Black History Lesson

Friday, April 30, 1999

An old buddy of mine used to say, “Don’t do me no favors, break my neck!”

That remark might apply to much of the recent history of black Americans. In many ways, blacks were more successful in overcoming the opposition of racists than in overcoming the effects of those who thought they were helping.

The centerpiece of the civil rights struggle was the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1954 outlawing racial segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Racially segregated and grossly unequal schooling was long overdue to be struck down, but the pattern of thinking set in motion by the Brown case has led into many blind alleys.

Racial integration and government help became the watchwords of a whole generation of minority leaders and white liberals. Where has it led?

Is the education of black youngsters better today than it was before the great social, judicial, and political crusades to mix and match students by race through busing and other schemes?

Perhaps in some places it is, but in the great urban ghettos that education is much inferior to what it was when I was going to school in Harlem back in the 1940s. Relying on records, rather than nostalgia, let us look at how the school I went to—P.S. 5, Manhattan—stacked up against white working class schools on the Lower East Side of New York at the same time.

Racial integration and government help became the watchwords of a whole generation of minority leaders and white liberals. Where has it led?

In neither neighborhood did the schools match the performances of schools in affluent neighborhoods, where parents were better educated. But neither were they miles behind, like today. Whether in Harlem or on the Lower East Side, students were grouped by ability and the best classes offered an education that would allow their students to go anywhere and compete with anybody. As of December 1941, test scores for Harlem students in the second semester of the sixth grade were 5.2 in understanding both paragraph meaning and word meaning, while in Lower East Side schools like P.S. 23 and P.S. 130 these scores were 5.1 in paragraph meaning and 4.5 and 4.7, respectively, in word meaning. The citywide average was 6.8, so these kids were behind, but not out of it completely—and youngsters in the high-ability classes in both places had what it took to go on to become educated, middle-class adults.

In tests given in May 1947, Harlem students in the third grade at P.S. 5 matched the citywide average in understanding both paragraph meaning and word meaning and exceeded the citywide average in arithmetic. Lower East Side students in P.S. 23 and P.S. 130 were just slightly below the citywide average at that point. In other years, the Lower East Side youngsters had the edge on the Harlem students— but it was only an edge either way.

To exempt any group from the standards of performance and behavior expected of others is not a blessing but a curse.

Compare that with today, when it is taken for granted that ghetto schools will perform miles behind everyone else—and when everyone from the National Education Association to the NAACP has “politically correct” explanations for these failures, instead of facing the fact that performances were once so much better, without any of the liberal “prerequisites” they are peddling today.

Once, when my niece was down on herself for not having made better use of her opportunities, she said, “I went to the same school you went to, Uncle Tommy.”

“No,” I told her, “you went to the same building I went to—but by the time you got there, it was no longer the same school.”

Education is just one of the big casualties of the social theories and social engineering of the past generation. The continual undermining of law and order, by people who considered the very phrase itself as racist, has damaged the black community worse than any other.

Is anyone aware that the murder rate among blacks was declining sharply for years before the new theories of crime began to be applied in the 1960s and new criminals’ “rights” were created out of thin air by liberal Supreme Court justices? After that, the murder rates skyrocketed for everyone, along with crime rates in general.

This history has not only been ignored, it has been erased and political fantasies recorded over it. To admit that Harlem was a lot safer during the 1930s and 1940s than it is today would be to expose the hollowness of the “politically correct” theory that poverty and discrimination cause crime. My generation had far more poverty and discrimination and far less crime.

Perhaps the most dangerous “favor” done to blacks has been the making of excuses for all their problems. All human beings are so imperfect, no matter what color wrapping they come in, that to exempt any group from the standards of performance and behavior expected of others is not a blessing but a curse.

Many white liberals have adopted blacks as mascots, in order to “make a statement” against American society. But mascots are only symbols, and their well-being is seldom a top priority.

While those liberals who have adopted blacks as mascots, and those black “leaders” who go along to get along, may be able to point to all sorts of political benefits they have delivered, that is not enough to offset ruining education, law and order, and the family. Nothing could be.