NEW YORK -- The Economist, a British news magazine with a significant North American circulation (193,000), is the sort of journal read by the sort of people whose direct mail is addressed, "Dear Opinion Maker." The magazine is written in High Droll but is often just plain blunt. In the spirit of The Economist, then, let me say this about its recent essay on New York: It's racist.
Of course, it's not foaming at the mouth, David Dukish kind of racist and not, anyway, purposely so. Maybe a better word would be "insensitive." But whatever the term, in an article about New York's woes, The Economist makes certain assumptions: White and middle class are synonymous, and white is better than non-white. Therefore for New York, help is on the way. The magazine says immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia "promise to increase greatly the inflow of intelligent, skilled and ambitious immigrants. ... " Whew, at last -- some white people.
I have italicized the word "intelligent" because it has been years since I've seen it ascribed to one kind of people and, by inference, withheld from another. But in its emphasis on race and, I think, in its unintended racism, The Economist has probably best caught the spirit of this city. It is obsessed with a single statistic contained in The Economist essay: "On any given day, 23 percent of New York state's young black men, aged between 20 and 29, are in prison, on probation or parole. The comparable figure for young Hispanics is 12 percent; for young whites 3 percent"
That figure would hardly come as a surprise to even the most ignorant of New Yorkers. No one here -- no one in Washington or other U.S. cities, for that matter -- talks about crime without talking about race. But what's both dismaying and depressing is how that talk has become increasingly racist. Gone are the qualifiers, all those carefully constructed statements about poverty, culture and the culture of poverty. Few have the patience for that anymore. Instead, gross generalities are uttered as if they were precise truths.
But while the lexicon of liberalism may be clumsy, it is not false. Although you would not know it from the essay in The Economist, black and poor are not synonymous. This country, even this city, has a large black middle class. And not only the white middle class has fled the city, but -- not that The Economist has noticed -- the black middle class as well. Hunks of Harlem were once as middle class as they are now desperately poor.
In its editorial policy, The Economist is modestly right of center (and determinedly anti-racist). But whether it intended to or not, the magazine captured what might be called liberalism's crisis of faith and it did so in the city that is the perfect locale for such a crisis. New York has been to American liberalism what the Vatican is to Roman Catholicism. From free universities to cheap rapid transit, the city attempted -- and did -- more for its poor than almost any other city. It seems to have been repaid with mayhem.
But to subscribe to what is now increasingly suggested -- that some peoples are simply beyond helping -- is to capitulate to racism. To abandon humane programs in the face of horrendous difficulties may be understandable, but it's still inhumane. To talk of inherent superiorities or inherent inferiorities when, of course, such talk is either speculation or trash is to accept the very doctrine that rationalized slavery. Because it recognizes no individual differences, because it refers to people as if they were mass-produced chickens, such talk is racist.
In its New York essay, The Economist does mention the importance of culture. It talks about the "strong sense of community and of family" that Asians seem to have -- and that, by inference, many poor blacks do not. Nothing wrong with saying that. Indeed, the problems of urban America cannot begin to be solved until we can intelligently discuss the role of race and culture -- especially how they intersect with economics. In the past, a kind of silly etiquette prohibited such talk -- sometimes insisting that it was racist to express what was demonstrably true, like the relationship between young black males and crime.
Now, though, in conversation and maybe in print as well, too many people are venting their frustrations and fears in racist terms. It's an odd compliment to The Economist that it seems to have caught the mood of New York (and much of America) just right. What is sometimes proclaimed as common sense looks, on reflection, like plain old prejudice.