Friday, June 05, 2009

Black poverty and globalization

Why is it that so many millions of blacks in Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other American cities are mired in poverty? Don’t put blame exclusively on past and present policies designed to discriminate against blacks. There are also other reasons, much neglected and very durable: policies that, on their face, are non-racial but actually do contribute indirectly and yet effectively to the plight of urban blacks in the United States.

That summarizes the main message that William Julius Wilson, Harvard’s distinguished professor of sociology, projects in his new book, More Than Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. He himself calls it the most important point of the book.

Here is one example of the seemingly race-neutral government policies (i.e., not motivated to control or exclude persons by race) that he cites: “Mortgage-interest tax exemptions and mortgages for veterans jointly facilitated the out-migration of working- and middle-class families from inner-city neighborhoods, leaving blacks isolated in central cities.”

In a class all by itself is globalization. Wilson prefers terms like “complex global economic transformations” and tracks the profound negative impacts on urban blacks.

One impact is the creation of greatly increased demand for workers at the two poles of the labor market. Wilson describes the unintended racial consequences in documented detail.

At the bottom end of the pay and skill scales, the increased demand for workers should have been a boon for inner-city blacks, who generally rank low in job skills. However, the urban manufacturing industries that once provided equal job opportunities by the millions have largely moved abroad, thanks to the combination of U.S. free trade and investment policies and the foreign attractions of low wages and weak labor protection laws weakly enforced.

Meanwhile, at the top end of the expanded labor market, thanks to a decline in racial discrimination, many better educated blacks landed well paying suburban jobs, as managers and professionals, for example. They and their kin joined the general exodus of American urbanites into the suburbs.

The black poor who were left behind thereby became more concentrated in poor communities, and more isolated from the rest of America. For the army of unemployed and underemployed black men, this was a double whammy. Black women, who have traditionally had jobs in the service industries, were more fortunate. Most service industries can’t escape to other countries.

Wilson, who is black, used to believe that public policy should be color blind-. He felt that race-neutral agendas would be the most realistic way to win the necessary broad political support for improving the lot of the poor, blacks included.

He has changed his mind. He now sees that the special situation of urban blacks justifies a special approach and that it is urgent to educate the public accordingly. More Than Just Race (meaning More Than Just Overt Racism) is part of that education.

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