Are We Ready for a Vision of Justice?

Are We Ready for a Vision of Justice?

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 25-28

Savage Inequalities. Jonathan Kozol. (Crown Publishers, 1991. ix, 262 pp.). The Promised Land. Nicholas Lemann. (Knopf, 1991. 410 pp.).

Explanations of the causes of poverty within capitalistic societies have tended to fall within three analytical frameworks. A first has held the society responsible. A second, the poor themselves. A third, while accepting that the original fault may have been society’s, holds that the poor have since become so deformed–some use the term “culture of poverty,” some other terms–as now to be self-perpetuating.

A fourth explanation is logically possible, and is implicit (and perhaps more than that) in the analysis of William Julius Wilson. It would hold that the original fault was society’s–deliberate or more likely impersonally systemic–and that it–society–has by now become incapable, without transformation, of doing anything decisively to end poverty.

Jonathan Kozol is firmly within the first persuasion. Society is to blame, and until and unless it takes its heavy hand off the poor there is neither practical nor moral grounds for judging them accountable for their plight.

Nicholas Lemann’s unsparing description of a contemporary big-city racial ghetto–his example is Chicago–and of governmental efforts since 1961 to change it could well lead him to the fourth persuasion, but he steps away from that, and briefly sketches a program a sensible government and its society might follow, to help an abandoned people out of their “culture of poverty.”

No citizens should stay unaware, if they in fact are, of what Kozol reports. He charges that we deliberately deny the children of our black and Hispanic poor an education, one comparable by any measure to that of white children. In 1959, the Southern Regional Council published a short study titled Georgia’s Divided Education. The “law of the land” had not yet reached Georgia, the “law” still required “separate but equal,” and so Georgia’s schools were then legally separate and illegally unequal.

Today, after Kozol’s study, we have to consider whether

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the nation has not worsened. The schools of our cities are once again legally separate (which is to say, they have weathered all the enforcement actions and are still racially set apart, desegregated if at all only by token members of the other races and–this time around–are now legally unequal (or will be such unless state-wide equity laws are established and obeyed). What once was illegal is now lawful; we have made inequality legal.

Kozol went to East St. Louis (Illinois), Chicago, New York, Camden and Paterson (New Jersey), Washington, San Antonio, to schools in their inner cities and to schools in their affluent, dominantly white, neighborhoods or suburbs. Some passages excerpted from his chapter on New York will suggest what he found.

Enough. The best I’ve omitted, the words of children and teachers and the word-pictures of schools they have their being in, both poor ones and the far different ones of affluent white districts. Two of the cliches of American speech-makers stand naked before Kozol’s portrayals: that education is the way to “progress”; and that other one, that our youth are our trusted hope for the future.

Nicholas Lemann’s book is similarly unnerving. It is an important and valuable book, though one has to surmount an over-supply of annoyances to say that, including the incessant use of the term “the left,” undefined; and the embarrassed feeling one gets when intimate details of other people’s lives are displayed. (I hope they got something for it; like cash.) A dumb jacket blurb by George Will calls it “even better in execution” than Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, as inapt a comparison as can be imagined.

And despite all the obvious research, doubts do arise: for example, did black “old folks” walk country roads of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s singing “the old folk song ‘We Shall Overcome’?” or, did the FBI send agents in the late 1940s to investigate a voting denial complaint and get four Mississippi blacks registered? or, do the

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several harsh anecdotal dissections of personalities, especially of Lyndon Johnson, add anything to the book’s argument, have any other than a crowd-pleasing purpose? or, did the criminal acts allegedly committed by the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) against Mississippi Action for Progress (MAP) actually occur except in the files of a Washington office hostile to CDGM? 1

All that aside, The Promised Land is a genuine achievement. If it and Kozol’s Savage Inequalities do not penetrate this nation’s moral, and political, obtuseness and squalor, it is hard to have faith that any words will.

Lemann’s thesis is that black populations within the centers of our big cities have become ghettoized, their surrounding societies’ only true desire toward them being to keep them contained, the ghetto itself become a culture, largely lawless, within which its members’ once strong desire to escape has progressively withered, so that it has become self-perpetuating. He traces this awful condition to the black migration from the South, resulting from the displacement of black field workers by agricultural machinery and chemicals. Unlike Kozol, who is content to confront citizens simply with the injustice they tolerate and are responsible for continuing, Lemann is concerned also with impersonal, economic forces, and seems a bit less demanding of us as individual citizens.

He builds his book around two localities, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Chicago, following migrants from Clarksdale to the metropolis. His principal (though not only) subject is Ruby Haynes, née Ruby Lee Hopkins,

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born 1916, moved to Chicago in 1946, moved back to Clarksdale in 1979, where presumably still is. Lemann tells of her marriages and liaisons, her many children and grandchildren and their fortunes, of life in the “projects” of Chicago, her better life in the “projects” of Clarksdale, the hideous reality of drug trade and gang violence, the disintegration of the hopes which a Southern folk took as they went north, the intent of Chicago’s rulers to “keep blacks in their place”–a different “place” than the white South had prescribed but the intent responsive to the same American tradition. Mrs. Haynes has now attained the best a woman or man of her position can realistically hope for: Social Security. She has made it. She has survived welfare.

The narrative moves back and forth between Clarksdale and Chicago. There is an entr’acte of a hundred pages focused on the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon administrations’ attempts to pacify or to solve (one or the other, as political seasons changed) poverty. Nothing worked well enough. Lemann’s description of the government’s failure bogs down in a lot of tales of the interplay of personalities. The reader will get a better, clearer view of the shortcomings of those years and their policies from his brilliantly sharp reporting about the Chicago scene which follows the Washington chapter.

There were so many programs in those days, most now discarded like worn-out tires, the tread all gone. I recall thinking–I was working in New York at the time–that the Model Cities program made a lot of good sense, but I do not remember very well why I thought so, or whatever became of it, or just what it was. Lemann is right, that Head Start has been the “war on poverty’s” best result. Legal Services and the Job Corps have also endured meritoriously. None of these has ever been adequately sized and funded. Some of Lemann’s best pages are at the very end of his book where (despite a fanciful belief in the results of social science research about poverty) he makes common-sense suggestions for specific, targeted programs to reduce the pains of urban poverty. “The idea that the government can’t accomplish anything is a smokescreen.”

And, as Jonathan Kozol writes, with a reference to the Reagan/Bush leadership,

Kozol and Lemann should goad, if not inspire, us to find the courage. And the vision.

Whose, though, is the vision? The beckoning one for many, probably for the author of these two fine books, is symbolically King’s dream, or Lincoln’s “of, by, and for” the people. Do the young black separatists of today’s ghettos care about or believe in the possibility of either? Do the thieves of Wall Street and their lawyers? Do the 55 percent of white Louisianans who voted for Duke, the Congressional herd who invented more than half a hundred new causes permitting the state to kill its poor? Do the invaders of Grenada and Panama, the yellow-ribboned cheerers of the killing of the Iraqi soldiers and civilians -are these Americans, who seem to be most of us, ready for a vision of justice? There is so much social distance among us. I hope Kozol and Lemann will write again, examining ourselves. From Kozol especially, we have learned to expect much.

Now living in Durham, N. C., Leslie Dunbar is the book review editor of Southern Changes.