A few decades ago, Urban League chapters around the country were trying to persuade banks and telephone companies to hire black tellers and operators. Today, these have almost become "black occupations" in some cities. The change reflects the fact that millions of blacks have grasped the opportunities created by the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s.
According to Bart Landry, a University of Maryland sociologist who closely studies the black middle class, about 15 per cent of the black population could claim middle-class status in 1960 on the basis of their employment in the professions, management, administration, sales, and clerical work. By 1980, that percentage had risen to 37.
Since the 1960s, some blacks have achieved positions of prominence on a scale unprecedented in American history. Among these achievers are the nation's highest-paid entertainer; the President's national-security adviser; the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; the runner-up in a major political party's Presidential contest; the president of the nation's largest teachers' union; mayors of the second-, third-, and fifth-largest cities in the country; the quarterback of the Superbowl champions; an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; the president of Planned Parenthood; one of the three managing partners in the nation's largest law firm; the president of the Dime Savings Bank of New York, and the President of the Ford Foundation.
But these dramatic advances carried with them a dramatic underside. In 1970, the median income of black families in the United States was 61.3 per cent of white median family income. By 1986, that percentage had dropped to 57.1 per cent. And after almost eight years of the Reagan Administration's antipathy toward social programs and its vociferous and sustained attacks on civil-rights remedies, we are witnessing a resurgence of racism on college campuses and in other sectors of the society.
Those two poles-enhanced opportunity for some, neglect and hostility toward others-capture the essence of black life in the United States today.
When segregation was the rule, almost all blacks, regardless of their economic situation, suffered similarly from discrimination. Even those who earned large incomes were severely limited in their housing choices, were excluded from many places of public accommodation, were confined in their work to jobs in which they associated with or served other blacks, and were defenseless against the white rudeness toward blacks that was endemic in those days. These circumstances gave ghetto communities cohesion and density, a capacity for self-help, and an economic dynamic that many blacks found supportive despite the stultifying and humiliating aspects of segregation.
Black investments in education and training almost invariably redounded to the benefit of the larger black community. Educated and trained blacks had little choice but to serve other blacks: Black physicians treated black patients; black teachers taught black pupils; black lawyers represented black clients, and black journalists worked for black newspapers. To earn respect and esteem, black professionals involved themselves in civil-rights and social-service organizations.
I don't mean to suggest that black communities were homogeneous in those days, or free of crime, family breakdown, acute color- and class-consciousness, self-hate, and other forms of destructive behavior. But social pathology existed side by side with a vigorous community life.
Today, however, the black areas of our central cities have been substantially depopulated. Harlem sidewalks that throbbed with life three or four decades ago now serve thin streams of pedestrians who make their way among abandoned tenements, ailing retail shops, and boarded-up storefronts. The middle class has moved to Teaneck, Hollis, Englewood, New Rochelle, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or Greenwich Village. Blacks with law degrees or MBAs work for Wall Street and Midtown firms. Black professors are no longer restricted to teaching at Howard, Spelman, Lincoln, and Morehouse; they can now be found at the City University of New York, Smith, Michigan, and Stanford.
It isn't just a matter of physical isolation of poor blacks from whites and middle-class blacks. As successful blacks are increasingly integrated into mainstream America, their interests and energies come to resemble those of the dominant society. An earlier generation of black lawyers enhanced their careers by working in the local NAACP affiliate; today's black lawyers struggle along the same grueling partner ship paths as whites. Black journalists who once might have been analyzing bank red lining practices for black readers now write about corporate mergers and acquisitions for general-circulation newspapers. And black professionals who might have in vested their spare time as board members of a black YMCA branch or settlement house now serve on the boards of downtown co-ops or local symphony orchestras. The surrounding economy has also changed, and mostly in ways that injure the interests of the black poor. The manufacturing sector that once provided the unskilled with job ladders is in decline. The new jobs in the service sector either pay less or have qualifications that are beyond the reach of most ghetto job-seekers. And a new wave of eager immigrants from Latin America competes fiercely for service-sector jobs that once were almost the sole province of poor blacks.
