In no sane part of this great country are reparations really due, but no one has ever accused California of undue sanity. Last week, as Kurtis Lee of the New York Times reported with a straight face, a California panel approved recommendations “that could mean hundreds of billions of dollars in payments to Black residents to address past injustices.”
By “injustices,” Lee means things like slavery, Ku Klux Klan violence, and Jim Crow. As unjust as they were, these Democratic institutions did not cause the wealth disparities between blacks and whites that reparations boosters like to cite. No, the real damage was done much later by still another Democratic invention, the so-called “Great Society.”
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, I had a ringside seat on the change the Great Society wrought. In my forthcoming book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, I describe what I and others saw.
Among the more instructive stories I tell is that of the late black radical Amiri Baraka, the father of current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. In 1951, Baraka graduated from my integrated neighborhood high school, Barringer. He was one of four blacks in a homeroom of 29 students.
“His carefree and jovial manner has lighted many of our classrooms,” wrote the editors of Baraka in his senior yearbook. At Barringer, Baraka ran track and cross country and belonged to the science club and the Latin Honor Society. Upon graduation, he was offered a four-year scholarship to Seton Hall University and lesser scholarships to Holy Cross and Rutgers University-Newark.
In mid-century urban America, Baraka’s success was not unusual. In his 1987 memoir, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Baraka unwittingly made the case against reparations. Despite slavery and Jim Crow, his friends from the neighborhood were doing just fine—“auto plants, utilities, electronic tube factories, mechanics, white-collar paper shuffling, teachers, small businessmen, security guards, commercial artists.”
His classmates at the historically black Howard University were doing even better. “At least five of us became generals,” he wrote, “and many more at lower levels. An admiral or two. [Ronald] Reagan’s top Negro. [Spiro] Agnew’s top Negro. Negroes at all levels of state bureaucracy and madness.”
As a radical, Baraka wrote dismissively of his friends’ success, but this argument against interest makes his account of black progress in mid-century America all the more credible. His friends were on the move. Jews excepted, blacks were doing nearly as well as any ethnic group in mid-century Newark, and for a decade or so the progress continued. During the 1950s, the ratio of nonwhite to white family income in cities nationwide increased from 57 to 63 percent.
Critical to the success of all these ethnic groups, blacks included, was family stability. In mid-century urban America, desertion and fatherlessness were rare. On the mixed-ethnic, working-class block of my youth, for instance, 81 of the 83 households had male “heads”—the term used by the U.S. Census. Of the 81 males, 79 had jobs, virtually all of them blue collar. From the job descriptions, I doubt if there was a college graduate among them.
I pulled these numbers from the 1950 Census, released in 2022. Although I have not run the numbers on largely black blocks, I suspect they would show a high percentage of male-headed households as well. Nationwide, it is estimated that more than five out of every six black children lived with both parents in 1950, a figure that had been more or less stable since Reconstruction.
At the time my family moved to this block in 1953, three black families were living in the triplex next to ours. A decade later, the block was about 10 percent black. As a paperboy, I was in a good position to know. There was no “white flight,” no reason to flee.
Then everything changed. Social justice and legal “reforms,” combined with a loosening of moral restraints, simply made raising children without a married father in the home more socially and economically viable. Books have been written about this transition, none more influential than Charles Murray’s 1985 classic, Losing Ground. For Murray, the catalyzing moment “consisted very simply of deciding that the system is to blame.”
Although the cancer set in before President Lyndon Johnson took office, Johnson deserves blame for encouraging it to metastasize. In 1965, his assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, delivered to Johnson a remarkably clear-eyed report. In “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Moynihan told the truth about what, as an adolescent, I was already seeing in the streets and playgrounds of Newark:
The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence—not final, but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated.
Families were crumbling under the weight of government largesse. Before the 1960s, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) cases and employment numbers rose and fell in near perfect harmony among black families: the lower the unemployment rate, the fewer the AFDC cases. In 1960, “for the first time” as Moynihan observed, unemployment numbers declined, but the number of new AFDC cases rose. This seemingly freakish pattern repeated itself in 1963 and again in 1964. More jobs no longer meant fewer people dependent on government assistance.
Not surprisingly, the gap between black and white income, only recently shrinking, began to widen. The gap was particularly pronounced, Moynihan observed, among the young people “caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world.”
The report put Johnson in something of a pickle. Just a year earlier in May 1964, he first articulated what he called “The Great Society,” an absurdly ambitious scheme designed to expand and institutionalize programs very much like the ones Moynihan claimed were destroying the black community. Always the opportunist, Johnson effectively buried the report, and kept the money flowing. He had votes to buy.
By the early 1970s, my once vibrant neighborhood had fully collapsed. Rampant crime had rendered the neighborhood, in the words of a Democratic friend, “untenable.” Inner cities almost everywhere became just as problematic, with blacks bearing the burden of crime and decay more than whites.
In 2008, after 40 years of enforced party silence, a prominent Democrat finally spoke out about the breakdown Moynihan had predicted.
“We know that more than half of all Black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled—doubled—since we were children,” said presidential candidate Barack Obama. “We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.”
The progressive establishment did not welcome Obama’s truthful explanation of cause and effect. Three weeks after Obama’s Father’s Day speech, a hot mic at a Fox News studio picked up Jesse Jackson saying to another black guest, “See, Barack been, um, talking down to black people on this faith-based—I wanna cut his nuts out.” For emphasis, Jackson made a slicing motion with his hand.
Obama got the message. He never spoke out again.
“The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow,” wrote Moynihan in 1965 at his most prescient. “If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.” Oh, so right Moynihan was.