Two April days threw a clarifying light on the state of race in America. On the 11th, North Carolina's attorney general exonerated three white Duke students of the rape charges that a black stripper had lodged with much press fanfare a year earlier. The next day, CBS fired shock jock Don Imus for calling black Rutgers women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos." Between them, these events suggest an explanation for America's most vexed social question: in a country whose chief domestic imperative for 50 years has been ending racism and righting long-standing wrongs against blacks—with such success that we now have an expanding black middle class, a black secretary of state, black CEOs of three top corporations, a black Supreme Court justice, and a serious black presidential candidate—how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?
The legacy of slavery and racism isn't the reason, economist Thomas Sowell has long argued. That legacy didn't stop blacks from raising themselves up after Emancipation. By World War I, Sowell's data show, northern blacks scored higher on armed-forces tests than southern whites. After World War II and the GI Bill, black education and income levels rose sharply. It was only in the mid-1960s that a century of black progress seemed to make a sudden U-turn, a reversal that long-past events didn't cause. Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.
What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.
Myron Magnet is the Editor-at-Large of the City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's quarterly magazine of urban affairs. His book, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass (Encounter Books, 1993) argues that the radical transformation of mainstream American culture that took place in the 1960s brought the underclass into being.