Thursday, September 17, 2015

White Mischief - The passions of Carl Van Vechten
by Kelefa Sanneh
In the summer of 1925, Carl Van Vechten, a New York hipster and literary gadabout, sent a letter to Gertrude Stein, whose friendship he was cultivating. Stein had finally found a publisher for "The Making of Americans," but Van Vechten was preoccupied with a project of his own. He called it "my Negro novel," though he hadn't started it yet. "I have passed practically my whole winter in company with Negroes and have succeeded in getting into most of the important sets," he wrote. "This will not be a novel about Negroes in the South or white contacts or lynchings. It will be about NEGROES, as they live now in the new city of Harlem (which is part of New York)." A few weeks later, Stein replied, using a word that Van Vechten didn't. "I am looking forward enormously to the nigger book," she wrote.
When Van Vechten first arrived in New York, in 1906, there were few signs that he would ever attempt to appoint himself bard of Harlem. He was a self-consciously sophisticated exile from the Midwest, and he was quickly hired by the Times as a music and dance critic. Celebrating provocateurs like Igor Stravinsky and Isadora Duncan, he trusted that the chattiness of his prose would make up for the occasional severity of the art he loved. (In an early collection of his criticism, he sought to reassure unseasoned listeners: "Don't go to a concert and expect to hear what you might have heard fifty years ago; don't expect anything and don't hate yourself if you happen to like what you hear.") He also published a series of mischievous novels that were notable mainly, one critic observed, for their "annoying mannerisms," including a lack of quotation marks and a fondness for "obsolete or unfamiliar words." This verdict appeared on the front cover of one of those novels, which was a clue that the anonymous critic was Van Vechten himself. The more time Van Vechten spent in New York, though, the more interested he became in the sights and sounds of Harlem, where raucous and inventive night clubs were thriving under Prohibition. His ‘Negro novel’ was meant to be a celebration, but Van Vechten couldn't resist giving it an incendiary title: "Nigger Heaven," after a slang term for the segregated balcony of a theatre. His idea was that the term might serve as a suitably ambivalent analogy for Harlem. In a soliloquy halfway through the book, one character explains:

Nigger Heaven! That's what Harlem is. We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting clown below in the good seats in the orchestra. Occasionally they turn their faces up towards us, their hard, cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon.
Various people urged Van Vechten to reconsider, including his father. "Whatever you may be compelled to say in the book," he wrote, "your present title will not be understood & I feel certain you should change it." Van Vechten felt equally certain that he should not: he didn't mind drawing some extra attention to his novel, and, besides, he had Negro friends who would defend him.
In the end, Van Vechten and his father were both right. A number of Negro critics were annoyed by the title, and offended by the novel's lurid depictions of cabaret life-even though its main protagonists were smart, college educated young Negroes who talked incessantly about art and literature. But many white critics were impressed, and the controversy helped make "Nigger Heaven" a best-seller. The book's marketing campaign was designed to exploit white readers' fascination with uptown night life. (An advertisement in The New Yorker asked, 'Why go to Harlem cabarets when you can read 'Nigger Heaven'?") And its success helped draw attention to a movement: the Negro Renaissance, which came to be known, and celebrated, as the Harlem Renaissance, a name that conjures up both novelists and night clubs. It is possible that "Nigger Heaven" did more for the Harlem Renaissance than it did for its author, whose reputation never quite recovered from the backlash he faced. Decades later, Ralph Ellison remembered him as a bad influence, an unsavory character who "introduced a note of decadence into Afro-American literary matters which was not needed." And, in 1981, the historian David Levering Lewis, the author of a classic study of the Harlem Renaissance, spoke for many when he called "Nigger Heaven" a "colossal fraud," an ostensibly uplifting book whose message was constantly upstaged by "the throb of the tom-tom." He viewed Van Vechten as a hustler, driven by "a mixture of commercialism and patronizing sympathy," and treated the novel as a quaint artifact of a less enlightened literary era: the scribblings of a former hipster who no longer seemed very hip.
This kind of criticism turned Van Vechten into a rather troubling figure, which is to say, a fine candidate for reexamination, and maybe rehabilitation. In 2001, Emily Bernard published "Remember Me to Harlem," a compendium of letters documenting the forty year friendship between Van Vechten and Langston Hughes, who publicly defended "Nigger Heaven," and privately enjoyed Van Vechten's roguish sense of humor. (In one letter, Van Vechten referred to himself as "this ole cullud man.") Two years ago, Bernard published "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance" (Yale), a thoughtful reconsideration of Van Vechten's career as both a writer and an effective champion of Negro writers. She found much to admire in Van Vechten, though she described him as "ensnared" in the "riddle of race." She also acknowledged that for years she avoided teaching "Nigger Heaven" in her college classes, so as not to subject students to "the wound that is the title of the book."
The newest Van Vechten biographer is Edward White, a Brit and a less agonized enthusiast. In "The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), White celebrates all the things that might once have seemed shocking about Van Vechten: his conviction that Negro culture was the essence of America; his simultaneous fascination with the avant-garde and title broadly popular; and his string of sexual relationships with men, which were an open secret during his life. Van Vechten's tastes were varied: his bibliography includes an erudite cultural history of the house cat, and in his later decades he became an accomplished portrait photographer. White calls him, plausibly enough, the "prophet of a new cultural sensibility that promoted the primacy of the individual, sexual freedom, and racial tolerance and dared put the blues on a par with Beethoven." Even so, White can't help placing that polarizing novel, and its title, at the center of his tale. Nearly a century after he rose to fame, Van Vechten remains the white man who insisted on publishing a pro-Negro book called "Nigger Heaven." And he will be a tempting subject for biographers as long as there are readers who want to know what, exactly, he was thinking.
No writer who tackles Van Vechten can resist the urge to describe his once famous face, although none can match the standard set by Bruce Kellner, who knew him, and who published an affectionate biography in 1968, four years after Van Vechten's death. Kellner compares him to a "domesticated werewolf," placid but intense, with a resting expression that was an unnerving "blank stare," and "disfigured by two very big and ve1y ugly protruding front teeth, like squares of broken crockery." Van Vechten grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, even as a boy, he amplified these involuntary quirks with a number of voluntary ones: ascots, slim trousers, one long fingernail. He escaped to the University of Chicago, spending evenings at the opera and the symphony, and late nights playing piano at the Everleigh Club, a legendary brothel or so he claimed. A good Van Vechten biographer must also be a tireless debunker, and White, alert to his subject's tendency toward embellishment, could find no evidence that Van Vechten had spent time at the Everleigh's famous gold-leaf piano. "One must only be accurate about such details in a work of fiction," Van Vechten wrote, years later, by way of excusing his fabricated account of the historic premiere of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps." He hadn't been there, either, although he had attended the second performance, which was not quite so historic.
Van Vechten's determination always to be in the right place - even when he wasn't - carried him to New York, to Europe, and back to New York, a city that he found fewer and fewer reasons to leave. After a brief marriage to a childhood friend, he wed an actress named Fania Marinoff, who stayed with him for the rest of his life, more than half a century, despite being given plenty of reasons to leave. Van Vechten and Marinoff were known for their parties, which flouted the laws of Prohibition and the norms of segregation. Starting in 1924, as Van Vechten became, in his words, "violently interested in Negroes," the Van Vechten apartment, on West Fifty-fifth Street, was one of the few truly integrated social spaces in a city that wasn't as cosmopolitan as it thought it was.
Van Vechten's passion had begun as curiosity about a novel called "The Fire in the Flint," which depicts a Ku Klux Klan lynching in Georgia. Van Vechten arranged to meet its author, an enterprising young N.A.A.C.P. activist named Walter White, who helped introduce him to just about every prominent Negro singer and writer in town. In a series of articles for Vanity Fair, Van Vechten argued that the blues deserved "the same serious attention that has tardily been awarded to the Spirituals," and he introduced readers to W. C. Handy, the songwriter who popularized the blues, and to Hughes, whose poems drew inspiration from Negro vernacular culture. Some nights, he went uptown, prowling Harlem's cabarets. Other nights, the cabaret came to West Fifty-fifth Street, as when Bessie Smith treated party goers to a thunderous performance. Afterward, when Marinoff attempted to deliver a grand kiss good night, Smith threw her to the floor, yelling, "Get the fuck away from me!" Apparently, Van Vechten was unfazed - one attendee heard him praising Smith's performance, sotto voce, as she was escorted out.
By the time he got to work on his Negro novel, Van Vechten didn't feel merely like a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance; he felt like part of it. In one telling, this feeling explains why he thought that he could get away with his scandalous title. The novel contains only two footnotes: one points readers to a glossary of "unusual Negro words and phrases"; the other explains that the word "nigger" is "freely used by Negroes among themselves," but that "its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented." Bernard argues that by using the word "nigger" Van Vechten sought to "establish his privileged status" as a white man who was above the racial law. Edward White, too, views the footnote as proof that Van Vechten saw himself as an exceptional white man, with "special dispensation" to use language that would otherwise be taboo. It seems just as likely, though, that Van Vechten chose so definitive a formulation - "always fiercely resented" - not because he thought he could escape censure but because he knew he wouldn't. And he must have known: one of many people to whom he revealed his title in advance was Countee Cullen, the urbane Negro poet. In his journal, Van Vechten recorded Cullen's response: "He turns white with hurt & I talk to him." They argued about it, and the next day they augured some more; Cullen was never persuaded, which didn't stop Van Vechten from using a quatrain of his as the book's epigraph. It's not hard to imagine that Van Vechten was thinking of Cullen, and all the others who might never forgive him, when he wrote that self-indicting footnote.
"Nigger Heaven" is a short book, made shorter still by its standalone prologue, about a pimp known as the Scarlet Creeper, and by its split structure, which pairs two slim novellas, one for each protagonist. The first is given over to Mary Love, a perceptive but anxious young librarian; the second belongs to Byron Kasson, a stubborn and confused aspiring writer, whose brief love affair with Mary provides a hinge between the two halves. Both characters wrestle with Negro identity: Mary is too self-conscious to join the revelry she sees all around her in Harlem, while Byron is paralyzed and enraged by the humiliations of a segregated city. After a condescending white editor criticizes Byron's work, he leaves Mary and takes up with a debauched socialite named Lasca Sartoris; when Lasca leaves him, he descends into fury, and the novel ends with a complicated spasm of violence. (It was Mr. Scarlet, in the night club, with the revolver though it's Byron who faces punishment.) Van Vechten is fascinated by the diversity of Harlem, with its "rainbow" of skin colors and its complicated hierarchy of class and culture. When Mary rebuffs a powerful kingpin, Raymond Pettijohn, who has cornered the market on a numbers game called bolito, the result is a bilingual form of pulp fiction:

