Flight from Honesty
It is an altogether remarkable passage from an altogether remarkable book:
In committee hearing after committee hearing, Negroes have been singled out as statistically responsible for crime in Washington. It is a matter of record that Negroes do commit the greatest number of serious crimes, and they commit them far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. The figures of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, housebreaking, and larceny tell the same story: most of the crimes are committed by Negroes.
In our contemporary political and social climate, when political correctness has corrupted much of journalism and prevents many writers from offering such statistics, this blunt language must come across like belching during Mass. To mention disparate crime rates between races is to invite accusations of racism and to be both drummed out of polite society and dropped from the aerie of mainstream journalism. Yet most remarkable is how the above quotation illustrates the corruption of not only a generation of reporters but of a single reporter within his generation.
The quote comes from a book called Dusk at the Mountain: The Negro, the Nation, and the Capital—A Report on Problems and Progress. It was published in 1963 and was written by Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Washington Post reporter. Johnson writes thick bestsellers with portentous titles like Sleeping Through History: America in the Reagan Years and, most recently, The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years.
Johnson’s later books are dull dilations on American society: he goes around the country interviewing folks, then reports what he finds. His conclusions are always the same: America needs to make progress, always in a liberal direction. Yet in comparing these books to Dusk at the Mountain, it is obvious that something odd has happened to Johnson and perhaps the entire journalism industry. Either there are no more conservatives or traditionalists in the United States, or Johnson has simply stopped interviewing them.
I found Dusk at the Mountain while researching an article on Shaw, a predominantly black neighborhood in Washington. Shaw is to the District what Harlem is to New York, a place with a long and proud African-American history. In the 1920s, it was the home to over 300 black-owned businesses as well as Howard University, one of the oldest and proudest black colleges.
All of this began to change in the early 1960s, when crime and illegitimacy began to rise in correlation with the breakdown of the black family. My article set out to prove that the 1968 riots in Washington following the murder of Martin Luther King had nothing to do with the assassination, but that black revolutionaries combined with broken homes and juvenile delinquency to cause the fires and looting.
In the beginning of his book, Johnson flatly declares himself “a moderate liberal.” I had to remind myself that in 1963, journalists were more honest, the dogma of “objectivity” had not taken hold, and being a liberal was not cause for embarrassment. But even more shocking, Johnson then, as opposed to Johnson now, was not afraid to make moral judgments and to print a quote even when it indicated serious pathology—or strong approval of traditional values or whites—on the part of blacks. Dusk at the Mountain was written when American liberalism was at its best, capable of taking on racism and economic inequality while challenging the excuses of the criminal underclass. How the world, and Johnson’s journalism, has changed.
Dusk is a book of remarkable honesty and power. It offers a compelling snapshot of Shaw in the years between the urban renewal fiasco of the 1950s that displaced thousands of blacks, moving the poor and criminal underclass into middle- and upper-class enclaves like Shaw, and the riots that were to come. It also offers some quotes that I doubt would make it into any reporter’s notebook today—Johnson’s included. (In a wonderful review of Johnson’s last book in the Washington Post, Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell pointed out that these days Johnson just does not interview anyone with whom he does not agree.)
In a chapter entitled “The World of Welfare,” Johnson visits Bates Street in the heart of Shaw. There he meets “a prominent Negro businessman” who tells the reporter how a typical welfare case works. A black laborer loses his job. On the way home he gets drunk, then loses what little money he has left in a crap game. Unable to support his wife and kids, he decides, against his will, to leave home so he can collect $260 a month on welfare. He still lives at home, however, returning at night to see his family. He soon fathers another child with his wife, but the child is now illegitimate. The welfare agency expects fraud and investigates, really causing the father to leave this time. The mother then finds another man and has another illegitimate child. As the black businessman told Johnson, “Their father didn’t want to go away, but the white man made him.”
It is unlikely that such a story would make it into the New York Times or Washington Post today. The reporter simply would not report it. Johnson does, and even goes further. He offers a passage that would make jaws drop if it came up on any contemporary editor’s computer screen:
For the present, welfare continues to place an increasing economic burden on all taxpayers. But the economic load is only one of the problems. More important is what happens to the people affected. Too often, those who write about welfare seem to be governed by their hearts instead of their heads. In some of these accounts, one gets the impression that people on relief are all noble, long-suffering characters. This attitude seems to be held even by some who are professional social workers.
In my experience, many welfare recipients do not wish to get off the rolls. They have found they can live better on relief than off. To such people, subsidies are placing a premium on laziness. And relief is not helping the children who have no values, who have heard the word “Jesus Christ” only as a form of profanity.
I am not advocating [a moral test for welfare recipients]. Nothing good can come of taking men off relief unless they are given opportunities for improvement… [but] welfare deadens incentive. Long before the latest furor about welfare chiselers, Negroes in Washington were critical of these in their race who clung to relief.
