Affirmative Action (2 of 2)

(This is the second part of an email exchange referred to in this post.)

I picked up a book as a gift for a friend, Robert Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future. Kaplan’s travel books are all worth reading. They are really strategic analyses of the parts of the world he visits admixed with his first-rate “muddy boots,” on-the-scene observations. If you don’t know his stuff I strongly, strongly recommend it.

I opened it at random and found this:

Throughout my travels [in the USA], I did not find much sympathy for blacks who require special help. Affirmative action evidently runs counter to the American notion that the scramble for wealth, jobs and positions be unaffected by the government. Of course, for so long blacks were denied such equality that affirmative action is simply an imperfect way of redressing grievances and fostering social stability by quickening their entry into the middle class. Though government may not be able to alter vast social and economic forces such as the disintegration of inner cities, that does not mean that it cannot soften such painful blows. Throughout history, social stability has been achieved by pacing out change so that it is never too burdensome and therefore destabilizing. Affirmative action fits well within this historical tradition of easing the burden of change — the death of inner cities and the creation of a sizable black middle class. But it has to be applied extremely judiciously, or it may split society rather than unify it.

[Lex] again. That is close to my view. I would phrase it differently, but Kaplan is close.

I take an even longer view. The integration of the blacks who migrated from the deep south in the 1940s and 1950s, due to the introduction of mechanical cotton picking equipment as well as in response to demand for low-skilled workers and greater freedom in the North, is just one of the more recent episodes of a landless, illiterate peasantry being driven from the country-side by dire need or perceived opportunity and into the Big City.

This process is one of the great, ongoing dynamic processes in world history. It goes back to Mesopotamia, and was hugely important in Hellenistic and Roman times. (Read Rodney Stark’s excellent chapter on Antioch in his (superb) book The Rise of Christianity.) Talk to a sociologist and he will say, “of course urbanization is modernization.” Historians are usually too microscopically focused to discuss this, with certain honorable exceptions like William H. McNeill. Talk to any normal person, and they are at best dimly aware of this universal phenomenon.

It happened in 17th and 18th century England. For decades you could not go out at night in London without armed guards. Samuel Pepys’ diary and Boswell’s depiction of Johnson’s London are 100 years apart, but the basic (violent, dirty, dangerous) texture of life is very similar, though it was somewhat better by Johnson’s time. London was transformed not by secular city planning, or democracy, but by a popular religious revival, specifically Methodism. This religious revival transformed the anarchic London of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” into the safe and orderly city it became under Victoria’s reign and was until within living memory. (See Jenny Uglow’s book Hogarth: A Life and a World.)

Similarly, the Irish in New York in the 1840s and ’50s were a violent, gang-ridden, drunken underclass, with vast majorities of children born out of wedlock and frequently abandoned. The grandchildren of these dead-enders became the familiar stodgy, tough, pious Irish Catholics we think of here in America, due to a religious revival led by such men as Dagger John Hughes.

This process took about three generations in New York and Boston and other locales for the Irish. To inculcate middle-class values and conduct into the rural poor and to acclimatize them to urban life, rules and expectations seems to take about that long once you get serious about it. It was faster in Chicago, where there were more economic opportunities.

Similar processes of internal immigration, urbanization are occurring now in South America and Africa, including a revival of popular religious enthusiasm. Lagos and Sao Paolo are the London and New York of the next century. Or so we hope. See Philip Jenkins on the religious dimension of this:

The fact is that America has long been and remains the emigration destination for the world because the opportunities are here to be grasped. The problem with most poor and backward communities in America is that they have failed to develop the skills and habits to grasp those opportunities. Clarence Page had an article in the Tribune (August 13, 2003) on this very topic. Black children of middle-class families did less well in school than white children despite similar income levels. The parents and the kids had still not mastered certain practices and attitudes which are necessary to be academically competitive. Page, to his credit, is willing to face this squarely. Blaming Whitey for something like that is simply not plausible to any rational observer.

Liberals call this view of things “blaming the victim.” I call it “facing reality.”

The rural-born black American and his children and grandchildren have had a hard time. That is a fact. But that community has actually had a relatively easy time compared to similar peasant migrations, due to the (comparatively) free, orderly, prosperous and receptive conditions prevailing in urban America. It takes nothing away from their suffering to be aware of this. And it is foolhardy not to be aware of the larger picture both geographically and historically, to learn from hard-won lessons in other places and times. Americans are too parochial. Our country does not exist in a galaxy of its own, nor is today all that different from yesterday in many important ways. We are unique in some ways, but only in some. Common patterns which take on a local or contemporary coloring are still common patterns — and hence suggestive if not dispositive of possible solutions or at least (being a conservative I do not think the world is composed of “problems” with “solutions”), possible ameliorative or mitigating measures.

The well-documented balkanizing and politically destabilizing effect of race-, class- or linguistically-based preferential policies world-wide is a topic for another time, if ever.