I'm sorry, Mr. Pettijohn, she said, but it's no use. You see, I don't love you.
Dat doan mek no difference, he whispered softly. Lemme mek you.
I'm afraid it's impossible, Mary asserted more firmly.
The Bolito King regarded her fixedly and with some wonder. You cain' mean no, he said. Ah's willin' to wait, an' to wait some time, but Ah gotta git you. You jes' what Ah desires.
It's impossible, Mary repeated sternly, as she turned away.
That "throb of the tom-tom" that David Levering Lewis detected is real enough: the sound is described in a scene near the end, when Byron and Lasca, high on cocaine, stumble into a demonic after-hours club. But, throughout the novel, the character most obsessed with primal and exotic Negro identity is Mary, whose hunger for racial authenticity becomes a cruel running joke. "She admired all Negro characteristics and desired earnestly to possess them," we learn, though she also suspects that this desire is self-defeating. "Unless I acted naturally like the others, it would be no use," she thinks, and the novel turns on the question of what it might mean for a college-educated Negro to act "naturally"; this ongoing debate makes the novel much more interesting than its characters or its plot.
During her brief romance with Byron, Mary suddenly finds herself speaking the kingpin's English. "Ah'm jes' nacherly lovin' you, mah honey," she says. To Byron, this "nacherl" speech sounds artificial; he asks her, "Where did you learn that delicious lingo?" And the white editor who so infuriates Byron does it by urging him to write about Negro life in Harlem. The editor says, "God, boy, let your characters live and breathe! Give 'em air. Let 'em react to life and talk and act naturally." This is more or less what Van Vechten had been telling young Negro writers in his own published essays, and yet the character who delivers these words to Byron is more buffoon than sage: a rude and presumptuous interloper, eager to share his dubious theories about the happy life of the average "Negro servant-girl." Tellingly, in the years after "Nigger Heaven" was published, Van Vechten largely stopped offering unsolicited advice to young Negro writers. The reaction to "Nigger Heaven" doubtless made him reticent, but so, perhaps, did the experience of writing it.
In a brutal and influential review published in The Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, W. E. B. Du Bois derided "Nigger Heaven" as "an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white"; he found nothing in its pages besides "cheap melodrama," enlivened by bursts of "noise and brawling." Bernard, similarly, finds the novel "banal," but celebrates it anyway, arguing that its real contribution to the Harlem Renaissance lay in the reviews it generated. Annoyed by Du Bois and others, a coterie of young Negro writers joined the fight, standing up not just for Van Vechten but for the right to fill their own pages with as much "noise and brawling" as they pleased. Claude McKay, a Jamaican immigrant, published "Home to Harlem," a rich and sordid tale of love and violence uptown. (After reading it, Hughes wrote a wry letter to Van Vechten: "If yours was 'Nigger Heaven,' this is 'Nigger Hell.'") And the witty and acerbic novelist Wallace Thurman delivered a mixed verdict on the novel itself, even as he lambasted its critics:

In writing "Nigger Heaven" the author wavered between sentimentality and sophistication. That the sentimentality won out is his funeral. That the sophistication stung certain Negroes to the quick is their funeral.
It was true that Van Vechten was one of the patrons of Fire!!, the celebrated single-issue magazine in which Thurman's essay appeared. But Bernard is right to observe that, for many writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the defense of "Nigger Heaven" had become an emancipatory project. "It enabled members of the younger generation to distinguish themselves from their predecessors," she writes. "It had become their cackling chuckle of contempt."
No Negro writer was more caught up in the controversy than Hughes, who was widely perceived as Van Vechten's protege. Van Vechten had prevailed upon his friend Alfred A. Knopf to publish Hughes's first collection, "The Weary Blues," and wrote a preface to it. Some critics thought they detected Van Vechten's vulgarizing influence in Hughes's earthy poems. But Van Vechten insisted, with some justification, that "the influence, if one exists, flows from the other side." The effort to debunk these rumors only strengthened their friendship, which endured not only the "Nigger Heaven" controversy but also Van Vechten's withering assessment of Hughes's pro-Soviet poems, and Van Vechten's reputational decline. (In the nineteen-fifties, Hughes asked Van Vechten to write an introduction to a new volume of poems, then tactfully rescinded the request after his publisher told him that it wouldn't be a good idea.) The letters they exchanged are affectionate and conspiratorial-in one, Van Vechten teased Hughes by telling him that people were referring to his debut as "The Weary Blacks." Even as the debates of the nineteen-twenties faded, Van Vechten and Hughes liked to think of themselves as mischievous upstarts, doing battle against the forces of Negro propriety. When Van Vechten told Hughes that he had arranged for his papers to be archived at Yale University, Hughes feigned concern:

I was just about to tell you about a wonderful fight that took place in Togo's Pool Room in Monterey the other day in which various were cut from here to yonder and the lady who used to be the second wife of Noel's valet who came to New York with him that time succeeded in slicing several herself - but you know the Race would come out here and cut me if they knew I was relaying such news to posterity via the Yale Library. So now how can I tell you?
If Van Vechten's attraction to men was an open secret, Hughes's romantic life was a secret secret; his biographer Arnold Rampersad is one of many historians who have looked for evidence and come away with nothing conclusive. White, considering the close relationship between Hughes and Van Vechten, concludes that they were not lovers; as proof, he offers their correspondence, which he contrasts to the "flirtatious" letters, rife with "homosexual coding and innuendo," that Van Vechten sent to his male lovers. "His letters to Hughes feature none of that," White argues, "and disclose nothing but warm, jovial friendship and honest exchanges of opinions." It might be said, though, that Van Vechten's version of "jovial friendship" wasn't entirely free of sexual suggestion. One of Van Vechten's missives, from 1943, includes an out-of context postscript: "I have just photographed an extremely beautiful merchant seaman (cullud) age 21 who used to be an undertaker and is devoted to the arts." The next year, he told Hughes about a "Best Built Man" competition he had attended in Harlem. 'The Adonises (white and cullud) are obliged to POSE to display their muscles and some of the attitudes were honeys," Van Vechten wrote.
Despite his reputation for lurid prose, Van Vechten could be surprisingly discreet, and, even with the benefit of thousands of letters and journal entries, there are parts of his life that are hard to reconstruct. Early notes make reference to a turbulent marriage. (From 1925: "I get drunk & get rough with Marinoff.") Later, there are passing, references to estrangements and vacations and reconciliations, and also to men who turn out to have been Van Vechten's lovers. Sometimes, in his letters to his wife, he writes as if he were travelling or dining solo, when he wasn't; other times, the men are mentioned casually, as mutual friends.
White, lacking details, has few stories to tell, but he confidently diagnoses Marinoff's plight. "In New York, where Van Vechten's coterie of young men was always buzzing around him, she often felt as if she had to wait in line for an audience with her husband," he writes. Occasionally, he allows himself to express some frustration that his subject wasn't more forthright; when it came to the "sexual freedom" that White wants to celebrate, Van Vechten declined to preach what he practiced. One of Van Vechten's closest friends and lovers was Mark Lutz, a journalist from Virginia, who died in 1967. Van Vechten sent him thousands of letters in the course of more than three decades, but after Lutz's death those letters were destroyed, in accordance with his wishes.
Above all, Van Vechten seems to have been careful to keep his two lives separate. The Harlem Renaissance was, in Henry Louis Gates's formulation, "surely as gay as it was black," and Bernard counts Van Vechten among the many "gay downtown whites who went uptown in search of sexual recreation." But although "Nigger Heaven" includes an entry in its glossary for 'jig-chaser' ("a white person who seeks the company of Negroes") and its counterpart, "pinkchaser," the book's acknowledgment of same-sex encounters consists of a single reference to a bar known for its "bull-dikers." Perhaps Van Vechten felt that his Negro literary project would be immeasurably more difficult if he were widely perceived to have ulterior motives. Richard Bruce Nugent, the first black writer to produce frank descriptions of same-sex desire, remembered an odd exchange with Van Vechten, later in his life. At a party, he touched Nugent's shoulder and said, "If you had just patted me on the head and said, 'Carl, you're a nice boy,' you could have had anything you wanted." But, to Nugent, this seemed less like a proposition and more like an older man's plea for acknowledgment.
The most startling thing about White's book is its breadth: "Nigger Heaven" was merely one episode in a very long and very episodic life. Van Vechten remained a devoted friend and champion of Stein, and after her death, in 1946, he became her literary executor. (A collection of their letters was published last summer; it's nine hundred and one pages long.) He was celebrated, in retrospect, as one of America's first major dance critics, and one of the first music critics to embrace the sounds of the twentieth century. When he took up photography, he badgered and flattered a wide range of luminaries into sitting for him, from Joe Louis to William Faulkner; he captured some of the best-known images we have of Stein, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. He never quite broke into Hollywood, but he tried. Despite these other interests, he played an outsized role in the development of Negro music and literature, which is partly a tribute to how isolated and powerless black artists were in those days. One well-connected white man could alter the course of a movement, just by writing some articles and making some introductions. This, of course, was precisely what Du Bois found so dismaying.
Back in the nineteen-twenties, Van Vechten sometimes portrayed himself as a dilettante, whose interest in Negro culture was just a phase. In a letter to H. L. Mencken, in 1925, he wrote, "Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously for the moment. Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time." Of course, he never did-in this and other ways, he was far more loyal and earnest than he sometimes pretended to be. Much as he loved photography, his true life's work was the Yale Library archive, and he pestered his old friend Hughes with endless requests for material to add to the historical record. In 1963, a year before Van Vechten's death, a reporter from The New Yorker went to visit him at his apartment; he had moved from West Fifty-fifth Street to Central Park West, but his interests hadn't changed. He showed off some recent photographs, held forth on his favorite foods, shared his enthusiasm for foreign films, and bragged about the friends he still had in Harlem. "I still get about twenty-five letters a day from Negroes," he said. He never had children, although White raises the possibility of one or more secret births and quiet adoptions. His life was his obsessions, which is why he held them so tight - he was, in the end, the opposite of a dilettante. He said, "I don't think I've ever lost interest in anything."

