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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Focus: White do-gooders did for black America

Culture Poverty & Welfare

As it quickly became clear that there was a certain demographic skew among the people stranded in New Orleans, journalists began intoning that Hurricane Katrina had stripped bare the continuing racial inequity in America.

The extent to which this was hidden is unclear, actually. An awareness that a tragic disproportion of black Americans are poor has been a hallmark of civic awareness among educated Americans for 40 years now.

The problem is less a lack of awareness than a lack of understanding. The publicly sanctioned take is that “white supremacy” is why 80% of New Orleans’s poor people are black. The civics lesson, we are to think, is that the civil rights revolution left a job undone in an America still hostile to black advancement.

In fact, white America does remain morally culpable — but because white leftists in the late 1960s, in the name of enlightenment and benevolence, encouraged the worst in human nature among blacks and even fostered it in legislation. The hordes of poor blacks stuck in the Superdome last week wound up there not because the White Man barred them from doing better, but because certain tragically influential White Men destroyed the fragile but lasting survival skills poor black communities had maintained since the end of slavery.

Few thinking people regret the flower children’s opposition to the Vietnam war, sexism and racial discrimination. But these advances also spelt the demise of old standards of responsibility. Taught that criminality and violence must be judged in proportion to the extent to which poverty and discrimination have coloured one’s existence, the enlightened white person saw black violence as “understandable”.

This meant a largely theatrical black separatist ideology, drastically short on constructive aims, had a public sanction that it had never had before. Hating whitey for its own sake now had an ear among the influential and quickly became the word on the street.

There was a new sense that the disadvantages of being black gave one a pass on civility — or even achievement: this was when black teens started teasing black nerds for “acting white”.

Behaviour that most of a black community would have condemned as counterproductive started to seem normal. Through the late 1960s blacks burnt down their own neighbourhoods as gestures of being “fed up”. But blacks had been “fed up” for centuries: why were these the first riots initiated by blacks rather than white thugs — when the economy was flush and employment opportunities were opening up as never before? Because the culture had changed, in ways that hindered too many blacks from taking advantage of the civil rights revolution. Meanwhile, the most grievous result of the new consensus was black American history’s most under-reported event, the expansion of welfare. Until now, welfare had been a pittance intended for widows, unavailable as long as the father of one’s children was able-bodied and accounted for, and granted for as little time as possible.

In 1966, however, a group of white academics in New York developed a plan to bring as many people onto the welfare rolls as possible. Across the country, poor blacks especially were taught to apply for living on the dole even when they had been working for a living, and by 1970 there were 169% more people on welfare nationwide than in 1960.

This was the first time that whites or blacks had taught black people not to work as a form of civil rights. Politicians and bureaucrats jumped on the new opportunity for political patronage and votes, and welfare quickly became a programme that essentially paid young women to have children.

Only in 1996 was welfare limited to five years and focused on training for work. But by then generations of poor blacks had grown up in neighbourhoods where there was no requirement that fathers support their children. Few grew up watching their primary parent work for a living. Most people paid nominal subsidies as rent and were thus less inclined to treat their living spaces well.

The multigenerational welfare family with grandmothers in their forties became typical: young women had babies in their teens because there was no reason not to with welfare waiting to pick up the tab.

This is the hell that most of the people in the Superdome either lived in or knew at close hand, and none of them could help being stamped by it. Welfare reform was only nine years ago. The women now past the five-year cap are mostly struggling in dead-end jobs. This is better than living on the dole. But these women are weighed down by too many kids created under the old regime to have the time or energy to get the education to get beyond where they are. Poor black neighbourhoods are not what they were at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, but they are still a crying shame.

The poor black America that welfare expansion created in 1966 is still with us. Poor young blacks have never known anything else. People as old as 50 have only vague memories of life before it. For 30 years this was a world within a world, as is made clear from how often the Katrina refugees mention it is the first time they have ever left New Orleans.

What Katrina stripped bare, then, was not white supremacy, but that culture matters — even if what created the culture was misguided white benevolence. Social scientists neglect that before the 1960s poor blacks knew plenty of economic downturns and plenty more racism.

But before the 1960s the kinds of behaviour so common among the blacks stranded in the Superdome, possibly including multiple rapes, was a fringe phenomenon. Only after the 1960s did it become a community norm.

Wise people tell us that poor blacks in New Orleans went to rack and ruin when low-skill industrial jobs left the city centre, a common argument about cities nationwide. But in cities like Indianapolis where the factories largely stayed close, the same degradation began — starting in the late 1960s.

Wise people tell us that housing projects destroyed poor black communities by concentrating too many poor people in one place. But in city after city, these projects were peaceful places until welfare recipients were allowed to move in in large numbers.

All indications are that the reform of welfare in 1996 is bearing fruit in terms of income and the life conditions of children. Hopefully, legions of poor black people who return to New Orleans will take advantage of the job opportunities that rebuilding a city will offer. But what we should all remember from Katrina is a tragic close-up of a group of people staggering after, first, a hideous natural disaster but, ultimately, an equally hideous sociological disaster of 40 years ago.

This piece originally appeared in Times Online

This piece originally appeared in Times Online