By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are major pitfalls in any conversation about black upward mobility. First—what does that mean? Upward compared to what? To whom?
Brandeis University's Institute on Assets and Social Policy published a report last week finding that the gap between whites and blacks has never been worse according to at least one important measure—net worth. The Brandeis study found that the net worth gap has quadrupled since the early 1980s—a phenomenon the study blamed on tax policies geared toward the very wealthy and continuing discrimination in jobs, housing and credit.
But last year Federal Reserve economists Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz published a study in which they said upward mobility is generally in the toilet anyway in America, for everybody. Never have so many Americans of all ethnicities moved so little upward. So who knows?
I know this much: A world in which black families are determined to succeed and can make choices that allow them to pursue their dreams is better than the world I was born into after World War II, in which black families were sealed off inside ethnic containment areas, both geographic and economic.
The most important lesson for white folks like me is this: Black success, which is all around us, is an enormous "reality on the ground," as they call these things in the Middle East, demonstrating that black people were down at the bottom of the economic ladder in the first place because the white boot kept them there. Take away the boot, and up they come.
So that's good news, right? It's an endorsement of the American system. It would almost be an endorsement of us white folks, if we ever decided to lift the other boot. But, you know: one boot at a time.
I spoke about all this with Les Payne, a retired Newsday editor and columnist who remains one of the nation's most respected observers of African-American politics and culture. This is a guy who worked at the heart of the mainstream media business for a long time and understands exactly how attitudes—often unexamined and even unconscious—can tilt a newsroom.
He had read some of the Morning News stories before I called him about them. He didn't seem to have big objections to the substance of the stories, but he was bothered by at least one aspect of the language used:
"When I saw the headline, 'Black flight,' right away you think of white flight. I don't think you have the flight aspect. The story gives half dozen reasons why the parents and grandparents are doing that, but it's not black flight."
Payne views white flight as a historical phenomenon spurred by court decisions and a determination to avoid integration. The black Diaspora reported by the News, on the other hand, is spurred by upward mobility and a determination to seek equality.
"It doesn't add up to black flight in the sense that white flight was white flight. As an editor I wouldn't have allowed that headline."
There is tangible tension in Dallas between black people and Mexican-Americans, as the Latino populace has elbowed black people out of dominance both in their own traditional neighborhoods and in the schools. None of that is imaginary.
In the summer of 2009 when I was covering the debate over closing the "learning centers" in Dallas—vestiges of the long desegregation battle fought in federal court by black Dallas parents—I was sort of blown away by remarks I heard from parents in the Latino section of the peanut gallery at school board meetings.
This isn't a quote. It's a characterization. I felt the overall theme of those remarks was, "The black people and the white people had a big battle here a long time ago. We don't even want to hear about it. We care about our own kids. We will decide how we want our own kids educated."
Isn't that a good thing, too? As a matter of fact, isn't it all good? Latinos and African-Americans alike, they're all tough independent-minded parents fighting to make better lives for their children in the oldest constitutional democracy and biggest free economy in the world. Tell me what's wrong.
Of course there is friction and political tension between discrete groups of people overlapping and competing on the same social geographic turf. But that doesn't mean you dismiss all of black upward mobility as "flight."
I can turn around in the other direction and find plenty of other stuff to worry about in this whole arena of race and ethnicity. I watch the news now and worry a lot about white people going cuckoo. I do not want to see another guy on TV in a three-cornered hat looking up at the sky with a screwball squint telling a reporter he doesn't know where the president of the United States really comes from.
But the story about black people leaving the Dallas school system simply is not a problem story. And it's some kind of buried subliminal impulse that makes us want to talk about it in those terms and that tone.