New Yorker magazine, Feb 17 & 24, 2014

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Don't Be Like That   by Kelefa Sanneh
Does black culture need to be reformed?

It was just after eight o'clock on a November night when Robert McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, announced that a grand jury would not be returning an indictment in the police killing of Michael Brown, who was eighteen, unarmed, and African-American. About an hour later and eight hundred miles away, President Obama delivered a short and sober speech designed to function as an anti-inflammatory. He praised police officers while urging them to "show care and restraint" when confronting protesters. He said that "communities of color" had "real issues" with law enforcement, but reminded disappointed Missourians that Brown's mother and father had asked for peace. "Michael Brown's parents have lost more than anyone," he said. "We should be honoring their wishes."
Even as he mentioned Brown's parents, Obama was careful not to invoke Brown himself, who had become a polarizing figure. To the protesters who chanted, "Hands up! Don't shoot!," Brown was a symbol of the young African-American man as victim- the chant referred to the claim that Brown was surrendering, with his hands up, when he was killed. Critics of the protest movement were more likely to bring up the video, taken in the fifteen minutes before Brown's death, that appeared to show him stealing cigarillos from a convenience store and then shoving and intimidating the worker who tried to stop him-the victim was also, it seemed, a perpetrator.
After the Times described Brown as "no angel," the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry accused the newspaper of "victim-blaming," arguing that African- Americans, no matter how "angelic," will never be safe from "those who see their very skin as a sin." But, on the National Review Web site, Heather MacDonald quoted an anonymous black corporate executive who told her, "Michael Brown may have been shot by the cop, but he was killed by parents and a community that produced such a thug." And so the Michael Brown debate became a proxy for our ongoing argument about race: where some seek to expose what America is doing to black communities, others insist that the real problem is what black communities are doing to themselves.
Sociologists who study black America have a name for these camps: those who emphasize the role of institutional racism and economic circumstances are known as structuralists, while those who emphasize the importance of self-perpetuating norms and behaviors are known as culturalists. Mainstream politicians are culturalists by nature, because in America you seldom lose an election by talking up the virtues of hard work and good conduct. But in many sociology departments structuralism holds sway-no one who studies African-American communities wants to be accused, as the Times was, of "victim-blaming." Orlando Patterson, a Jamaica-born sociologist at Harvard with an appetite for intellectual combat, wants to redeem the culturalist tradition, thereby redeeming sociology itself. In a manifesto published in December, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he argued that "fearful" sociologists had abandoned "studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty," and that the discipline had become "largely irrelevant." Now Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student in sociology, are publishing an ambitious new anthology called "The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth" (Harvard), which is meant to show that the culturalist tradition still has something to teach us.
The book arrives on the fiftieth anniversary of its most important predecessor: a slim government report written by an Assistant Secretary of Labor and first printed in an edition of a hundred. The author was Daniel Patrick Moynil1an, and the title was "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." At first, the historian James T. Patterson has written, only one copy was allowed to circulate; the other ninety-nine were locked in a vault. Moynihan's report cited sociologists and government surveys to underscore a message meant to startle: the Negro community was doing badly, and its condition was probably "getting worse, not better." Moynihan, who was trained in sociology, judged that "most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped." He returned again and again to his main theme, "the deterioration of the Negro family," which he considered "the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community"; he included a chart showing the rising proportion of nonwhite births in America that were "illegitimate." (The report used the terms "Negro" and "nonwhite" interchangeably.) And, at the end, Moynihan called- briefly, and vaguely- for a national program to "strengthen the Negro family."
The 1965 report was leaked to the press, inspiring a series of lurid articles, and later that year the Johnson Administration released the entire document, making it available for forty-five cents. Moynihan found some allies, including Martin Luther King, Jr. ln a speech in October, King referred to an unnamed "recent study" showing that "the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling and disintegrating." But King also worried that some people might attribute this "social catastrophe" to "innate Negro weaknesses," and that discussions of it could be "used to justify neglect and rationalize oppression." Many sociologists were harsher. Andrew Billingsley argued that in assessing the problems caused by dysfunctional black families Moynihan had mistaken the symptom for the sickness. "The family is a creature of society," he wrote. ''And the greatest problems facing black families are problems which emanate from the white racist, militarist, materialistic society which places higher priority on putting white men on the moon than putting black men on their feet on this earth." This debate had influence far beyond sociological journals: when Harris-Perry accused the Times of "victim-blaming," she was using a term coined by the psychologist William Ryan, in a book-length rebuttal to the Moynihan report, "Blaming the Victim."
Orlando Patterson thinks that, half a century later, it's easier to appreciate all that Moynihan got right. "History has been kind to Moynihan," he and Fosse write, which might be another way of saying that history has not been particularly kind to the people Moynihan wrote about-some of his dire predictions no longer seem so outlandish. Moynihan despaired that the illegitimacy rate for Negro babies was approaching twenty-five per cent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent rate in 2013 was 71.5 per cent. (The rate for non-Hispanic white babies was 29.3 per cent.) Even so, Patterson and the other contributors avoid pronouncing upon "ghetto culture" or "the culture of poverty," or even "black culture." Instead, the authors see shifting patterns of belief and behavior that may nevertheless combine to make certain families less stable, or certain young people less employable. The hope is that, by paying close attention to culture, sociologists will be better equipped to identify these patterns, and help change them.
In Moynihan's view, the triumph of the civil-rights movement made his report that much more exigent: he was sure that as long as the Negro family was unstable the movement's promises of economic advancement and social equality would remain unfulfilled. Of course, alarming reports about the state of black culture have a long history in America: sometimes the accounts of deviant behavior were meant to explain why black oppression was justified; at other times, the accounts were meant to explain why black oppression was harmful.
In 1899, the trailblazing Negro scholar W.E.B. Du Bois drew on interviews and census data to produce "The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study," which helped shape the young discipline of sociology. Du Bois spent a year living in the neighborhood he wrote about, amid what he later described as "an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime." What emerged from this field research was a stem, unsentimental book; at times, Du Bois's disdain for his subjects, especially what he called "the dregs," seemed as great as his outrage at the discrimination they faced. He observed, in language much harsher than Moynihan's, the large number of unmarried mothers, many of whom he characterized as "ignorant and loose. "In this book, as in the rest of his life, Du Bois did not shy away from prescription. He concluded by reminding whites of their duty to stop employment discrimination, which he called "morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly. "But he reminded Negro readers that they had a duty, too: to work harder, to behave better, and to stem the tide of "Negro crime," which was, he said, "a menace to a civilized people." His chapter on "The Negro Criminal," illustrated with charts and graphs, showed that Negroes were disproportionately represented in police records though he suggested that the police, too, were acting disproportionately.
In the years before Moynihan, other social scientists refined Du Bois's approach, most famously Oscar Lewis, who used the term "culture of poverty" to describe what he saw among the Mexican families he studied. In retrospect, it seems clear that what infuriated many of Moynihan's readers wasn't so much what he wrote (he was mainly summarizing contemporary research) as what he represented. He was a young white political staffer explaining what was wrong with black communities, so he had to be wrong, even if he was right. One of the most revealing and representative responses came from James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality: "We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over, while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended." Moynihan had stumbled into a quandary familiar to sociologists: sometimes your subject doesn't want to be subjectified.
The battle over Moynihan's report was a battle over the legacy of slavery, too, and Orlando Patterson was well qualified to join it. He earned his Ph.D. in 1965, with a dissertation on the sociology of Jamaican slavery, and in his best-known books, "Slavery and Social Death" and "Freedom in the Making of Western Culture," he broadened his focus to consider the institution of slavery and how it gave rise to the ideal of freedom. (He has also published a trio of novels set in Jamaica.) In 1973, as the anti-Moynihan wave was cresting, Patterson offered a partial defense: rebutting Ryan's rebuttal, he wrote that writers like Moynihan "in no way blame the victim." In fact, Patterson argued, Moynihan's report was overly "deterministic," portraying black Americans as the inevitable victims of a long and oppressive history. Even more than Du Bois, Moynihan stressed the debilitating legacy of American slavery, asserting that it was "indescribably worse" than any form of bondage in the history of the world. Although Moynihan's fiercest critics didn't dispute this, they found themselves arguing that slavery had been less destructive than Moynihan thought: they celebrated the resilience of the black family in its non-standard forms . (Moynihan's "illegitimacy" statistics couldn't account for the grandparents and other extended-family members who might help a mother bring up her child.) Patterson called these scholars "survivalists," in contrast to "catastrophists," and years later the survivalists' work can seem too transparent in its aims. A number of sociologists, wary of insulting their subjects, seemed content to settle for flattery instead, depicting the black family as an extraordinary success story, no matter what the statistics said.
Patterson sometimes implies that the Moynihan affair chastened sociology forever, but the culturalist impulse didn't go away. In 1978, William Julius Wilson popularized the term "underclass," to describe the non-working poor who have been left behind by the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, but he also came to believe that "social isolation" helps create ways of living that perpetuate poverty. (Wil- . son argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.) And in 1999, on the hundredth anniversary of Du Bois's classic, Elijah Anderson published a new sociological study of poor black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, "Code of the Street," which took seriously its informants' own characterization of themselves and their neighbors as either "decent" or "street" or, not infrequently, a bit of both. In "The Cultural Matrix," Patterson updates and expands Anderson's taxonomy, listing "three main social groups" (the middle class, the working class, and "disconnected street people") that are common in "disadvantaged" African-American neighborhoods, along with "four focal cultural configurations" (adapted mainstream, proletarian, street, and hip-hop). In general, though, "black youth" means "poor black youth;" since poverty is what gives a project such as this one its urgency.
The contributors to "The Cultural Matrix" strive to avoid technical language, in what seems to be a brave but doomed attempt to attract casual readers to a book that is nearly seven hundred pages long. Some of the best cultural sociology draws its power from careful interviewing and observation. Anderson's "Code of the Street" was influential because it was widely read, and it was widely read because it often resembled a novel, full of complicated people and pungent testimonials. (One "decent" woman's account of raising five children had a nine-word opening sentence that no writing workshop could have improved: "My son that's bad now-his name is Curtis.") Some of Patterson's contributors have a similar facility with anecdote. A chapter about resisting the influence of poor neighborhoods includes a startling detail about a tough but crime-averse young man named Gary: "He pats people down before they get in his car to make sure they are not carrying anything that could get him arrested. "This, apparently, is what staying out of trouble might entail for a young black man in Baltimore.
Among the most important essays in the new anthology is Jody Miller's account of sexual relationships in St. Louis. An eighteen-year-old informant named Terence talks about participating in a sexual encounter that may not have been consensual, and his affectless language only makes the scene more discomfiting:

