Vernon Jordan has been president of the National Urban League since 1972. Tall handsome, and articulate, his succes, which includes membership on numerous corporate boards, exemplities the new possiblities now open to members of a limited Balck middle class.
While Jordan's politice do pretend to address the needs of all Black Americans, he fails to confront the growing stratification within the Black community. In his recent speech at the Kennedy School Forum. Jordan, like many Black Harvard students in his audience, was unwilling to concede that the policies that have helped middle-class Blacks have done little for Blacks in Harlem.
Parallels can be drawn between Jardan's national leadership and the leadership of the Black community at Harvard. As Jordan loves to potrary one Black people struggling together for progress. So Black organizations on campus often seek to portray their specific needs at an elite university as representative of the problems of Blocks everywhere.
Jordan calls for a renewed committment to the goals of the "Great Society" and the civil right movement and blames the slow progress made by Black Americans over the past 20years on the failures of "white leadership."
What was seriously missing in Jordan's speech here--and in most of his others--was any recognition of the schisms within the Black community.
During the last 20 years with the strong did of thefederal government, some Blacks have indeed made great progress. Affirmative action has helped the Black middle class and some of the working class to penetrate into areas to which blacks and previously been denied access.
Yet despite the gains enjoyed by middleclass Blacks, the plight of lower class Blacks continues unbated.
The issue that Jordan and many campus Black leaders seem unable to confront is that the increase in black elected officials, the gains Blacks have made in managerial positions, and the presence of Blacks at elite universities have not significantly aided the lower classes. If anything, the gains enjoyed by middle-class Blacks have sometimes served to exacerbate the disappoinements and frustrations of the estimated 35 percent of Black Americans who are currently below the poverty line. The Black poor now see many of their brethren "making it" while their own sad conditions persist of in many cases worsen. One example of the deterioration in the condition of the Black poor is a frightening rise in female-headed households. While in the early '60s 23 er cent of Black families were headed by a female, today that figure has skyrocketed to over 40 per cent. Since female-headed ouseholds have less than half the income of two-parent families, this development means the plight of the poorest Blacks is worsening.
It is precisely because of the growing divergence and social stratification within the black community that new policies and proposals and necessary. However, before, prescribing a cure for an ailment, one must first diagnose the ailment and then prescribe the require cure. Given that Jordan still insists on portraying a monolithic "Black America Under Stage." It is clear that he has not carefully diagnosed the problems and thus invariably is proposing bad solutions.
Jordan's urging of a return to the Johnsonian "Great Society" is starlingly lacking in specifics. In order to construct a more just society we must know precisely who needs help and who does not. To attempt to solve the problems of "Black people" is absurd. If any white politician spoke of solving the problems of "white people," he would rightly be ridiculed. Yet according to the Bureau of the Census, in the U.S. today there exists a more unequal distribution of income among Black families than there is among white families. In 1977 the two-fifthe of Black families with lowest incomes contributed just 14 per cent of total Black income while the lowest two-fifths of white families contributed 16.8 percent of total white income. At the same time the upper two-fifths of Black families contributed 70.1 per cent of total Black income compared with the 65.7 per cent of total white income contributed by the upper two-fifths of white families. Thus, while Jordan is quick to lament the failures of "white leadership." his simple-minded analysis bespeaks the failure of his own leadership.
The first starting point for those interested in seriously addressing the problems of Blacks in America today would be to concede the complexity and variegation of these problems. The civil rights movement has indeed brought change. So today, even though racism still remains as a class-blind constraint on the mobility of all Blacks, race is being increasingly superseded by class as the most crucial determinant of Black's economic and social status. This means that policies aimed at helping Black must be increasingly class-specific. Second, since the Black middle classes seem to be maintaining their recent social gains, priority, or at least special emphasis, should be given to the problems of the Black lower classes. Black orgnizations on campus should not be exempted from this need to givespecial attention. If they are truly interestd in alleviating the plight of "Black people," they must recognize which Black people need helpmost. Some of the energy that has been spenton demanding a Third World Center could, in fact, have been used for direct community action in a neighboring community such as Roxbury.
A prerequisite for this reordering of political priorities is for Jordan, Harvard students, and other members of the Black bourgeosie to admit that they have indeed "made it." Unfortunately the Black bourgeoisie has been notoriously reluctant to relinquish its "oppressed" status. Witness, for example, the claims of being oppressed made by Blacks at Harvard.
This is not to say that the Black bourgeosie to be blamed for the present condition of the Black poor. The Black bourgeosie has only recently achieved the little power that it now possesses. Rather, it is the white establishment that must bear the principal responsibility for the demonic history of racial oppression, and it is this legacy that is primarily responsible for the pathetic plight of the Black poor. However, the Black bourgeoisis has inadequately represented the legitimate claims of the Black poor before the white establishment. This is inexcusable and a shame.
There is little evidence to suggest that the Black bourgeoisie can itself eradicate the problems of the Black poor, or that it could force the white establishment to commit itself to do so. The problem of the Black poor are beginning to take on pathological dimensions while white Americans seem content with the progress made by the Black middle classes and quite unconcerned about the persistence of intolerable conditions for the Black underclass. Nevertheless it is of the utmost importance for the members of the Black bourgeoisie to both formulate new strateg is aimed at helping the Black lower classes and to speak up vigrously for the Black poor whenever there is the opportunity.
Vernon Jordan will soon step down as the president of the Urban League to join the prestigious law firm of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Robert Strauss. It is well known that Jordan is comfortable in corporate circles. Serving on the boards of numerous corporations. Jordan has great credibility with the estblishment. Thus his lack of attention to the problems of the Black poor is especially dismaying since he can reach such a powerful audience. But perhaps it should not surprise us that Jordan does not delineate the problems of the black poor. Those who profess to defend the interests of the poor usually do not serve on corporate boards. Those who seek to save the oppressed usually do not find a $200,000-a-year corporate law job the most efficacious method of performing that task.
With the arrival of an administration that is clearly hostile to the needs of poor people all over the world, the Black poor will surely suffer more in the coming years. As a Black student at Harvard. I urge all Black students here to make some type of commitment to helping the Black poor. It would behoove Harvard Blacks to apply their skills and knowledge to endeavors other than those which line their pockets.
To his credit, Jordan did urge a return to the student activism of the 1960s, a time when students more readily undertook tasks that concerned the problems of the poor. But his deficient and dishonest analysis in addition to the example he himself sets by joining a law firm whose priorities presumably do not include the addressing of the problems of the Black poor surely must make us suspicious of his leadership.
There are no easy solutions to alleviating the plight of the nation's many impoverished Blacks. What must be hoped for is the development of a growing concern for their plight on the part of all Americans. However, in the interim we must be sure that those who claim that they defend the poor and oppressed indeed do so. Vernon Jordan fails on that account.
Robert A. Watts '84 is a government major who lives in Quincy House.
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