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"If Not Action, Then Straight Talk,"

by Herbert J. Gans January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

I agree that the President's Initiative on Race should be devoted to action instead of talk, as proposed by most of the contributors to the November/ December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race. But if the Initiative is going to be limited to talk, let it at least be straight talk.

I would begin by taking testimony from all the important black leaders — including those invited to testify to the President's Initiative and to ‘White House meetings and dinners — about their chronic inability to get taxis. That session might then continue with a discussion of the continuing slights and harassments black professionals and managers still suffer on the job — of the kinds Ellis Cose and Joseph Feagin/Michael Sykes have reported in their recent books.

Thereafter, the Initiative should hear from representatives of the rest of the black community, middle class, working class and poor, about the far greater slights and harassments that discrimination and segregation make them pay; as well as about the economic and occupational insecurity suffered by the many black workers in declining industries or financially troubled public agencies.

For a change of pace, the Initiative should ask black children and adolescents, particularly poor ones, what it feels like to sense, at an early age, that their life chances, for all aspects of the American Dream, are already drastically impaired by the poor, overcrowded, underfinanced schools they have to attend.

A related panel should hear from the angriest or most despairing black youngsters — for example, those who were abused as children or grew up hungry and without a supportive family life. They could report on having grown up depressed or enraged, rejecting success in school as "acting white," and consciously or unconsciously heading for sporadic day labor work or careers in crime or violent gangs.

That same panel might also invite testimony from the black young adults imprisoned for long terms, often for minor drug crimes, about the everyday life of blacks in the typical American prison.

Another related session should convene young black women who become adolescent single parents because they see no decent jobs or marriageable males in their future, as well as those who are driven into motherhood by jobless young males who have to determine their success in life by the number of their sexual conquests.

A very different panel would hear from social scientists who can estimate the economic and social costs, say, in dealing with malnutrition, mental and other illness, school failure, crime and other pathological consequences associated directly or indirectly with growing up poor and black. The panel should also include an expert who could determine the costs for both blacks and whites by the white
majority's turning blacks into an undeserving race, and into the country's primary scapegoats.

The Initiative would end with a closed door session in which opponents of Affirmative Action, job, income and related programs would be required to formulate detailed and demonstrably effective substitutes for these programs before the doors would be reopened.

Herbert J. Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Columbia University and a past president of the American Sociological Association. He is the author of over a dozen books, including War Against the Poor (Basic Books, 1995).

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