In the 1960s, Daniel P. Moynihan's widely publicized report, "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action," cited figures on illegitimacy, broken homes, crime and narcotics addiction to conclude that black poverty stemmed from a weak family structure, not institutionalized racism. His solution was benign neglect.
Among those who attacked him was social critic Albert Murray who called the report "a notorious example of the use of the social science survey as a propaganda vehicle to promote a negative image of black life in the United States" and the "stuff of which the folklore of white supremacy is made."
This summer of 1982, Ken Auletta's book, "The Underclass" looks at street criminals, hustlers, long-term welfare recipients and the homeless and at the academic debate over poverty. It concludes vaguely that some members of the "underclass" will benefit more than others and those on the bottom are to be helped one at a time. Again, so much for the effects of racism.
Professor James Turner of Cornell University calls this the "pathogenic model"--the vicious notion that blacks are afflicted with some kind of pathology that modern socioeconomic medicine can't cure. Turner says that the essential issue with Auletta, as with Moynihan, is that many white social scientists define black reality as life style and behavior and overlook the second dimension, "institutionalized racism, or the structural disadvantage put on black people by the American economic system which keeps many at the bottom."
Social scientients have always been preoccupied with studying the black experience, but always from their own standards. Perhaps no other Americans have been subjected to as much economic, social, legal and political outrage and still remained, in the overwhelming majority, as law-abiding and patriotic as blacks. Yet the image of the black community that usually is projected is starkly different from the reality.
Scholars like Turner, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell, have fought since the '60s for the right of blacks to define their own reality in a nonpathological way, knowing that real solutions would come only after real definitions. Some in the liberal intellectual establishment dismissed such demands. But many young white scholars accepted the validity of minority social scientists interpreting their own communities, as other ethnic scholars have done in the past.
Moynihan and Auletta do not represent all white writers and social scientists, and it may be that neither set out to do any harm. Yet the bottom line is that their analyses present blacks devoid of the humanity, warmth and reality of their epic struggle for survival.
White America has always shown this preference to view reality filtered through the prism of its own cultural values, which tended to include institutionalized racism. It's more comfortable that way. Scholars tend to forget where blacks begin and prefer to look at where they are, and then dub them deviants because they are not on par with white norms.
Social science is not the only area where this has happened.
In music, it has been the white imitations that have been heralded as greats, seldom the real things as produced by blacks. Elvis Presley became the "king" of rock and roll, not the man he crudely and clumsily imitated, Chuck Berry. Black music was the undisputed base of disco, yet the BeeGees are credited with igniting the craze. And what blacks gain from the music world is minuscule compared to what they put in. Blacks buy records and become artists, but aren't able to institutionalize the music because they lack the economic control.
That same limited perspective is at work in studying the black experience. That's the problem with the state of black poverty being the gospel according to Ken Auletta. Black social scientist Douglas C. Glasgow also has written a book on the subject of the underclass. It has received far less attention that Auletta's book. The two men have written on the same subject, but their views are poles apart. And once again, the spotlight seems to be focused on something other than the real thing.