Concern for the underclass has prompted a growing body of vivid, finely observed journalistic works about the inner city, including Daniel Coyle's Hardball, Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, and Leon Dash's series of Washington Post articles about Rosa Lee Cunningham, a drug-dealing mother of eight. This troubles journalist Michael Massing.

"These works," Massing acknowledges in The New Yorker, "are thoroughly good-hearted, full of solicitude and compassion for America's disadvantaged." But, he argues, they share a fundamental flaw: they present their subjects as individuals rather than objects of social and economic forces beyond their control. We do not learn "what transformed" Paul, father of the two boys in There Are No Children Here, from a productive workingman into a deadbeat addict or what "broader forces" impelled Cunningham's decline. Without "discussing socioeconomic realities" to explain "how [the subjects] got that way," Massing objects, the authors leave us with mere "morality tales—political parables about the risks of illegitimacy, the dangers of drug abuse, the perils of irresponsible parenting."

Never mind that these "tales" and "parables" are true. Like a member of a diversity committee in search of role models, Massing examines these works to see how their authors "portray" or "depict" African-Americans. "As for the fathers, most seem to be in jail, on drugs, or dead," he objects about Hardball. "One of the few black men portrayed sympathetically is an umpire named Anthony Garrett." By the end of the book, however, Garrett has been arrested for shooting a teenager. The sympathetic depiction up to that point, Massing concludes—as if the writer were imagining rather than recording a life—was "all just a setup."

Massing cannot quite believe these works, because they don't confirm his preconceptions. He himself demands parables over reality-tales that would show individuals as frail reeds blown about by the winds of change. "Perhaps," he writes, "the authors respect their subjects too much." For all his ostensible concern, Massing apparently believes that underclass individuals have no volition and little to tell us.


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