America's black middle class is approaching a fork in the road, and the path it takes may determine the fate of that jobless, disaffected and dispirited group known as the black underclass. Middle-class blacks will either undertake an unprecedented and enormously difficult salvage operation -- or else run for our lives.
At any rate, that is the choice I see on a not-too-distant horizon. At least since the end of the war on poverty, the black middle class has been the most consistent advocate of programs designed to aid the poor. The instinct is still there, but the heart -- the hope that something useful can be done -- is fading.
Politically, wehave behaved much as someone once remarked of Jews: "living like WASPS and voting like Puerto Ricans." That is, we have backed programs and candidates that were counter to our personal economic interests in the hope that they would help the black underclass. But political action helps only if there is some realistic role for government. The problems of the black underclass may turn out to be beyond the reach of government.
Just last week, a Roosevelt University urbanologist told a gathering of the Chicago Urban League that the black American family is "disintegrating to the point of imminent collapse."
"This disintegration," said Pierre deVise, "is the most important and alarming demographic development in our time, yet little is being said about it and even less is being done about it."
In Chicago's black ghettos, he said, the last dozen years have seen a doubling (to 66 percent) of the number of black children living in female-headed households, a number destined to grow, since almost 75 percent of the black babies born in Chicago are born out of wedlock (compared with an increase from 8.4 percent to just over 20 percent for nonblacks). "For an increasing number of Chicago's black underclass," said deVise, "welfare motherhood has become the role model for girls, and drug-dealing and pimping the role models for boys."
The numbers he cited for Chicago constitute a disturbing glimpse of the future for any number of American cities, and their effect is self-perpetuating. Families once were the source of hope and ambition for even the poorest families. But the deterioration of the family structure is putting an end to that.
In addition, the black ghettos used to provide positive role models even for the children of the most problem- afflicted families. But the mobility afforded by racial integration has drained the ghettos of their middle- class role models. Other community institutions, including schools and churches, are similarly losing their ability to inculcate positive values.
"The combination of these things constituted a system, informal though it was, that used to carry us through, that used to have an impact on everybody's life," says James G. Banks, the semi-retired real-estate consultant who once ran Washington's war on poverty. "The social arrangements that used to exist created a situation in which you had to do certain things. When those social structures are missing, people tend to behave very erratically, and we are seeing the results in adolescent pregnancy, school failure, drug abuse and crime."
This pathology is well on the way to frightening the black middle class into inaction, the severing of the last cords of commitment and concern.
Banks believes the final severing need not occur. It is his notion that middle-class blacks can, if we put our minds to it, reestablish the institutional framework for salvaging the children of the underclass. Some of his ideas, and those of an encouraging number of other activists, will be the subject of a subsequent column.