Teddee's Reviews > The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

The Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann
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's review
Jan 19, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: anthropology-sociology, history, blacklivesmatter
Read from October 07 to November 07, 2010 , read count: 1

Review: It gets a bit confusing because of the breadth of material covered and the not always chronological presentation of events, but it does provide a good flavor nonetheless. Strength of this book is weaving together broad historical trends and bringing us to the 1950s showing us the massive impact of the great migration, and showing the direct connection of this migration to today’s intractable ghetto conditions. Lemann is a journalist and appears to present the history accurately and fairly, but explicitly presents the narrative in a way to make a case for action.

This book addresses the 2nd great migration of blacks to the north. 77% of blacks lived in the south in 1940. By 1970, after the post WWII great migration had run its course, only 50% of blacks remained in the south. The key trends that brought about the migration are the equally exploitative sharecropping that replaced slavery, the breakdown of the black nuclear family during sharecropping, continuing reliance on black labor for cotton farming which made segregation and subjugation of blacks so desirable to whites, World War II's demand for labor in northern factories that induced the great migration (and whose end helped stop it), the invention of the fully mechanized Hopson cotton picker in 1944 in response to the outmigration of blacks, and the introduction of the minimum wage that put the nail in the coffin in the economics of low wage labor-based cotton farming. The civil rights movement of the 1960s accomplished its goals of voting rights and an end to mandatory segregation (though not de facto school and neighborhood segregation) but society never solved the massive migration of blacks to the north, its related social and economic disruption, nor provided any effective means to integrate these blacks into American society.

The Great Society might never have happened on the scale that it did were it not for the assassination of JFK, the interest of RFK in poverty issues, and the lionization of JFK as a champion of liberal causes that forced LBJ to continue JFK’s supposed legacy. LBJ didn’t want any “doles” so his “unconditional war on poverty” was undertaken through a “services strategy”: attack what is, as anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined, a “culture of poverty” by acculturating the black poor to the ways of the middle class: Head Start (the most enduring success of the Great Society), legal services, Job Corps, etc.

Dick Boone's activist and untested concept of "maximum feasible participation", a community action strategy, made its way into the Great Society as a way to bypass southern white-controlled groups, but encountered unexpected resistance from local politicians in the North, like Chicago’s Democratic political machine under Mayor Daley, whose turf was threatened when federal funding bypassed local officials in favor of community organizations under OEO. Untested organizations not under central control, some of which included black nationalist organizations and reformed gangs, had occasional problems and made bad publicity, engendering more local criticism. Despite the generally liberal climate of the times, Sargent Shriver’s OEO lost support even among Democrats. Senator RFK and Democrats turned to community development approaches like LBJ’s Model Cities program which showed Democrat support for ghetto programs but did not force the issue of racial integration and had no local political enemies, only friends.

Rather than being received as a call to action, Pat Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family was heavily criticized by liberals, one critic actually coining the term “blaming the victim” in response to it, further splitting center liberals from left liberals, paralyzing the public discussion on poverty, and villainizing a lifelong champion of liberal causes.

With 164 race riots in the first 9 months of 1967, the 1968 assassination of MLK Jr, and Nixon’s victory in 1968, the counterreaction was complete. Nixon was elected by white backlash. Moynihan went to work for Nixon, advising an increase in Great Society spending to preempt liberal criticism, so many increases actually took place under Nixon. Moynihan’s income strategy for improving the livelihood of blacks succeeded, allowing the government to cut the bureaucracy (that was providing massive employment to educated blacks) required under the services strategy. However, after his election to his 2nd term in 1972 when he no longer had to worry about reelection, Nixon gutted all the Great Society programs. The window to solve the problems of the ghetto was closed; the electorate had turned conservative. Meanwhile, the impression still remains that large federal anti-poverty programs don’t work.

Ghettos were originally perceived as the lot of new immigrants. Gunnar Myrdal introduced the concept of a permanent “under-class” in 1962. A number of explanations of permanent ghettoes were offered. Ironically, the Great Society mainly benefitted middle class blacks through hiring blacks to run the Great Society. In 1970, 57% of male and 72% of female black college graduates were employed by the government. But instead of improving the ghettos, Conservative scholar William Wilson in 1987 said middle class blacks used the income they earned to move out of the ghettos, leaving the ghettos without a stabilizing influence. He also made discussion of the black family respectable again, though the “culture of poverty” concept was still considered offensive. Disillusioned liberal Charles Murray in 1984 blamed the Great Society’s removal of the incentive to marry or work, saying the liberal tendency to excuse bad behavior just encouraged more bad behavior. Christopher Jencks explanation was social trends of the 60s and 70s including the growing respectability of divorce, higher crime, less respect for authority etc. Due to less education and higher social disorganization, those trends disproportionately affected blacks. Lemann argues the 1980s debate about the underclass was statistical with little field research.

Black intellectuals, disconnected from the ghettos, did not embrace the underclass idea and were afraid to encourage old white prejudices about black laziness, criminality etc. The debate between Booker T. Washington’s black self-help approach versus WEB DuBois’ focus on legal equality continues among black intellectuals. Washingtonism is rejected by most of today’s black leadership.

Lemann supports a renewed war on poverty with a federally funded services strategy that does not bypass local officials and benefits from 50 years of research that was nonexistent in the 1960s. Community development doesn’t work: a ghetto cannot be developed, we can only help aspiring people to get out of the ghettos and into the mainstream. Lemann believes today’s pervasive skepticism towards anti-poverty programs ignores that there was no research during the Great Society demonstrating what would work. Now there is. He argues that society can achieve long term savings on welfare and incarceration costs with correctly targeted programs. If programs can be shown to work, the political forces of practicality can be swayed to support new social spending.

The current liberal intellectual consensus is that poverty efforts must be masked in race neutral terms to provide political cover. Lemann argues that this is self-defeating. As his history of the Great Migration shows, today’s ghetto poverty has a direct connection to slavery and sharecropping. As such, it is a moral issue, and as the experience of the civil rights movement demonstrates, society’s urgency for action will only arise when it is acknowledged as a moral cause. Lemann wants to awaken America’s racial conscience from its decades-long hibernation. Black slums are “the most significant remaining piece of unfinished business in our country’s long struggle to overcome its original sin of slavery.”
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