We Americans do ourselves a disservice if we think we can work miracles overnight. And by overnight I mean other than over the course of several generations. We have accomplished absolutely breathtaking things in the area of race relations in the last 50 years. This is an accomplishment we should be aware of and proud of. Looking at our situation with too narrow a focus leads to an unmerited sense of failure. It also feeds a neurotic and counterproductive sense of liberal guilt. And that in turn leads to ill-considered social policy.

12 thoughts on “Affirmative Action (2 of 2)”

  1. I agree in substance with pretty much all of that.

    The worst effects wroght upon the black underclass were during LBJ’s Great Society and the perverse unintended consequences it had, right when that process of assimilation should have kicked into high gear. The new welfare state made it economically rational for black mothers to do without marginally employable black males in the household, and the new war on drugs took black males out of the relationship market. This let them get away with staying in unhealthy criminal patterns.

    Oh yeah, trying to “help” can indeed do much more harm than good.

  2. Don’t overlook the influence, for good and bad, of govt policies. Much of the progress made by American blacks occurred before the welfare state got up to steam, and the pre-welfare, pre-affirmative-action rate of improvement was higher too, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out numerous times. These facts bode ill for the striving poor in places like Sao Paolo, where local govt heavyhandedness hinders business and job creation and property accumulation more than is the case in the U.S., and vastly more than was the case in the U.S. during past periods when the urbanized poor made huge gains.

  3. First, your model of how the world works assumes that affirmative action would be just a temporary palliative until blacks adjust to the great migration of two generations ago and catch up with whites. Yet, do you have any evidence that blacks over, say, the last 20 years have significantly closed the gap with whites, thus allowing us to project a termination date when blacks could compete equally without racial preferences?

    In reality, the white-black gap on the National Assessment of Educational Performance tests given to schoolchildren is wider today than in 1985. On average, blacks in the 12th grade score like whites in the 7th grade. It’s nice to assume that white-black gap in performance will inevitably disappear, but it’s much more realistic to assume that the conditions that generate demands for racial quotas will remain roughly the same for as far into the future as we can foresee.

    Second, most of those eligible for affirmative action are not black. Why in the world should legal immigrants, much less illegal immigrants, who chose America, warts and all, be eligible for the benefits originally designed for people whose ancestors were brought here in chains? Worse, this looks like another permanent class of beneficiaries, since Hispanics born in America average about 3 or more grade levels lower than whites on the NAEP. (Asians, of course, do fine.)

    Third, as historian Hugh Graham Davis pointed out recently, the intersection of affirmative action and immigration is a time bomb. When affirmative action was invented in 1969, there were about 8 whites for every black, so when a black was given a job over a more qualified white, the cost per white on average was only 1/8th of a job, so the cost per white was not terribly high. The early 1970s expansion of quotas to immigrant groups, however, changed this dynamic. We are now headed toward an eventual 1 to 1 ratio of benefactors to beneficiaries. This is very similar to the same problem that Social Security is headed toward, except that it is much more politically explosive. After all, Social Security takes from you and pays your Mom, so it’s all in the family. Affirmative action takes from one race and pays to other races, so there is much less fellow-feeling. This seems to be a perfect recipe for Balkanizing American politics along racial lines.

  4. Affirmative action to illegal immigrants?
    What will they think of next? Giving the whole program to beneficiaries of affirmative action to administer? Does the term “positive feedback” ring any bells?

  5. “…your model of how the world works assumes that affirmative action would be just a temporary palliative …”

    Whoa. I said nothing of the sort.

    But, feel free to rebut this idea to your heart’s content.

    My whole point was that affirmative is a medicine for a disease which isn’t even a disease.

    I never think any government policy is temporary, so I’m sure I didn’t say that either.

  6. Lex – I’ve heard you spout-off similar such invective before, but let it fly-by in the spirit of lively conversation which you favor: “Similarly, the Irish in New York in the 1840s and ’50s were a violent, gang-ridden, drunken underclass, with vast majorities of children born out of wedlock and frequently abandoned.”

    Now that you’ve put it in writing, prove it: your authority, please, that during said period in NYC “vast majorities of (Irish) children were born out of wedlock and frequently abandoned.”


  7. To seek to prove that members of an ethnic group “… were a violent, gang-ridden, drunken underclass, with vast majorities of children born out of wedlock and frequently abandoned” is not a challenge I would happily accept.

    The article on Bishop Hughes is interesting and entertaining. It is also inconsistent, vague, and hyperbolic. An embarassment, I would say, to cite such an article as authority.

    The author’s not precise as to the dates, but does refer to a population of 60,000 Catholics out of a population of 300,000 in NYC – in 1838?

    He also claims “an estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes in 1850.” 60,000 Catholics, an estimated 50,000 of whom are Irish hookers.

