An American’s distrust of welfare should come as no surprise. Public assistance threatens what is after all the central doctrine of capitalism: that the incentive to work is born of the burning desire to have, and then to have more. Why risk dulling the spur of poverty, and thereby dooming the supposed beneficiaries to perpetual dependence?
Critics of the Great Society voiced these concerns during the mid,1960s, but in the last three or four years much louder, more confident voices have raised them again. The new critics maintain that America’s inner cities have become great wastelands of poverty, a poverty largely subsidized and thus encouraged by our own government. Far from “lifting Americans out of poverty,” welfare has succeeded mainly in breaking up families, encouraging young girls to have babies out of wedlock, and generally denigrating the value of hard work. So why not dismantle it?
Charles Murray’s Losing Ground is the most influential presentation of the radical view that government can best help the poor by leaving them to their own devices. Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist known for his eloquent and sympathetic advocacy of the interests of the poor. Harper’s invited Murray and Jackson to discuss welfare, government, and the nature of American poverty.
The following conversation took place at the Harvard Club in New York City.
is a senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
He is the author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980,
which criticizes the effects of social programs on the poor.
He was formerly chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research,
where he evaluated government programs involving urban education,
welfare services, child nutrition, day care, adolescent pregnancy,
juvenile delinquency, and criminal justice.
is president of the National Rainbow Coalition and co-pastor of the
Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. From 1967 to 1971
he served as national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s
Operation Breadbasket. In 1971 he founded Operation PUSH, which promotes
excellence in inner-city public schools and negotiates with major corporations to
increase the amount of business they do withminority-owned companies.
Jackson sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.
CHARLES MURRAY: How can government help the poor? The problem is that, so far, we haven’t been very good at it. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, we began a major effort to bring people out of poverty, to educate the uneducated, to employ the unemployable. We have to confront the fact that the effort to help the poor did not have the desired effect. In terms of education, crime, family stability, the lives of poor people have gotten worse since the 1960s, and we have to explain why.
During those years we, in effect, changed the rules of the game for poor people. Essentially we said, in a variety of ways: “It’s not your fault. If you are not learning in school, it is because the educational system is biased; if you are committing crimes, it is because the environment is poor; if you have a baby that you can’t care for, it’s because your own upbringing was bad.” Having absolved everybody of responsibility, we then said: “You can get along without holding a job. You can get along if you have a baby but have no husband and no income. You can survive without participating in society the way your parents had to.” And lots of young people took the bait. So the question remains: What, if anything, does the government owe the poor?
JESSE JACKSON: I’m as unimpressed with boundless liberalism as I am with heartless conservatism. Creative thinking has to take place. But to begin to think creatively, we have to be realistic: about the role of government, for example.
We cannot be blindly anti-government. The government has made significant interventions in many, many areas for the common good. Without public schools, most Americans would not be educated. Without land-grant colleges, the United States would not have the number one agricultural system in the world. Without federal transit programs, we would not have an interstate highway system. Without subsidized hospitals, most Americans could not afford decent medical care. And the government has played a significant role in providing a base for many American industries. The defense industries, for example, may be considered private, part of the market, but many of them are almost wholly supported by government contracts.
Now, we consider spending the public’s money toward these ends to be in our national interest. When we saw the devastation in Europe after World War II, we devised the Marshall Plan – a comprehensive, long-term program. Had the Marshall Plan been a five-year investment program – as the War on Poverty essentially was – Europe would have collapsed. But we determined that the redevelopment of Europe was in our national interest. That’s an instance where a vigorous government investment made something positive happen.
But when we shift from the notion of subsidy as something that serves our national interest, to that of welfare, the attitudes suddenly shift from positive to negative. In this country there is a negative predisposition toward the poor. We must learn to see the development of people who are poor as in our national interest, as costefficient, as an investment that can bring an enormous return to every American. The government definitely has a big role to play.
MURRAY: I agree it has a role. There are some things government can do, and one of them is to ensure that a whole range of opportunities is available to everyone. For example, in my ideal world, whether a child lived in the inner city or in the suburbs, everything from preschool to graduate school would be available to him – free. In this ideal world, if someone really looked for a job and just couldn’t find one, perhaps because of a downturn in the economy, some minimal unemployment insurance would be in place to help him.