Worst of all, a new destructive force, rooted in severe educational and economic deprivation, is devastating the central cities: family disintegration, drug abuse, and the violent crime that is an integral component of the drug culture.
A new destructive force, rooted in severe educational and economic deprivation, is devastating the central cities: family disintegration, drug abuse, and the violent crime that is an integral component of the drug culture.
Black families headed by women in 1986, 41 per cent of all black families-are the most vulnerable units in the American social structure. Two-thirds of the children in these families are classified as poor under official standards. Almost half of all black children under eighteen are poor.
The men who father these children are largely unemployed. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the number of unemployed black men doubled between 1960 and 1984. "In 1960, nearly three-quarters of all black men included in census data were working," the Center reported. "Today  only 57 per cent are working." Another study, compiled by Audrey Rowe, special assistant for human-resource development in the District of Columbia mayor's office, found the plight of young black men is even worse: In 1983, only 45 per cent of black men aged sixteen to twenty-one were employed throughout the country.
The only activity that seems to be thriving in poor black communities is crime. Reliable statistics are elusive, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. During Jesse Jackson's campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination this year, I heard young gang members in the Los Angeles ghetto, Watts, tell the candidate that they hated what drugs did to them and their communities, but that trafficking in drugs was the only economic opportunity available to provide the means of survival to them and their families.
Jackson took his politics to Watts, but the prevailing political winds have been blowing in the opposite direction. The President and his chief advisers make no secret of their hostility to traditional civil-rights activities; in recent years they have tried to restore tax-exempt status to private, segregated colleges, dilute the Voting Rights Act, and eviscerate affirmative action requirements. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that the Reagan Administration has cut discretionary assistance programs for low-income Americans by 29.3 per cent in the last seven years. When reductions in subsidized housing programs are included, the total cut amounts to 54 per cent.
To some observers, these figures suggest that the real problem is not one of race but of class. We hear it said that those blacks who have managed to escape poverty are no longer subjected to racism. I disagree: The problem is one of both race and class.
To be sure, the black poor suffer class disabilities to which well-educated and affluent blacks are immune. But even well off blacks still encounter subtle and not-so-subtle racism in virtually every aspect of their lives.
What's more, even blacks who have achieved something approaching income parity with whites still find that their economic and political power is constricted by the effects of racism past and present. Though the number of blacks holding elected office more than quadrupled be tween 1970 and 1986, for example, blacks still accounted for only 6,384 out of 490,770 officeholders. The wealth gap was equally appalling: In 1986, the average white family held twelve times the wealth of the average black family.
But these are trivial concerns alongside the burdens borne by the black poor. And though those burdens have all the marks of class oppression, they are produced by racial oppression, too. The state of helplessness, debility, and cultural deprivation imposed for centuries on millions of blacks in the United States did not prepare them, their children, or their grandchildren for the transition into a modern high-tech society. They are natural targets for the con tempt of their fellow citizens and for exploitation by unscrupulous merchants, brutal criminals, arid callous public officials. Much of their suffering can be relieved by programs that would also ease the plight of the white poor, but we cannot ignore the particular injuries inflicted on poor blacks because of their race.
Many white Americans would like to apply to the race problem the formula once proposed for Vietnam by former Senator George Aiken of Vermont: "Declare victory and get out." But the nation has not yet come close to fulfilling its moral obligation to the people it battered and subjugated for so long. Nor have we reached the point in our national life where racism can be regarded as a spent force. It is not yet time to abandon race-consciousness in our pursuit of remedies.
As the Reagan years come to an end, we have a substantial pool of well educated and politically sophisticated blacks from whose ranks will come the leaders and soldiers who will take part in the next stage of the struggle. They must find ways to rebuild cross-class bridges within the black community and, together with the black poor, develop the new strategies and the new political instruments that will advance the cause of justice.