INTERVIEWER: Did you know the girl?

TERENCE: Naw, I ain't know her, know her like for real know her. But I knew her name or whatever. I had seen her before. That was it though.

INTERVIEWER: So when you all got there, she was in the room already?

TERENCE: Naw, when we got there, she hadn't even got there yet. And when she came, she went in the room with my friend, the one she had already knew. And then after they was in there for a minute, he came out and let us know that she was gon', you know, run a train or whatever. So after that, we just went one by one.

Miller knows that most readers will find this appalling, so she follows Terence's testimony with an assurance that incidents such as these reflect a legacy of racism-she mentions, for instance, "the gross 'scientific' objectification of African women in the nineteenth century." This is a common technique among the new culturalists: every distressing contemporary phenomenon must be matched to an explicitly racist antecedent, however distant. This distance is what separates the culturalists from the structuralists. Patterson and the others are right that cultural traits often outgrow and outlive the circumstances of their creation. But often what remains is a circular explanation, description masquerading as a causal account. African-American gender relations are troubled because of "cultural features" that foster troubled gender relations.
One difference between the current era and Moynihan's, or Du Bois's, is that contemporary sociologists have a new potential culprit to blame for the disorder they see: hip-hop. The anthology includes a careful history of the genre by Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist, who emphasizes its mutability. But Patterson, brave as ever, can't resist wading into this culture war. In one exuberant passage, he compares MC Hammer to Nietzsche, uses an obscure remix verse to contend that hip-hop routinely celebrates "forced abortions," and pronounces Lil Wayne "irredeemably vulgar" and "all too typical" of the genre's devolution. And yet he is a conscientious enough social scientist to concede that there doesn't seem to be decisive evidence for a "causal link" between violent lyrics and violent behavior. Writing in 1999, Anderson mentioned hip-hop only in passing, suggesting that it supported, and was supported by, "an ideology of alienation." (He was nearly as critical of "popular love songs" and "television soap operas, "which he judged to nourish girls' dreams of storybook romance. "When a girl is approached by a boy," he wrote, "her faith in the dream clouds her view of the situation.") Now hiphop has achieved cultural hegemony, but Patterson doesn't seem to have noticed that the genre has become markedly less pugnacious in recent years, thanks to non-thuggish stars like Drake, Nicki Minaj, Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar, and Iggy Azalea. The next wave of culturalist analyses will surely be able to explain how this music, too, is part of the problem.
The most provocative chapter in "The Cultural Matrix" is the final one, an exacting polemic by a Harvard colleague of Patterson's, Tommie Shelby, a professor of African and African-American studies and of philosophy. Shelby accepts, for the sake of argument, the idea that "suboptimal cultural traits" are the major impediment for many African- Americans seeking to escape poverty. He notes, in language much more delicate than Moynihan's (let alone Du Bois's), that "some in ghetto communities are believed to devalue traditional co-parenting and to eschew mainstream styles of childrearing." Still, Shelby is suspicious of attempts to reform these traits, and not only because he is wary of "victim-blaming." He thinks that the "ghetto poor" have a right to remain defiantly unaltered. In his view, a program of compulsory cultural reform "robs the ghetto poor of a choice that should be theirs alone-namely, whether the improved prospects for ending or ameliorating ghetto poverty are worth the loss of moral pride they would incur by conceding the insulting view that they have not shown themselves to be deserving of better treatment." For Shelby, opposing hypothetical future government programs is also a way of registering frustration with past government action, and inaction. "Given its failure to secure just social conditions," he writes, "the state lacks the moral standing to act as an agent of moral reform."
This "moral standing" argument is too powerful for its own good, because it would invalidate just about everything done by the U.S. government, or any other. The crucial question is not whether the state has the "moral standing" to reform cultural practices in the ghetto but whether it has the ability. Politicians love to call for such reform; Obama could have been channeling Moynihan when he said, in his famous 2008 speech on race, that African- Americans needed to take more responsibility for their own communities by "demanding more from our fathers." But a demand is not a program. Patterson, in the essay for the Chronicle, suggested that "cultural values, norms, beliefs, and habitual practices may be easier to change than structural ones." And yet a chapter in the anthology, about a federal relationship-counselling program called Building Strong Families, provides less reason for confidence. In most cases, the follow-up reports suggested that the program had little or no effect on tl1e relationships it sought to help; in one city, Baltimore, couples who received counselling were markedly more likely to split. (The authors, looking for good news, voice a faint hope that the demise of those relationships "may lead to better repartnering outcomes.")
A few years ago, in The Nation, Patterson responded to some disappointing statistics showing high unemployment and persistent segregation by urging African-Americans to "do some serious soul-searching." But part of the problem with calls for cultural reform is that the so-called "ghetto poor" tend to agree with the kinds of messages that outsiders, whether tough-love politicians or self-conscious sociologists alike, would urge upon them: work matters, family matters, culture matters. Ethan Fosse draws on a number of recent surveys of tl1e "disconnected"-the term refers to young people who are neither employed nor attending school and finds that they adhere more strongly to various mainstream cultural values than their connected counterparts do: they are more likely to say that having a good career is "very important" to them, and seventy-four per cent of them say that black men "don't take their education seriously enough," compared with only sixty-two per cent of connected black youth. Surveys also suggest that disconnected young people are more likely to agree with Patterson's critique of hip-hop- the people most susceptible to the genre's influence turn out to be the ones most skeptical of it. In an overview chapter, Patterson wryly notes that results such as these may pose a conundrum. "Sociologists love subjects who tell truth to mainstream power," he writes. "They grow uncomfortable when these subjects tell mainstream truths to sociologists. "But none of this offers encouragement for people who think that cultural change is a key to social uplift.
Just how dire is the situation? Moynihan worried that "the Negro community" was in a state of decline, bedevilled by an increasingly matriarch al family structure, which led to the increasing incidence of crime and delinquency. Much of Moynihan's historical data was scant or inconclusive, but, when it came to violent crime, he guessed correctly: in the fifteen years after he published his report, the country's homicide rate doubled, with blacks over represented among both perpetrators and victims. America, and Negro America in particular, was at the beginning of a years-long catastrophe. But what happened next was even more surprising: beginning in the early nineteen-nineties, the homicide rate, like other rates of violent crime, began to decline; today, African-Americans are about half as likely to be involved in a homicide, either as perpetrator or as victim, as they were two decades ago. Patterson and Fosse write that, in the years after Moynihan's report, a "discrepancy" developed between the optimistic scholarship of sociologists, eager to emphasize the resilience of black families, and "the reality of urban black life," which was increasingly grim. But the contemporary era has been marked by the opposite discrepancy: even as the new culturalists were restirrecting Moynihan's diagnosis, the scourge of crime was in retreat.
Patterson, committed to his critique of African-American cultural life, can't bring himself to celebrate this news. Hiphop is important to him because it fuels his suspicion that, despite the drop in crime, black culture is in trouble. Fosse seems to share this pessimism, reporting "an alarming increase in the percentage of black youth who are structurally disconnected over the past decade. "He uses survey data to create a fitted curve, showing that "nearly 25 percent" ofblack youth were disconnected in 2012, while the white rate "has remained below 15 percent." (The curve is not included in the book.) In fact, the data suggest that percentages of disconnection among black and white youth have been rising at about the same rate over the past decade; what's most alarming is not the recent increase but the ongoing disparity. Among Patterson, Fosse, and their peers, the ten.dency to write as if black culture were in exceptional crisis seems to be what a sociologist might call an unexamined injunctive norm: a shared prescriptive rule, one so ingrained that its followers don't even realize it exists.
And so the good news on crime gets downplayed. "By focusing too much on the sharp oscillation period between the eighties and late nineties," Patterson writes, "social scientists working on crime run the risk of neglecting the historic pattern of high crime rates among blacks. "But this hardly justifies the fact that these sociologists, otherwise so concerned with the effects of crime and the criminal-justice system, aren't more interested in this extraordinary rise and fall, which defied Moynihan's suggestion that crime and "illegitimacy" were inextricably linked. Apparently, this great oscillation neither required nor induced any great changes in black culture, and it has inspired nothing like a consensus among criminologists looking for a cause. Fine-grained cultural trends and well-meaning cultural initiatives often seem insignificant compared with the mysterious forces that can stealthily double or halve the violent-crime rate in the course of a decade or two. A chapter on "street violence" mentions the homicide drop only in passing, in its final paragraph.
In our political debates, as in cultural sociology, it can take some time for the stories to catch up to the statistics, especially because it takes a while to decipher what the statistics are saying. There is some evidence that, after years of rapid expansion, the African-American prison population levelled off, and may even have begun to decrease. But that hasn't made the recent arguments over race and the criminal-justice system any less urgent. The outrage in Missouri was followed, a week later, by outrage in New York, when a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who caused the death of an unarmed African-American man. In the aftermath, as some other commentators talked about America's legacy of racism, Patterson dissented. In a Slate interview, he said, "I am not in favor of a national conversation on race." He said that most white people in America had come to accept racial equality, but added that "there's a hard core of about twenty per cent which still remains thoroughly racist." The startling implication is that, even now, blacks in America live alongside an equal number of "thoroughly racist" whites. If this is true, it may explain the tragic sensibility that haunts Patterson's avowedly optimistic approach to race in America. He contends that black culture can and must change while conceding, less loudly, that "thoroughly racist" whites are likely to remain stubbornly the same.
There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects' autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent-their cultural traditions just don't seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois's time. Fifty years after Moynihan's report, it's easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it's getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn't understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won't tell us what we want to know.

