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Autumn 2002
   
Job Loss Didn’t Make the Underclass
John H. McWhorter
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It’s summer 1993 in Indianapolis, and we’re at SoulFest, an annual event supposedly celebrating black culture and black enterprise. But a taint hangs in the air. Since the first SoulFest back in the early seventies, too many of the young blacks who’ve shown up to “celebrate” seem to equate black culture and enterprise with nasty scuffles and petty theft. This year, though, disorder turns to tragedy: young black hoodlums shoot to death an 18-year-old black boy. City officials, fearing more violence, cancel SoulFest the following year. It reopens in 1995, but now with a heavy police presence hard to square with a sense of community achievement. Three years later, another black-on-black homicide mars the festival, prompting its cancellation again in 1999. In 2000, the event is back on, but in a scaled-down version, renamed “Family Fun Fest” and moved to a new location.

The SoulFest episodes grew out of a dysfunctional inner-city culture—a culture of violence, illegitimacy, substance abuse, and non-work—that took root in Indianapolis over the past few decades, as it did in other American cities. But what caused that pathological culture in the first place? Delinquency and crime are age-old problems, but the savagery on display at SoulFest and the desolation of the city’s poor minority neighborhoods—these are things we’ve only had to endure since the sixties. How had a segment of Indianapolis’s black community gone so wrong?

The conventional explanation on the Left (and among many blacks) is economic and social. The dogma—it began to take hold among sociologists as far back as the sixties but became a verity among elites in the eighties with the publication of Harvard professor William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and various papers by social thinker John Kasarda—runs like this. In the sixties, the blue-collar jobs that supported previous generations of urban blacks moved out of town, beyond the reach of public transit. Left behind by this “deindustrialization” was a core of ill-educated young blacks. With little hope of finding employment, these young people understandably became skeptical of the value of work. With an attitude problem imposed upon them by forces beyond their control, they then frightened off any potential employers who might be willing to set up shop in the inner city, thus completing the vicious circle.

Those who hold this view see the self-destructive behavior of today’s black underclass as a natural response to an economically unjust and institutionally racist society. The only humane—or realistic—solution: a radical restructuring of society.

But the influence of an idea can result as much from its repetition as from its validity. We need to verify a theory before we accept it, and the history of black Indianapolis radically undermines the deindustrialization hypothesis. In fact, that history makes it painfully clear that what really did in the city’s poor blacks was not a dearth of jobs but instead a destructive cultural mix: equal measures of the blame game and the formulaic rage that goes along with it, the welfare dependency that a sense of black grievance fostered, and the condescending “benevolence” of white liberals who championed rage as admirable and dependency as justice.

Blacks began moving to Indiana from the South right after the Civil War put an end to slavery, but it wasn’t until the Great Migration of the teens that their ranks in the state really swelled. By 1920, Indiana was home to more than 80,000 blacks, up from 11,000 or so in 1860. The black immigrants flocked into the cities: by 1930, fully 90 percent of the state’s black population lived either in Indianapolis or in Gary, concentrated in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods.

Virulent racism was a fact of life for the newcomers. Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869, black suffrage didn’t become a reality in Indiana until the 1880s; blacks couldn’t join the state militia until the late 1930s. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was Indiana’s largest and most powerful social organization, with 40 percent of the native-born white adult male population belonging to it. Indianapolis’s mayor was a Klansman, and the Klan controlled the legislature and the governor’s office—the Democratic party was essentially the Klan at the polls. In 1924, 6,500 Klansmen paraded through downtown Indianapolis to a cheering crowd of 75,000 onlookers after Klan election victories. For good reason, black Indianapolis became home to an anti-lynching league. One of the last recorded lynchings north of the Mason-Dixon line occurred in nearby Marion in 1930.

Indianapolis’s migrant blacks confronted in-your-face job discrimination. They could join few unions and only rarely found open paths that might take them beyond low-skilled jobs. Typical black workers in Indianapolis were laborers, shelf-stockers, custodians, and domestics, not doctors or diplomats. In factories, blacks usually found themselves in low-level, poorly paid positions and indefensibly underrepresented as craftsmen. The occasional promotion of a talented black into higher positions sometimes ignited revolts among white factory workers.

Yet despite this hard-edged injustice, Indianapolis’s black migrants didn’t sit on their hands or become an underclass. Their response to racism and discrimination wasn’t to lash out or to become passive victims but to push ahead.

Indianapolis’s blacks worked, taking whatever jobs were available. While the unemployment rate was higher among the city’s blacks than whites, most blacks managed to find enough work to get by. Black employment steadily increased after World War II—in unskilled but solid jobs—thanks to new federal fair employment requirements that civil rights leaders had sought as just compensation for blacks’ services during the war. By the early 1960s, whatever employment gap remained between blacks and whites was closing.

Despite the overt racism they faced a century ago, Indianapolis’s blacks created a flourishing world-within-a-world. An energetic black business district grew up on Indiana Avenue—the “Grand Ol’ Street” as locals called it. Madame C. J. Walker, whose hair-care empire made her America’s first self-made female millionaire, moved her vast operation to the district in 1910, employing 3,000 people. Her yellow-brick Walker building, boasting a theater, a fancy restaurant, and ample office space, anchored the Grand Ol’ Street.

A small but growing black bourgeoisie peopled the elegant six square blocks of Ransom Place. Among Ransom Place’s residents were accomplished individuals like Henry W. Furniss, an African-American doctor and onetime U.S. ambassador to Haiti. As early as June 1901, the Recorder, a black-owned newspaper, could publish a surprisingly long list of Indianapolis’s blacks worth $5,000 or more—a comfortable sum at the time.

Civil society flourished in this enterprising community. Branches of the National Association of Colored Women, the National Negro Business League, and various lodges thrived; churches were ubiquitous. Indiana Avenue played host to a crackling-hot music scene. Old black Indianapolis also enjoyed four lively African-American newspapers. In addition to the Recorder (now in its 107th year), you could read the fiercely Republican Leader, the Freeman (probably America’s first illustrated black paper), and the World. The Recorder focused on local affairs, publicizing black-owned businesses and urging readers not to patronize white stores that refused to advertise in black newspapers. The paper often ran contrasting front-page stories, one highlighting the latest example of black progress, the other lambasting a remaining racial inequity.

Reflecting its hardworking, striving spirit, old black Indianapolis hungered for education. In 1927, when the segregated school system opened the brand-new, all-black Crispus Attucks High School— staffed by rigorous, often college-educated African-American instructors, for whom teaching was one of the few challenging careers available—demand was so high that 1,300 students showed up for instruction in a school built for 1,000. Night school became popular among Indianapolis blacks unable to attend classes during the day.

By the late sixties, at the very moment that blacks were winning political victories ensuring their civil rights, this enterprising, hardworking community was rapidly coming undone. One could now see the stirrings of a new black Indianapolis—a place where, three decades later, the SoulFest murders would be regarded more as same-old, same-old than as aberrations. Indianapolis had its first race riot in 1969, set off by a clash between black radicals and white cops on—ironically—Indiana Avenue. By 1973, central Indianapolis’s black neighborhoods were so threatening that special escorts now ushered black kids to and from school.

Out of the shadows crawled black “leaders” whom the old black Indianapolis would have run out of town in a week. Even before the 1969 riot, a petty crook, Snookie Hendricks, got the ear of a local white establishment jittery from seeing the race violence engulfing other American cities. Claiming that he was uniquely well placed to “maintain stability” among blacks, he won from city officials a municipal position—only to lose it for dealing drugs on the side. Fred Crawford, a Black Panther from Oakland, set up shop in Indianapolis, spouting regulation Panther rhetoric: “I don’t feel we can gain our freedom without a revolution. This could only happen if the white man raised his fist off the black man’s neck, but I don’t think he’ll ever do that.”

The old, go-getting black Indianapolis hadn’t completely vanished. Its spirit motivated schoolteacher Mattie Coney to found the Citizens Forum in 1966, just as things began to go bad. The Forum helped blacks clean up their increasingly disordered neighborhoods and point their children toward success. It established more than 3,000 block clubs over the years to sweep up trash and “de-rat-ify” vermin-infested buildings. It distributed a pamphlet urging black parents to teach their kids about cleanliness and polite conduct, and to take pride in themselves. Coney came from a solid working-class family that taught her that blacks’ road to salvation was to “quit feeling sorry for ourselves and take advantage of opportunities.” Lyndon B. Johnson granted her a special award for her efforts, and she won accolades from Presidents Eisenhower and Ford.

But in the new black Indianapolis, the Snookie Hendrickses seemed to outweigh the Mattie Coneys. The efforts of Coney and those like her weren’t enough to prevent inner-city breakdown. By the early nineties, the damage was inescapable and catastrophic. Blacks, just 21 percent of Indianapolis’s population, now committed 56 percent of its rapidly increasing violent crimes. Roughly one in ten of the city’s black males aged 16 to 24 was in jail; black boys were 43 percent of those in juvenile detention. In 1989, the city had 68 homicides; in 1991, 101; in 1998, 160. The majority of these were black-on-black murders.

Lax parenting grew common in a community that once held its children on a short tether. Indianapolis now had the highest rate of infant mortality of any big city in America. The percentage of black children living in one-parent homes was three times the white rate. In contrast with the stampede on Crispus Attucks High School in the twenties, dropping out was now commonplace. The black unemployment rate was three times the rate among whites. Drug use was stratospheric.

All this is wretchedly familiar today. But blacks in Indianapolis in 1950—to say nothing of blacks of Madame Walker’s era—would be staggered to see what had befallen their community.

On the “deindustrialization” view, this swift slide downhill resulted from two intertwined developments. First, a second Great Migration of southern blacks settled in Indianapolis during the 1960s. Two-thirds of these migrants were under 25, and three-quarters were women, many of them fleeing failed marriages with their children. These newcomers naturally settled in the low-rent inner city. Second, right at this time low-skilled manufacturing jobs—the only ones the new arrivals were qualified for—began leaving the city, primarily, in Indianapolis’s case, to the nearby suburbs. Black rage and hopelessness multiplied.

Yet is it really plausible to blame the alienation and brutality that gave rise to the black Indianapolis of SoulFest on factories moving a few miles away? And that’s how far it was: a study documented that, in 1972, the average distance of manufacturing jobs from the inner city was a mere 3.2 miles!

Granted, the transportation situation was far from perfect. Only 15 percent of the sixties migrants had cars to get to the new suburban plants, while the local bus system, designed for the more centralized city of yore, ran lines to the suburbs only infrequently, and often not late enough to serve the night shift adequately. But then ask: if blacks had for decades been picking up stakes and moving thousands of miles from their homes in search of work, why did some of them suddenly lapse into criminality and dysfunction when work moved a few miles away? Maybe they didn’t have many cars, but what about carpooling? What about the community combining its resources and buying a few vehicles at least viable enough to make it to the suburbs to work? What about some entrepreneur buying a jalopy and ferrying his neighbors for a small fee? Ordinarily, people make do: today, in Indiana’s third-poorest county—the mostly white, rural Crawford—nearly 60 percent of its workers commute to jobs outside the county. What made Indianapolis’s inner-city blacks so different?

And if factory relocation really did cause an epidemic of poverty in inner-city Indianapolis, wouldn’t people living there have engaged in a constant, agonizing search for work, even agitating publicly for it—at least for a few years, until hopelessness set in? Wouldn’t this be true even if, as John Kasarda might say, there was a geographical “mismatch” between a growing number of uneducated blacks and the region’s low-skilled jobs? But no community activist, scholar, or resident attests that this kind of hustle was much in evidence.

Punching even bigger holes in the factory-jobs-moved-away explanation is that, in Indianapolis, lots of them didn’t. Scholars Shane Davies and Melvin Albaum found that, by the late sixties, center-city Indianapolis had lost 43 percent of its blue-collar jobs, and that 228 of 922 factories had moved to suburbia. But that left 57 percent of the jobs and 694 factories still in place. By the eighties, UPS, GM, Stokely–Van Camp, International Harvester, Chevrolet Truck and Body, and many other businesses offered jobs in the city for people of little skill. Stephen Goldsmith, Indianapolis’s mayor from 1992 to 2002, says: “Anyone who wanted a job could work.”

