During the 1968 presidential primary between Sens. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in California, I asked an African-American leader why blacks overwhelmingly supported Kennedy. The answer was, "Because the pain of the loss of his brother made him into a white cripple, and we identify with cripples." The words were an indictment of how we had treated blacks. I was haunted by them as we lived through decades of identity politics based on the general sense of grievance in the black community.
I'd not get that answer in similar circumstances today. Many blacks have moved from victims to victors. Bill Cosby summed up the transformation in his book Come On People. "Victim" is the enemy, he writes, and despair, defeat, despondency, and hopelessness must be rejected.
In this, Cosby is in tune with a new generation of post-civil rights black political leaders, such as Sen. Barack Obama, Newark's Mayor Cory Booker, and former Rep. Harold Ford. While they are ready to combat racism, they choose to accentuate the positive: In the context of dramatically reduced racial resentment, they espouse the traditional American virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility.
They represent a confident, expanding, and varied middle class that has grown up fully engaged in the mainstream. They recognize the impossibility of insisting that America remains so fundamentally racist that black efforts to pursue the American dream are hopeless. As Rep. John Lewis put it, "For some people nothing has changed since Selma. I feel like saying, 'Come walk in my shoes.'"
Striking gains. The black population, indeed, can take pride in the fact that in a single generation a disenfranchised minority helped spur an overhaul of the nation's legal system and an end to centuries of legalized discrimination. At a record pace, millions of black Americans have joined the middle class through hard work and talent, and they have a wholly different perspective from their fathers'. It was striking that in a 2006 Washington Post poll, more than half the black men interviewed said they owed their problems more to what they had failed to do themselves than "what white people have done to blacks." Even though most suspect the economic system may be stacked against them, they strongly believe in the American dream and are infused with intense ambitions for their children. They more and more reject the notion that white racism is the main obstacle to black achievement. On the contrary, they assert that the real obstacle has been the defeatist cult of victimology. Eighty percent say they are satisfied with their lives and optimistic about the next five years.
Their improved prosperity is manifest. In 1940, 58 percent of black women with jobs worked as maids; today it is only 1 percent. At the same time, the median income for black females has jumped from 36 percent of that of a white woman to about 95 percent today. As for men, that median income has gone from 41 percent to about 72 percent of white male earnings today. Blacks are now represented in the top echelons of American business—over 25,000 of them CEOs; 1.1 million blacks now earn more than $100,000 a year, and many are in the highest levels of the armed forces and the government. What is remarkable is that black success is no longer exceptional.
There is one nagging qualification. The huge gains have been unevenly distributed. There is a growing black underclass trapped in poverty by failed schools, broken families, and endemic crime.
Today, some 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers compared with about 25 percent 40 years ago. In a world where two-parent incomes have become a financial necessity, a fatherless household is in dire straits. In these underclass families, mothers must work regardless of the effect on their children, who are five times more likely to live in poverty and nine times more likely to drop out of school. The result is a lack of parental support and discipline, with young black males resorting to gangs as parental substitutes, exulting in the ghetto culture of the streets. In urban areas, more than 50 percent of black men do not complete high school. Many young men lack the skills for good jobs, it is true, but when the economy boomed in the 1990s, few young black men turned up to take the millions of new jobs at all levels. The opportunity was seized by immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Alas, there is some cold comfort in the fact that this family breakdown is less about race. Today, white families split apart at rates higher than blacks exhibited 40 years ago. Given the importance of family structures, it underscores why the federal government should make the stability of all families a central part of its social welfare and tax policies.