New Yorker magazine, February 9, 2015.
COLLEGE CALCULUS   by John Cassidy

What’s the real value of higher education? As the supply of college grads expands, many are taking jobs that shouldn’t require a degree.

If there is one thing most Americans have been able to agree on over the years, it is that getting an education, particularly a college education, is a key to human betterment and prosperity. The consensus dates back at least to 1636, when the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College as America's first institution of higher learning. It extended through the establishment of "land grant colleges" during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill during the Second World War, the expansion of federal funding for higher education during the Great Society era, and President Obama's efforts to make college more affordable. Already, the cost of higher education has become a big issue in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Three Democratic candidates-Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders- have offered plans to reform the student-loan program and make college more accessible.
Promoters of higher education have long emphasized its role in meeting civic needs. The Puritans who established Harvard were concerned about a shortage of clergy; during the Progressive Era, John Dewey insisted that a proper education would make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations. Recently, as wage stagnation and rising inequality have emerged as serious problems, the economic arguments for higher education have come to the fore. "Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few," the White House Web site states. "Rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy." Commentators and academic economists have claimed that college doesn't merely help individuals get higher-paying jobs; it raises wages throughout the economy and helps ameliorate rising inequality. In an influential 2008 book, "The Race Between Education and Technology," the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued that technological progress has dramatically increased the demand for skilled workers, and that, in recent decades, the American educational system has failed to meet the challenge by supplying enough graduates who can carry out the tasks that a high-tech economy requires. "Not so long ago, the American economy grew rapidly and wages grew in tandem, with education playing a large, positive role in both," they wrote in a subsequent paper. "The challenge now is to revitalize education-based mobility."
The "message from the media, from the business community, and even from many parts of the government has been that a college degree is more important than ever in order to have a good career," Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton, notes in his informative and refreshingly skeptical new book, "Will College Pay Off?" (Public Affairs). "As a result, families feel even more pressure to send their kids to college. This is at a time when more families find those costs to be a serious burden. "During recent decades, tuition and other charges have risen sharply-many colleges charge more than fifty thousand dollars a year in tuition and fees. Even if you factor in the expansion of financial aid, Cappelli reports, "students in the United States pay about four times more than their peers in countries elsewhere."
Despite the increasing costs-and the claims about a shortage of college graduates-the number of people attending and graduating from four-year educational institutions keeps going up. In the 2000-01 academic year, American colleges awarded almost 1.3 million bachelor's degrees. A decade later, the figure had jumped nearly forty per cent, to more than 1.7 million. About seventy per cent of all high-school graduates now go on to college, and half of all Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four have a college degree. That's a big change. In 1980, only one in six Americans twenty-five and older were college graduates. Fifty years ago, it was fewer than one in ten. To cater to all the new students, colleges keep expanding and adding courses, many of them vocationally inclined. At Kansas State, undergraduates can major in Bakery Science and Management or Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management. They can minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems or Pet Food Science. Oklahoma State offers a degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering and Technology. At Utica College, you can major in Economic Crime Detection.
In the fast-growing for-profit college sector, which now accounts for more than ten per cent of all students, vocational degrees are the norm. De Vry University- which last year taught more than sixty thousand students, at more than seventy-five campuses--offers majors in everything from multimedia design and development to health-care administration. On its Web site, De Vry boasts, "In 2013, 90% of DeVry University associate and bachelor's degree grads actively seeking employment had careers in their field within six months of graduation." That sounds impressive-until you notice that the figure includes those graduates who had jobs in their field before graduation. (Many DeVry students are working adults who attend college part-time to further their careers.) Nor is the phrase "in their field" clearly defined. "Would you be okay rolling the dice on a degree in communications based on information like that?" Cappelli writes. He notes that research by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers found that, in the same year, just 6.5 per cent of graduates with communications degrees were offered jobs in the field. It may be unfair to single out DeVry, which is one of the more reputable for-profit education providers. But the example illustrates Cappelli's larger point: many of the claims that are made about higher education don't stand up to scrutiny.
"It is certainly true that college has been life changing for most people and a tremendous financial investment for many of them," Cappelli writes. "It is also true that for some people, it has been financially crippling .... The world of college education is different now than it was a generation ago, when many of the people driving policy decisions on education went to college, and the theoretical ideas about why college should pay off do not comport well with the reality."
No idea has had more influence on education policy than the notion that colleges teach their students specific, marketable skills, which they can use to get a good job. Economists refer to this as the "human capital" theory of education, and for the past twenty or thirty years it has gone largely unchallenged. If you've completed a two-year associate's degree, you've got more "human capital" than a high-school graduate. And if you've completed a four-year bachelor's degree you've got more "human capital" than someone who attended a community college. Once you enter the labor market, the theory says, you will be rewarded with a better job, brighter career prospects, and higher wages.
There's no doubt that college graduates earn more money, on average, than people who don't have a degree. And for many years the so-called "college wage premium'' grew. In 1970, according to a recent study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, people with a bachelor's degree earned about sixty thousand dollars a year, on average, and people with a high-school diploma earned about forty-five thousand dollars. Thirty-five years later, in 2005, the average earnings of college graduates had risen to more than seventy thousand dollars, while high-school graduates had seen their earnings fall slightly. (All these figures are inflation-adjusted.) The fact that the college wage premium went up at a time when the supply of graduates was expanding significantly seemed to confirm the Goldin-Katz theory that technological change was creating an ever-increasing demand for workers with a lot of human capital. During the past decade or so, however, a number of things have happened that don't easily mesh with that theory. If college graduates remain in short supply, their wages should still be rising. But they aren't. In 2001, according to the Employment Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, workers with undergraduate degrees (but not graduate degrees) earned, on average, $30.05 an hour; last year, they earned $29.55 an hour. Other sources show even more dramatic falls. "Between 2001 and 2013, the average wage of workers with a bachelor's degree declined 10.3 percent, and the average wage of those with an associate's degree declined 11.1 percent," the New York Fed reported in its study. Wages have been falling most steeply of all among newly minted college graduates. And jobless rates have been rising. In 2007, 5.5 per cent of college graduates under the age of twenty-five were out of work. Today, the figure is close to nine per cent. If getting a bachelor's degree is meant to guarantee entry to an arena in which jobs are plentiful and wages rise steadily, the education system has been failing for some time.
And, while college graduates are still doing a lot better than non-graduates, some studies show that the earnings gap has stopped growing. The figures need careful parsing. If you lump college graduates in with people with advanced degrees, the picture looks brighter. But almost all the recent gains have gone to folks with graduate degrees. "The four year- degree premium has remained flat over the past decade," the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reported. And one of the main reasons it went up in the first place wasn't that college graduates were enjoying significantly higher wages. It was that the earnings of non-graduates were falling.
Many students and their families extend themselves to pay for a college education out of fear of falling into the low-wage economy. That's perfectly understandable. But how sound an investment is it? One way to figure this out is to treat a college degree like a stock or a bond and compare the cost of obtaining one with the accumulated returns that it generates over the years. (In this case, the returns come in the form of wages over and above those earned by people who don't hold degrees.) When the research firm PayScale did this a few years ago, it found that the average inflation- adjusted return on a college education is about seven per cent, which is a bit lower than the historical rate of return on the stock market. Cappelli cites this study along with one from the Hamilton Project, a Washington-based research group that came up with a much higher figure-about fifteen per cent but by assuming, for example, that all college students graduate in four years. (In fact, the four-year graduation rate for full-time, first-degree students is less than forty per cent, and the six-year graduation rate is less than sixty per cent.)
These types of studies, and there are lots of them, usually find that the financial benefits of getting a college degree are much larger than the financial costs. But Cappelli points out that for parents and students the average figures may not mean much, because they disguise enormous differences in outcomes from school to school. He cites a survey, carried out by PayScale for Businessweek in 2012, that showed that students who attend M.I.T., Caltech, and Harvey Mudd College enjoy an annual return of more than ten per cent on their "investment." But the survey also found almost two hundred colleges where students, on average, never fully recouped the costs of their education. "The big news about the payoff from college should be the incredible variation in it across colleges," Cappelli writes. "Looking at the actual return on the costs of attending college, careful analyses suggest that the payoff from many college programs-as much as one in four- is actually negative. Incredibly, the schools seem to add nothing to the market value of the students."
