Public Policy and Blaming Poor Black Communities For Their Own Poverty

On the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report (The Negro Family: The Case For National Action), john a. powell of the Haas Institute discusses the economic and political struggles faced by black communities today


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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report. The Moynihan report was a report that the government sponsored at the end of the civil rights era that looked at the conditions of the black community.

So joining us today from San Francisco is john a. powell. John is a professor of law, a professor of African-American studies and ethics studies in the University of California, Berkeley. Professor powell is also the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Today I would like you to join me in welcoming Professor powell.

Professor powell, thanks for joining me.

If you would, could you share a little bit about the climate at the time that they commissioned the Moynihan report and share a little bit about the analysis that the report actually made in reference to the conditions of the black community?

JOHN A. POWELL, DIR., HAAS INSTIT. FOR A FAIR & INCLUSIVE SOCIETY: Yes. Thank you, Eddie. So the Moynihan report was quite important in many ways, because people were trying to still make sense of what Gunnar Myrdal called American dilemma: why were black people doing persistently and consistently worse than whites? Some Moynihan’s report was to study that.

And he actually came up with a number of things. It was a large report, and a number of books have been written about it. But he talked about poverty and what later became known as concentrated poverty and the effects of living in concentrated poverty.

And one of the things that was most controversial in his report is he talked about being isolated, being segregated will create a culture of poverty. And the culture of poverty itself, if not interrupted, would produce negative outcomes. So some people have actually said that he was charging the black community with being a culture of poverty that produced dysfunctional behavior. And that’s not a crazy response to what he wrote. But he also suggested that it was the conditions that actually created that culture, that it wasn’t the black community itself, it was the isolation of the black community by being segregated from opportunity.

But many conservatives have used that report to argue that things like welfare, things like food stamps actually create negative dependency, and the black communities have a dysfunctional culture that shouldn’t be supported by the welfare system.

CONWAY: So what I hear you saying is the report pretty much blamed the victims, but at the same time pointed to the conditions of the community that caused the victims to be blamed?

POWELL: Yes. It was a complicated report, as many things. And a fair reading would be, yes, it was blaming the victims, on one hand. But one fair reading would be it was saying these are processes that people just generate by themselves. This process that larger society has some role. So his report to some extent was capable of being read in both of those directions. The one that became more prominent was the direction where he–that the black community’s culture was responsible for the black condition.

But it is also fair to read him to say the black community’s culture was a response to the conditions and polls by the larger society. The first one would suggest the larger society has very little responsibility, that is, the black community was just a dysfunctional community–why should the white community or other communities care? On the other hand, if the black community’s culture is imposed and is a result of discrimination, isolation, and programs and policies from the white community, it would suggest some responsibility on behalf of the white community.

CONWAY: So, like, the labeling of the black community provided, like, white racists with justifications to avoid correcting the conditions that were existing in the black community. How does that public policy transfer itself into today, 50 years later? I mean, that was the conditions then. Are we still being impacted by that reaction from the conservatives parties in terms of the attack upon food stamps and in terms upon other ways in which Congress and other conservative bodies denying certain support and apparatuses for changing the conditions in the black community?

POWELL: So, certainly those conditions, we know those conditions are still in place. Some of them are actually more deeply entrenched today than they were 50 years ago. For example, the war on drugs, which really was a war on the black community, was–actually made things worse in many respects than in the black community.

And one thing that people get confused about when some people feel that segregation, maybe it’s not so bad, maybe black people living with other black people, what’s wrong with that, segregation was never only or primarily about separating people by race. It was actually separating some people from opportunity. So it’s opportunity segregation. It was segregating the black community from the resources, the opportunity they need to actually lay out a full, expressive life. And those conditions are very much in place now.

And, yes, I would say not just conservatives, but many people are confused by why aren’t we doing better? They think, well, we have opportunities. You can go to school now. You can live, at least ostensibly, wherever you want to. We have a black president. We ended Jim Crow. Why isn’t the black community doing better? The interpretation that some people make from that is because black people as a community and the black culture as a culture is at fault, not the larger society. In fact, some conservatives even go further and say, if you try to help the black community such as through things like welfare, you create a sense of dependency that makes things worse. But many of these people may in fact be motivated by stereotypes and animus of race, but not all of them.

