How Cultural Values Shape
LAWRENCE E. HARRISON
Since the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools in 1954, most black Americans have participated in a political, social, and economic revolution. In terms of political participation, education, upward employment mobility, and family income, huge strides have been made toward closing the gap between blacks and whites, above all for the two-thirds of America's blacks who have made it into the mainstream--and into the middle class. The condition of the one-third who have not made it, most of them in the ghetto, is a tragedy for them, in personal terms, as well as for the broader society, in terms of the heavy costs of lost creativity, crime, and welfare and other social programs.
But while racism still exists (there are many reasons to believe that it has declined sharply), in my view it is no longer the principal obstacle to progress for people in black ghettos. The just-cited statistic of two-thirds of America's blacks having moved into the mainstream is one compelling evidence of that assertion. I believe that the principal obstacle today is culture: a set of values and attitudes, strongly influenced by the slavery experience, perpetuated by the isolation enforced, historically, by the Jim Crow laws and, today, by the ghetto. Accordingly, antipoverty policies and programs must emphasize access to the mainstream. Affirmative action has contributed to the achievement of that access for the majority of blacks, but its costs increasingly outweigh its benefits, particularly since its focus shifted from equal opportunity to equal results. This evolution strengthens the position of those black leaders who, like the Hispanic leaders calling for bilingualism and biculturalism, would subordinate national--American--identity to racial/ethnic identity.
The first blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619. They were not slaves but, like so many whites, indentured servants who, in due course, earned their freedom. Slavery was not introduced in the colonies until the second half of the seventeenth century, by which time there was already an appreciable number of "free persons of color." 1