'The (black) ghettoes bear the accumulated weight of all the bad in our country's racial history," writes Nicholas Lemann in "The Promised Land," "and they are now among the worst places to live in the world. . . . To be born into a (black) ghetto is to be consigned to a fate that no American should have to suffer."
For the third time in the last four years, a book on race relations has won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. (Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963" won the Current Interest award in 1989; Eric Foner's "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877" won the History award in 1988) In the late 1970s, scholars were talking about the "declining significance of race." But race has reappeared in the '80s and '90s as this society's most wrenching problem--and the one that has always most painfully revealed the gap between the ideals and the realities of American society.
There have always been the poor, and for 200 years they have been concentrated in the cities. But the black poor of whom Lemann writes with great empathy are those who arrived in northern cities during and after World War II. Technology drove them out of the rural South. First the mechanical cotton picker (which could do the work of 50 people) and then chemical weed killers (which ended the need for weed choppers) ended the viciously exploitative sharecropper system of cotton production and put 5 million people on the roads leading north. When these displaced people reached the labor-hungry northern cities, it seemed for a time that they had reached the promised land. But even as technology had eliminated the need for the labor in the South, it soon undercut unskilled labor in the North. And in the North, Southern blacks found racial prejudice as intense as any they had left behind. Every problem haunting the black sharecropper--grinding poverty, violence, teen-age pregnancy, family disorganization and wretchedly underfinanced schools--reappeared in the cities. By the 1970s, the northern public housing projects--filled with drugs, crime and fragmented families--told the story of a national tragedy.
Lemann's "Promised Land" is an absorbing, enlightening analysis in two ways. First, as social history, the book explores the great migration northward through the lives of some of those who rode the Illinois Central from Clarksville, Miss., to Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. By localizing a national phenomenon, Lemann brings us the voices and experiences of real people who were part of the human tide that increased Chicago's black population from 278,000 in 1940 to 813,000 in 1960. For some of his informants, the Promised Land would prove so unpromising that by the 1980s they were returning to Mississippi to escape the poverty, crime, drugs and collapsing family life in the Chicago ghettoes. In this living-biography approach, even the worst victims of the great migration seem extraordinary in their sheer human will to survive, to find love, another paycheck, a decent life for their children. Hardly any seem like those whom a better education and a decent job wouldn't have helped.
On a second front, as political analysis, "The Promised Land" chronicles the attempts in Washington to deal with America's race problem, especially between 1964 and 1972 in the heyday of J.F.K. and L.B.J.'s Great Society. Johnson, not Kennedy, is the central figure, but in the end the government's programs foundered because they ran into a buzz saw of local politicians, such as the Daley machine in Chicago, whose stalwarts saw competing political organizations being formed and--most unthinkable--the poor being politically mobilized. Nonetheless, Lemann argues that government programs did work, not by eliminating ghettoes but by propelling into the middle class thousands of African-Americans who obtained government jobs--federal or local--as Head Start teachers, public-transit workers, housing-project bureaucrats, policemen or firemen, and the like. The Reaganite disparagers of government intervention have much to learn from the lives of black Americans who appear in this book.
Simultaneously, the great migration changed the face of American politics. It undermined the Democrats as a presidential party because the interventionist efforts of L.B.J.--from Civil Rights to food stamps to affirmative action--drove blue-collar Northerners to the Republican Party and turned the Democratic South into the Republican South. Today's neoconservatism, moreover, was built upon the growing opposition to liberal programs to end poverty and help black Americans in the Northern ghettoes.
Lemann maintains an admirable levelheadedness about what can be done to cope with "the most significant remaining piece of unfinished business in our country's long struggle to overcome its original sin of slavery." He shows that while liberal policies never eliminated the Northern ghettoes, it is a conservative smoke screen to say that programs that provide food, jobs and medical care cannot help. Throughout our history, as Lemann points out, it has been the federal government, prodded by activists, and not private enterprise or local government that has "led the way on race relations."
Every nation, an English aristocrat named Richard Cox wrote in the mid-1700s, can be judged on the condition of the poorest class of its inhabitants. If so, our democracy, presided over by a new class of super-rich, is in trouble. Lemann reminds us that what is lacking now in all branches of government, in the leadership of both parties and in the public at large is a sense of moral urgency about resurgent racism and the impoverishment of this nation's citizens. Can such an indifferent society truly inspire the rest of the world?
THE PROMISED LAND: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, by Nicholas Lehman (Alfred A. Knopf)
BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era, by Kevin Brownlow (Alfred A. Knopf)
THE PRIZE: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster)
SOULSTEALERS: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, by Philip A. Kuhn (Harvard Univeristy Press)
STALIN IN POWER: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941, by Robert Tucker (W.W. Norton)