On July 13, 1977, at 9:30 in the evening, New York City went suddenly and totally dark. The electric power had failed throughout the entire city. Within minutes several neighborhoods in the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn were aswarm with gangs of young men and little boys, lead pipes and gasoline in hand, on a rampage of looting and arson. Later, no doubt when the mayhem had become widespread and irresistible, a certain number of women and girls joined in. Small stores, restaurants, and supermarkets were broken into, their stocks cleaned out and fixtures smashed. In one neighborhood, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the fire department was literally unable to keep pace with the nightlong, and then daylong, setting of new fires.
It took twenty-four hours to achieve the full restoration of electricity. Meanwhile, havoc continued. In some areas the combination of daylight and continuous police surveillance brought a kind of spent, dazed quiet. In others—East Harlem, for instance, and the now infamous Bushwick—the pillage continued through much of the following day, interrupted only by the repeated appearance of the police, who arrived to carry off another and yet another wagonload of looters, and by occasional interviews granted to the press.
In any case, by the time the lights were all back on and the trains and elevators running, well over two thousand of New York’s small businesses had been smashed, at a loss estimated at anywhere from $165 million to $1 billion, depending on how one did the computation. (Since most of the looted stores, because of their location, could not in the first place be adequately insured, the real figure will never be arrived at.) Nearly four thousand people had been taken into custody for looting, thus swamping the city’s jails and courts. Untold numbers of participants in the night’s activities had been treated in hospital emergency rooms, some of these operating without power, for knife and glass wounds. More than four hundred policemen and firemen had been injured, several of them seriously.
So much is history. What cannot, of course, be captured in a telling of the facts and numbers, nor even in the more vivid newsphotos and TV news clips of the ongoing destruction, is the actual quality of the city’s experience on that long, dark night. Much discussion has subsequently taken place, particularly on the editorial and Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, about whether or not their fellow citizens were justified in using the word “animals” to characterize the looters. But the term in any case seems inappropriate; for anyone watching them at work, surging out of the shadows in a horde and scurrying back into the cover of darkness as the police cars came by, the imagery suggested is one taken from insect life—from urban insect life—rather than from the jungle or forest. Certainly the feeling left in the city by the night of July 14 was not so much of having been trampled as of having been given a sudden glimpse into the foundations of one’s house and seen, with horror, that it was utterly infested and rotting away. No one will be at ease in the edifice again for a long time, if ever.
Now, people living in so famously troubled a city as New York are perhaps surprising candidates for a fresh experience of social trauma such as I have just described. After all, there have been arson and looting before, at least in some of the city’s worst black ghettos. The South Bronx, for instance, having in the last few years become an arsonist’s heaven, is by now a surrealist moonscape. And while during the riots that erupted in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination the city suppressed the truth of what was happening so that its then mayor, John Lindsay, might be congratulated for the success of his enlightened policy, anyone going through Harlem in the weeks after could clearly see all the detritus of a large-scale social explosion. Nor was the blackout itself a new experience. There had also been a total citywide (indeed region-wide) power failure once before, in 1965, during which New Yorkers had had ample opportunity to discover that the health and safety and general welfare of congested urban communities can nowadays hang by a single wire. And finally, as all the world knows, and some part of the world even views with a certain amount of malicious satisfaction, New York is currently engaged in a battle against fiscal, and with it possibly economic and social, ruin. It would seem that people might have expected nothing less of a power failure on a hot July night than what did in fact take place.
The problem was that after several years of being caught up in the fashion of pronouncing life in New York to be intolerable—a fashion made up in about equal parts of genuine weariness with street-corner violence, the chic gaspings and coughings of environmentalism, and a general political bad mood, faintly radical in origin—the city’s inhabitants were beginning to feel a bit better, if not about their lot in life, then at least about themselves. This turn in mood, discernible in the language of the local press and the tone of public and private conversation more than in any measurable change in actual political and social conduct, was almost directly attributable to the fiscal crisis. If the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Dr. Johnson so usefully and quotably said, then the prospect of going bankrupt seemed to concentrate the affection of New Yorkers and help them to regain their sense of urban pride. Moreover, the discovery of how widespread was the hostility to New York, and with what equanimity other Americans were prepared to view its downfall, stirred a new spirit of loyalty: one of the most commonly enunciated sentiments about the crisis came to be that the city was in fiscal trouble because it was better than other places, more generous and compassionate with its citizenry, more alive to the beauties of racial, cultural, and class heterogeneity.