Opportunity should be assured, but attempts at achieving equal outcome abandoned. What would happen if you took awayall other government-supported welfare, if the system were dismantled? Well, believe it or not, a lot of good things would begin to happen.
JACKSON: The notion of “opportunity” is more complicated than it sounds. For example, some people are poor because of government. When a nation is 51 percent female yet can’t get an equal rights amendment passed; when many women still cannot borrow money with the same freedom men can, cannot pursue their ideas and aspirations in the marketplace because they are not equally protected – that amounts to government interference, too, but on the side of the status quo. Many blacks and Hispanics cannot borrow money from banks, on subjective grounds – because some bank official doesn’t like their color, or because whole neighborhoods are redlined so that money will not be loaned to anyone living there. Government must be committed to the vigorous enforcement of equal protection under the law and other basic principles; without that enforcement, it is not a government handout that’s the issue as much as it is the government’s shoving people into a hole and not letting them out. When Legal Aid is cut, and the poor no longer have access to the courts, that’s an example of government playing a role in perpetuating poverty.
MURRAY: If you try to rent an inexpensive apartment in my hometown of Newton, Iowa, even if you’re white, you may very well not be able to rent that apartment, on “subjective grounds.” I mean, you come to the door, and because of the way you act or the way you look or whatever, the landlord says to himself: “My apartment’s going to get trashed.” These subjective grounds often have a basis in fact. And it’s real tough for people renting our apartments – and maybe even for banks – to operate in ways that enable them to make money if they aren’t permitted to make these kinds of subjective judgments.
JACKSON: Dr. Murray, the farmer wearing his bib overalls who walks up to that apartment door and is rejected for the way he looks is not a victim of racial prejudgment. That man could put on a suit and get the apartment. Blacks can’t change color. The idea is that bankers choose not to make loans to blacks institutionally. Now, I’m not just throwing around a charge here. John H. Johnson, the president of Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes Ebony, is perhaps the most established black businessman in the country. Yet several banks turned down his loan application to build in downtown Chicago. Maybe the most established black businessman in the country was turned down for a loan simply because of the institutional racism of banks. And so we need laws enforced, we need’ the government to protect people who are black or Hispanic or Asian or Indian or female, from the bankers’ ability to do that.
A lot of people, to this day, are simply locked out. Until 1967, there had never been more than a couple of black car dealerships, because the automobile industry’s policy was not to alIow a black to invest in a car dealership or to learn to run one in any neighborhood, black or white. So blacks now have fewer than 240 dealerships out of the 22,050 in this country. Blacks always had the ability, but they were locked out by race, even if they had the money. Operation PUSH confronted Ford as late as July 1982, when there were fewer than 40 black automobile dealerships out of 5,600. Ford finally agreed to grant thirty new black dealerships in one year, which they had previously claimed was impossible. Well, those thirty dealerships are still operating, employing an average of more than fifty people each, and those jobs represent the alternative to welfare and despair.
MURRAY: If you say that in 1960 blacks as a people were locked out, well, I have no problem with that. But that is no longer accurate. Let’s talk about black youth unemployment. Are you saying that America’s black youth are marching resolutely from door to door, interviewing for jobs, and that they are getting turned down because they’re black? If so, then a jobs program ought to do wonders. CETA ought to have done wonders. But it didn’t.
JACKSON: The private economy, by being so closed for so long, has pushed many people into the public economy. There’s just no reason why, in a population of 30 million blacks, there are only two black beverage-bottling franchises. You can’t explain it by lack of ambition or an unwillingness to take risks, because for the past twenty years blacks have been the top salesmen in that industry. A lot of people got locked into poverty because of the government’s failure to enforce equal protection under the law. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s executive order of 1965, beverage companies could get lucrative government contracts to operate on U.S. military bases around the world, even though they locked out a significant body of Americans.
MURRAY: I’m not in a position to argue with you about wholesalers and franchises. But I don’t think we can assume that if blacks gain more access to entrepreneurial business positions which I’m all in favor of – it will have a fundamental effect on poverty and the underclass.