These days such reporting would bounce Johnson from the Post—long before he wrote, “Many people [on welfare] have become accustomed to an animal existence where sexual appetites are gratified with little thought of what will happen to children born out of such circumstances.” Johnson and his brethren have since exchanged certain truths about human nature—i.e., that handouts can sometimes make people dependent—for the warmer and more abstract perceptions of the modern Left that we should all “just get along,” as he notes in the chapter on race in his book on the 1990s, Divided We Fall. Indeed, those liberal bromides are more important than facts to most reporters today. In the passage just quoted, Johnson notes that in 1963 welfare had tripled as the population of Washington had dropped. Who would report the same basic, telling fact today?
He also offers an observation that would now be banished to the nether reaches of the conservative press. He introduces a man who took a lower salary so he could remain on welfare:
He had been defeated long ago; now he only wanted to sit back, watch the television, and let the rest of the world go on its way. His children will probably grow up without placing much value on initiative…. There are children living on [Bates] street today who are learning not only to lie, but to hate. Spawned by a moment of passion, born unwanted into poverty, and branded by society as bastards, they never will escape the stigma implied in the word “illegitimate.” They are being raised in an environment where there is little respect for marriage and the family.
Johnson or, rather, a man he interviews, offers another trenchant take on juvenile crime of the ghetto. What is so fascinating is that the theory is offered by a black policeman, yet when, thirty years later, the identical idea appeared in the New Republic, it ignited a firestorm. The man Johnson interviews is described as an older black policeman, and his theory is that juvenile crime was up in Washington not because of poverty, but affluence. He tells Johnson:
You must remember that the youth today we have trouble with—say from sixteen to twenty years old—are products of World War II. During the war there was plenty of work here and many people had a lot of children. The parents were able to show them some of the luxuries. They had radio and TV and good clothes. They were sent to school. They never faced the problem that we had, as kids of eleven and twelve, of being forced to try and earn a living. So you have groups of young children improperly advised by their parents. Sometimes the blame’s on the parents, other times it isn’t.
Then, as the economy slackened, the kids still had the desire. They wanted the best. They never were taught that the best isn’t for everyone. We were taught as children that certain things were only for the rich. You wouldn’t desire more than your income allows you. The kids today desire the best. But their activities at school and their hours before the TV slow them down. Soon they’re getting poor marks; and then they’re ready to drop out of school … . Still they want to go to parties and have a big time. At home their parents find their bills are piling up and they can’t make it. The next thing you know the kids are snatching pocket books and rifling a cash register. Then two or three of them talk it over and decide to go together and steal. And you’d be surprised what they do with the money. They want to dress nicely.
Simple greed as a motivation for robbery is not often cited. This must be obvious to journalist Joe Klein as, in 1996, Klein penned a scathing review of a book by the black scholar William Julius Wilson. Wilson had, per usual, blamed inner-city crime on poverty, drawing a correlation between the rising crime of the 1960s and fleeing industrial jobs. Klein simply pointed out that perhaps other factors were at work. He noted that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the devastation caused by the breakup of the black family came out in 1965, when most urban jobs “had not yet fled.” Klein then added another thought, directly echoing the black policeman in Dusk at the Mountain: “Isn’t it possible that this new poverty—the chronic anarchy and dependency that began to manifest itself in the 1960s—is primarily a disease of affluence?” To the inner city poor, Klein wrote, the “voluptuous festival of American excess [that] materialized in the living rooms of slums each night” caused jobs that once provided stability—jobs as janitors and bus drivers—to be ‘suddenly derided as ‘dead end’ [by those] who found it profitable to cultivate the alienation of others.” Klein was roundly savaged for offering such an observation—despite the fact that a careful examination of the 1968 riot reveals that he was right.
Such things are simply not said anymore, no matter how much truth they contain—and for those of us who have honestly researched the 1968 riots that devastated Shaw, they do indeed contain the truth. Every careful blow-by-blow reveals not a group of adults blind with rage over the death of their leader, Dr. King, but packs of roving kids looking to steal and being encouraged by left-wing black radicals. (One black militant told a reporter that they had been planning something since the February before King was killed and that they often instigated rioting in parts of the city where there had been none.) Such reporting did not appear during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, even in editorials.
A few years ago, I wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing that Americans should marshal resources to save the Howard Theatre, an historically black theatre in Shaw that has been shuttered for years. In the piece I noted that the Howard collapsed around the time of “the cultural and moral collapse of the 1960s.” After the final edit was done I was casually informed that the line had been changed—from “cultural and moral collapse” to “the social upheavals of the 1960s.” More sad than its bald corruption is the ironic possibility that this revisionism hurts the black people liberal journalists are trying to help—or maybe the journalists are simply interested in helping themselves.
