Rufus G.W. Sanders, Register columnist
I just returned from a summer trip to Atlanta, America's so-called "Black Mecca." And while it was inspirational to see what the capital of the south has become and how far it has come since the days of segregation, I was still mesmerized by the residual effects of historical slavocracy.
The signs of nihilism, even in the middle of this "Black Mecca," are highly visible. Julius Wilson, Harvard sociologist, calls it the hopelessness of urban black America. It's the highly visible black homeless community which was so disturbing for me. And to juxtapose such pitiful scenes against the reality of the obvious strides that have been made is ironic, dramatically tragic, socially puzzling and mind-boggling. It was clear to me that this could not just be about race!
Conservatives, of course, have long told us racism is not the problem -- rather, it is black culture itself which has created these issues. It is the black need for instant gratification, high levels of violence and the low moral climate that keeps blacks isolated and otherwise disenfranchised in this society of plenty.
And to some degree I am willing to admit they have a point. But I am still unwilling to deny all the covert, unconscious and institutional constructs did not play a major role as well. I am convinced black culture could not have done this by itself. If nothing else, the more liberal view of racism allows me an intellectual mirror for coping psychologically, while it also provides a plethora of ways for understanding history. Especially since the liberal charges of structural, institutional and systemic dysfunction seem to lend real opportunity for plausibility, possibility and discernment.
Bustling Atlanta was brilliantly beautiful, and encroachingly hot with its high buildings, manicured parks and statuary gardens all over the Peachtree town center area. Just beyond the winding dense concrete cloverleaf highway running down from the city there was a little bit of paradise, the densely forested and idyllic hidden Carter Center. It has the ambiance of the Imperial Palace property that sits in the heart of Tokyo. I attended a luncheon there as part of a leadership conference.
But just beyond that grandeur and the now famous Centennial Park and down Sweet Auburn Ave, home to the King legacy, lies another Atlanta -- a world of poverty, crime and complete social disorganization. But why? What happened? Is this not America? Is this not a different world from the days of segregation? Is there not a black man who has become president? I raised these same questions in a story on which I collaborated for Atlanta Tribune Magazine.
In his new book, "More than Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City," Harvard's Professor Wilson says the sad social conditions I saw were about both legacy and systemic impediments. It's these impediments on which we must now focus most of our criticism and analysis, not just the people who have been the focus of both conservatives and liberals in the last century.
In the 20th century, the government separated us into two peoples. We lived in separated neighborhoods. We had separate economies and social systems. It was not until the 1960s that the government saw the error of its ways. But it was much too late. The die had been cast. The postwar economy of the last century created a divided America. a division bolstered by highways that divided communities, Industries, jobs, and people. Public policy, social discrimination and federal regulations continued the atrocious living conditions and the social chasms I saw in Atlanta. The government allowed for the homelessness, hopelessness, social isolation and disproportionate economic severities that yet exist in this country of plenty.
It is indeed more than just race. In this century we can no longer miss the real point. Wilson says, "The legacy of racism and the dramatic changes in the economy matter more than the culture of the ghetto." He is absolutely right it's more than just about race! It's about policy, legislation and rules of the empire.