A lot of the literature in terms of what’s called concentrated poverty actually comes out of Europe. And those early studies were done on white people. But it is true, if you isolate people from opportunity, whether they’re white, black, or any other people, you develop a distinctive culture. But the culture is a response to the overall conditions. And that’s what got lost in the translation. So some people start focusing on the supposedly independent thing called the black community, not realizing that the black community or any community is responding to larger social conditions.

CONWAY: You know, the thing that kind of strikes me is that there’s certain expectations out of that report that even transfers itself today that says that conditions should be changed, but there was no real effort to have a reparation, there was no real effort to actually help the black community empower itself, so that it could develop the institutions and the resources it need to change those conditions. For me, today it seems like just the opposite–like you mentioned earlier, the war on drugs. But there seems to be a concerted effort to disenfranchise the black community in terms of voting, and certainly in terms of the great housing scandal and the rest of that stuff has actually impoverished the black community. Today, what is the conditions in terms of the government helping turn some of those things around?

POWELL: Well, it’s actually interesting, because in some ways the right wing has now had an attack on the black community, things like Nixon’s law and order, things like Reagan’s war on drugs, which really was a war on black people, things like mass incarceration, written so eloquently by Michelle Alexander. There’s definitely been an attack on the black community, and there’s been a benign neglect, if not a more aggressive attack.

But it’s actually gone beyond that. Since the early ’70s, part of the conservative playbook has been the federal government has been captured by special interests. And so what they’ve done is delegitimize the federal government itself. So the attack is not only on the black community; it’s also the federal government. So if you want to make sense of things like the vitriolic attack on the Affordable Care Act, what some people refer to as Obamacare, it’s actually done in part because the conservatives are saying the federal government can’t do anything except, in its legitimate role, facilitate the economy–not regulate the economy; facilitate it–to be the servants of the economic marketplace and to police the country and to make the world safe for capital investment and extraction.

So not in–under that configuration, the role of the government’s not to invest in people, it’s not to raise money with schools, it’s not to raise money for hospitals, it’s not to actually try to feed people; it’s actually to let the market do all those things. And so when the government leans into doing those things under the welfare state, which was under Franklin Roosevelt, we’re saying that’s illegitimate. So it’s an attack not only on the black community, but on the role the federal government has been repurposed, and in part because there’s concern that the federal government had been captured by the black community.

CONWAY: Well, you know, it’s 50 years later. I’m looking at the devastation that has occurred from 1965 until now in large segments of the black community. You know, granted that part of the black community had made some advances and great stride forward, but down on the ground, on the poverty level there’s a real serious decay and setback. And I’m not sure about these figures, but in the last six or seven years over $1 trillion of welfare had been lost from the black community, wealth that has been accumulated since the end of slavery.

I’m wondering–and this is away from the Moynihan report now–I’m wondering, what can we do as a community to turn this around? And I’m taking this opportunity. You’re a professor, and you study this stuff. Do you have any suggestions or ideas of what can happen within the black community to change these conditions?

POWELL: Well, I do study this a lot, and we are actually working on this with some people. We’re actually going with a group people to Bellagio to actually–from the United States [incompr.] outside the United States, to look at the issue of wealth assets for the black immunity and other marginalized communities. So we have been looking at that, and there are some very troubling trends. And you’re–without having the exact figures, you’re right. The black community, when President Obama came to office, had about one-tenth the wealth of the white community.

Since then, the white community has actually lost wealth, and the black community has lost wealth at even a much faster clip. So now the black community only has one-twentieth of the wealth of the white community. Wealth is extremely important in terms of people having a full and productive life.

So what can be done to turn that around? Well, first of all, we have to recognize it’s a problem. We still have people who will say if the black community doesn’t have any wealth, it’s their fault. Black community saves at almost the same rate and in some cases higher than the white community. So it’s not that the black community’s evidencing lack of personal responsibility. We simply don’t have the wealth to begin with. Secondly, wealth is actually made through different kind of market transactions. Most wealth is actually even inherited or made through the credit market. And blacks don’t have access to credit in the same way that whites do. And this was evidenced in the subprime lending.

