Week 8

“Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” [Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A. Denton]

In Massey and Denton’s “Segregation and the Making of the Underclass”, the actual process of racial segregation and the subsequent resulting creation of an ‘underclass’ dominated by African-Americans is explained. Massey and Denton do not hesitate to point out that racially and culturally segregated neighborhoods are not unfamiliar in the American landscape; in fact, it could be argued that those new to the ‘New World’ generally begin their American experience in immigrant communities specific to their country of origin. More specifically, Massey and Denton acknowledge that many minorities reside in segregated communities, and that most Americans view this state of urban living as not being unique to African-Americans alone: “The residential segregation of blacks is viewed charitably as a “natural” outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, the same forces that produced Italian and Polish neighborhoods in the past and that yield Mexican and Korean areas today (194).” While this statement is indeed factual, it cannot be denied that while many minorities may start their American journey in racially, and/or culturally segregated communities, generations of these minorities do not experience the kind of continued suppression and degradation that African-Americans, and minorities of African descent, do.

What is more, the question of how such an ingrained state of being could exist for only one particular group of minorities while residing in a country where “all men are created equal” has remained a bit of a quagmire. Again, while most Americans acknowledge the disparity in economic, living, education, and general health existent in the African-American community as compared to the White community, and most other minority communities as well, questions as to why these disparities have persisted have not really been raised on a collective scale—they’ve barely been collectively acknowledged. Instead, a piecemeal approach had been taken down through history to the current day. Beginning with the abolition of slavery itself in America, laws have been enacted, policies made, and even neighborhoods have been built to encourage a more equitable ‘American experience’ for African-Americans, however, this approach has failed in not only its structural weaknesses, but also in its genuine aim. Policies are only as good as their creators, to acknowledge by some is not to recognize by all, and as Massey and Denton so accurately point out: “…the nation has no choice but to launch a bold new initiative to eradicate the ghetto and eliminate segregation from American life. To do otherwise is to condemn the United States and the American people to a future of economic stagnation, social fragmentation, and political paralysis (200).” This statement has proven itself to be both prophetic and timely.

Lin, Jan and Mele, Christopher (Eds.) (2013). The Urban Sociology Reader (2nd ed).

“Being Poor, Black and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces” [William Julius Wilson]

In William Julius Wilson’s “Being Poor, Black and American: The impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces” the idea of being no longer separate but still unequal is addressed. More specifically, Wilson argues that an underclass thrives in America while seemingly going unnoticed by the majority of Americans. Wilson contends that natural disasters that leave even the most economically stable of Americans vulnerable—disasters such as Katrina—are devastating to this ‘invisible’ underclass; and that this devastation has exposed an underclass that can no longer be ignored.

Wilson actually presents several issues in his article, and layers these issues in some unique and creative ways. For example, the images in the article are photographs taken by students attending schools in urban areas. These images reveal features of their schools that are both depressing and physically substandard in most, if not all, cases. Similarly, another dialogue occurs throughout the article addressing the history of teaching styles, and/or an approach to teaching in the African-American community that has produced a certain caliber of student, and ultimately a specific appreciation of the role of teachers as both educators and mentors, in adulthood.

Wilson’s treatment of the views of the adults of the African-American community toward demanding, or strict teachers, is both important and telling. He points out that there is both a cultural and a generational gap in the type of teachers African-Americans have been, and are being, taught by; and that there are methods of teaching in which African-Americans have shown not only an appreciation but a preference. For example, there is a history in the African-American community of there being generally two types of teachers: those who are inept and those who are capable. Similarly, there is a history of there being two distinct teaching styles: the strict disciplinarian, who exacts high standards, and the lax, and often lazy, ‘educator’ who appears to be simply collecting a paycheck. While these types and behaviors are not unique to educators only working in the African-American community—indeed, they can be found in every pocket of the United States—there is a reaction, or a response of the student that is unique to minority communities, and thus the African-American community: “Whatever intellectual demands mean to everyone else, they mean something more to Black kids and other stigmatized populations because they are in dialogue with a different history. Demanding behavior, properly couched, welcomes you to the table; it signifies your membership in the larger moral and intellectual community (Wilson, 19).”