The black scholar John McWhorter has rebuked the liberal penchant for obsessing on the horrific aspects of black American history. In an article in City Journal, McWhorter notes that many black thinkers today downplay the remarkable progress that has been made since the 1960s, instead “depicting modern black America as a variation on slavery and dismissing the progress we’ve made since the 1960s by condemning successful blacks as ‘house niggers.’ The result: for most of us, black history summons images of endless degradation—slavery, the quick promise of Reconstruction, Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Klan, Lynchings, the beatings of civil rights activists, Dred Scott, Emmett Till…. Not to attend to such things would be folly; but a history only of horrors cannot inspire.”
The problem is, in order to inspire, one has to report that there was once a time when, in black communities like Shaw, crime and illegitimacy were low and achievement and pride were high. Yet revealing this truth leads to uncomfortable questions about how this was possible in the high noon of Jim Crow America. This leads to more uncomfortable questions about the liberal premise that poverty, oppression, and crime are coefficients. And most journalists today are just not prepared to ask such questions, which would dramatically challenge their orthodoxies formed in the crucibles of the civil rights movement and Vietnam. Baby boomer journalists tend to see every story through the same self-inflating lens of their 1960s glory days.
In 1994, almost thirty years after the publication of Dusk at the Mountain, Johnson published Divided We Fall: Gambling with History in the Nineties. The premise of the book was that America is becoming a fragmented country, especially when it comes to race. Yet there is none of the moral toughness of the book Johnson had written as a younger man. There is not even an honest account of crime statistics, which point to a disproportionate rate of crime among black males. “Crime—black on black” in the index leads to a conversation with Hank Sanders, a black man running for Congress. “I was strongly opposed to Clarence Thomas,” Sanders tells Johnson. “I feel that it is imperative for those of us who get a break, who get a lift, who get affirmative action either from an institution or from our grandparents or our community, to reach back and to pull up folks…. I went on radio and television in strong opposition to Thomas because I was convinced that he wasn’t trying to pull a nobody else in, that he was prepared to close the same door that he had walked through.” No statistics, no combing the streets for observations from the people, no interview with Clarence Thomas or anyone who may support him. There is, however, this observation by Johnson:
Blacks like Sanders believe they are still treated unfairly by the American judicial system. Not just in the courts, but by the police, the prosecutors, the all-white juries…. They feel that African-Americans bear a special burden. They suffer most at the hands of criminals—from drug dealers to murderers—yet they are lumped in with the criminal class, are branded as dangerous by the white majority merely because of their color. When they do find themselves involved in the justice system, they believe they receive punishment disproportionate to their crimes when compared with whites. In fact, they are right in all these assumptions; being treated fairly has not been the lot of blacks in America, and every thoughtful person knows it.
Here we have a grim example of the sad degeneracy of Johnson’s career and of American journalism. Johnson delivers this aria of injustice without citing a single report or quoting a single person who could back it up—never mind anyone who cared to refute it. America and her courts are racists, and Clarence Thomas is a traitor, and that’s all there is to it. It’s reminiscent of the way my Jesuit-educated Catholic buddies and I used to ridicule fundamentalists—the Bible says it, they believe it, and that settles it.
Gone is the Johnson of Dusk at the Mountain, the man who rued the tragedy of illegitimacy and called black Muslims “racists” and “the black counterpart of the Ku Klux Klan.” Gone is the man who would cite Congressional hearings, government reports, statistics, and voices from the neighborhood supporting the facts about black males and crime. In Divided We Fall, Al Sharpton is a “provocateur”; in Dusk at the Mountain he would have been dismissed as a demagogue. In Dusk, Johnson meets a black man who is not impressed with the nascent black Muslim movement. “I’ve got a white man’s name and a white man’s culture,” the man tells Johnson. “You might even say the white man’s attitude. And I’m perfectly satisfied.” Would such a man have made it into Divided We Fall?
At this point Johnson is probably not honest enough with himself to answer that. It falls to other journalists to recapture the history that is being denied and obscured, and to tell the truth today. As Roger Kimball noted, “Given the spiritual malaise brought on by the long march of America’s cultural revolution, we may conclude that the way forward lies not in any sort of new revolution but, on the contrary, in the patient recovery of lost virtues.” For journalists, primary among these virtues was the ability to tell the truth even when that truth dismantled sacred orthodoxies. Those orthodoxies, formed during Vietnam and Watergate and now shored up with identity politcs, moral relativism, and therapeutic cultural hegemony of the last thirty years have resulted in a profession that is dishonest and corrupt. It has managed, like Haynes Johnson, to grow older yet less wise.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of If It Ain’t Got That Swing and Damn Senators: My Grandfather and Washington’s Championship Season, which will be published next year.