Wandering in the Wilderness


The Promised Land, by Nicholas Lemann, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pages, $24.95

Nicholas Lemann's story begins in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just as mass mechanization of agriculture begins to displace black farm workers and sharecroppers, creating the largest internal migration in U.S. history. In 1940, 77 percent of black Americans lived in the South. Between 1940 and 1970, 5 million left. Only 50 percent of the total black population remained in the South.

In a modified John Dos Passos style, Lemann treats us to interesting vignettes of the trials, tribulations, and successes of several Clarksdale residents who went up the Mississippi to Chicago in search of greener pastures. Ruby Lee Daniels, a former farm worker, is one of the people whose lives of disappointment and occasional achievement Lemann chronicles, a technique that adds a nice human touch to The Promised Land.

At one point in Ruby Lee Daniels's life, she is called into a tenant interview by Chicago's Taylor public-housing project after a long wait. At the interview, she discovers that the housing authority has a policy against renting to unwed mothers. She lies about her marital status, but the next day Ruby and Luther Hayes, her common-law husband, go to the courthouse and get married.

Lemann passes over this minor incident without comment, but it is a telling commentary on today versus yesterday. While people have always behaved irresponsibly, years ago the institutional setting and social mores did not support or tolerate it as much. Ruby Lee Daniels's hurry-up wedding is one example of how institutional requirements made fathers live up to their responsibilities. The now unheard-of "shotgun" wedding was another; there was also arrest and the possibility of a jail sentence for failure to provide child support.

Much of Lemann's book is about the government policies affecting the lives of people like Ruby Lee Daniels. "Washington" is the book's most important and by far its most interesting chapter. The reader is treated to details of the deals and behind-the-scenes political infighting behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People who criticize the Founding Fathers for having compromised morality, counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportionment, will be interested in the deals made by John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was senator, preparing to run for president, he voted along with his Southern colleagues to add an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that guaranteed jury trials for people accused of violating a black's voting rights. In the South, of course, a jury trial meant acquittal for the offending white. But Kennedy, like Nixon, needed the South to win the White House; thus, he had to devise an early version of the "Southern strategy."

Among the seedier Kennedy-clan political strategies was an attempt to win the black vote by paying off Jet magazine columnist Simon Booker so he would allow Kennedy staffers to write his column. To appease segregationists, the Kennedy White House offered to give tax breaks to James Farmer, then head of the Congress of Racial Equality, if CORE would call off demonstrations.

The main thrust of Lemann's "Washington" chapter and the "Chicago" chapter that follows is a detailed account of how the idealism of "Camelot," cut short by Kennedy's assassination, evolved into President Johnson's War on Poverty. Lemann notes the futility of some poverty programs, such as urban-renewal projects that simply destroyed poor neighborhoods and replaced some of them with what were to become today's crime-infested high-rise projects. Urban renewal—some people call it "urban removal"—was a failed policy that mostly benefited the developers who got the building contracts.

Then there were the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Job Corps, and Community Action Programs, all of which no one would defend as successful in achieving their stated missions. No one, that is, except perhaps Nicholas Lemann, who criticizes the assessment of the War on Poverty programs offered by Irving Kristol, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. Reagan's assessment was captured in one of his favorite quotes: "In the 1960s, we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won."

Lemann says: "Rhetorically, the war on poverty was made to sound more sweeping than it actually was and so set itself up to seem as if it ended in defeat when it didn't vanquish all poverty. But to say that the experience of the late '60s and the early '70s proves for all time that federal social welfare programs can't work, or that they cause poverty to worsen, is to cross over into the realm of political fantasy." But the statistics are no fantasy. Today, official poverty among blacks is higher than in the mid-'60s.

More important, since the US. Census Bureau began collecting the figures in the 1940s, the distribution of income has remained remarkably stable, with the lowest quintile earning about 6 percent or 7 percent of the national income and the highest quintile getting about 40 percent. During those 50 years, the nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of combating the "unfair" distribution of income, and all for naught. The only income redistribution that occurred was the massive shift of income from the people to the government. Surely one can point to some isolated successes of the War on Poverty, but the policy-relevant issue is success per dollar of expenditure.

All evidence suggests that government can do little of significance to influence income short of taking one person's earnings and giving them to another. After all, the main ingredients of higher income are behavioral factors that influence individual productivity, such as sacrifice of present enjoyment to invest in human capital. What can government do to ensure that kids behave in school, do their homework, and give up summer fun for remedial education? How can it get parents to postpone the purchase of a luxury item in order to save for a nicer home? These and other behavioral factors are very important to individual development, but they cannot be easily manipulated by government.

Government has a much greater capacity to eliminate options than to expand them. Lemann discusses, but chooses not to criticize, how the extension of the minimum wage to farm laborers, in 1967, created the chemical revolution, which far exceeded the suddenness of the mechanical revolution. The minimum wage made labor-intensive farming far too expensive. In the Mississippi Delta, as a whole, according to a confidential HEW memo, some 11,000 farm workers, representing 50,000 family members, lost their jobs as a direct result of minimum wages. The fact that this policy forced many blacks to flee to the pathology of Northern ghettos, and overwhelm whatever mediating institutions were available, seems to faze Lemann not one iota.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a congressional aide at the time, warned of the declining black family and recommended the Family Assistance Plan, which would give welfare money to intact families as well as female-headed ones. He was roundly condemned as a racist. In addition to his hope that the plan would stem the breakdown of the black family, Moynihan thought that it would remove the incentive for poor people, blacks especially, to migrate to states offering higher welfare payments. Lemann says that Moynihan "stoutly denies" this motivation. One of the reasons the Family Assistance Plan was defeated is that it would have made welfare workers redundant.

Part of Lemann's mission is to argue against the idea, prominent in conservative circles, that today's pathology among many blacks is new and possibly caused by the poverty programs of the '60s and '70s. To make his case, he cites studies in the '30s and '40s by scholars such as Hortense Powdermaker, John Dollard, Charles Johnson, and Gunnar Myrdal. Among other things, they observed that the typical black family was matriarchal and that the rate of illegitimacy was extremely high among blacks—some 16 percent, eight times the rate among whites. Plus, black communities in the South had high rates of murder, sexually transmitted diseases, and bootleg-whiskey consumption.

Although black families and black neighborhoods have always had problems, the magnitude and kind of dysfunction we see today are entirely new. While 16-percent illegitimacy was high in the '30s and '40s, it compares favorably to the 61-percent (and rising) illegitimacy rate of today. Only recently has murder become the leading cause of death among young black males. Today, thousands upon thousands of black men reach the age of 25 without ever holding a job. These statistics reflect modem black life, which is entirely missing from Lemann's stories about people who made the trip to Chicago to earn $30 a week or more in laundry, factory, or restaurant work instead of $20 or less picking cotton.

All in all, The Promised Land is a very well-researched book of great benefit to anyone trying to understand the hopes and failures of the '60s and '70s for black Americans. Some of the conclusions that Lemann extracts from his findings blemish an otherwise fine job of reporting.

Contributing Editor Walter E. Williams is John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University.