The Moynihan Report

The Moynihan Report, an extensive report compiled by the United States government’s Office of Planning and Research in 1965, contains not only an address to the issues affecting the African-American community throughout its trying and complicated history with the United States; but it also contains a reflection of the history of segregation, degradation, and the unique brutality of American slavery in the United States in terms of its impact on the African-American community as well. Coupling these observations with the poignant observations made by President Johnson on the state, and the struggle, of the African-American community in the United States brings about an end result of a document that reflects a society both willing and unwilling to accept its part in the depression of a people.
The Moynihan Report is reflective and informative; acting as both a study and a historical document. While observations such as the extreme, and indeed historic, brutality of American Slavery is acknowledged (The Moynihan Report, 13), truths such as the general indifference, or disinterest, in the unemployment rate of African-American males are also exposed (The Moynihan Report, 17).

Similarly, as a study certain conclusions, or inferences can be made, but not indelibly applied in explaining the state of African-Americans in the United States, however, as a historical document, these statements may be made with greater freedom. For example, when examining the break-down of the African-American family, the Moynihan report appears to blame underclass sensibilities rather than the deleterious effects of economic instability. Indeed, elements of classism are strong here, highlighting a conservative, and slightly judgmental world view, with very little evidence of the moral vacuum of the lower classes to support these views (other than the prevalence of out of wedlock births). But the beauty of the this report is in its extensiveness; reading further one is able to draw one’s own conclusions, placing ‘blame’ where it truly belongs—not only the moral failings of the underclass, but on the weakness of personal economies that can become a major contributing factor to the break-down of the African-American family: “The conclusion from these and similar data is difficult to avoid: During times when jobs were reasonably plentiful…the Negro family became stronger and more stable. As jobs became more and more difficult to find, the stability of the family became more and more difficult to maintain (The Moynihan Report, 19).”

One thought on “Week 8”

  1. Massey & Denton-the authors do a great job explaining the systematic way in which policies, ideologies and perspectives shaped the “black ghettos” we see today. The authors state that middle class blacks tend to live closer to the “ghetto” than their white peers due to discrimination in the housing market, redlining and Realtor steering. As you stated many new to America began their experience in a ethnic enclave but have been able to move out/on as their economic conditions improved but for black Americans this has not necessarily been the case. Urban Renewal grants assisted in “White Flight” and the creation of the underclass as highways in many cases were developed right in the middle of viable black self contained communities that housed businesses, doctors, banks, etc.
    Wilson- Hurricane Katrina showed the world the disparity between those of color who are poor and the rest of American society. The primary victims of Katrina were poor female headed households who did not have transportation to evacuate before the levees broke. The media coverage also showed a difference in the way certain people were depicted e.g. blacks were said to be looting stores while whites were said to be gathering supplies in order to survive the natural disaster. Blacks were refereed to as refugees, which is not the correct verbiage as a refugee is a person outside of their country seeking shelter/assistance due to war or a natural disaster.
    Moynihan-was labeled by many a racist for his report but as you noted many of the propositions he stated were/are true; blacks have been given liberty but not necessarily equality. Some may say the method he used was “blaming the victim” or in sociological terms “social pathology” of those under study. We continue to see that if the American unemployment rate is at 7% it is actually double that within the black community, which could be attributed to discriminatory hiring practices, less educational qualified candidates, etc. When this report was published he noted the issue with out of wedlock births in the black community; at this time we now see 7 out of 10 black children born out of wedlock, the situation has not improved but has gotten much worse. One reason the out of wedlock birth rate continues to increase could be the factor of mass incarceration and its impact on the black community. I often wonder with the current LGBTQ movement if they will find that they too as a group are given liberty but not necessarily equality.

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