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When I was ten, my mother made me read Roots cover to cover, and she’d coax me to curl up beside her to watch old newsreels of black civil rights protesters being hosed, beaten, and dragged off to prison. We watched Norman Lear sitcoms, so I’d learn from Archie Bunker and crew what blacks had faced in the past. Later, she made sure I read accounts of black America before the civil rights movement. I learned of black lawyers working as office clerks, black classical musicians stuck orchestrating cheap stage revues, brilliant black professors trapped in threadbare segregated colleges; I read of the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Such things filled me with horror—but then with relief, even triumph. After all, wasn’t the point of All in the Family that Archie was powerless in the face of his daughter and son-in-law’s racially progressive positions? Didn’t his black neighbors have the moral upper hand—and wasn’t it they, not Archie, who got to move to the Upper East Side? By my twenties, in the 1990s, I felt grateful and excited to live in times of bracing progress for my race.
Yet during the decade I came to realize that this feeling made me odd man out among most black Americans. In every race-related debate—whether over Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, the Million Man March, Ebonics, or affirmative action—almost every black person I knew, many with backgrounds as comfortable as my own, started from the fierce conviction that, decades after the Civil Rights Act, whitey’s foot remains pressed upon all black Americans’ necks.
For most black Americans, the rapid increase of the black middle class, of interracial relationships and marriages, and of blacks in prestigious positions has no bearing on the real state of black America. Further, they believe, whites’ inability to grasp the unmistakable reality of oppression is itself proof of racism, while blacks who question that reality are self-deluded.
Doubtless some black leaders mouth the ideology of victimhood for political advantage: “Confrontation works,” as Al Sharpton has calculatingly observed. But most rank-and-file exponents of the “racism forever” worldview really mean it. Their conviction rests on seven articles of faith, carefully passed from person to person at all levels of the black community. These beliefs, rather than what remains of racism itself, are the biggest obstacle to further black progress in today’s America. And all are either outright myths or severe distortions of truth.
One: Most black people are poor (and middle-class blacks are statistical noise). Almost half of the blacks surveyed in a Gallup poll supposed that three out of four black people live in inner cities. Yet in 2001 most black people are neither poor nor even close to it: by any estimation, middle-class blacks outnumber poor ones. And at last count, only one in five blacks lived in the inner city.
Two: Black people earn 61 percent of what whites do. Though accurate as a nationwide median in 1995, this figure is dragged down by the disproportionate number of single black welfare mothers. Black two-parent families earned 87 percent of what white two-parent families earned in 1995. Also distorting the median is the disproportionate number of blacks who live in the South, where wages are lower overall. If you look only at specific areas rather than at the nation as a whole, black household earnings in 1994 exceeded whites’ in 130 cities and counties across the nation.
Three: An epidemic of racist church burnings has swept across the South. There was never any such thing: about 80 black churches were burned from 1990 to 1996—but then over seven times that many white churches burned as well.
Four: The CIA created the inner cities by pumping drugs into them. This one pops up in pamphlet after pamphlet at leftist marches and gatherings; it is taught to many black college students. But the San Jose Mercury’s charges on this score proved false. Yes, some CIA agents aiding the Nicaraguan contras decided to look the other way and allow them to profit from some drug sales to California, but that’s hardly a plot to addict blacks in all of America’s inner cities.