But there was another, more precise and particular, reason for the sense of trauma as well. The previous blackout, though more than a decade past, was still rather vivid in the memory of those old enough to have been around as a moment of neighborliness and civic cooperation and that special kind of gaiety that these produce in times of crisis. This time when the lights went out, people were able to recognize immediately the possible magnitude of the problem and at the same time to feel assured on the basis of experience that there was no cause for panic.
For a moment or two, that is. As things turned out, we know, civic cooperation was left largely to policemen and firemen who worked around the clock with little rest and to private citizens who stood with baseball bats and lead pipes of their own, prepared to fend off any advancing marauders and defend the ground for friends and neighbors. Thus, beyond the dangerous disruptions attendant on the withdrawal of electricity from a community of nearly eight million people living in fewer than three hundred square miles, beyond even the immeasurable, irrecoverable physical and economic damage done both to individuals and to New York as a whole, there was additional shock—perhaps the greatest shock of all—in the force with which the city had been caught spiritually off guard.
Whatever the outraged bewilderment of most ordinary New Yorkers in the face of twisted iron, broken glass, empty stores, and burnt-out buildings, however, it can at least be said that they were not left for very long with any unappeased hunger for an explanation. Even before the last fire engine had returned to its berth and the first looter taken from his temporary jail cell for arraignment, a group of important spokesmen for the conventional wisdom of what is nowadays called liberalism had reached a consensus on the meaning of the looting and were offering it confidently to the world.
The events of the night of July 13, according to this consensus, though deplorable, were a much: needed reminder of the way American society had failed. In the relative racial quiet of the past few years, many of us had been lulled into a false sense of security about the condition of the poor and black young, out of a wish to be shut of disquieting feelings of obligation to them and at the invitation of certain politicians to indulge that wish. But now we were being forced once more to confront our failure.
This failure consisted essentially of two things, one material, one, as it were, attitudinal. On the material side, there was the intolerably high rate of unemployment among minority-group youth, said to be 40 to 50 per cent in the worst of the slum ghettos. Some liberal accounts of this unemployment have held it to be the result of federal policy, instituted by Nixon and Ford, to control inflation through creating vast armies of the jobless. Others have declared it not so much the result of a particular policy as the fruit of a political and economic order not yet awake to the realization that its very survival will sooner or later depend on its willingness to effect a massive redistribution of the wealth. In either case, whether because its leaders have been retrograde or because its very structure is unsound, the system had been leaving minority youths to rot and crumble on the streetcorners of rotting and crumbling slums. “To walk the sidewalks in Harlem,” said Clayton Riley, teacher of African studies at Cornell University, in an essay which appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times on July 17, “is to feel—beyond seeing or hearing it—the grip of desperation that has too many strong, healthy people sitting around for months at a time, waiting for jobs that will never materialize, looking for chances America now admits it cannot provide.”
Being jobless, then, without work and without hope of work, is one of the things that turns young men, at the slightest provocation, into “animals.” But if unemployment provides the hard material ground for black desperation, the psychic counterpoint to that ground is an even more desperation-making indifference. Affluent white society, announced the liberal spokesmen, situated at a safe and comfortable distance from the truth about places like Harlem, had beguiled itself with the sight of a few successful blacks into believing that there was no longer a racial crisis in America. In the words of a New York Times editorial (also published on July 17): “Places called Bushwick, Brownsville, East Harlem, and Williamsburg are miles beyond the ken of the thriving and thrusting Americans who make policy and mold opinions. The people who live in such places have always been beyond the vision of most Americans, but since the upheavals of the 60’s, they have become even less visible.”
Our callous indifference to ghetto conditions is both private—the luxury of those whom a benign fate had permitted to move to, or be born into, greener suburban pastures—and political: the urban riots in the late 60’s should have given us ample warning that something must be done, and done quickly, to overcome poverty, but we did not, said the Times in yet another editorial, “spend enough of our ingenuity and our affluence to solve the problems the riots of the 60’s made evident. . . .”