JACKSON: If there is an artificial ceiling limiting the growth of the so-called talented 10 percent – I use the term advisedly-then it compounds the problem of the disinherited 90 percent. If where we live, our money won’t “spend” because of redlining, which becomes a de facto law; if where we live, our money cannot buy a car franchise or a beer franchise or a soft-drink franchise – which are some of the great American ways out of poverty – then blacks are effectively locked out of the private economy. And so, just as the political grandfather clause locked blacks out of the political system, economic grandfather clauses have effectively locked blacks out of the economic system, Blacks today can take over a town politically, because its population is mostly black. But the economic territory – the entrepreneurial opportunities, beyond mom-and-pop businesses, which allow a people to develop a leadership class in the private economy, which in turn begins to lift others as it hires them and trains them – is still closed. Blacks who worked as salesmen and saleswomen for the first generation of black entrepreneurs now have franchises of their own, because they have access to the franchise head. But that has not happened historically.
MURRAY: Why is it that the Koreans and Vietnamese and all sorts of other people who come here with very few resources do well, including West Indian blacks? They come here, start businesses, and manage to earn a median income which rivals or surpasses that of whites. I’m not trying to say racism doesn’t exist. I’m saying it doesn’t explain nearly as much as it ought to.
JACKSON: Do not underestimate the impact of 250 years of legal slavery followed by a hundred years of legal segregation. The damage it did to the minds of the oppressor and the oppressed must not be played down. When I grew up in South Carolina, I could caddy but I couldn’t play golf. That’s why I can’t play golf now; I could have been arrested for hitting a golf ball at the Greenville Country Club. I could shag balls, but I couldn’t play tennis. I could shine shoes, but I couldn’t sit on the stand and couldn’t own a stand at the train station. I could wait tables, but I couldn’t sit at them; and I could not borrow money to build a competing establishment.
The other groups you mentioned have not known that level of degradation. The Cubans came to Miami as beneficiaries of a cold war between this country and Cuba; we used money and subsidies to induce them to come here, and those who came were in large measure from a class that had some history of business acumen. Many of the Vietnamese were beneficiaries of the same kind of cold war policy. Now, shagging balls and not playing tennis, caddying and not playing golf, not voting and seeing others vote – all of this had the cumulative effect of lowering people’s ambitions and limiting their horizons. Let me give an example. I saw a story in USA Today last summer headlined “More Blacks Graduating from High School, Fewer Going to College.” A young lady from Chicago was quoted in the story, and I decided to meet with her and her mother. It turned out she had a B+ average, was a member of the National Honor Society – the whole business. I said to the girl, “Do you want to go to college?” She said she did. I said, “Well, have you taken the SAT tests?” She said she hadn’t. “Why not?” “Well, the counselor told me that since I couldn’t afford to go to college, that stuff was a waste of time.” In other words, she was being programmed for failure, taught to be mediocre, programmed downward.
Once I discovered what was happening, I went on the radio and asked any high school student – black, white, brown – who had every college qualification except money to come to Operation PUSH. Seven hundred fifty young people came with their parents; we have placed 250 of them in colleges, including that young lady. But if that young lady hadn’t gone to college, she would have been written off three or four years later: people would have said the family was subsidized, dependent; she didn’t go to college; now she’s pregnant; and the whole cycle begins again. She was programmed into lower ambition, programmed away from college. Yet many schools, especially the better ones like Harvard and Columbia, provide scholarship money. But so many students don’t know this; it’s a well-kept secret. Those who have, know; the circle remains essentially closed.
MURRAY: Getting that information out would serve as an incentive. I know how I’d spend money on educational programs. I’d put up a bunch of posters saying that anybody who gets such-and-such a score on the SATs will get a free ride through college. I’m willing to bet that I’d get more results from my program than the government would get by trying directly to improve the schools.
JACKSON: There’s a role for that kind of motivation. There’s also a role for increasing opportunity. Often it’s not lack of ability or ambition that locks people out, but lack of information.
MURRAY: I’m worried, because I’m starting to agree with you too much!
JACKSON: Just give me time, you’ll be all right.
MURRAY: Oh, I think we’ll find some things to disagree on. I come from an all-white town. I went back to visit this Christmas, and I said to myself, “I wonder what poverty is like here in Newton, Iowa.” So I got in touch with the human services people and spent some time riding around with a caseworker. And as I listened to this caseworker describe what her problems were, I realized that if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to a caseworker in the South Bronx. The problems were indistinguishable from what are usually considered “black problems.”
