The passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 seemed to promise that the persistent economic disadvantage suffered by black Americans would at last be overcome. Although the legal push for equality created a broader, largely college-educated black middle class, many black Americans sank, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, into ever more desperate poverty and social chaos. By 1990, black urban ghettos were plagued by illegitimate births, single-parent families, widespread drug use, violent crime, and low levels of educational attainment. Nicholas Lemann attempts to resolve this seeming paradox of immiserization despite reform by examining the massive black migration from the South to the North that occurred between 1940 and 1970.
Lemann, a Louisiana-bred journalist, looks at two aspects of this story. He traces the fate of individual black migrants from the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago, Illinois, and he recounts the history of government responses to the northward migration in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. Thus the point of view shifts, throughout the book, from the level of high policy to the mundane level of ordinary lives; sometimes the shift occurs within the same chapter. The reader sees black urban poverty from the vantage point of the southern black migrant, Chicago Democratic Party machine politicians, black civil rights leaders, social scientists, and government officials of three successive presidential administrations.
Although it was the lure of abundant low-skilled jobs in Chicago in the 1940’s and early 1950’s that first pulled blacks from Clarksdale, they were later pushed out by the technological transformation of cotton farming. By the end of the 1960’s, such technological change, by making black farm labor superfluous, had destroyed the old sharecropping system.
Relying on interviews with both blacks and Mississippi Delta whites and on Depression-era anthropological studies, Lemann ably describes the sharecropping system that prevailed in the Delta region of Mississippi in 1940. The author persuasively demonstrates how exploitative and oppressive sharecropping could be for the blacks enmeshed in it, and how severely it curtailed opportunities for decent education and economic advancement. He also makes clear that even among the tiny black middle class in the town of Clarksdale, discontent could lead to either emigration or civil rights activism.
Lemann is somewhat less convincing when he postulates a link between the sharecropping culture of the Mississippi blacks of 1940 and the social pathology of the northern urban black ghettos of 1990. The author points to the violent black-on-black crime, the alcoholism, and the high proportion of illegitimate births among the sharecroppers; even the urban blacks’ frequent dependence on welfare, he suggests, harks back to the dependence of the sharecropper on the white landowner for food and equipment before the harvest. Yet an analogy can also be drawn between the pathology of the northern black ghettos and conditions in Puerto Rican East Harlem (where violent crime, teenage pregnancy, and drug use also flourished in 1990); in poor white communities of Appalachia (with high rates of murder and of teenage pregnancy); in Appalachian white colonies in midwestern cities; in the gang- ridden Mexican-American barrio of East Los Angeles; and even among turn-of-the-century European immigrants. A more systematic comparison with other ethnic groups would help the reader determine which black urban social ills originated in the sharecropping culture and which are traceable to other sources. Furthermore, Lemann’s own evidence indicates that social pathology grew worse in the North and was worse in the northern- reared generation than among the southern migrants themselves. The illegitimacy figures he cites for black sharecroppers in 1940 are high compared with those of whites in 1940, but low compared with those of ghetto blacks in 1990.
In some passages the author might seem, to the careless reader, to be arguing that the sharecropper heritage doomed migrants and their children to failure, yet a close reading of the book shows that he does not espouse such a view. He follows the sad odyssey of Ruby Lee Daniels Haynes: her Delta childhood in a sharecropper family; her first two failed marriages; her move to Chicago to join her aunt in the late 1940’s; her bouncing around from menial job to welfare and back again; her stormy relationship with Luther Haynes; her move to the Robert Taylor Homes, the entrapment of her children and those of her daughter-in-law in juvenile gangs, teen pregnancy, and drugs; and her return, as a social security recipient, to Clarksdale. Yet one migrant of sharecropper background, Uless Carter, never falls into destitution or crime (although he never achieves real economic security either); George Hicks, a better-educated migrant from Clarksdale itself, becomes a well-paid public housing bureaucrat in Chicago; and even one of Ruby’s sons escapes the ghetto by getting a steady job with the Post Office.
From reading these life stories, distilled from numerous interviews and recounted in unemotional, almost clinical, prose, the unsophisticated reader might infer that the self-defeating behavior patterns of the black poor keep them from achieving economic security in the North. Yet Lemann, while by no means denying the existence of individual responsibility, places much of the blame for black urban poverty and social pathology on both the oppressive racism of the South, which handicapped black migrants from birth, and on the exclusionary racism of the North, which tried to bar blacks from jobs, neighborhoods, and schools. The drying up of well-paying unskilled jobs in the North, which began in the 1950’s and accelerated in the 1970’s, is also mentioned as a...
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