Or, in the somewhat more sonorous recital of Clayton Riley: “We are building sports complexes and increasing our manufacture of luxury automobiles while failing to provide substance to the dreams of nothing more than shelter, clothes, food, and some occasional fun.” Indeed, no less a spokesman for the enlightened consensus than the President of the United States himself saw the looting as a message that more programs were needed in the areas of housing, health, education, and jobs for urban areas that had, as he put it, been “neglected too long.”
In other words, proclaimed the liberal consensus, the looting was an expression of the rage and desperation of minority youth at being the hopeless members of a hopeless community. Permit this rage and desperation to ferment unseen for long enough, as we have done, turn on the summer heat, turn off all the lights . . . and hark what bloody and sulphurous discord follows.
The first thing that strikes one about this explanation for what happened on the night of July 13—aside from the speed and the easy, one might almost say cheerful, assurance with which it was brought forth out of a moment of unforeseen chaos—is its complete familiarity. For well over a decade now there has been almost no form of urban unpleasantness, from purse-snatching to rioting, which has not instantly been imputed by those who have elected to speak in the name of liberalism to the inescapability of black poverty and the indifference of white society to it. Moreover, for those who offer it, the explanation seems to apply equally well to any given condition or policy and its exact opposite. To speak of white brutality at one point in time, for instance, was to refer to the whites’ refusal to accept blacks as their full equals; at another point in time it meant a refusal to accord blacks a special status as a damaged and thus incapacitated community. The term brutality has sometimes been intended to mean that we degrade the poor by keeping them as objects of charity on welfare and sometimes that we degrade the poor by not making our charity more abundant. (These particular antipodes were even forced together within a single movement, presided over by two professors of social work, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, whose aim was to wreck the welfare system by recruiting an intolerable number of people to it—with what resulting cost New York City may never be able to reckon.) The unconcern of the white community for black need was at one point said to be evidenced by the absence of black elected officials, particularly in the big cities, and then when blacks began to be elected to major offices, was said to be evidenced by the willingness of the whites to allow black mayors and police chiefs to preside over decaying and troubled urban centers.
But most familiar, and on the other hand most curious, of all is the general assertion—made in the teeth of how many hundreds upon hundreds of government programs and hundreds upon hundreds of millions (or is it billions?) of dollars of public expenditure—that the problems of the urban poor have been neglected. Many things have been, and no doubt will long continue to be, in dispute in the discussion of the relative success or failure of this or that aspect of that aggregate enterprise known as the poverty program. What we do know is that there has been a massive, whether or not adequate, effort to improve the social and economic condition of the poor—particularly and by all means the black poor. And what we do know further is that there has been, whether or not as a result of this effort and however inadequate we judge it to be, a substantial improvement in the social and economic condition of the black population. There are those who would say that government intervention in behalf of the racial minorities, by creating certain economic and social problems, actually impeded rather than aided their progress. Be that as it may, the terms “neglect” or “indifference” when applied in this case can have only, and perhaps are intended only to have, a liturgical effect.
In fact, one of the arguments offered in that first rush of liberal explication of the looting was that the new-found success of some of its (presumably now departed) sons and daughters had left the old ghetto neighborhood in an even more desperate condition than before. “Although the civil-rights movement brought greatly improved opportunities for minorities through law and public policy”—wrote John Herbers, deputy chief of the New York Times Washington Bureau, in a piece which appeared under the headline “Urban Poor Worse Off Than Ever”—“and many blacks and Hispanics flourished in politics and private employment, the poor neighborhoods in the big urban centers continued to fester and decline” (July 24). The famous departure of the middle class from the central city, the process which was making the city an ever more stricken and abandoned social entity, had come very much to include the black middle class. Again, a source of genuine difficulty for the community left behind perhaps, but hardly one to be scored as a failure of American society. Those who got to move out might even be forgiven for reckoning it a success of American society.