JACKSON: Yes, we must whiten the face of poverty. It’s an American problem, not a black problem. But the face of poverty in this country is portrayed as a black face, and that reinforces certain attitudes. I mean, John Kennedy holds up a sick black baby in his arms and people say, “Gee, he’s a nice guy.” He holds up a sick white baby in West Virginia and people say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”
Of the 34 million people living in poverty in America, 23 million are white. The poor are mostly white and female and young. Most poor people work every day. They’re not on welfare; they’re changing beds in hospitals and hotels and mopping floors and driving cabs and raising other people’s children. And there is no basis for taking a few people who cheat the system as examples, and using them to smear millions of people who by and large work very hard.
MURRAY: The welfare queen is not the problem. And the dynamics of dependency operate pretty much the same for both blacks and whites. For example, I did some checking on what the out-of-wedlock birthrate is among poor whites. Guess what? Middle-class blacks don’t have much of a problem with out-of-wedlock births, just as middle-class whites don’t; but poor blacks and poor whites alike have a big problem with it. Now, when I visit a school in inner-city Washington, I see a couple of different kinds of kids. A lot of kids are sent out of their houses every morning by their morns and dads, who tell them, “Get that education. Study hard. Do what the teacher says.” And these youngsters go off to school and study hard, do exactly what the teacher says, and still graduate a couple of years behind grade level-not because they’re stupid, but because of what has happened to the school systems during the past twenty years. A great deal of energy and attention has been spent catering to the kind of kid who, for whatever reason, makes it real hard for the first set of kids to learn.
So I think we need to reintroduce a notion which has a disreputable recent history in America: the notion of class. A good part of our problem can be characterized as one of “lower-class behavior,” which is distinct from the behavior of poor people.
JACKSON: In other words, the Watergate burglars, though white, male, and rich, were engaging in “lower-class behavior.”
MURRAY: No, but if you talk about the danger posed by the increase in crime, it so happens that it is not the rich white folks who are suffering.
JACKSON: Back up now, back up. You introduced a phenomenon there, Dr. Murray, about “lower-class behavior.” I suppose that means low morals.
MURRAY: You added that.
JACKSON: Well, I guessed that’s what it means. What does “lower-class behavior” mean?
MURRAY: The syndrome was identified long ago, although the term is more recent. People in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would simply talk about “trash,” for example, and later there was the concept of the “undeserving poor.” The sociologist who did the Elmstown study certainly recognized the syndrome, as did Edward Banfield. It is characterized by chronic unemployment due to people working for a while and then dropping out, unstable family life, and so on.
JACKSON: But you know, Dr. Murray, you made a distinction here on this “lower-class behavior,” and I was trying to get a definition of it, but I did not get it. I’m sorry, I haven’t read all those books you mentioned. But I suppose it means immoral behavior.
MURRAY: I’m not using words like “moral” and “immoral.”
JACKSON: Well, I guess it means violence against people, unprovoked violence-lower-class behavior. Sex without love, making unwanted babies – lower-class behavior. Taking what belongs to other people – lower-class behavior. Filling your nose full of cocaine, driving drunk – lower-class behavior. That’s not lower-class behavior, Dr. Murray, that’s immoral. It seems to me that whether it is stealing in the suites or stealing in the streets, whether it is happening in ghetto, barrio, reservation, or suburb, we should condemn lower-class behavior. Cain killing Abel, brother killing brother, is lower-class behavior because it’s low morals, it’s unethical, it’s not right. Whether they’re welfarized or subsidized, people should not engage in lower-class behavior. Is it more moral for a business executive to sniff cocaine than a welfare recipient?
MURRAY: If you are saying that rich white people can be lousy, I agree. But my point is that if we continue to pretend that all poor people are victims, if we do not once again recognize in social policy the distinctions that have been recognized all along on the street, we will continue to victimize those poor people who most deserve our respect and our help.
Parents, black or white, who are working at lousy jobs but who are working, paying the rent, teaching their kids how to behave-yes, those people are behaving differently, and certainly in a more praiseworthy way, than parents who fail to do those things. Poor people fall into very different classes, distinguished by differences in work behavior, such as chronic unemployment whether there are jobs or not. And there are differences in child rearing. Working-class people pay a lot of attention to how their children are doing; they talk to them, ask how they’re doing, in school. But there are children who come to school at the age of five and do not know, for example, the words for the colors; nobody’s talked to them, they’ve been utterly neglected. Finally, when there is”divorce among the working class the man takes continued responsibility for supporting the children. Lower-class behavior, on the other hand, is characterized by serial monogamy or promiscuity and a failure of the man to take responsibility for his children.