So what purpose does college really serve for students and employers? Before the human-capital theory became so popular, there was another view of higher education-as, in part, a filter, or screening device, that sorted individuals according to their aptitudes and conveyed this information to businesses and other hiring institutions. By completing a four-year degree, students could signal to potential employers that they had a certain level of cognitive competence and could carry out assigned tasks and work in a group setting. But a college education didn't necessarily imbue students with specific work skills that employers needed, or make them more productive.
Kenneth Arrow, one of the giants of twentieth-century economics, came up with this account, and if you take it seriously you can't assume that it's always a good thing to persuade more people to go to college. If almost everybody has a college degree, getting one doesn't differentiate you from the pack. To get the job you want, you might have to go to a fancy (and expensive) college, or get a higher degree. Education turns into an arms race, which primarily benefits the arms manufacturers-in this case, colleges and universities.
The screening model isn't very fashionable these days, partly because it seems perverse to suggest that education doesn't boost productivity. But there's quite a bit of evidence that seems to support Arrow's theory. In recent years, more jobs have come to demand a college degree as an entry requirement, even though the demands of the jobs haven't changed much. Some nursing positions are on the list, along with jobs for executive secretaries, salespeople, and distribution managers. According to one study, just twenty per cent of executive assistants and insurance-claims clerks have college degrees but more than forty-five per cent of the job openings in the field require one. "This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job," the study concluded.
It is well established that students who go to elite colleges tend to earn more than graduates of less selective institutions. But is this because Harvard and Princeton do a better job of teaching valuable skills than other places, or because employers believe that they get more talented students to begin with? An exercise carried out by Lauren Rivera, of the Kellogg School of Management, at Northwestern, strongly suggests that it's the latter. Rivera interviewed more than a hundred recruiters from investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms, and she found that they recruited almost exclusively from the very top-ranked schools, and simply ignored most other applicants. The recruiters didn't pay much attention to things like grades and majors. "It was not the content of education that elite employers valued but rather its prestige," Rivera concluded.
If higher education serves primarily as a sorting mechanism, that might help explain another disturbing development: the tendency of many college graduates to take jobs that don't require college degrees. Practically everyone seems to know a well-educated young person who is working in a bar or a mundane clerical job, because he or she can't find anything better. Doubtless, the Great Recession and its aftermath are partly to blame. But something deeper, and more lasting, also seems to be happening.
In the Goldin-Katz view of things, technological progress generates an ever-increasing need for highly educated, highly skilled workers. But, beginning in about 2000, for reasons that are still not fully understood, the pace of job creation in high-paying, highly skilled fields slowed significantly. To demonstrate this, three Canadian economists, Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand, divided the U.S. workforce into a hundred occupations, ranked by their average wages, and looked at how employment has changed in each category. Since 2000, the economists showed, the demand for highly educated workers declined, while job growth in low-paying occupations increased strongly. "High-skilled workers have moved down the occupational ladder and have begun to perform jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers," they concluded, thus "pushing low-skilled workers even further down the occupational ladder."
Increasingly, the competition for jobs is taking place in areas of the labor market where college graduates didn't previously tend to compete. As Beaudry, Green, and Sand put it, "having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less educated workers for the Barista or clerical job." Even many graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics- the so-called STEM subjects, which receive so much official encouragement are having a tough time getting the jobs they'd like. Cappelli reports that only about a fifth of recent graduates with STEM degrees got jobs that made use of that training. "The evidence for recent grads suggests clearly that there is no overall shortage of STEM grads," he writes.
Why is this happening? The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. One theory is that corporate cost cutting, having thinned the ranks of workers on the factory floor and in routine office jobs, is now targeting supervisors, managers, and other highly educated people. Another theory is that technological progress, after favoring highly educated workers for a long time, is now turning on them. With rapid advances in processing power, data analysis, voice recognition, and other forms of artificial intelligence, computers can perform tasks that were previously carried out by college graduates, such as analyzing trends, translating foreign-language documents, and filing tax returns. In "The Second Machine Age" (Norton), the M.l.T. professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee sketch a future where computers will start replacing doctors, lawyers, and many other highly educated professionals. '~ digital labor becomes more pervasive, capable, and powerful," they write, "companies will be increasingly unwilling to pay people wages· that they'll accept, and that will allow them to maintain the standard of living to which they've been accustomed."
Cappelli stresses the change in corporate hiring patterns. In the old days, Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors, Citigroup, and I.B.M. took on large numbers of college graduates and trained them for a lifetime at the company. But corporations now invest less in education and training, and, instead of promoting someone, or finding someone in the company to fill a specialized role, they tend to hire from outside. Grooming the next generation of leadership is much less of a concern. "What employers want from college graduates now is the same thing they want from applicants who have been out of school for years, and that is job skills and the ability to contribute now," Cappelli writes. "That change is fundamental, and it is the reason that getting a good job out of college is now such a challenge."
Obtaining a vocational degree or certificate is one strategy that many students employ to make themselves attractive to employers, and, on the face of it, this seems sensible. If you'd like to be a radiology technician, shouldn't you get a B.A. in radiology? If you want to run a bakery, why not apply to Kansas State and sign up for that major in Bakery Science? But narrowly focussed degrees are risky. "If you graduate in a year when gambling is up and the casinos like your casino management degree, you probably have hit it big," Cappelli writes. "If they aren't hiring when you graduate, you may be even worse off getting a first job with that degree anywhere else precisely because it was so tuned to that group of employers." During the dot-com era, enrollment in computer science and information-technology programs rose sharply. After the bursting of the stock-market bubble, many of these graduates couldn't find work. "Employers who say that we need more engineers or IT grads are not promising to hire them when they graduate in four years," Cappelli notes. "Pushing kids into a field like health care because someone believes there is a need there now will not guarantee that they all get jobs and, if they do, that those jobs will be as good as workers in that field have now."
So what's the solution? Some people believe that online learning will provide a viable low-cost alternative to a live-in college education. Bernie Sanders would get rid of tuition fees at public universities, raising some of the funds with a new tax on financial transactions. Clinton and O'Malley would also expand federal support for state universities, coupling this funding with lower interest rates on student loans and incentives for colleges to hold down costs. Another approach is to direct more students and resources to two-year community colleges and other educational institutions that cost less than four-year colleges. President Obama recently called for all qualified high-school students to be guaranteed a place in community college, and for tuition fees to be eliminated. Such policies would reverse recent history. In a new book, "Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth" (Yale), James Bessen, a technology entrepreneur who also teaches at Boston University School of Law, points out that "the policy trend over the last decade has been to starve community colleges in order to feed four-year colleges, especially private research universities." Some of the discrepancies are glaring. Richard Vedder, who teaches economics at Ohio University, calculated that in 2010 Princeton, which had an endowment of close to fifteen billion dollars, received state and federal benefits equivalent to roughly fifty thousand dollars per student, whereas the nearby College of New Jersey got benefits of just two thousand dollars per student. There are sound reasons for rewarding excellence and sponsoring institutions that do important scientific research. But is a twenty-five-to-one difference in government support really justified?
Perhaps the strongest argument for caring about higher education is that it can increase social mobility, regardless of whether the human-capital theory or the signaling theory is correct. A recent study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco showed that children who are born into households in the poorest fifth of the income distribution are six times as likely to reach the top fifth if they graduate from college. Providing access to college for more kids from deprived backgrounds helps nurture talents that might otherwise go to waste, and it's the right thing to do. (Of course, if college attendance were practically universal, having a degree would send a weaker signal to employers.) But increasing the number of graduates seems unlikely to reverse the over-all decline of high-paying jobs, and it won't resolve the income-inequality problem, either. As the economist Lawrence Summers and two colleagues showed in a recent simulation, even if we magically summoned up college degrees for a tenth of all the working-age American men who don't have them by historical standards, a big boost in college-graduation rates-we'd scarcely change the existing concentration of income at the very top of the earnings distribution, where C.E.0.s and hedge fund managers live.
Being more realistic about the role that college degrees play would help families and politicians make better choices. It could also help us appreciate the actual merits of a traditional broad based education, often called a liberal arts education, rather than trying to reduce everything to an economic cost benefit analysis. "To be clear, the idea is not that there will be a big financial payoff to a liberal arts degree," Cappelli writes. "It is that there is no guarantee of a payoff from very practical, work-based degrees either, yet that is all those degrees promise. For liberal arts, the claim is different and seems more accurate, that it will enrich your life and provide lessons that extend beyond any individual job. There are centuries of experience providing support for that notion." 

New Yorker magazine, Sept 7, 2015.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

BODY COUNT  by Kelefa Sanneh

Engulfed by crime, many blacks once agitated for more police and harsher penalties.