But what then of the ones left behind, the “worse off than ever,” the desperate unemployed young men? So far from being invisible, as the Times editorial quoted earlier suggested, possibly having in mind the 40’s Harlem depicted by Ralph Ellison, they have long been at the very center of public preoccupation: whole professions have grown up around them. They have enjoyed as no other group the ministrations of society, no doubt only questionably welcome—in the form of special teachers, guidance counselors, attendance officers, social workers of every variety, family courts, therapists, particularly drug therapists, posing as athletic coaches, gang advisers, and on and on. Even the lack of jobs for them is at least in part attributable to a nothing if not high-intentioned government intervention in their behalf: that is, the imposition of a minimum wage for teenagers along with adults. This means that among their other problems as potential employees, including difficulty in receiving and accepting training, they have been made simply uneconomic to hire for the kind of marginal work they can do.
In New York City there has been a growing employment crisis in general, created not by the absence of good will but by the positive flight from the city of businesses unable to find a qualified and efficient labor force and yet constrained to pay high wages to an unreliable one. Labor-union opposition to the lifting of the minimum-wage requirements for adolescents would of course, and from labor’s point of view justifiably, have been very strong. But so, one feels, would opposition from those very spokesmen for civic “compassion” who currently bid us to pay heed to the job needs of the enraged ghetto young, on the grounds that a malign and greedy business community was trying to exploit them. Just as it seems not to have occurred to Clayton Riley that the building of sports complexes and the manufacture of luxury automobiles are precisely the sorts of activity that create jobs and bring a bit of wealth to the working class, so many who are habitually quick and sure and virtuous in all their analyses of social problems often find it worthwhile to remain oblivious to any of the consequences of their views in the real world.
Many people have in the same way also found it worthwhile to remain unaware of just how knotty in the first place is the whole question of youth unemployment in the urban ghetto. To begin with, there is the problem of what actually constitutes unemployment and how percentages like 40 per cent and 50 per cent are arrived at. There is certainly no doubt—the simple evidence of one’s senses in the course of a car ride through, say, Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant will suffice to confirm—that hordes of adolescent boys and post-adolescent young men hang out seemingly all day long on street corners, spending their time in a form of play which consists largely of offering menace to one another and to passers-by. That they are idle and as a consequence headed for trouble of one kind or another is obvious. That they mind being in this condition is less obvious. That they are all of them poor is less obvious still. And that they are unemployed, in the sense of having sought, and failed to find, a job, seems in many cases simply a laughable proposition.
In the early 60’s, under the deceptively simple and never uninteresting tutelage of the late Paul Goodman, enlightened people had “discovered” such young men. Not that troubled city youth needed to be called to society’s attention; on the contrary, they had for some time had a full measure of attention because of the special juvenile brand of street warfare they engaged in, “rumbling,” which left several of their number bleeding to death virtually every Saturday night. But no one had known really what to make of, let alone what to do with, the street gang and its terrifying ethos. Then in what was to prove his classic work, Growing Up Absurd, Goodman had illuminated the problem. “It is hard to grow up,” he wrote, “when there isn’t enough man’s work.” And from this observation there developed a whole strategy not only for dealing with but for thinking about ghetto youth—call it the manpower strategy—and from this strategy in turn there developed a whole new profession—poverty worker. It would be difficult to arrive at an accurate estimate of how many dollars, public and private, have circulated both through and at the behest of this profession. With what results we have long since had ample opportunity to see.
