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Blacks and Jews

One problem that separates blacks and Jews as never before is class. Jews have always had more money than blacks, but a generation ago, in the early days of the civil-rights movement, many Jews felt closer to the era of their own economic and class oppression. Blacks have not kept pace, and as the black agenda has moved from equality in law to equality in fact, Jewish empathy has waned.

To be sure, there is compelling statistical evidence of black progress. Ben Wattenberg has assembled some of it in his new book, The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong: The number of blacks living in the suburbs has increased almost 100 percent in twenty years. Forty-four percent of all blacks own their own homes. The number of blacks enrolled in college in 1960 was 227,000. In 1982, that figure had risen to 1,127,000. The list is nearly endless, the conclusion obvious: For those blacks eager and able to advance, few institutional barriers remain.

But the indexes of distress are equally staggering, proof of a pathology deeply rooted among less fortunate or less motivated blacks. In recent years, for example, black unemployment in America has been twice the white rate. And Harvard's James Q. Wilson reports that blacks are "ten times as likely to commit a murder and eight times as likely to commit an assault as whites."

Class divisions drive both groups apart. For all their noisy differences over the last few years, blacks and Jews both tend to support the traditional, liberal-Democratic social agenda.

The disintegration of black families is a national crisis. In 1960, 21 percent of black families were headed by females. In 1983, the figure was 48 percent. In 1980, 55 percent of black births were illegitimate. The figure for whites was 11 percent. In New York City, 85 percent of all babies born to black teenagers are illegitimate. It is "family disintegration" that most worries experts like Pat Moynihan: "From the wild Irish slums of the nineteenth-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder—most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure—that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable."

Some, like Gordon Davis, perceive an ironic and perverse side effect of integration, a decline in close-at-hand role models for young blacks. "When I grew up in the ghetto," says Davis, "it was strictly a racial ghetto. My father was a professor. Next door was a numbers runner. Across the street was a dentist. In a basement apartment nearby was a family on welfare. One could take his cues from any of these. When integrated housing came, the achievers moved out. Today, the ghetto consists solely of the economically deprived. The cues are all bad. Who can the poor black look up to where it counts, right there on his block?"

In recent years, as traditional liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy have cast about for people and programs to blame, America's welfare system has come in for a good deal of deserved abuse: "We say to this child," said Kennedy in 1978, "wait, there is a way, one way you can be somebody to someone. We will give you an apartment, and furniture to fill it. We will give you a TV set and a telephone. We will give you clothing, and cheap food, and free medical care, and some spending money besides. And in return, you only have to do one thing: just go out and have a baby. And faced with such an offer, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands have been caught in the trap that our welfare system has become."

Ed Koch's view is similar to Ted Kennedy's. "Early in my career as mayor," says Koch, "I said that if we'd given to the poor directly all the money we've appropriated for them over the years—billions—the poor would be rich. Obviously, the programs haven't done what they were intended to do." To Koch, a version of workfare offers promise. "The purpose isn't to keep people on welfare," says the mayor. "The purpose is to make it possible for the poor to enter the private sector. I believe it is helpful to require persons to work—during hours when the kids are in school—and that they should receive no extra remuneration except carfare and lunch money. . . . There are now some 14,000 people in our program. . . . Some critics," notes Koch with disdain, "have said that our program is oppressive, that it is slavery. [But] a maintenance check is a salary check. . . . I'm going to keep trying."


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Feb 4, 1985 issue of New York