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The bootstraps myth is distinguished by its incessant harping about how "black culture" is the proximate cause of the many problems that African Americans confront, in terms of education, income, family stability, health, and so much more. Fix black culture, we're admonished, and not only will the problems cease but so too will racial discrimination, because Blacks then will have acquired respect from whites.

Yet no real evidence is proffered about what, exactly, constitutes "black culture." Even the mythologists who fancy themselves as being tough-minded scientists typically provide nothing more than a few anecdotes gleaned from conversations with some Black folks they know, or a hypothetical "thought experiment," a la Charles Murray (Losing Ground).

In pondering the mystery of "Black culture," I'm reminded of anthropologist Katherine Newman’s poignant preface to her classic book, No Shame in my Game. In it, she recollects heading through Harlem in a LaGuardia-bound cab one morning and observing the then-infamous neighborhood, letting its reality soak in. Rather than witnessing a “downward spiral of unemployment and despair,” as so often described, she saw:

"...lines of men and women dressed for work, holding the hands of their children on their way to day care and the local schools. Black men in mechanic’s overalls, women in suits drinking coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts cups.... Meanwhile, people walking purposefully to work were moving down the sidewalks, flowing around the bus shelters, avoiding the outstretched arm of the occasional beggar, and ignoring the insistent calls of the street vendors.... It was Monday morning in Harlem, and as far as the eye could see, thousands of people were on their way to work."

That ride gave birth to a research project that culminated in Newman’s book. As Debra Dickerson noted in her review of it, even though 69% of central Harlem’s families have at least one employed member, conservative politicians have focused on the glow-in-the-dark minority that is jobless, criminal, or dependent on government subsidies. Between them, they've rhetorically rabbit-punched America into thinking that there’s no one else in the inner city but unemployed winos, Uzi-toting crack dealers, and welfare mamas with a baby on each hip. Once laziness, poor character, and government handouts were anointed the official problem, the obvious answer was to deny the bums their handouts, hence "welfare reform" and the "war on drugs."

"Trouble is, Dickerson wrote, "the majority of the urban poor are not on welfare, not unemployed, and not criminal. They’re just invisible. If they’d steal a car, do drugs, or have children they couldn’t care for, we’d see them. But instead, they work at jobs that pay barely enough for survival. They compete fiercely for these opportunities that offer low pay, few benefits, shift work, little challenge, and less chance for advancement. They work as janitors, nurse’s aides, child-care workers, and burger flippers. Their lives are complicated in the extreme, as they juggle child care and treacherous commutes through often dangerous neighborhoods to make it to their hot grills and hair nets every day."

A final paragraph from Dickerson is particularly relevant today, in this time of pandemic: "Newman confirmed the dirty secret we all know--our robust economy rests on the broken backs and the shattered lives of the working poor. While her subjects are not welfare recipients, she shows their dependence on people who are; few could survive without the welfare grandma who baby-sits and provides the subsidized apartment they can’t afford to leave."
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