Accentuate the (Sort of) Positive
By Patrick F. Cannon
In 1968, nearly 35 percent of African-Americans were living in poverty. By 2019, the number had been reduced to 18.8 percent. Again in 1968 – another year of constant upheaval, including riots – only 54 percent of African-Americans aged 25 to 29, had graduated from high school; in 2019, the number had risen to 90 percent. In the same period, the college graduation rate had risen from 10 to 23 percent.
Thirteen percent of the US population is African-American; and 12 percent of the members of the US House of Representatives represent them. In 1968, there were 7 black members; now there are 50. Of the 100 largest American cities, 39 have black mayors. In 1968, there were three. Since Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, was elected in 1983, the city has bad two other black, and two white mayors. The current mayor is black; as have been the last two Chicago police superintendents. The last four presidents of the Cook County Board have also been black.
In 1933, the National Football League banned black players; now, 70 percent of its players are black. National Basketball Association’s rosters are 75 percent black. Only in professional baseball has the number of black players declined, primarily because young black men are choosing other sports (the numbers don’t include Hispanic ballplayers with some African blood).
With the current pandemic, unemployment figures are meaningless. But in September of last year, the white unemployment rate was 3.2 percent; and the black, 5.5. While any gap is troublesome, in late 1973, the gap was higher, white 4.3 and black 9.3.
I am old enough to remember when African-Americans would be turned away from downtown Chicago restaurants; and be told that no seats were available at Sunday mass in Catholic churches in white neighborhoods. No open housing laws existed; and not only blacks, but Jews also, were banned from living in certain neighborhoods. Although subtle methods still are used to steer blacks to certain areas, the fact is that they can now live in any neighborhood or suburb they can afford; and through housing subsidies, in places they normally couldn’t.
Yet, just a few days ago, I heard a black college professor say (and I paraphrase): “we were brought here as slaves 400 years ago, and things are just as bad now as they were then.” Really? No progress? No Emancipation Proclamation? No 14th Amendment? No Civil Rights Act? No Voting Rights Act? No Brown vs Board of Education? No affirmative action? No Barack Obama? This was not an isolated statement; one hears similar claims almost every day.
Here’s the truth. Things are still bad for many blacks, but not as bad as they once were. This country still has a serious and chronic problem with policing in black communities. I am not a sociologist, but both communities and police feel under siege. Young black men, in particular, are targeted by police far more than their white counterparts. For example, if I were to get stopped for speeding, I would probably be given a ticket and sent on my way. Too often, when a black is stopped, the police look for some vague reason to search the vehicle. And that’s when things can escalate.
I heard Senator Tim Scott (R, South Carolina) – a rare black Republican senator — say in an interview that he has been stopped roughly 15 times by police for no apparent or very minor traffic violations. I know for a fact that the police in a nearby affluent suburb used to routinely stop blacks who had the temerity to drive through its leafy streets on their way to somewhere else. In recent years, I have noticed this less and less.
Almost every case of questionable police-involved killing of black men has been in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York and St. Louis. But the actual numbers of these killings pales in comparison to the number of black young men killed by other black young men. In Chicago, for example, 75 percent of murder victims are black men; 71 percent of them are killed by other black men. Almost all of these killings – which often catch children in the cross-fire – are related to a toxic mixture of gangs and drugs. Chicago, in particular, suffers because it has become a distribution point for the Mexican drug cartels, who let African-American young men do the point-of-purchase selling.
As they are able to, African-Americans are leaving Chicago for safer communities with better schools. Since 1980, approximately 400,000 have moved out. And despite Chicago being the city most often denigrated by the likes of President Trump as “Murder City, USA,” it ranks only 16th in murder rates among major US cities. The top five are St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Nevertheless, if there’s one thing we should have learned by now is that dwelling on past mistakes does very little to solve today’s problems. Two that can be attacked almost immediately are access to health care and nutritious and economical food. If hospitals, clinics and food stores don’t exist in a particular neighborhood, in the short term why not simply provide free and regular transportation to areas that do?
If health care practitioners are reluctant to deal with Medicare and Medicaid, then the cities and counties need to address this. In the long run, it’s better to invest tax money in health care than in fruitless attempts to encourage corporations to invest in depopulated and crime-ridden neighborhoods. While Walmart was willing to reopen a damaged and looted store on Chicago’s south side, this was a rare example of corporate responsibility.
And I believe leadership in encouraging better nutrition and health care – particularly pre-natal care – is going to have to come from within the black community. The deep distrust of not only the police, but the white “establishment” generally, makes this almost mandatory, at least in the short term. This is where the “Black Lives Matter” movement could really matter.
After our Civil War, the former slaves were given their freedom and became citizens. There were no scientific surveys then, but most historians believe that almost all white Americans then would have said that blacks were inferior to them in every way. Many also believed that, though inferior, they still deserved all the benefits of their new status. And those who study history also know that a vengeful South, sadly abetted by the Federal courts, systematically stripped many of those rights away.
Blatant racists are now a dwindling minority, but one that will be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s fruitless to try to shame them; like President Trump’s 40 percent, they won’t be moved, at least not in this generation. We know what we’ve done wrong in the past. And all the breast beating about “white privilege” may make some in academia anxious to disavow any achievements by white Americans as illegitimate, but it won’t make them go away or help create a better future.
Nobel prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, once said, in trying to explain his fellow Southerners obsession with the Civil War and its aftermath, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” Until we learn from the past, but decide not to live in it, it will continue to haunt and burden the present.
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon