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Spring 2005
 
City Journal Spring 2005.
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In  P rospect

 

Conservatives have watched the frequent failure of inner-city blacks with growing sorrow. There is no external reason for it: society is open, racism no longer presents a systemic barrier, the economy is churning out opportunity. The real cause is what radical poet William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles”—the false beliefs, distorted perceptions, and wrong values that impel people to defeat themselves or to give up without even trying. By anybody’s definition, this is tragedy.

How do mind-forg’d manacles come into being? Kay S. Hymowitz’s “What’s Holding Black Kids Back?” gives one answer, and a profound one. Even before bad urban schools do their damage, bad parenting inflicts deeper harm. Hymowitz doesn’t speak of the cruelty and neglect that fill the tabloids. She focuses instead on the failings of loving parents, who mean to do right but whose repertoire of child-rearing skills is, through no fault of their own, impoverished, so that they don’t give their infants and toddlers the kind of cognitive nurture that middle-class families of all races make it their life’s mission to provide. And such cultural patterns, especially those concerning the rearing of infants and toddlers, are extremely hard to change, as Stanley Kurtz observes in his provocative “Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike?”.

Hard, but not impossible; and as Heather Mac Donald points out in her bracing “Heralds of a Brighter Black Future”, legions of clear-sighted black conservatives across the nation are working on doing just that. Deploring the victimhood-mongering orthodoxy of today’s self-appointed black “leaders,” these sturdy individuals preach—and embody—the virtues of personal responsibility, self-help, hard work, respect for the law, and devotion to family. They love America, see its bountiful opportunity, and proudly define themselves as American, without any hyphen. Part of what makes the inner-city parents of Kay Hymowitz’s story fail is that their worldview really contains no vision of opportunity, of possibility, and of membership in a larger community, so they can’t communicate to their kids the urgency of taking advantage of all that. As these conservatives spread their message, though, they will expand the horizons, and the aspirations, of blacks throughout the country, who in turn will increasingly impart that hopeful vision to their children.

Certainly President Bush is helping out in this effort, as “Compassionate Conservative or Cowboy Capitalist?” makes clear. The compassionate conservativism of his first term decisively broke with the Left’s four-decade-old anti-poverty victimology; the domestic policy emphasis of his second term is precisely to stress America’s plethora of opportunity for all and to expand the free economy that generates it. Instead of emphasizing the problems and pathologies of the inner cities, as War on Poverty theorists did for so long and doubtless with the result of demoralizing blacks further, Bush aims to help everyone perceive, and embrace, America’s promise. And he wants to avoid an opportunity-crushing European-style welfare state. That’s why his current budget seeks to slash some of the most egregious War on Poverty programs, such as the community-development block grant, which, as Steven Malanga conclusively demonstrates in “America’s Worst Urban Program”, never had a chance of producing the desired effects and degenerated instead into a piggy bank for wasteful and often corrupt patronage.

The worst consequences of the European-style welfare state, as Theodore Dalrymple argues in “The Roads to Serfdom”, are spiritual. Even when an economy is more or less free, turning over so much responsibility to the state for providing unemployment benefits, health care, education, housing, pensions, and so on, weakens in citizens that self-reliant independence and entrepreneurialism on which Americans have long prided themselves. It makes citizens passive, unproductive, and servile. It robs them of a sense of purpose, so they would not be quick to seize opportunity, even if the welfare state, with its job-killing taxes and regulations, could create more of it.

It is, in other words, another factory of the mind-forg’d manacles that destroy so many lives—that create serfs even without a tyrant.

 

 


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