A ground-breaking study by Johns Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson has been on bookshelves for nearly a year, but “ The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood” is particularly relevant now in light of a much splashier book published two weeks ago by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, whose “Bowling Alone” study made his a household name in the 1990s. Putnam has the ear of President Obama. His subject matter is very similar to that of Alexander: how class-based privilege and opportunity (or lack of same) are transmitted across generations.
In “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam writes that social mobility “seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American Dream.” The crisis is near, and Putnam has, according to his fans, started the conversation. But the conversation has been ongoing, and the situation is much worse than Putnam imagines. Alexander’s book shows that social mobility has already plunged, the American Dream is already just a dream. And more: While the class divide of Putnam’s focus is starker than ever, the racial divide is starker even than that.
As others have said before them, Alexander and company found poverty is deeper among poor African-Americans. Poor black neighborhoods are much worse—in terms of crime, social cohesion, and potential for social advancement—than poor white neighborhoods. Young black men who turn to crime have a much harder time finding straight jobs than young white ex-criminals. African-Americans are paid much less when they do find work.
Basically, in Alexander’s book—which has little chance of affecting policy—everything is about race. In Putnam’s book—which has every chance to affect policy—nothing is about race.
In terms of academic rigor, Alexander’s is by far the superior book. The team began in 1982 with almost 800 first-graders divided into many neighborhoods, weighted by race and socioeconomic status. Alexander wanted to see if he could tease out the effects of family, income, schooling, and neighborhood on the life prospects of his subjects. He wanted to see what matters, with an eye toward crafting policies that would help everyone who comes after. He succeeded.
What he found was simple and sad: If you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor. Just 33 of the children born in poverty had moved to the “high-income” bracket by the time they were 28. Just 4 percent of the low-income first-graders got college degrees by age 28.
But the class differences, while stark, pale in relation to the racial disparities: 89 percent of the white boys who dropped out of high school were working straight jobs by age 22, which in this study would have been circa 1998. Of the black boys who dropped out: Only 40 percent had jobs.
Those job-holding young white men were much more marriageable than their black cohorts, so many more of them were in committed relationships and were caring for the children born of those relationships, which meant those children—mostly white children—all had a much better chance of doing better for themselves than the black kids, most of them raised by single African-American women struggling to find decent work to support them.
Drug use cannot explain the disparity: Whites reported more drug use than blacks across all social castes. Almost as many of the poor white men had criminal convictions on their records as poor black men—41 percent against 49 percent. But the book does not break down these conviction rates by type of crime or differentiate between those with a single conviction and those with many.
And that is one of the weaknesses of “The Long Shadow.” Instead of looking for answers (or at least sharp questions) in the data as it develops, Alexander plods unswervingly forward even after the original goal had been met.
Dense and stolidly written, “The Long Shadow” is not easy reading. The authors’ early effort (repeated in marketing) to tie it to David Simon’s “The Corner” feels tacked on, if not tacky.
The academic, heavily footnoted writing style and confusing tables will slow readers. Those who read carefully may be left with questions. For example, the study divides job occupations according to socioeconomic status, or SES, a common term in sociology and psychology. But in this study, following an earlier researcher, social workers are ranked in the highest group, along with lawyers, while longshoremen are ranked much lower, just above trash collectors. This will seem strange to those who know that unionized longshoremen typically earn about the same hourly pay as social workers.
This is a minor point. Others are not. Alexander found striking disparities in crime rates in poor black versus poor white neighborhoods, particularly when assessing violent crime. Boiled down, the incidents of robbery, rape, and murder were two to three times higher in the low-income African-American communities than in low-income white communities, statistically “a striking and disquieting orderliness,” his team writes. There is no causal explanation for it anywhere in the book, as the authors elevate the passive verb construction to an imperative to assess the corrosive “conditions” in these neighborhoods. “This fracturing of community under the pressure of assaults from within and without is the opening for predatory crime, which tears at the heart of Baltimore’s low-income African-American neighborhoods.” It is as if “predatory crime” were itself a sentient character that poverty spontaneously generates, quite apart from the actual people committing the crimes. It beggars credulity that one could follow 790 children of a community for nearly three decades, interview most of them multiple times, and not learn anything about who the criminals are.
As anyone who has lived in Baltimore’s rowhouse neighborhoods knows, it takes only one predatory household to destroy a block with 50 homes on it. Complaints about late-night noise and loitering are often met with vandalism, threats, and sometimes more. In many Baltimore neighborhoods, a single extended family, usually spread across several houses, terrorizes the area, dealing drugs and enforcing the Baltimore version of Omertà. This pattern destroyed the social cohesion necessary to enforce civilized standards generations ago. It went up in flames finally with the Dawson family, whose East Baltimore house was firebombed, killing six of the seven family members, after they repeatedly reported drug dealing in the neighborhood to the police.
The city’s police force has long since written off some of the worst of these neighborhoods, frustrated by residents’ unwillingness to speak truth. In their quest to make numbers and move on, police became unwilling to differentiate the predators from their victims, who they often revictimize. But “The Long Shadow” discusses none of this.
The authors’ strangely passive voice becomes more unnerving as the book progresses, piling up horrific statistics and then all but anthropomorphizing them. We learn that in 2008, approximately 37 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 34 who lack a GED or high school diploma were incarcerated; 25 percent of African-American men that age did not work one day in 2003. And then we’re informed that “young men drawn into the criminal justice system—be it by way of arrest, conviction, or incarceration—face impaired economic prospects . . . It is disproportionately African-American men with low levels of schooling who suffer this ‘perfect storm’ . . . which has implications for their partners and children.”
They are “drawn in” to this “perfect storm,” always without any agency, victimized forever by a force akin to nature itself.
While Putnam’s weakness is his indifference to race and unwillingness to name villains, Alexander’s is his unwillingness to develop any analysis that treats his subjects as human beings who make conscious choices within the world of the horrific statistics and anecdotes he collects. Who or what is to blame for all these black men ending up in prison? Who or what is to blame for the unconscionable rate of actual violent crime in poor African-American neighborhoods? What can policymakers—and those who live in these neighborhoods—do to stop it? David Simon at least depicted the institutional forces at work, and the real human beings both caught in, and causing, the carnage on “The Corner.”
In “The Long Shadow,” an academic’s impressive and important life’s work has confirmed what we already know about the city’s decaying neighborhoods and the people trapped in them. One hopes it will not take another 30 years to implement the social, political, and economic policies that will restore not just the ever-crumbling housing stock, but the people’s spirits.