April 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does anyone remember what Charles Murray said about Black political choices in his 1984 book Losing Ground – the part where he says that African Americans had been “screwed”?

Call it “Jesse Jackson-ism” – the willingness of Blacks to support demagogues like Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. It goes along with a general attitude of resignation and alienation. These are expressions of a lot of legitimate grievances that Blacks have with the ruling class in this country. Those grievances include  the cultural disdain that the White ruling class has for Blacks. Those grievances include the nature of the labor market for Blacks – the loss of manufacturing jobs, the relegation to the least secure and lowest paying sectors, and, as has been shown in study after study about hiring and promotion, employers’ preference for Whites. Basically, it’s all the ways in which, if you’re Black and working class, you’ve been screwed.

Of course you don’t remember that passage. I made it up. I based it on what what Murray actually did say recently about Whites who support Trump

Trumpism is the expression by the White working class of a lot of legitimate grievances that it has with the ruling class – everything from the cultural disdain that the elite holds the working class in to the loss of all kinds of manufacturing jobs, the importation of low-skilled labor – all the ways in which, if you’re a member of the working class, you have, over the last thirty forty years, been screwed. [from a walk-and-talk interview with Paul Solman on PBS].

What Murray actually did say in 1984 about Blacks was that while “discouragement” might explain the alienation, unemployment, and decreasing labor force participation of rural populations, “it is not possible to use discouragement as an explanation for the long-term trend [in Black labor force participation].”

The problem was not in the kinds of jobs available to working-class Blacks.

The problem with this new form of unemployment was . . . that young black males – or young poor males . . . moved in and out of the labor force at precisely that point in their lives when it was most important that they acquire skills, work habits, and a work record. [p. 82.]

In Murray’s view, everything in the US was fine. The trouble was not that people had been screwed by forces they had no control over. The trouble was that these Black guys turned their backs and refused to seize opportunities – skills, work habits, a work record.

Murray’s divining rod for finding dysfunction used to point to poor people themselves. Now, it hovers over more abstract sources – the culture, the economy. Some see this change as evidence of Murray’s racism – one kind of explanation for Black poverty, another for Whites. But there are geographic differences – urban, non-urban – and maybe the economy is different in important ways than it was thirty years ago.

Not all Murray’s conservative brethren shift their attention to these broader forces to explain Trumpism. For readers who might be getting nostalgic for “It’s their own damn fault”  – the idea that poor people and their culture are to blame for poverty and its attendant miseries – I close with an excerpt from Kevin Williamson’s recent fire-and-brimstone sermon in The National Review :

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. . . .  The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

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