A distortion

Mitchell Duneier

July 02, 1991|By Mitchell Duneier

NICHOLAS LEMANN'S best-selling book, "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," raises troubling questions about the media's image of blacks and fosters a baseless myth that unjustifiably disparages the black population.

The book is largely an account of Southern sharecroppers who moved to the North, ultimately to live in housing projects on Chicago's South Side. It is also a study of how policy makers in Washington and Chicago have responded to ghetto poverty.

Lemann leaves the impression that the migration changed America by transplanting a culture beset by pathological poverty to Northern cities. He focuses on former sharecroppers in order to write about the nation's response to poverty, implying that they typify the Northern black underclass. Both ideas are false.

When Lemann's thesis was first published in Atlantic articles in 1986, he argued that "every aspect of the underclass culture in the ghettos is directly traceable to the roots of the South." (In his book, he drops this explicit statement, but the book in effect makes that argument.) In 1987, this idea was discredited by the sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose book, "The Truly Disadvantaged," summarized data on black migrants.

Wilson wrote that "systematic research . . . consistently shows that Southern-born blacks who have migrated to the urban North experience greater economic success in terms of employment rates, earnings and welfare dependency than do those urban blacks who were born in the North." The studies he cited were known to sociologists as early as 1974.

Given this material, Lemann's study, published in 1991, is wrong implying that the migrants he depicts were typical of the

blacks who went North. It should have centered on the majority of migrants who helped establish the black middle class, working class and lower working classes in Northern cities.

In the end, Lemann's interviews with blacks in Chicago's housing projects and descriptions of Washington's response to poverty in Chicago and elsewhere in urban America deal with problems that were not caused by the migration. They are incidental to a proper understanding of how the demographic shift changed this country.

Lemann refers in his opening chapter to an eminent pre-World War II sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, who thought that lower-class blacks' social pathologies in the North replicated Southern patterns.

On Page 287 of 353 pages, Lemann devotes only two scant paragraphs to the overwhelming contemporary evidence that contradicts his thesis. No wonder George F. Will, in a jacket blurb, says Lemann presented the "definitive account of how the nation arrived at its current dangerous condition."

Other important research is ignored, including a study by P.N. Richey (cited by William Julius Wilson). P.N. Richey said, in the journal Rural Sociology in 1974, that "urban poverty and the plight of cities are not the product of rural-to-urban migration."

Why does Lemann's account seem so plausible to editors, reviewers and editorial writers? Did any seek evidence disputing his views?

The answer must be sought in the gatekeepers' general image of the black population. The thesis seems plausible because, in focusing on the atypical, least-successful migrants, it confirms the dominant, stereotypical image of blacks held by many of those who guide public opinion.

In light of the available data, Lemann and his champions in the media have done a disservice to blacks and to the image of blacks in the minds of whites. A monumental opportunity to tell us about middle-class, working-class and lower working class blacks has been lost.

Mitchell Duneier is finishing a doctorate in sociology at the B University of Chicago.

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