Moreover, inner-city neighborhoods across the country fell apart, whether the deindustrialization was moderate, as in Indianapolis, or more extensive, as in Chicago or Philadelphia. This would force the deindustrialization theorist to argue that even some factory flight is enough to trigger a collapse of civilization among a segment of the black population—a dubious contention.

Aware of how weak the deindustrialization argument really is in Indianapolis’s case, scholars have groped for supplemental explanations. The 3.2 miles subjected poor Indianapolis blacks to “lack of job information,” says one. Or maybe there’s a “hard-core unemployed’s conception of distance,” different from yours and mine, says another. But obviously, the second Great Migration leaves these speculations dead in the water. The person who gleans job information from across state lines would have little trouble honing in on it from a few miles off; the person who negotiates the distance from Mississippi to Indiana presumably shouldn’t be stymied by the three miles from city to suburb.

Nor can we blame racism. Sure, even after the 1960s, discrimination existed in Indianapolis. But the limits on black aspiration were fast falling away. To compare this era with the days when the Klan ran the state and blacks were completely marginalized is an insult to the achievements of old black Indianapolis. In the early seventies, aggressive efforts to help poor blacks multiplied. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce began affirmative action in hiring and called for businesses to sign a pledge to start on-the-job training programs for people with limited skills. Similar state and federal programs followed.

Residual racism certainly didn’t hold back the large numbers of blacks who established prosperous businesses in Indianapolis during the 1970s. William G. Mays, to take one, founded the Mays Chemical Company and later became head of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Walter Blackburn’s architectural firm specialized in building churches, schools, and low-income housing. Informed movers and shakers in Indianapolis, white and black, stress the high degree of cooperation between white and black community leaders over the past decades.

Racial discrimination may not have expired completely in Indianapolis, but by no stretch of the imagination has it been a sentence for failure.

Strip away the jargon of “industrial dispersion,” and what you’re left with is an argument that poor Indianapolis blacks turned their neighborhoods into war zones because there weren’t enough buses to take them up the road a piece. A constructive black history needs a more plausible explanation for black failure in Indianapolis.

And that explanation is cultural. At the same moment in the sixties when Indianapolis experienced a moderate degree of deindustrialization, the black street began to embrace the entitlement-seeking, guilt-mongering, society-is-to-blame worldview now so drearily familiar among black leaders. This resentment-based ideology has dissuaded legions of blacks from seeking the American Dream out of the wrongheaded belief that the country is too racist and morally corrupt for them to embrace it.

The new black ideology taught that dressing down whitey for the sins of the past was “blacker” than facing what needed doing in the present. Under this new mind-set, someone like Mattie Coney, tirelessly seeking the uplift of the black community, was inauthentic—an “Aunt Jemima,” working for the racist establishment. Mmoja Ajabu, who during the nineties set up an Indianapolis branch of the New Black Panthers and tried to assemble a “militia” to overthrow the government, exemplified the authentic approach. “We know we are talking about death and destruction and grief in a whole lot of people’s families,” he said of his plans for social improvement. “But only then will they come to the negotiating table and talk candidly about getting something done.” Ajabu became embroiled in an arson case and then spent a year behind bars for threatening a prosecutor in another case. Some leader.

In Indianapolis, one could already see a symbol of this shift in values in a booth display at the 1971 Black Expo, a showcase of black enterprise. Called “Dignity Unlimited,” the display depicted a jail stockade in front of a painting of a black man and boy in chains. The self-pitying defeatism of the exhibit, at a time of such vaulting new opportunities for blacks, would have baffled Attucks High’s principal Russell Lane back in the thirties. To celebrate the school’s opening, John Wesley Hardrick, a local black portraitist, presented Lane with a painting of black laborers to hang in the school. Lane refused to mount it in the lobby, for fear of discouraging his students’ highest ambitions.