JACKSON: Dr. Murray, the lady who lived across the street from us while I was growing up ran what they called a “bootleg house.” She was a woman of high character: she was a seamstress, and all her children graduated from college. But on the weekend people came over to her house to drink and gamble, and so Mrs. X was considered an outcast. Now, another lady named Mrs.Y, who lived about three blocks from us, owned a liquor store; because she was white she could get a liquor license. Mrs. Y was an entrepreneur, Mrs. X was a moral outcast. But something told me early in the game that the only difference between Mrs. X and Mrs. Y was a license.
Men and women would come over to Mrs. X’s house sometimes and have sex down in the basement: promiscuity, also a sign of lower-class behavior, and another reason why people looked down on her. Well, I began working at the hotel in town; I was paid to carry in the booze for the men who would meet women there, often other people’s wives, sometimes even their friends’ wives. They’d each leave at a different time and by a different door to maintain their respectability, but I knew where they lived because I used to cut their grass and rake their leaves. This is distinctly lower-class behavior – sleeping with other people’s wives.
MURRAY: No, engaging in sexual behavior, even promiscuity, does not make you lower class.
What makes you lower class is having kids you can’t or don’t take care of.
JACKSON: Now, Dr. Murray, are you saying that a lawyer who has sex with his partner’s wife and uses a prophylactic is engaging in behavior that’s higher class than that of someone who does the same thing but does not have the sense or ability to use a prophylactic?
MURRAY: Look, I’m not against sex. I’m not even necessarily against sex outside of marriage.
JACKSON: Now, don’t get too swift on me here. The act of going to bed with another man’s wife is adultery.
JACKSON: It ain’t fine. It’s immoral. It’s lower-class behavior, and whether it takes place in the White House, statehouse, courthouse, outhouse, your house, my house, that behavior is unethical.
MURRAY: But that has nothing to do with what I’m saying.
JACKSON: It shows a certain attitude: If you do something and it’s subsidized, it’s all right. If others do it and it’s welfarized, it’s not so good. I was in inner-city Washington several months ago, talking to a gym full of high school kids. I challenged those who had taken drugs to come down front. About 300 came down. Next day the Washington Post published three pictures and the headline “Jackson does phenomenal thing – kids admit drug usage.” Editorial: “It’s a great thing that Jackson did, but you know he has a special way with black kids.” Next day I went to a school in Maryland – in one of the richest counties in America, about 97 percent white, single-family dwellings, upper middle class, and all that. The principal said to me, “Well, you can make your pitch, but of course it won’t work here.” So I made my pitch. I said, “Taking drugs is morally wrong, except in controlled medical situations; it’s morally wrong and ungodly.” Six hundred students were present. I said, “Those who have tried drugs, come forward.” About 200 came forward. This was a junior high school; these kids were thirteen, fourteen years old. The principal was in a daze. Now that’s lower-class behavior and upper-class economic status. Rich folks embezzle and poor folks steal; rich folks prevaricate and poor folks lie. But I think a lie is a lie is a lie.
MURRAY: If we agree that lying is lying and stealing is stealing, that doesn’t help the little old lady who is trying to get from her apartment to the grocery store without getting her Social Security check ripped off. If we take the attitude that white-collar crime is just as bad as street crime, so let’s not go after the street criminals when we let the embezzlers get away, the problem is that we ignore that little old lady, who is not in much immediate danger from embezzlers. Poor people, first of all, need safety. We’ll take care of the white-collar criminals as best as we can, but first I want to make it safe in the neighborhoods. And if that requires putting a whole bunch of people behind bars, let’s do it.
JACKSON: We should remember that four years at a state university in New York costs less than $25,000; four years at Attica costs $104,000. I am more inclined to take these young kids and lock them up in dormitories, give them years of mind expansion and trade development. It costs too much to leave them around for years without education, hope, or training.
The present welfare system should be replaced with a human development system. As presently constructed, the welfare system has built-in snares: there’s no earn-incentive, no learn-incentive to get out. Assume you are locked into this box: a girl with a tenth-grade education and a baby. If she’s making, say, $200 a month on welfare, why not provide some positive incentives? If she went back to school and got her junior college degree, she should get $240, $250. Why? Because that’s making her employable, moving her closer to the market, where she can earn her own money. She can go back to junior college and study computer science, or learn cosmetology or business. The way it is now in most states, if she went out and found a job and made $200, they would take away $200 from welfare. So why earn the $200? Maybe if she earns $200 she should keep at least $100.