But Goodman also said something more, and in a way even more consequential: “There is nearly full employment (with highly significant exceptions),” he went on (the book was published in 1960; as it happens, first in these pages), “but there get to be fewer jobs that are necessary or unquestionably useful; that require energy and draw on some of one’s best capacities; and that can be done keeping one’s honor and dignity.” In this sentence is contained the skeleton of an idea—perhaps it should be called a bent of mind—that is with us still: this is the idea that jobs available to the poor, particularly the young poor, are almost by definition not real jobs. Frequently those who say that a decent society would be a society where so many hundreds of thousands would not need to be on welfare, for instance, respond to the evidence that many people find welfare preferable to gainful employment by countering that the only jobs society is offering them are “dead-end” jobs. “Dead-end” might mean, as in Goodman’s schema, unmanly; or it might mean unpleasant, unrewarding, or unsatisfying; or it might mean without sufficient opportunity for advancement. Whichever particular meaning the term is given, something the liberal spokesmen have neglected to tell us is that when they warn us that society had better provide these young men with jobs, they mean society had better provide them with good jobs. If moving up into the American middle class is, as James Baldwin has so eloquently sought to convince his black brothers, a snare and a delusion, what is one to say about the prospect of moving up into the American working class? It would hardly, as many a big-city employer has learned, be worth getting out of bed in the morning for. And indeed a fact widely known but by common consent never alluded to—a truth, to borrow a phrase, that dare not speak its name—is that even now, in a period thought to be suffering from a cruelly and unnecessarily high rate of unemployment, there are all sorts of jobs that from one month or year to the next cannot find any takers.
Naturally a major consideration in talking about jobs, not necessarily always included in the characterization “dead-end” but nonetheless surely important to it, is money. For large numbers of those young men on street corners it does not pay to take a job. Not only because there is nothing much they are qualified to do; and not only because welfare payments are at least adequate to keep them housed and fed; and not only because they have increasingly been brought up in, and seem content to perpetuate, a system of being kept by women; but because so many of them have access, or the occasional promise of access, to a different kind of money—money sometimes dangerously, but always easily, come by.
Another famous book of the 60’s, much praised but obviously insufficiently attended to, is Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, which provides an illuminating account of the actual days and nights of many a Harlem youth. The book tells a terrible story; between drugs and jails, hardly any of Brown’s old gang survived. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Brown and his friends would not have been caught dead holding down a regular job. In their case, the income of preference happened to be that derived from the rolling of drunks. But the list of lucrative street occupations for the alert and hard-working is long and various: for the well-connected, there is running numbers or running errands for those who do; there are the many different levels of participation in the trafficking of drugs; there is stealing; there is mugging; there is (or used to be) contriving to get paid to go to school; and finally there is selling the services of one, or if you are very shrewd and talented, of a whole stable, of your girl friends. This list of employments is not very pretty and has been intentionally somewhat narrowed for emphasis, but one pays those young men less than proper respect to imagine that President Carter can so easily afford the means to buy them away from their present life.
And if it is not true that they are to be seen day after day hanging about on stoops and parked cars because they are tired from having pounded the pavements in vain, it is even less true that the looting and arson were acts of desperation. Nothing at this moment seems more critical for the social and even political health of New York City than that we have done with at least some of the cant in which we have been threatening to drown ourselves.
It is cant to call the looters victims of racial oppression, and it is still worse cant to say that their condition is the result of our apathy. Immigrants from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, San Salvador, Haiti, and Puerto Rico—all of whom were prominently included among the looters—may have been the hapless victims of something, but not in the United States. They flock here and go to any lengths not to be sent home—hardly the behavior, no matter how hard a time they are going through, of victims. They are poor, to be sure, but like all immigrant groups they are here because they were even poorer before.
It is cant to say that the looting only took place in the city’s worst slums. Manhattan’s Upper West Side is hardly Eden, but no one lives there in unimaginable squalor, except perhaps for the community of the very old people and the insane—white more than black—who have been dumped in the neighborhood by children or welfare agencies or the enlightened new practice of shutting down the asylums and drugging their former inmates to the eyeballs so that they may wander up and down Broadway. And speaking from the point of view of social attitude, the Upper West Side may be the most naturally and unself-consciously integrated neighborhood in America.
It is cant to refer to the looters as animals, because on that fateful July night they were behaving in all-too-human a fashion. It is also cant to say, as the New Yorker did in a ludicrous “Talk of the Town” piece (August 8), that people’s anger at the looting after it had occurred actually caused the looting (or in the New Yorker‘s own words, “the attitude toward the riots created the riots”).