One day last fall, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, appeared on "Meet the Press" to talk about the tense relationship between many African-American communities and the police departments charged with protecting them. In Ferguson, Missouri, the governor had declared a state of emergency as a grand jury considered whether to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American. (In the end, Wilson was not indicted.) Chuck Todd, the host, asked about white officers patrolling African American neighborhoods, but Giuliani wanted to talk about crime, not punishment. "I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that ninety-three per cent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks," he said, adding, "It is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community." The next day, on Fox News, Giuliani said that protesters who chanted "Black lives matter!" should be supporting police officers, not demonizing them. He suggested that the people who really valued black lives were people like him, who worked to reduce the African American murder rate. "When I came into office, thousands of blacks were being killed every year," he said. "By the time I left office, it was down to about two hundred."
These comments inspired a backlash, but they were not, in themselves, surprising. Giuliani has never evinced much sympathy for critics of the police; in 2007, when he launched his Presidential campaign, his law-and-order approach helped make him, for a time, the most popular candidate in either party. But the national mood has grown less punitive, and when Giuliani made his remarks last year few allies emerged to support him. Many Republicans, including John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, now say that they support criminal-justice reform; Jeb Bush has signed a reform pledge affirming that prison sentences are "not the solution for every type of offender." And, among Democrats, fears of being labelled soft on crime seem to have subsided since the nineteen-nineties. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton called for "tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders" while campaigning for her husband's 1994 crime bill; the law instituted "three strikes and you're out" sentences, and the federal-prison population almost doubled over the next ten years. But in Clinton's current Presidential campaign she calls for reforming the police and ending "mass incarceration." In response to pressure from protesters, she has used the phrase that has come to signify outrage at police brutality: "Black lives matter."
This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement got a literary manifesto, in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me" (Spiegel & Grau), a slender but deeply resonant book that made its debut atop the Times best-seller list. Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, has been chronicling recent police killings, and he has responded with a polemic, in the tradition of Jam es Baldwin, that takes the form of a lyrical letter to his fourteen-year-old son. Coates lists Michael Brown alongside other recent victims: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock. He writes, "You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body." And he reminds his son that this destruction is so often unpunished as to be tacitly sanctioned:
The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.
He means to confirm what his son suspects: that the shocking stories in the news are not anomalous; that police abuse is just another manifestation of the violence that has afflicted black people in America ever since slavery; that officers who kill are not rogues but, rather, enforcers of a brutal social order. One of the most severe lines in the book is also one of the most frequently quoted: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body-it is heritage."
Four decades ago, a number of black leaders were talking in similarly urgent terms about the threats to the black body. The threats were, in the words of one activist, "cruel, inhuman, and ungodly": black people faced the prospect not just of physical assault and murder but of "genocide" - the horror of slavery, reborn in a new guise. The activist who said this was Oberia D. Dempsey, a Baptist pastor in Harlem, who carried a loaded revolver, the better to defend himself and his community. Dempsey's main foe was not the police and the prisons; it was drugs, and the criminal havoc wreaked by dealers and addicts.
Dempsey is the most vivid character in "Black Silent Majority" (Harvard), a provocative new history by Michael Javen Fortner, a professor of urban studies who wants to complicate our understanding of crime and punishment in black America. He points out that while African-Americans have long been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for committing crime, they have also, for just as long, been disproportionately victimized by it. His focus is New York in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, when crime rates shot up, creating a demand in African-American communities for more police officers, more arrests, more convictions, and longer prison sentences. The book begins near the end, on a January day in 1973, when Dempsey joined Governor Nelson Rockefeller at a press conference in support of what became known as the Rockefeller drug laws-a passel of antidrug statutes that helped make New York a mass-incarceration pioneer, increasing the number of "friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations" that Coates writes about.
Like many scholars and activists, Fortner is profoundly disturbed by our modern system of criminal justice, calling mass incarceration "a glaring and dreadful stain on the fabric of American history." But he thinks this history is incomplete if it ignores what he calls "black agency": he wants us to see African-Americans not merely as victims of politics but as active participants in it, too. At a moment of growing concern about how our criminal-justice system harms African-American, Fortner seeks to show that African American leaders, urged on by members of the community, helped create that system in the first place.
Last year, Coates used his blog to host an online book club devoted to Michelle Alexander's unsparing "The New Jim Crow," which came out in 2010 and is still finding new readers. Alexander is a law professor at Ohio State who was radicalized by her time at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she battled racial profiling. She eventually concluded that bias was inherent in the criminal-justice system, and that the system relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship. The book's focus was the war on drugs, which helped produce this country's enormous prison population. She noted that President Reagan made fighting drugs a priority even before anyone was talking about the crack-cocaine epidemic of the nineteen-eighties, and she showed that penalties were disproportionately applied to African-Americans, even though blacks and whites used and sold drugs at roughly equal rates. She argued, convincingly, that our punitive solution to the trade in illegal drugs was an overreaction, and one that would never have been tolerated if more of its victims had been white. She urged activists to fight back in explicitly racial terms, demanding that prison rolls be slashed and police departments remade, not merely in the name of pragmatic reform but in the name of black liberation. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement is an answer to her call.
Coates shares Alexander's skepticism about law-and-order rhetoric, and he is especially critical of what he has called the "Gospel of Giuliani," which parries complaints about police and prisons with scary statistics about black people killing black people. In Coates's view, the term "black-on-black crime" ignores the fact that most violent crime is interracial, and also obscures the government policies that gave rise to segregated African-American neighborhoods and their high crime rates. "To yell 'black-on-black crime' is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding," he writes. The formulation, he believes, encourages us to imagine that something is wrong with black people, instead of seeing that something is wrong with America.
Coates writes with a preacher's sensitivity to the rhythms and patterns of language, and of history, too, which means that he slips almost imperceptibly between piercing outrage and something close to fatalism. In his previous book, "The Beautiful Struggle," Coates described how his boyhood was shaped by his father, Paul Coates, an independent scholar and publisher whose booklist is a bibliography of black liberation. Theirs was not a religious household, and Coates has kept faith with faithlessness, which helps explain his profound distaste for the notion that African-American stories must be redemption stories-what, exactly, makes us think that we shall overcome, some day? "Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be," Coates tells his son in the new book, by way of explaining the importance of fighting a system that can scarcely be fought, let alone beaten.
Alexander has been accused, credibly, of underplaying the importance and the cost of crime. (Her book begins with the example of Jarvious Cotton, one of more than two million African Americans who are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. She does not mention that Cotton was convicted of murder for the killing of a seventeen year-old during a mugging.) Coates, though, writes eloquently about common crime, especially in "The Beautiful Struggle." Readers who come to his first book by way of his second may be taken aback not only by its seriocomic tone and hip-hop-inflected language but also by its vivid evocation of Coates's boyhood on the grueling streets of Baltimore. In one memorable passage, he paid dark tribute to the guys from a West Baltimore housing project called Murphy Homes, summoning the fear he felt and the reverence, too:
Murphy Homes beat niggers with gas nozzles. Murphy Homes split backs and poured in salt. Murphy Homes moved with one eye, flew out on bat wings, performed dark rites atop Druid Hill.
"The Beautiful Struggle" was, no less than its successor, a book about black bodies in peril, although the threats tended to come from within the community. In this world, the police were a menacing presence-after Coates got in trouble in school, his father gave him a beating, asking his mother, "Who would you rather do this: me or the police?" - but Coates seems to have been more concerned about the Murphy Homes boys and the others like them. At one point, he noted that in 1986 there were two hundred and fifty murder victims in Baltimore. "That year," he wrote, "my man Craig was butchered on his way home from work." It was a piercing moment, but readers expecting an elegy got, instead, a few terse biographical sentences, as if Coates were underscoring the ghastly banality of this loss.
In "Between the World and Me," Coates shifts his focus from the neighborhood to the nation. The book is given shape and weight by the story of another friend who was killed: Prince Jones, a college acquaintance, shot by an African-American police officer while sitting, unarmed, in his jeep, which apparently matched the description of one driven by a suspect in the theft of a police gun. Coates emphasizes the violence done to the black body to help us see the physical abuse that undergirds broad structures of oppression. Of course, Craig had a body, too, and it was destroyed in a manner far more commonplace. In "Between the World and Me," the "black body" refers, as well, to the black body politic. When a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed African-American especially when the officer isn't charged with a crime, as Michael Brown's killer was not, and Prince Jones's killer was not-he is, Coates wants us to understand, proving the continued existence of a system in which African-Americans are victimized by state power and are powerless to demand accountability. A black college student is a body, but he is also a citizen, and this explains why, even in violent neighborhoods, some kinds of violence seem, to Coates, particularly salient: because they threaten not just the body of the victim but his citizenship, too.
Michael Javen Fortner grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and his boyhood sounds even more chaotic than Coates's. "I was only a couple of years old when one of my brothers was stabbed to death," he writes. "I do not remember him, but the pain and sorrow of that day stayed in my home like accumulated dust." He thinks that analysts like Alexander, in their eagerness to indict systemic injustice, sometimes downplay the "black agony" that characterizes many neighborhoods where brutal crime is ubiquitous. Black political activists present history in ways that emphasize racial solidarity, but Fortner says that the Brownsville he remembers was "a community at war with itself":