    Not to make too fine a point of it, but he also refers to Five Points as one of two particularly loathesome Irish neigborhoods. I have no doubt it was nasty. Seems they had “as many as 17 brothels” there alone. At least there weren’t 18, or 20.

    I wonder where “as many as” 49,000+ other Irish hookers hung their hats.

    Let’s not forget the kids. For all his enthusiasm, your source does not stand as authority that “vast majorities” of Irish children were “born out of wedlock and frequently abandoned.”

    He does claim: “Illegitimacy reached stratoshpheric heights” and that “tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets.”

    Later in the piece his confidence rises and he states that there were “perhaps as many as 60,000 Irish children wnadering in packs around New York City.”

    By the way – just how high is “stratospheric”? I think it depends on elevation.

    Gosh, if there were 60,000 Catholics in NYC, 50,000 Irish hookers (if you really know the Irish, you know even the hookers were Catholics) and perhaps as many as 60,000 abandoned, prowling, roaming Jimmy Cagney knock-offs (Catholic, too, just as sure as Jimmy Cagney played off of the tough Irish Fadda in his films),.. well, gee, that doesn’t really add up.

    60,000 total Catholics minus an estimated 50,000 Irish hookers minus 60,000 abandoned bastard Irish children, prowling and roaming in packs?

    There must be a mistake here. What about the Irish fathers? Dads, I mean – and hey, for that matter what about the priests, too – where do they fit into these numbers?

    Anyway, I’m still looking over your source to find a reference to that “vast majority” of illegitimate births. Perhaps I missed it.

    Let’s make this simpler: a vast majority of Irish children were born illegitimately in NYC in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

    Prove it.

  8. John, maybe you have got me on this one point.

    I may have to concede on “vast majority”.

    But I don’t concede it yet. It would be consistent with my basis understanding of what was going on in that era, in New York, among its Irish. I suspect I must have gotten it from somewhere, rather than dreamed it up. I usually don’t dream these things up.

    I’m looking into it.

  9. Lex doesn’t acknowledge something I thought plain – given his citation of dubious authority, I have broadened my critique: 50,000 Irish prostitutes in NYC in 1850? 60,000 abandoned Irish children – roaming and prowling in the streets, no less!

    One additional point of Lex’s needs to be highlighted because it is, I think, at the heart of this exchange – the assertion that the NYC Irish of 1840-1860 were a “drunken underclass”.

    Good judgment will win out, I hope, when its author decides whether or not to stand by that characterization.

    Yes, specific factual points are at issue – starting with the one Lex has acknowledged.

    There is a greater issue.

    I believe one of the writers referenced by Lex in the blog to which I originally responded – Jenkins of Penn State – is known for having remarked that the last acceptable prejudice in this country is anti-Catholicism.

    That, of course, is not true – though it may ring true to those who have encountered it.

    There will always be prejudices – lingering ones and those newly minted – to challenge those of us who are inclined to sin. Even in civilized company, in the midst of earnest discourse among reasonable men, we shouldn’t be too surprised when prejudice rears its ugly head.

  10. Well, I suppose a status report is in order. For you, John, my old friend, I go to lengths few others get. I have contacted the author of the article’s research assistant, and I am trying to get a copy of the article with the footnotes. I have also ordered a copy of the John Hughes biography. So, we’ll see about the exact numbers.

    On the larger, point, you have made a tactical error, if you seek to obtain a retraction.

    That the Irish in the Eastern seaboard cities were a drunken underclass is a historical fact so broadly known and proven and well-supported I scarcely know where to begin. But, I will actually make another post on it, citing among others Kevin Phillips, Thomas Sowell and other reputable sources, in detail.

    Jenkins is right. And it is not anti-Catholic bigotry to point out that suffering several centuries of brutal oppression was not good for the character of the Irish Catholics. But they
    overcame all this. That is the story. And a heroic story it is.

    But, as my further research material filters in I will revisit all this. So, we can, I hope end the dialogue on this post, and resume it on a better substantiated basis than a tossed-off sentence based on a half-remembered statistic which started life as an email. If you want to go last here, feel free to do so.

  11. OK, the last word.

    Let’s take this private for awhile. Lex, I’ve got a few things to share with you sometime from my research, and have two books on order from the local library that should prove intersting and may even provoke additional reading – one on Five Points, the other on historical population trends in NYC.

    We can compare sources, perhpas come up with points of consensus.

    Though we’ll come to no consensus regarding this foul, expanding bluster of the Irish as a “drunken underclass”.

    It is difficult to imagine where to begin…

    Trying to respond to that is like responding to a famous lawyer’s trick: “So when was the last time you beat your wife, Sir?”

    I had a client once who was stunned by the verbal audacity of opposing counsel who was trying to cudgel him into embracing that which was not. With more than a bit of confusion, but an economy of language and a simple honesty I have treasured ever since, he said: “Man, he was wrong even if he was right.”

Comments are closed.