John H. McWhorter
Job Loss Didn’t Make the Underclass
The history of Indianapolis shows that culture is mightier than economics.
t’s summer 1993 in Indianapolis, and we’re at SoulFest, an annual event supposedly celebrating black
culture and black enterprise. But a taint hangs in the air. Since the first SoulFest back in the early
seventies, too many of the young blacks who’ve shown up to “celebrate” seem to equate black culture and
enterprise with nasty scuffles and petty theft. This year, though, disorder turns to tragedy: young black
hoodlums shoot to death an 18-year-old black boy. City officials, fearing more violence, cancel SoulFest
the following year. It reopens in 1995, but now with a heavy police presence hard to square with a sense
of community achievement. Three years later, another black-on-black homicide mars the festival,
prompting its cancellation again in 1999. In 2000, the event is back on, but in a scaled-down version,
renamed “Family Fun Fest” and moved to a new location.
The SoulFest episodes grew out of a dysfunctional inner-city culture—a culture of violence, illegitimacy,
substance abuse, and non-work—that took root in Indianapolis over the past few decades, as it did in
other American cities. But what caused that pathological culture in the first place? Delinquency and
crime are age-old problems, but the savagery on display at SoulFest and the desolation of the city’s poor
minority neighborhoods—these are things we’ve only had to endure since the sixties. How had a segment
of Indianapolis’s black community gone so wrong?
The conventional explanation on the Left (and among many blacks) is economic and social. The
dogma—it began to take hold among sociologists as far back as the sixties but became a verity among
elites in the eighties with the publication of Harvard professor William Julius Wilson’s
and various papers by social thinker John Kasarda—runs like this. In the sixties, the
blue-collar jobs that supported previous generations of urban blacks moved out of town, beyond the
reach of public transit. Left behind by this “deindustrialization” was a core of ill-educated young blacks.
With little hope of finding employment, these young people understandably became skeptical of the
value of work. With an attitude problem imposed upon them by forces beyond their control, they then
frightened off any potential employers who might be willing to set up shop in the inner city, thus
completing the vicious circle.
Those who hold this view see the self-destructive behavior of today’s black underclass as a natural
response to an economically unjust and institutionally racist society. The only humane—or realistic
—solution: a radical restructuring of society.
But the influence of an idea can result as much from its repetition as from its validity. We need to verify a