But as the new black ideology seduced many black educators, men like Lane became a vanishing breed. Back in 1922, a letter from “16 progressive colored citizens” of the Better Indianapolis League insisted that: “No one section of the population can be isolated and segregated without taking from it the advantage of the common culture.” In the nineties, by contrast, several of Indianapolis’s predominantly black schools were using historically dubious “Afrocentric” curricula, stressing blacks’ radical separateness from other Americans. And the most vocal of the city’s black clergymen were spreading an anti-white gospel, calling indignantly for “payback” and insisting that black pathology is a legacy of slavery and segregation—a proposition that the existence of self-reliant old black Indianapolis flat-out refutes.

The cultural change that undermined inner-city neighborhoods also led to a vast expansion of the welfare rolls—a development that accelerated urban black America’s downward spiral. Nationally, the rolls swelled 107 percent from 1960 to 1970, after increasing just 17 percent over the previous decade. In Indiana, the rise in welfare dependency between 1964 and 1977 was greatest in the three counties (including Indianapolis) where blacks were concentrated. For a segment of the black population, welfare became a dysfunctional, dependent way of life—in particular, for the single-parent families that became the inner-city norm.

In 1967 Indianapolis, a disturbed Mattie Coney was already warning: “The idea of expecting a ‘great white father’ to hand one something for nothing has created a class of irresponsible welfare slaves.” Goldsmith, who worked in child support in Indianapolis during the 1980s, lost count of how many welfare recipients told him that life on the dole simply paid better than holding down a job: “ ‘Give me a job that pays better than welfare, and sure I’ll go to work,’ they’d say.”

Such a demoralized and dependent life-style would have shocked the residents of old black Indianapolis. Back then, the black community took care of its own. But black private charities such as Alpha Home and Flanner House tirelessly conveyed the ideal of self-sufficiency to those they helped. The ideal clearly resonated. Self-respecting people worked to support themselves, however low their wages. Most blacks sought charity only under truly pressing circumstances and generally sought immediate provisions in a pinch rather than open-ended support. Nor was this assumption that charity was a last-ditch choice the result of a sense that blacks weren’t likely to get help. From 1894 to 1920, fully 96 percent of black applicants to the city’s private charities, grouped under the umbrella of the Charity Organization Society, had their applications approved. It’s just that it wasn’t right to become dependent on others’ charity.

In the sixties, though, such attitudes became passé. For the blame-game crowd among blacks, the nation was too racist to allow blacks opportunity, and anyway blacks deserved such reparations for the injustices of the past. So where was the shame in open-ended government dependency? By contrast, to find a way to make that 3.2-mile trip to the suburbs to work a job that paid “chump change” was just to conspire in one’s own oppression by an unjust system.

For many “concerned” whites, in turn, maintaining black people on the dole became a substitute for true moral engagement—a cheap way of showing “compassion” for the eternally piteous people so wronged by the nation. Both blacks and whites pushed to reform welfare laws, increasing benefits and loosening eligibility rules. The old one-year state-residency requirement went out the window, for example, so people could move from a less to a more generous state and sign right up. Neighborhood service centers opened across the country to encourage people to go on welfare who in the past would have steered clear.

The deindustrialization theorist would blame the rapid expansion of welfare on those same old vanishing manufacturing jobs. But in feminist Katherine Rosier’s 1990 study of women on welfare in Indianapolis, no welfare client speaks of “the factories moving away.” Rosier’s interview subjects readily admit that the downward trajectory of their lives began in the seventies with periods of drug abuse and sleeping around—behavior that elite culture had largely de-stigmatized. Culture matters.

We have a choice, then, between two factors that might explain the descent of a previously dignified people into a violent, feckless underclass. Choice one: a new culture emerged of dependency and self-destructive hostility toward mainstream culture. Choice two: it got a little harder to get to work. A black history that endorses the second choice while dismissing the first substitutes playing the underdog for common sense.

If we could play the tape again but keep all the factories where they were in 1960, the inner city would have undergone the same sad transformation.

 

 

 
The history of Indianapolis shows that culture is mightier than economics.
City Journal Autumn 2002.
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