The Great American Cities — National Treasure or National Pestilence?

I have been reading Thomas Sowell’s excellent book, Affirmative Action  Around the World.  In it I was reading the chapter on the United States, and I came to this statement (p. 119)

In short, black education rose substantially, both absolutely and relative to white education, in the decades preceding the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the affirmative action policies that began in the 1970s.  What economic changes accompanied this rise in black education?  As of 1940, 87 percent of black families had incomes below the official poverty line.  By 1960, this was down to 47 percent of black families.  This dramatic 40-percentage-point decline came at a time when there was no major federal civil rights legislation.  But this was a time not only of rising black education, but also a time of a massive exodus of blacks out of the South–more than 3 million people–escaping both the Jim Crow laws and the substandard Southern black schools.  In short, this was a time when vast members of blacks lifted themselves out of poverty–“by their own bootstraps,” as the phrase goes.

It is no secret that the post-war South was devastated economically and that this sordid turn of events meant a power struggle for the remaining scarce resources.  Northern reconstructionists, using “40 acres and a mule” affirmative action enticements, offered the former slaves an ideal of freedom and prosperity that they were hopelessly incapable of actually providing.  Empty promises were followed by abandonment, during which time the remnants of Dixie elites and their white minions succeeded in re-appropriating the meager resources of the South for themselves, once again leaving blacks with the short end of the stick.

Even with this re-entrenchment of white supremacy, blacks were still not inclined to rebellion or flight until the agricultural difficulties of the 1930’s required them to move or starve.  The ever-expanding industry of the North was color blind in that it didn’t matter if it gained its workers from the oppressed of Europe of the oppressed of Dixie.  So the Great Migration  progressed and the great cities absorbed great masses of people from every color and nation. Mr. Sowell intimates that the migration of blacks to northern cities, and their subsequent rise in educational level was the main reason for their economic improvement.  And, as has been the tenor of his book, he believes that Affirmative Action is the cause for the subsequent worsening of economic conditions for the same people.  He certainly could use Post-civil war reconstruction as an example of proof. At this point, though, I was struck with the fact that cities represent a different kind of economic and social universe than do more rural areas, and the metropolitan areas, especially, represent a unique set of challenges that even smaller cities do not.  Here, I recall what Thomas Jefferson had to say about cities and the masses.  In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, he wrote.

The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue & freedom, would be my choice.

Of course his thoughts, in a narrower context, speak of the ability of epidemics to ravage populations in large cities.  But, from other writings, we have his thoughts that cities are a congregation of poor and undereducated people who, by the very tenuous nature of their existence, are inclined to think locally and selfishly, and not in the best interests of the country at large. Some may dispute that cities are really the bane of society or a drag on the moral essence of a country.  But, consider that all ethnic groups who started as migrants or immigrants to the cities, did, as quickly as economically possible, abandon the cities.  Consider that, as Mr. Sowell points out on page 117, the black communities led the nation in marriage rates and employment rates before affirmative action laws, but also before migrating in large numbers to the cities.  Consider that, now, blacks are by far the lowest in marriage rates, highest in violent crime rates, lowest in education, and lowest in employment, but this really applies to blacks who are entrenched in cities.  Consider, also, that, as mores of hip-hop and gansta rap, largely a product of the poorest regions of the cities, have infiltrated our national consciousness, the mores of the cities have indeed, as Jefferson would have imagined, lowered the moral standards of America as a whole.  And consider that urban blight is not restricted to the black portions of cities, but that poor people of all ethnic backgrounds who have not escaped the cities have fallen prey to the same maladies.

I guess I am a little sick to death of hearing about the great, vibrant city of New York.  It really boils down to a certain bravado that people from that city are survivors, that they are hardened to the cruelties of the world, that they can coexist, that they have survived because they are the fittest.  (And then there is all the talk of Art and Culture, as if the supposed haute couture of Broadway is superior in every way to anything else and is justification for any cost of its survival.)  But, I would, as Jefferson, much rather live in a country where I did not need a hard shell of coldness and caution for survival.  I would much rather live where I’m not inclined to pay $20 a day for parking or $2000 for the “privilege” of a cracker-box apartment amidst the seething masses of “society”.

Getting back to what Mr. Sowell had to say about the economic rise of blacks to be more about education than affirmative action, I have to completely agree with his point that affirmative action has caused, not just among blacks but especially among black, the overall lowering of education standards.  And it has caused the credentials, especially of blacks but also of college students in general, to be questioned as to whether they were gained by truly worthy standards of studious effort.  But, I would have to posit that the rise of corruption in the cities and the commensurate politicizing of education for votes along with the skimming off of most educational dollars for the ever-burgeoning bureaucracy of the educational system, has all but made it impossible for anyone, especially the poorest, to achieve a useful education Therefore, I in no way disagree that affirmative action is pointless.  My point is merely to show that there is more than one culprit in the demise of the under class, and that these forces act no only on the poorest but on the country as a whole.

While statistics show that blacks did pull themselves up from the established level of poverty, the hidden statistic is that the established level of poverty, in terms of real spending power per family, has been slowly lowered in order to create the illusion of national prosperity. One could question whether the cities are to blame for this.  I would say, yes and no.  No, corruption is not the exclusive domain of large cities.  However, in large cities, there is less accountability among people who have no personal contact with the citizenry.  In large cities, it is easier to hide the fact of corruption, to skim.  Especially among those condemned to be brought up in the dumbed-down educational system, there is less ability to recognize and to fix the system–both educationally and economically, the people lack the resources for true change.

When our great cities were at the forefront of the great Industrial Revolution, there was reason to believe that continued expansion of decent jobs with decent wages would continue to afford the possibility for everyone to move up the economic ladder.  Now that the Industrial Age is over and we are transitioning to the Information Age, our great cities have become economic graveyards.  All who still live in them have the stench of death clinging to them.  With death comes pestilence.  There continues to be a cry to save the cities.  But, for most of them, it would be better to announce the TOD and move on.

Years ago, for a very different reason, the Mormons realized that their only hope of survival was to pick up and move, lock, stock, and barrel, to another place.  They continued to do this until they got to their “promised land.”  In the 1930s, wholesale numbers of blacks realized the same thing and made the move.  I think it’s time for another migration.  Just make sure to leave your urban pestilences behind.


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Filed under Environment and Ethics, Open Mind

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