But it is cant above all to say of the looters’ conduct—as Herbert Gutman did in a truly disgraceful piece (which also appeared on the Times Op-Ed page, July 21), in which he compared them with a group of Jewish housewives in 1902 who organized what turned into a rowdy protest against the high cost of kosher meat and threw meat into the street to rot—that they were giving us “a pained message.” Anyone who actually watched the looters at work, as those of us who live in looted neighborhoods were privileged to do first-hand and as millions of Americans did briefly on television, knows that they were doing no such thing as expressing rage or even blindly giving vent to some pent-up experience of torment: they were having the time of their lives. To see them, or better yet to listen to them through the darkness, shouting instructions to one another and roaring with their exertions, was to understand that they were people getting intoxicated on their dumb luck. Possibly that is why so many got caught—for falling into a state of drunken incaution and forgetting to take proper advantage of the dark. By the next day, of course, the looting was not so much drunken as obsessive, going on blindly in full daylight. Who among those listening to Group-W radio will ever forget, for the sake of any mere social theory, the voice of the young man in Bushwick being interviewed in front of a clothing store he had just ripped off saying distractedly and impatiently to the interviewer: “Hey, man, all right, I’ll tell you. It’s the name of the game. Aw Jesus, man, let me go now—I got to go!”
Nor will a month of Sundays’ worth of sermons about poverty and alienation erase the image captured in the special report which appeared in the July 25 issue of Newsweek : a woman wandering through the second floor of a Brooklyn discount furniture store looking for end tables and complaining to the others who were busily carrying away furniture, “I just can’t use a thing up here.”
Many, in some neighborhoods possibly most, of the looted stores were owned by people only marginally less poor than the looters. Many, in some neighborhoods possibly most, of these stores were owned by blacks or Hispanics—people who had refused to heed James Baldwin’s advice and had thrown in their lot with the American small-merchant class. The mobs who smashed their businesses, in some cases permanently, seemed to bear no personal grudge or resentment;1 they were simply taking advantage of the double opportunity of the blackout and the courage that is found in numbers to steal. Clearly one of the psychic advantages of looting—once someone does his fellows the favor of commencing—is that it does not quite feel like stealing. In any case, whatever the psychic mechanism at work in the looting, its aim was theft. And the accompanying emotion was neither anger nor frustration but simple greed. Merely standing in front of one’s premises with some sort of weapon in one’s hand often sufficed to hold the looters at bay. They were after all not looking for trouble but for goods—and for the childlike high times of getting these goods, grown-up toys, for nothing. As for the arson, it, too, had a kind of macabre picnic quality, both a great and thrilling bonfire and a game of tag with the fire department.
To be sure, the combination of greed and the special opportunity afforded by the blackout, potent as such a combination might be, is not by itself enough to explain that uncontrollable bout of pillage. Greed, being one of the seven deadly sins, may be assumed to be in some degree present in all human affairs. As, surely, is some degree of opportunity. Even so God-given an opportunity as a citywide power failure had been presented once before without being acted upon. If the looting was not an explosion of despair and rage, a cumulative response to joblessness and hopelessness and the feeling of being abandoned, how are we to account for it?
The answer is that all those young men went on their spree of looting because they had been given permission to do so. They had been given permission to do so by all the papers and magazines, movies and documentaries—all the outlets for the purveying of enlightened liberal attitude and progressive liberal policy—which had for years and years been proclaiming that race and poverty were sufficient excuses for lawlessness. They had been given permission to do so by all the politicians and government officials who had for years and years through their policies been expressing their belief that there was no other way to “tame” ghetto youth except through bribery and no other way to move them ahead in life except by special arrangement. And they had been given permission to do so by all the self-appointed foundation- or government-funded militant spokesmen for the interests of the black and Hispanic communities whose threats of “long hot summers” had been the key to their exercise of power with the political establishment. The previous blackout, it is important to remember, had taken place before all these various embodiments of liberal enlightenment on race had offered their blessings to the riots in Watts and Detroit or heaped encomiums on the likes of Huey Newton and H. Rap Brown.