The point is that incentives to earn and learn must be built into the system. As it is now, if the young man who fathered the child doesn’t have a job but comes back to live with the mother, she loses her check. So there’s an incentive to keep the father away. And one of the few ways she can get any extra money is by engaging in an activity that may get her an extra child.
Now this young girl-white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian – is the victim of a system that is not oriented toward human development. We must take away the punishment and threats and disincentives and move toward a sense of optimism and increasing options.
MURRAY: One part of me endorses what you’re saying in principle. But when I think of all the practical difficulties I get depressed. Most of all, it is extremely difficult to make much progress with youngsters who already have certain behavior patterns. If we go to a poor part of New York City, white or black, and pick a hundred kids who really have problems-drugs, illegitimate kids, the rest of it-and I say: “Here’s a blank check; hire the best people, use the latest technologies, do whatever you can.” At the end of three or four or even five years, if you start with seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds, maybe you will be able to point to ten or fifteen out of that hundred who show any major signs of getting somewhere.
Human beings aren’t plastic. We don’t know how to deal with certain kinds of problems after a certain age. The only route we have is prevention. So if you’re hearing me say we’re going to have to write off a generation, you can certainly back me into that comer.
JACKSON: Dr. Murray, I have seen these same kids, who you say can’t do anything, volunteer for the Army, and in six to eight months they are building bridges, assuming responsibility. Why? Because it’s an effective program that teaches, inspires, and sets clear goals.
So many young people step into sex and have babies because of ignorance, lack of discipline, and the like. If there was sex education before the fact, as well as the teaching of moral values, then there’d be less debate about abortion after the fact. Today, there is this whole group of people who love the fetus; they march across America to save a fetus and march right back to cut off aid for a baby.
Aid to women for prenatal care has a lot of value. The Head Start program saved and salvaged a whole generation. The drive to wipe out malnutrition by Senators McGovern and Hollings in the food stamp program actually worked; it brought about balanced diets where there had been none. We should drop programs that aren’t working, not those that are.
MURRAY: It is beginning to percolate into the consciousness of policymakers that we just don’t know how to affect large numbers of people who are leading blighted lives. The only way we can deal with this is by prevention.
JACKSON: I agree that there are ways to change this situation without just paying another top-heavy layer of overseers and administrators who’d be sending paperwork back to Albany. I would take 500 young people and’ say, “How many of you would like this neighborhood to be cleaner?” Most hands would go up. “How many of you would like to have windows in your buildings in the wintertime?” Hands would go up. “How many of you would like to make $12 to $20 an hour?” Many hands. “Then here’s what you must do if you want to make $12 to $20 an hour. We’ll teach you how to be a mason. Youcan lay bricks and not throw them. You can learn how to be a glazier, how to be a plasterer. And at the end of this time we’ll get you certified in a trade union. You will then have the skill to build where you live; if the floor’s buckling in your gymnasium, you can fix it.”
And so these young men and women would be empowered and enfranchised: they would much rather make $20 an hour than be on welfare. Just to do things for them while keeping them economically disenfranchised is no systemic change at all. And, Dr. Murray, people who can lay bricks and carpet and cut glass have no intention of going back on welfare.
MURRAY: I should point out that in my ideal world, by God, any black youngster who wants to can become a glazier, any poor youngster can learn a trade. And, Reverend Jackson, in my ideal world I would also clone you, because I’ve heard you speak to these kids.
JACKSON: But why do you think black kids everywhere are playing basketball so well? I submit to you that they’re playing basketball and football and baseball so well and in such great numbers because there is a clear and obvious reward; there’s a carrot. Do this and you’ll be in the paper, on the radio, on television. And you’ll get a college scholarship. And if you’re real good, you’ll get a professional contract. So these same kids that you say are unreachable and unteachable will gravitate to a carrot if they can see it. There must be a way out. And right now we must come up with ways out.
