In his new column, Time‘s Joe Klein (6/5/14) unsurprisingly doesn’t like the idea of a left-wing challenger to Hillary Clinton in the eventual Democratic presidential nomination race. He writes that someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren “would challenge Clinton from the populist left, a force that is growing noisier within the party, if not more populous.”
This is pretty standard issue centrist punditry, which constantly advises Democrats to pull away from their liberal base.
But Klein steps out a bit further with a revealing passage about race:
There is also a bubbling-up of what the historian Fred Siegel calls gentry liberals, the old alliance of guilt-ridden limousine riders and (mostly African-American) minority groups who are itchy to file grievances again after 50 years of remarkable progress.
A 2003 Brookings Institution study showed that if you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have no more than two babies and have a job (any job, and there are plenty out there), the chances of your living in poverty are 3.7 percent. Those sorts of stats–and there are plenty of others like them–are downplayed by a new generation of African-American activists and by mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio, who has lifted some of the work requirements imposed by Bill Clinton for people on welfare.
The left argues that times have changed. The economy has changed. It’s harder to get a job. Will Clinton modify her long-held positions on welfare and the importance of two-parent families?
Obviously, the worry for Klein is that Clinton could move to the left on these issues.
But more revealing is his complaint about the itch grievances of “(mostly African-American) minority groups” in the face of such progress. Since jobs are plentiful, and there are plenty of stats to show that avoiding poverty isn’t that hard, it’s clear that the Time pundit thinks that this “new generation of African-American activists” and “mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio” are heading in the wrong direction.
Klein’s assurances that he’s stocked up on stats aside, it’s not hard to find data that paint a different picture–one that looks less remarkable. As Vauhini Vara noted in the New Yorker (8/27/13):
In 2011, the median income for black households was about 59 percent of the median income for white households, up slightly from 55 percent in 1967, according to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. But when you consider wealth–that is, everything a family owns, including a home and retirement savings–the difference seems to have grown. Pew found that the median black household had about 7 percent of the wealth of its white counterpart in 2011, down from 9 percent in 1984, when a Census survey first began tracking this sort of data.
Or consult the 2012 State of Working America report from the Economic Policy Institute, which features a number of distressing statistics on black unemployment (consistently about twice as high for blacks as for whites, though it would be hard to say that there are “plenty” of jobs for anyone, with overall unemployment at 6.9 percent) and racial disparities in median family income.
So why is Klein mad that “minority groups” and “a new generation of African-American activists” think something should be done about this? This is something that has bothered Klein before. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Klein wrote a column that critiqued black activists for calling attention to the killing (FAIR Blog, 4/3/12). Klein pointed out that the “vast majority of African-Americans who are shot suffer at the hands of other African-Americans,” and that the Martin case had attracted the usual undesirable elements:
Here’s Al Sharpton, with the imprimatur of MSNBC, acting as racial ringmaster for another media circus, and here’s Jesse Jackson back looking for some camera time too.
Go back a bit further, and you’ll find a Klein column (10/3/05) directly critiquing the Democratic party for not distancing itself enough from civil rights activists (Extra!, 7/06):
The tendency of some black baby boomers–the civil rights generation–to attempt to make gains by browbeating white people and ignoring the responsibility of the “victims” themselves has been a total loser. By alienating Middle America, they have helped “ravage” the Democratic Party.
Back further still, you can find Klein revealing more of this in the pages of the New Republic (10/28/96), in a book review where he expresses his disappointment with sociologist William Julius Wilson. Klein writes that talking about structural economic problems is “a tired idea,” when more emphasis should be placed on the “social pathologies” of black America. To Klein, “the phenomenon of underclass poverty is not entirely, or even predominantly, an economic phenomenon.” It is a problem of culture. He writes:
Wilson spends hundreds of pages filleting statistical minutiae about the poor without ever mentioning the single most striking domestic detail about inner-city households: The living rooms of even the poorest, most fractured single-parent families are dominated by a single piece of furniture–the color television. (And often an imposing console model.)
It’s odd that Klein points to the possession of color TVs–at that point a half-century-old invention–as the “single most striking domestic detail” about poor households. It would be more striking if they possessed black-and-white models, since stores like Sears and Kmart had stopped selling them years earlier.
And Klein dismisses the idea that a jobs program would much help: “The cultural forces pulling in the opposite direction are simply too powerful…. The problem is not the absence of jobs. It is the absence of restraint.”
Poor blacks are, then, more likely to be poor because they lack restraint and they own fancy television sets. Understanding that this is Klein’s worldview, all of this hostility towards civil rights activism begins to make some sense. He will never be satisfied with the “itchy…grievances” of “minority groups” talking about the persistence of poverty unless they spend more time blaming the problem with their culture.