John McWhorter, in the New Republic, finds Amy Wax’s Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century as depressing as it is persuasive.
The reviewer concedes that experience seems to show decisively that Wax’s contention that outside efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot cure poverty is perfectly correct. Booker T. Washington was right all along in arguing that the African American race needed to concentrate its energies on uplifting itself, and that W.E.B. Du Bois was wrong in desiring to confront the rest of America demanding redress and compensation.
Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the â€œbrick wallâ€ obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fixâ€”Wax is making no moral argumentâ€”but that they alone can fix.
A typical take on race has no room for stories such as this one. In 1987, a rich philanthropist in Philadelphia â€œadoptedâ€ 112 inner-city sixth-graders, most of them from broken homes. He guaranteed them a fully-funded education through college if the kids would refrain from drugs, unwed parenthood, and crime. He even provided tutors, workshops, after-school programs, summer programs, and counselors when trouble arose. Forty-five of the kids never made it through high school. Thirteen years later, of the sixty-seven boys, nineteen were felons; the forty-five girls had sixty-three total children, and more than half had their babies before the age of eighteen. Crucially, this was not surprising: The reason was culture. These children had been nurtured in communities with different norms than those that reign in Scarsdale.
What this means, Wax points out, is that scrupulous recountings of the historical reasons for black problems are of no significant use in finding solutions. She notes:
The black family was far more stable 50 years ago, when conditions for blacks were far worse than they are today. Black out-of-wedlock births started to climb and marriage rates to fall around 1960, long after slavery was abolished and just as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Perhaps a more nuanced explanation for the recent deterioration is that the legacy of slavery made the black family more vulnerable to the cultural subversions of the 1960s. But what does this tell us that is useful today? The answer is: nothing.
One of the most sobering observations made by Wax comes in the form of a disarmingly simple calculus presented first by Isabel Sawhill and Christopher Jencks. If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view.