If any of those issues are going to be fixed in a serious way, it’s not going to be fixed just through something called the market, ’cause there is no thing–nothing just the market. The market is always structured. There are rules in the market. And that’s structured by the government. So part of the thing that’s necessary is to actually repurpose the government to actually work for people and not just for capital. And that’s not to say we don’t need capital, but since the government has a role in terms of making sure that capital is in service of people–that’s not the role that the government is playing right now.

And we’ve actually repurposed government and entered government in such a way that a lot of people have turned their backs on government. They think it’s a bureaucracy, it’s not effective, it’s not responsive. Well, all those things may be true, but that’s not a reason to give up on government. If you give up on government, there’s no mechanisms in place to effectively address the increasing inequality in the United States across the whole population, but even more extreme in the black and Latino population. And this is a global phenomenon, not just a national phenomenon.

So, given the credit market and given how the market is structured, we need a responsive, effective, inclusive government that takes on these issues with a goal toward addressing them to all people, but particularly the most marginal in our society, from the black community.

CONWAY: Okay. I’m not going to take up too much more of your time. I just want one more question, if you will allow it, you know, because I look at Detroit and I look at the financial–the emergency financial system and I look at other places and I see that not only have communities being disenfranchised, but communities that has the franchise and that has the vote but are experiencing economic difficulty, whether we’re talking about Pontiac, Michigan, or Flint, Michigan, or /bɛnsənhɔːlɪvɚ/, or whatever, we find that the vote and the ability to influence the government no longer exists. So I’m wondering whether or not this extreme poverty that’s spreading throughout some communities and the disenfranchisement itself is taking away democracy itself in terms of us having a government that will speak in our behalf.

POWELL: I think that’s a very important question. And I think the short answer is yes. I mean, some people say we have a plutocracy now, where the–the rule of the rich, not the rule of the people.

And certainly you have the most concentrated disenfranchisement of black people at a national level in the history of the country. We are at the worst place we’ve ever been in the history of the country since slavery was ended. And it’s largely driven by Republicans. Their playbook is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for black people to vote. And even where black people can vote, in places like Detroit you have–the emergency management takes that right away from the voting people of Detroit. So they still can’t elect the government they want. But even if they could elect a government they want, the government can’t raise revenue to effectively run the city.

So it’s a system that’s broken literally at every level. And race is constantly showing up as one of the culprits. And it doesn’t just affect black people. It affects everyone. We really have a broken system.

So yes, we still have thousands of people–excuse me–millions of people who are disenfranchised after they get out of prison. Most of your listeners will be surprised to find out that many countries, including Canada, not only allows people to vote when they get out of prison; they allow people to vote when they’re in prison, when they’re in prison. The whole idea is these people are citizens. We want to keep them involved in the Democratic process. So we’re going to keep their rights in place.

In the United States, historically the states that have been most pernicious in terms of taking away the vote and then making it possible to get it back have been the South, the states that have the largest black population.

So this is–we still are fighting the civil war, and I would say we’re losing right now. And it’s showing up the economy, it’s showing up in our democracy, and it threatens to wreck the whole country. But the most extreme of it, the canary in the coal mine, is what’s happening in the black community.

And for a lot of Americans, a lot of white Americans in particular, there’s anxiety about race, and they don’t really see black people as being part of the country, they don’t see as legitimate members. And it’s that negative attitude allows things like all the shootings that are happening and the disinvestment in Detroit and other places.

I’ll say one last thing. Think about this. Wall Street banks were going belly up. They were going broke. We spent billions and billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to save them. Part of the rationale is they’re too big to fail. They had actually basically raped the American people, and then we bailed about, and they gave themselves raises as a result of that. Then General Motors, which is to be largest company in the United States, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Again, the United States came forward and bailed it out. And then Detroit. And our response to Detroit was: [drop dead (?)]. We simply did not extend a hand after we helped the billionaires on Wall Street, after we helped General Motors, who refused to extend a hand to black people in Detroit. Instead, we have this pernicious story about black people can’t govern and they don’t deserve our help. And we still are in that space today.

CONWAY: And that’s, in my opinion, a part of the direct reflection of the analysis that the Moynihan report did 50 years ago. And we look at the situation today and we see the impact of that report.

So I want to thank you for joining me and thank you for sharing. And we’ll probably revisit this topic again in the future.

POWELL: Thanks for doing the show. I appreciate it.


And thank you for joining The Real News.


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