My discovery 40 years ago (Part 1) that white people living in an urban ghetto exhibited many of the behaviors – addiction, crime, truancy, teenage pregnancy – associated with inner-city black life came as a revelation to me. I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. The Moynihan Report (1965) had declared, “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling” and called for a new national goal: “the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.” Three years later, in the wake of US military tanks rumbling through the streets of America’s burning cities, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” giving the clear impression that whites had moved to the suburbs while blacks were locked in the ghetto. Meanwhile, voices from the right blamed African Americans – and initiative-robbing welfare programs – for their problems.
And so both sympathetic progressives and antagonistic conservatives came to filter “how class and family affect the poor . . . through a racial prism,” writes J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. That prism denigrated black culture, and it overlooked white poverty.
Many people have rediscovered white poverty and rural discontent since November 8th, but the stereotype of black culture endures. “To many analysts, terms like ‘welfare queen’ conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole,” notes Vance. “I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white.”
Instead of focusing on the behaviors people exhibit, as I did in the first sentence, shouldn’t we address, instead, the problems they face? For we will never overcome our divisions until we recognize our common ground.