MURRAY: Yes, education and training opportunity – the carrots – are absolutely central. But once you have those, you have to have a support system, and this is where we’ve got a real problem. For example, let’s say a youngster graduates from high school without many skills. He gets into a good job-training program, one that will really teach him a skill if he buckles down. But the youngster has never learned good work habits, so he flunks out of the training program. For that youngster to come out of high school ready to take advantage of a training program, there must be changes in the school he came from.
Now, what about the youngster who is offered an opportunity but who is below average in intelligence? I mean, half the country is below average in intelligence, and in industriousness.
JACKSON: Does that apply all the way through the government?
MURRAY: Let’s just say this youngster is no great shakes, not much of anything. How is this youngster going to have a life that lets him look back when he’s sixty and say, “Well, I did O.K., given what I had. At least I always supported myself and raised my kids and so on.” The only way that eighteen-year-old kid is ever going to get to that position is by taking jobs that aren’t much fun and don’t pay much money. In order to reach the point where he feels good about supporting himself and his family, he’s got to survive those years of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, when kids want to do things which make a whole lot of sense when you’re that age but tum out to have been real stupid by the time you’re thirty. Here is where, after you’ve provided the opportunities, which I am for in abundance, you’ve still got to worry.
JACKSON: But Dr. Murray, democracy must first guarantee opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee success. Now, why do you think these ghetto and barrio youngsters are doing so well in athletics?
MURRAY: Because they see people just like them, who came out of those same streets, making a whole lot of money doing it.
JACKSON: So successful role models are a great motivator.
MURRAY: They make a huge difference. Now, how do we get the Jesse Jacksons of the world to be more visible role models?
JACKSON: Well, I’ve been working on that for a few years. But the point is that where the rules are clear, even though the work is hard, the locked out tend to achieve. Ain’t no low-class and high-class touchdowns. But there are no black baseball managers and no black professional football coaches. Why? Because in those areas where the decisions are made behind closed doors and where the rules are not so clear, those who are locked out don’t do well.
That is basically true in the private economy: the more subjective the rules, the less the penetration. When people go behind closed doors to, say, determine who the dean of the medical school will be, eight people who are doctors, all of them graduated from the same school, tend to come up with someone from the same lineage. Why are there so many blacks in government? Because if you do well on the test, you can get in, and the rules of seniority are established.
MURRAY: In 1983, the New York City Police Department gave a sergeant’s exam, and 10.6 percent of the white candidates passed but only 1.6 percent of the blacks. So it was decided that even though the rules were clear, some blacks who had failed the test would be promoted in order to fill a quota. Now, either you assume that the test measured nothing relevant to being a sergeant and that skill is randomly distributed, so it didn’t make any difference that a whole bunch of blacks were arbitrarily promoted despite the fact that they didn’t pass the test, or you assume that the test did in fact measure abilities that are important to advancement. If that’s true, a few years down the road very few of the black sergeants will become lieutenants. This ensures, in an almost diabolically clever way, that no matter how able blacks become, they will continue to be segmented, and whites will always be looking at black co-workers who aren’t quite as good at their jobs as the whites are. You build in an appearance of inferiority where none need exist.
Now, your son went to St. Albans and my daughters go to National Cathedral. These are among the finest schools in Washington. Your son, when he applies for a job, doesn’t need or want any special consideration. The fact that he’s black is irrelevant.
JACKSON: You’re making dangerous comparisons here, Doctor, which tend to inflame weak minds. My son is not a good example because, like his father, his achievements are above average. The fact is that all of America, in some sense, must be educated about its past and must face the corrective surgery that is needed. When there’s moral leadership from the White House and from the academy, people tend to adjust. When Lyndon Johnson said – with the moral authority of a converted Texan – that to make a great society we must make adjustments, people took the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action and said, “Let’s go.”
There are a lot of positive examples around the country where integrated schools have worked, where busing has worked, where affirmative action has worked, when that spirit of moral leadership was present. The same school where the National Guard had to take two blacks to school in 1961-the University of Georgia – is where Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy. Later he was able to marry a white woman without protest in rural Georgia. Why? Because people had been taught that it was all right.
