What might have been……..

I am torn as to what category to put this item in, but Basics seems to be the best place, although Pat’s Worldview would be appropriate since it displays my belief that whether people earn a living determines a great deal. The example I use involves African-Americans, so the African Diaspora would be suitable as well.

But here goes.

What would have happened to the African-American community if the jobs in the upper Midwest and the Northeast had not dried up in the 50s and 60s? Would that have had any effect on race relations? On crime? On the spread of drugs? On illegal immigration?

Reading about the disastrous termination of jobs in manufacturing, I kept feeling like Jack Nicholson in that movie where he’s a retired detective and risks all to trap a child murderer only to have the murderer killed in an accident on the way to the scene. No one believes him and he spends the rest of his life pumping his fists in the air over what might have been.

What might have been if those migrants from the South, Black and White, had been able to keep steady, good-paying jobs in industry? Despite wonderful stories of people pulling themselves up out of misery, hard-headed social scientists know that the conditions of poverty defeat more people than they spur on to greater achievement. The decline was so rapid in part because the recent arrivals in the North had had little time to adjust to life in huge megalopolises. Residential segregation kept them isolated and after that ended, White flight to the suburbs kept them isolated.

In this isolation grew an in-bred culture. While I don’t subscribe to all the conservative diatribes against inner-city culture – it promotes out-of-wedlock births, teen pregnancy, drug use, crime in general, a dismissive attitude toward education, and so on – there is no doubt that rural Southern life under Jim Crow had done little to prepare these people to survive the depredations of an economy gone bad…. bad for them, for they had not the skills needed to transition into the information economy. While Whites had taken advantage of the GI Bill and other post-war stimuli to economic betterment, much of this was denied African-Americans: housing, education, business enterprise, financial leveraging, etc. Banks and mortgage lenders dealt with them on a footing of gross inequality; the federal government did not protect them; they had no institutions except the church that survived the trip North.

And that last brings me to my counter-example, not counter to my argument but counter to this scenario. Fifty years ago about, I became acquainted with a number of African-Americans who had done much the same thing as the people who wound up in the rust belt, they migrated out of the South. My wife and her family were hired as cotton pickers in East Texas and brought here in a truck convoy. It was miserable but they got on up to Phoenix and settled there. My father-in-law, unable to take advantage of his navy training in aircraft mechanics, took a job as a school janitor. My mother-in-law, formerly a hotel cook, became a domestic and, with my wife in tow, cleaned houses.

But – big but here – before they left Texas, my mother-in-law had joined a Pentecostal church and my wife had been baptized there (we visited the church just a couple of years ago). Following many other families from the same area in East Texas, they started a church that became known as First Pentecostal. When I first became a frequent visitor to the church, the founding members were the core and they were people who had lived through the roughest kind of Klan-enforced segregation. Life in Phoenix was no bowl of cherries either; segregation was in force here and maintained with the usual police brutality.

But Phoenix was growing and new blood from the Midwest was pouring in. Sadly, the politics grew more conservative and more Republican in what had been a Democratic state, albeit strongly influenced by the Texas roots of many of the state’s founders. Nevertheless, changes were afoot in a way they were not in the South. As a result, the church members were able to provide a foundation for their families.

When you look at the stalwarts, as I call them, the pillars, the founders of the church, in their 70s and 80s now, and at their off-spring, you cannot help but be struck by how far they have come in just three or four generations. From cotton pickers barely allowed to walk into the White part of town in Texas to proud parents and grandparents watching their children and grandchildren graduate from college.

There is a book about Black people in Phoenix written by an ASU professor; I haven’t read it yet but my wife has. What I would like to see is if there is any research on the effects of long-term church membership. To me, the church, with all its faults, induced a sense of solidity, expectation, and purpose in people that unchurched people may have missed.

This is a very weak hypothesis b/c most Black people belong to a church and attend regularly. Those that do not are often on the margins of society and so would not be expected to produce off-spring of real accomplishment. Nevertheless, if we could just chart the correlation at least between persistent church membership and educational and vocational attainment, it would give us something to work with.

How did the churches do this? What hold did they have on people? Would interviews suggest anything about what young people learn in church? They certainly learn language and reading; they learn how to speak publicly; they learn how to talk to other people and to deal with them. They learn that there is order in the universe and that not everything is due to chance or luck.

Obviously, parental background and support is crucial, but I’ll bet you would find that many of these parents worked constantly or were in church (my wife remembers many a sleepy day in school after being kept at church till one in the morning). They had neither the educational background or the time to help their kids that much. But they provided stability. Drugs took a lot away, gang activity did, as did a stupid life of parties and good-times. But others went on up a little higher, as they sing.

No doubt, the explosion in jobs available to Blacks after the Civil Rights Movement was a huge factor. I remember working for the state employment service in the mid-sixties and counting only 4 minority (Black and Latino) employees out of 200 in my building. By 1970, a mere four or five years later, a worked for them again and found minorities employed in large numbers from para-professional positions to directorships.

We used to talk about this and it became clear very quickly where that initial cadre of Mexican-Americans came from: the mining towns. Every Hispanic professional I knew, except for a Puerto Rican doctor, came from an Arizona mining town. That was simply b/c the mines paid wages, not equal to Whites but better than any other job available to Hispanics in the state.

For African-Americans, I am thinking church membership may have provided a similar foundation.

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