My grandparents escaped the pogroms of Russia and came to America with the hope that life for their children would be free of the anxiety and poverty that was their European history. And like the Germans, Italians and Irish who preceded them, they faced hostility that lasted a generation or more, but finally found their way, and managed to blend in.
Only one group came without hopeful dreams and expectations. Africans came in chains. Their children were slaves for generations. After slavery the hostility they faced wasn’t alleviated—it was legalized. Well into the 20th century, the law inhibited African Americans from being Americans. The doors that were finally open to my ancestors remain closed to many—to most—African Americans. The frustration of being treated as second class—at best—has created deep resentment. That resentment has found no easy alleviation, especially in the ghettos of the unemployed. The fact that manufacturing jobs moved out of the northern cities around the time that Blacks moved in to find them did not help. Nor do drug laws that populate prisons with Black men and waste millions of dollars on a vain “war on drugs,” motivated by the same Puritanism that gave us prohibition; it’s bloody crime that prevents a rational response to the problem.
Whites, who still today blame the social problems suffered by African Americans on some natural inferiority, have to accept that they are, by definition, racists. Those who see the failures, but don’t subscribe to a biological cause, must then find that the causes are historical and social.
The number one need of the African American population (and of poor whites as well) is jobs—the jobs that have been exported because our bottom line is the bottom line. In our corporate culture, we exist primarily as customers. It is said that Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than in any other sector of American society and that their children do better than most. Affirmative action was a success—creating a substantial African American middle class—except that it also created a constituency that felt that it came at their expense. Social programs that are inclusive are more likely to find support than means-tested programs. Think of Social Security vs. welfare. The evidence is that it takes jobs for a generation to feel like their children have a chance to do better. The possibility of a “works program,” a Marshall plan for the poor of all colors, is as remote as the Yellow Brick Road. What it would take to change that is beyond me, and apparently beyond our leaders.
In the meanwhile, those whites who haven’t personally hindered anyone, and haven’t signed on to propaganda like “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” are probably individually innocent. But, when “Why don’t they get over it?” is asked; that remark proves that “it ain’t over.” And if it ain’t over, then we’re all in it. And we all pay. The price to Blacks is obvious; the rest of us pay in a political system corrupted by a mean-spirited philosophy that leaves us vulnerable to demagoguery.
[Roy Tedoff lives in Hortonville, NY.]