                I recall hearing "That's what he gets" every time one of "our youngsters" was arrested. I recall hearing about fathers calling the cops on sons and mothers throwing daughters our onto the street. I remember far from the pews of my Pentecostal church sanctified working - and middle-class African Americans distinguished between saints and sinners.
It was Richard Nixon who popularized the phrase "silent majority," as a way of insisting that the countercultural masses protesting the Vietnam War constituted nothing more than an outspoken minority. In positing the existence of a "black silent majority," Fortner draws on the work of Charles V. Hamilton, an African-American political scientist and the author, with Stokely Carmichael, of "Black Power." In 1970, Hamilton published an article in the Times Magazine about the mass of black Americans who were concerned about crime. "They want police protection, not police persecution," he wrote, "and because they believe that the incidence of the latter is greater than the former, they believe the present law-enforcement systems must be viewed suspiciously, rather than optimistically." In an essay about Harlem, James Baldwin wrote, "The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive." He portrayed the officers as an occupying force: "Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children."
Plenty of citizens and politicians made a different calculation, concluding that the risks of persecution were outweighed by the urgent need for protection. In nineteen-sixties Harlem, heroin addiction was increasing steeply, and street crime had become so common that some churches cancelled evening services, to protect parishioners from being set upon as they returned home. Drug crime strained the relationship between black leaders and white liberal allies, who wanted to combat the drug trade with medical treatment, not criminal penalties. In 1962, Oberia Dempsey led a coalition of civic leaders who asked President Kennedy to "mobilize all law-enforcement agencies to unleash their collective fangs on dope pushers and smugglers." A group convened by the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph urged that "a life time sentence without parole be made the punishment to meet the crime of pushing narcotics." Testifying at a state hearing in 1969, Hulan Jack-a black state assemblyman representing Harlem, and the former Manhattan borough president-called for life imprisonment for the crime of mugging, and argued that the system of incarceration was not nearly mass enough. (The prison population had been declining despite a sharp increase in arrests.) A 1973 Times poll found that "about three-quarters of New York's blacks and Puerto Ricans" thought that life without parole was the proper sentence for convicted drug dealers.
Rockefeller's drug laws sharply increased the penalties for various drug crimes; possession of four ounces of heroin, for instance, would result in a minimum sentence of fifteen years to life. (In the two decades that followed, the prison rolls in New York quintupled; other states followed, creating a nationwide prison boom.) But Reverend Dempsey, the militant Baptist standing behind Rockefeller on that January day, was not representing the black political establishment. Many of the leaders and groups in Fortner's book were careful to pair calls for more police with calls for police reform, mindful of the possibility that the "fangs" of law enforcement might sink into the wrong necks. The Rockefeller drug laws passed with hardly any help from black legislators, all but one of whom voted against them. When it counted most, black political support melted away. Fortner hastens to explain that many Democratic legislators had partisan concerns (the bill's passage was viewed as a Republican victory) and distinct cultural identities-black political elites, he writes, tended to be more optimistic about Harlem than their working- and middle-class constituents were. He points out that a number of community leaders stood with Dempsey to support the bill. And he establishes that black politicians and clergymen helped raise the alarm about drug crime in the first place. Even so, the vote makes it hard to conclude that black political support was decisive in the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws.
Fortner's narrative mainly reveals the bleakness of the choices facing black voters and their representatives in those tempestuous years. Statewide rehabilitation efforts had failed, owing in part to lack of funding, and so many civic leaders viewed a new punitive regime as an improvement: it wouldn't help reform the addicts or dealers, but it might help protect everyone else. A decade later, during the crack years, African-Americans in Congress faced a similarly difficult choice in considering the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law established a minimum sentence of five years for trafficking five hundred grams of cocaine or five grams of crack cocaine. Years later, activists criticized this hundred-to-one disparity as unfair to African-Americans, who were more likely to be convicted of selling crack cocaine. But the bill passed with support from two-thirds of the African-Americans then in Congress, including Charles Rangel, from Harlem, whom President Reagan singled out for praise during the signing ceremony.
None of this directly refutes Alexander's argument that the modern carceral state is a new version of Jim Crow. Indeed, Fortner thinks that black leaders, though right to be concerned about crime, were wrong to think that exorbitant mandatory sentences rather than better-funded rehabilitation programs and structural antipoverty efforts-were the answer. (Rangel later worked to end the crack -versus- cocaine disparity.) When Alexander calls our criminal-justice system "the new Jim Crow," she is drawing an imperfect parallel that tells us more about what this system does than about why it exists. It is possible, as Fortner shows, to be skeptical of the drug war while also noting that no small number of its supporters believed, as fervently as any activist today, that black lives matter.
On April 12th, in Coates's native Baltimore, police officers on bicycles noticed an African-American man named Freddie Gray, who saw them watching him and fled. They caught him, found a small knife, arrested him, and put him in a police van to take him to the station. By the time the van arrived there, Gray was unconscious, with his spine nearly severed, and after a week he died from his injuries. The legal reaction came quickly: on May 1st, prosecutors brought charges against six officers, one of whom was charged with second-degree murder. But the first protest began even before Gray died. The uproar seemed to inspire police officers to work more cautiously and, perhaps, to disengage; arrests dropped, and the number of homicides rose. There were forty-two murders in Baltimore in May, compared with twenty-three the previous May; in June, there were twenty-nine, compared with eighteen the year before; in July, forty-five, compared with twenty-two; in August, thirty-three, compared with twenty-six. In four months, sixty more lives were lost than in the previous year, most of them black. · It is not hard to understand Coates's frustration with analysts who use grim facts like these in order to downplay police killings. But if what happened to Freddie Gray is symptomatic of a brutal and unjust social order, isn't everyday violence-the kind that returns again and again to some neighborhoods, while leaving others mostly unscarred-symptomatic of the same thing? The horror of Gray's death shouldn't blind us to the horror of the murders that have afflicted the city since then. One need not be a Giuliani supporter to acknowledge that reducing the homicide rate is one of the most valuable things a city government can do.
Near the beginning of "Between the World and Me, "Coates recalls the night the grand jury announced that it would not return an indictment against Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. His son retreated to his room to cry, and Coates tried to figure out what to tell him. This book is his response, but it is not until the end that Coates allows, "Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed." A Justice Department report looked at the Ferguson Police Department and found a wide range of abusive practices, as well as "intentional discrimination on the basis of race." But another Justice Department inquiry debunked the widely reported story that Brown was cooperating, with his hands up-saying, "Don't shoot!" -when he was killed. And forensic details corroborate the claim that Brown was initially shot while trying to grab the officer's gun.
The ubiquity of video footage has increased the scrutiny of police killings, making it easier for citizens to contest official explanations that would otherwise go unchallenged. Until recently, however, no one kept a complete count of who was being shot by police officers, and why. The Washington Post examined reports of police shootings in 2015 and found that this year blacks were about three times as likely as whites to be killed by police. (Because of the difference in population sizes, non-Hispanic whites still form a plurality- about fifty per cent-of all people killed by police.) A Web site called has been tracking media reports of police killings since 2013; it finds that over the past three years blacks were about three and a half times as likely as whites to be killed by police.
These findings should disturb us, but so, too, should the fact that the racial disparity is actually wider for civilian violence. Overall, blacks are about eight times as likely as whites to be murdered. As far as we can tell, someone killed by police is less likely to be black than someone killed by a civilian. In "Ghettoside" (Spiegel & Grau), an absorbing new book about murder in an African-American community in Los Angeles, the reporter Jill Leovy writes about what she calls "the black homicide problem." She doesn't use this term to defend police departments; on the contrary, she uses it to indict them, writing about all the cruelty and misery that flourishes in a place where there is no "state monopoly on violence." If anything, the outrage over relatively rare police killings should remind us just how much everyday violence-and just how much everyday inequality we have learned to ignore.
Coates's two books show how twinned fears of crime and punishment can be mutually reinforcing: how the historic failure of the police to keep African-Americans safe from violence can make police excesses all the more appalling. The police killing of Prince Jones was, surely, that much more disturbing to a man who remembered that when he was a boy the police had failed to protect his friend Craig. For some reformers, the key is retraining police officers to minimize violence. But Coates and Alexander warn against this kind of meliorist thinking. "A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all," Coates has written. To many Black Lives Matter activists, the phrase "state monopoly on violence" probably sounds more like a threat than like a reassurance.
Crime statistics in Baltimore are complicated: in the decades since Coates was a boy, murders declined, but so did the city's population. In general, though, American crime rates have fallen since the early nineteen nineties, and the nation's imprisoned population-while extraordinarily high, by global standards-seems to have stopped increasing. As for police killings, each one is tragic, and each unjustified one is outrageous; police departments in Europe, for instance, are vastly less likely to kill. But there is no evidence that we are living through a modern epidemic. Although there is little reliable national data, the New York Police Department keeps records. In 1973, the year Rockefeller signed his drug laws, the department shot and killed fifty-eight people; in 2013, the most recent year in the department database, the number was eight. The Black Lives Matter protests draw their urgency from the damage that violence has done to African-American communities. But they resonate so widely because, after decades of chaos, that violence seems to have subsided.

Experts disagree about how much of this change can be attributed to policing or to mass incarceration; in many ways, crime rates are mysterious. But the decades-long decrease in crime has made it much easier for politicians to heed the activists demanding that we reform our criminal-justice system. There is some indication that this year many cities besides Baltimore are suffering from an uptick in homicides; if this trend were to continue, talk of ending mass incarceration might become politically toxic, even for African-American politicians. As Fortner's book makes clear, no political movement can afford to ignore the kind of cruel disorder that we euphemistically call common crime. A police force that kills black citizens is adding to America's history of racial violence; so is a police force that fails to keep them safe. Alexander may be right that our criminal-justice regime is a new incarnation of the monstrous old Jim Crow system. But this should tell us something about the desperation of the many African-Americans who supported it anyway-convinced, not wholly unreasonably, that the alternative was even worse.

The New Yorker magazine, Sept 14, 2015