is not the only reason black people have problems. A few days later the letters section includes earnest counsel of this sort, on why Compton in Los Angeles is no longer the stable suburb of two-parent families it was before the seventies:
The factory jobs are gone, and Compton is drug-infested. It may be useful to say ‘get a good education and there’s an engineering jobwaitingforyouinSiliconValley,’butthat socio-intellectual distance is enormous. To address the problems of the inner city, some kind of viable economic structure needs to exist to help fathers act like fathers.
It’s that old chestnut, considered bienpensant Sociology 101. Factory jobs left cities. There were no other jobs for men without college degrees. Thus anything going on in the inner city must be seen as the inevitable result of an unequal playing field, and nothing there will change until jobs paying middle-class wages are available a bus ride away for people without college degrees.
Criticize rap and listen to legions of fans at the edge of their seats ready to object that “there’s a lot of rap with something to say.” Well, much of what it says is that today there are no jobs for black men in the hood, and it has said that for a long time. Back in 1991, Ice Cube’s Bird in the Hand depicted a black man becoming a gangster because the only work available to him was flipping burgers. Meanwhile, black history professor Robin Kelley rhapsodizes in his book over the “authenticity” of all of this, treating it as The Jungle in miniature.
Never mind how counterintuitive this factory idea is. Dark-skinned immigrants come to this country and make a living. For that matter, dark-skinned nativeborn Americans are all over the country working steadily.
The “conscious” rapper telling us there are no jobs for his people likely passed by a black security guard on his way to the recording studio, and neither he nor anyone else sees that guard as a rare specimen. What color is the guy who installed your cable TV? Or the UPS man? Did he go to college?
But then, we accept that the earth is round although in daily experience it sure doesn’t look like it. In the same way, we accept that black men without college degrees can’t get jobs while watching black men without college degrees driving trains, delivering mail, and fixing phone lines.
This is why Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint’s new book “Come On People” is the most important read for black people and fellow travelers in a long time. Among other things, Messrs. Cosby and Poussaint spell out a simple truth: Community colleges offer low-cost vocational training, as well as GEDs, to people who don’t feel like spending four years learning about Dante and Adam Smith. To be a nurse, mechanic, computer technician, dental hygienist, emergency medical technician, or physical therapy assistant is to make a thoroughly middle-class income.
This truth has long been documented, but mostly in academic studies few encounter. Those studies show that the disappearance of factory jobs is not responsible in any significant way for unemployment among uneducated men of any color.
But statistics are powerless in the face of the comfort food of an iconic tableau, the Little Man done in by The Powers That Be. Darnell is ready with his lunch pail to make tires at the Ford plant, but the plant moved to the outskirts of Beijing and the bus lines don’t go there. So all Darnell can do to keep alive is sell drugs. When he gets back from his 15 years up the river, he’s a hero for “surviving” in an America with no place for him. He’s much more interesting than his boring brother Eugene who works as a building inspector.
The notion of Eugene as especially gifted or lucky is absurd, and the lack of attention paid these days to Eugene is tragic. People make themselves feel good pretending there is no work for poor men. But since the factories are not coming back, this version of awareness is static and disempowering.
How is it a “positive message” from rappers, for example, that there is no work and that ghetto pathology is therefore “the way it is”?
What kind of counsel is it from a Harvard social scientist when Gary Orfield tells the press “we’re pumping out boys with no alternative” but to sell drugs?
What sort of people are we to find it utterly normal that Sean Bell, killed by police officers last fall, was working only “odd jobs” as an able-bodied father of two children, as if that was the best a Real Black Man can do?
It’s as if black America’s motto were “Stop Making Sense.”
As Messrs. Cosby and Poussaint’s title puts it, “Come On, People.” White ones as well as black ones. There are too many real problems out there. Let’s stop inventing new ones just to make ourselves feel holy. It only makes real life worse.
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