MURRAY: You’ve got the cart before the horse. By the mid-1960s, white folks finally, after far too long, had had their consciousnesses raised. They said to themselves, “We’ve done wrong. We have violated a principle that’s one of the taproots of America; we haven’t given people a fair shot just because their skin’s a different color.” A chord was struck that triggered a strong desire not only to stop doing the bad things but also to help people make up for lost ground. That additional response was, from the very beginning, sort of pushing it. The principle that had actually been violated was that of the fair shot; but the black civil rights movement isn’t feeding off that important nutrient anymore. It’s gone beyond that. Today, when white folks aren’t making public pronouncements, I hear far too many of them saying things which are pretty damned racist. I see a convergence of the old racism, from people who are saying, “Well, gee, it’s been twenty years now. You’d think they’d be catching up by now.”
JACKSON: They’re getting strong signals from the highest pulpit in the nation. When the White House and the Justice Department close their doors to the Afro-American leadership; when the Congressional Black Caucus cannot meet with the President of the United States; when the government closes its doors to the NAACP, the SCLC, .the Urban League, Operation PUSH; when the White House will not meet with the Conference of Black Mayors; when those who work in the vineyards daily will not even engage in the dialogue you and I have engaged in today – that’s reprehensible behavior. It sends out signals that hurt people. When leadership is present, people behave differently.
MURRAY: In addition to spending a lot of time talking to white people in general, I also spend a lot of time talking to conservatives. And I happen to know that their passion for a colorblind society is not just rhetoric.
JACKSON: Are you a consultant for an optometrist? Because the only people who would benefit from people going colorblind would be optometrists. Nobody wants to be that way, man. We don’t need to be colorblind; we need to affirm the beauty of colors and the diversity of people. I do not have to see you as some color other than what you are to affirm your person.
MURRAY: I mean that the ideal of giving everybody a fair shot-of not saying to anyone, “Because you’re black I’m going to refuse to give you a chance” – is something which a lot of conservatives feel more passionately about than a lot of your putative friends do.
JACKSON: But if two people are in a one-mile race and one starts off with a half-mile head start and one starts off at point zero – O.K., now let’s take the chains off, every man for himself – well, such a race is not just. We are starting out behind. I mean, of the top 600 television executives, fewer than fifteen are black.
MURRAY: I had a talk with somebody from one of the networks a few weeks ago, as a matter of fact. He said to me: “Well, we figured we ought to have a black producer, so we went out and hired the best one we could find. But he really isn’t very good, so we do most of his work for him.” Now, insofar as people aren’t allowed to be TV producers because they’re black, that’s bad. But insofar as white people go around saying, “We had to get our black TV producer, so we brought in someone who can’t make it on his own,” they are not doing blacks a service.
JACKSON: Man, for most of my life I have seen black people train white people to be their boss. Incompetent whites have stood on the shoulders of blacks for a long time. Do you know how impressed I am when a white rock singer who is selling millions of records explains how he got his inspiration from a black artist, who can’t even afford to come to the white man’s concert? A few months ago Time said in an article that Gary Hart was the only Democrat who has run a coast-to-coast campaign. I was on the cover of Time twice during the 1984 campaign. But Hart’s the only one. Isn’t that a strange phenomenon? It’s like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man: they look at you but they don’t see you.
By and large, the black people the White House sees are those one or two exceptions who did something great. They take a Hispanic kid or a black person and try to iinpose that model on the nation. I could take the position, “Well, if I can make it from a poor community in South Carolina, explain to me how a white person can be in poverty,” and it would be absurd. But I could argue it and get lots of applause.
MURRAY: I’m willing to grant that we shouldn’t make so much of the exception if you grant me that just because folks may be against certain kinds of programs, it doesn’t mean that they’re mean-spirited, or don’t care about problems.
JACKSON: If we can avoid the demagogy and tum debate into dialogue and stereotypes into creative thinking, we can begin to develop ideas. I mean, I agree that this welfare system hurts people fundamentally. Many of the things that come from this Administration, like the enterprise zone idea, have a lot of validity; If an enterprise zone creates a green line, instead of a red line, where if you live in that area you get certain incentives – that idea has merit. It may mean that a young man or a young woman teaching school will want to move to a district because of a tax incentive, or perhaps a doctor or a lawyer will want to move his office there. You establish an incentive for people to locate there, through the tax system or otherwise; you begin to shift capital, and the people who live there have first option on the new jobs. But the Administration has never really discussed this idea with those who would have to communicate
with the masses about it.
So that idea has merit. Together we could make sense of such an idea. I’m anxious to open up the door of social policy, and I’m impressed with this opportunity today.