Monday, April 17, 2006

Cynthia Tucker gets mugged by reality

I used to watch Cynthia on Fridays "Editor's roundup" on PBS. She is a classical black liberal. She normally never deals with anybody outside of her little group of chatterers.

PERMANENT BLACK UNDERCLASS POSES TROUBLE DOWN THE ROAD

The black men I know best are all hard-working, accomplished professionals. They include my brother, a physician, and my buddies -- lawyers, college professors, political consultants, journalists. I live in an insular world of middle-class affluence, rarely stumbling into the troubled universe of marginalized underachievers.

Until recently. After a contractor walked off the job, I was assigned the task of helping my mother find laborers to help complete her new house in my hometown, Monroeville, Ala., a small place with a declining textiles industry. The assignment led me into an alternative universe of black men without jobs or prospects or enthusiasm for hard labor.

My younger sister, an architect, appointed her Mexican-born father-in-law, an experienced carpenter (and American citizen), the new general contractor. I was to find men willing to help him paint, lift, scrape, fill, dig. The pay was hardly exorbitant -- $6 an hour. But it seemed reasonable for unskilled labor. So I looked among unemployed high school classmates, members of my mother's church and men standing on nearby street corners.

The experience brought me face-to-face with every unappealing behavior that I'd heard attributed to idle black men but dismissed as stereotype. One man worked a couple of days and never came back. One young man worked 30 minutes before he deserted. Others promised to come to work but never did.

This story is hardly an academic overview. The evidence is anecdotal. But it jibes with the treatises I've read that portray a permanent underclass of black men with criminal records and low educational attainment, with multiple children and little cash.


These are men who can no longer count the military as an option because it doesn't want them. The armed forces seek high-school graduates with decent reading and math skills to operate high-tech gizmos. By some estimates, the unemployment rate among black male high-school dropouts in their 20s is 72 percent, while the comparable rate among young, uneducated white men is 34 percent, and among Latinos, 19 percent.

How did this happen? I cannot remember seeing such large numbers of idle black men when I was growing up. (Indeed, the unemployment rate in my hometown is higher than it used to be.) Is this the consequence of a dying manufacturing base that has stranded men who otherwise would have had jobs with decent wages and good benefits? And does the wave of illegal immigrants further marginalize uneducated black men?

Go to any construction site and count the black men among the menial laborers. You won't see many. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find a web of stereotypes knotted up with some thorny truths. Among other things, employers in the building trades frequently brush aside black men in favor of Latinos, believing that immigrant labor is more reliable and certainly more docile. And every time a black man fails a drug test or disappears after a few days of work, he reinforces the stereotype, making it less likely that the employer will hire other black men. (I've heard the "I prefer Mexicans" excuse from black contractors as well as white ones.)

Some economists say that native-born laborers -- black, white and brown -- are simply discouraged by the low wages that so many employers can get away with paying to illegal workers. George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University estimate that U.S. high-school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration. Of course, 8 percent of not much is still not much.

What if my mother had been offering $20 an hour? Would she have found more willing workers? Probably. But globalization has taught us that the less complex the task, the lower the wage it will attract in a global marketplace. That's especially true if labor is willing to move around. Besides, in my mother's case, the work simply would not have been available. She wouldn't have paid $20 an hour; she couldn't afford it.

My mother's house is finally finished, and she's planning a housewarming party. My sister's father-in-law worked from dawn to dusk, and he found enough willing workers to get the job done. So that part of the tale has a happy ending.

But I'm stuck with a sense of deep unease and frustration over the prospects of so many young black men who are being pushed further and further out to the margins -- so far from the mainstream that they no longer identify with the rest of us. That story simply cannot end well.

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