“Pained messages” are being transmitted and received, all right, but in exactly the opposite direction from the one suggested by Herbert Gutman. Young blacks are getting the message from the liberal culture, more subtly but just as surely as from any old-time Southern sheriff, that they are, inherently and by virtue of their race, inferior. There are virtually no crimes they can commit that someone with great influence does not rush in to excuse on the grounds that we had no right to expect anything else. Moreover, there is virtually no traditional form of manliness—fathering one’s children, defending one’s women—that is not considered a cruel and bigoted demand to make on them, given the difficulties it would bring them. They must not be judged by the standards that apply to everyone else in school or in applying for or performing jobs; because they cannot succeed, it is heartless to subject them to the possibility of failure. Sooner or later, if only for its own survival, society will simply have to become wise enough and kind enough, and spend enough money, to be able to maintain them, and their unfathered children and unhusbanded wives, in comfort and dignity. The message they are given, in short, is that they are not fully enough human to be held morally responsible for their own behavior. They are children, as the Southerners used to say, or ironically, they are, in the terminology the New York Times editorialist so much objected to but so inevitably himself implied, “animals.”
This is the message that has for some time now, at least since the late 60’s, been consistently transmitted by the “best” people, and certainly widely received by their intended interlocutors. It is, to be blunt about it, the message of liberal racism.
But the problem does not rest there. For no matter how passionately the liberals argue against it, everyone at bottom holds himself morally responsible for what he does. Being told over and over again in a hundred different ways, as these ghetto youths are, that they are blameless victims does not convince them but only saps their ever-dwindling store of self-respect. Anyone who knows them or who has ever truly looked at them at their sidewalk stations can see, year by year, from little-boyhood to young manhood, the dying away of self-esteem: the special swaggering walk so full of uncertainty, the nearly insane scrutiny of every word, gesture, look, tone of voice directed to them for evidence of insult. They are people who have come dangerously to share in their would-be sympathizers’ contempt for them.
It is possible for some of these young men to resist the idea that they are entitled to the special status of irresponsibles. Though one would not necessarily know it from reading the liberal press, many, many have resisted it, are resisting it, and will do so in the future (the “invisible” blacks, of course, are the millions of blacks, particularly young men, who lead ordinary lives). But it is an unfair burden—here is where the true cruelty and injustice lies—for a boy to have to bring himself to moral maturity, as well as for the parents who are trying to help him do so, without any support or confirmation from the society around him for the moral weight of his actions.
As it is, so far from being supported or confirmed, he is constantly being disconfirmed. He is discontinued, for instance, in a school system whose policy is that he must be passed from grade to grade regardless of whether he can read or write; by a board of education whose policy is that he is not worth the risk his teacher or principal must face in trying to discipline him; or by a juvenile-justice system which defines as “delinquency” deeds he knows in his heart of hearts to be serious crimes. However hurtful and humiliating it must have been for a grown black man to suffer being called “boy,” surely nothing can suck the marrow from the bones faster or more thoroughly than calling a bad boy blameless.
Thus the young men who went rampaging on that hot July night were neither innocents nor savages; they were people in the grip of the pathology that arises from moral chaos. They were doing something they knew to be wrong but had been given a license for, and had not been able to find the inner resources to overcome their temptation. A subsequent New York Times editorial (July 28) written in response to a flood of mail from readers condemning the looters (and evidently also the paper for its initial soft response to them) reiterates the proposition that poverty and race were the salient factors in the looting: “Denounce them, jail them, hate them. Still the question lingers. . . . They appeared only in the poorest sections of town and drew recruits only from the poorest population groups, albeit only a tiny fraction of them. The question is why these and only these? Why, bluntly, no white looters in white neighborhoods?” The real answer to this question, I am afraid, is not to be found in the economy, nor even in the hot, nervous streets of summertime New York. It is to be found in a decade’s worth of the spread of this very liberal and very racist idea: that being black is a condition for special moral allowance.
In the course of the radio coverage of July 14, two little black boys, sounding about twelve years old, were interviewed and announced that they had taken no part in the looting going on all around them. They seemed a bit sheepish. When asked by the interviewer, “Why not?” one of them said, “I was scared of the cops,” and the other one said, “Because my mama would have killed me.” A brave and lucky woman, that mama—no thanks to the culture intent on whispering sweet nada into her little boy’s ear.
1 On my own block for instance—on upper Broadway in Manhattan—several elegant small shops, purveying goods of no particular interest to the looters, were left untouched in the midst of surrounding bedlam.