Sharon Higgins (The Perimeter Primate) Explains Oaktown Poverty -- It's Not Due To Shitty Teachers

One Response to Nextset

Nextset is the screen name of a frequent commenter on the Oakland Tribune’s education blog. You can read his postings after almost any entry at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/. This is a modified version of my response to him on April 8, 2008.

Nextset: I will admit that I agree with a few of the things you have said over time. I am interested in the history of Oakland and its demographic changes and would like to get your perspective on something.

I have learned that a few Blacks (some free, some enslaved) came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush and in the years that followed. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, more Blacks settled in Oakland because it was the terminus for the railroad. A substantial number of Black residents were connected to train work especially via the Pullman Company (the biggest single employer of African Americans in post-Civil War America). This was high status work for African Americans at that time.

In 1940, Oakland’s African American population was 8,462. Things changed during WW II.
Henry J. Kaiser needed laborers for his shipyards so he recruited many of them from Texas,LouisianaOklahoma, and Arkansas. For instance, I have heard that a large number of Black folk in Oakland have family ties to MonroeLouisiana. I have also been told that these laborers were some of the Deep South's poorest sharecroppers. Like most immigrants and migrants, they came to California seeking better opportunities.

By 1950, Oakland’s African American population had soared to 47,562.

When WW II was over, ships were no longer needed so the shipyards began to close down. Like most big American cities, Oakland had other industries for a time, such as food processing and auto manufacturing (we were called the “Detroit of the West”). Most of those blue-collar jobs had evaporated by the early 1960’s. Oakland then ended up as home to thousands of Black folk, with few familial accumulated assets (materially or educationally), who could not find work because there were just not enough jobs available.

From what you have written, your “…parents, grandparents and great grandparents were educators going back into the 19th century.” In fact, your relatives “…were among the 1st black teachers in the East Bay public schools.” You have also said that your parents “…had professional degrees for over 2 generations.” Your family assets also included living in a home in El Cerrito that was “nicer and more expensive” and higher on the hill than those of the blue collar whites living nearby. It also sounds like you have a successful extended family since you have revealed that you have “several relatives working in the banking & medical industries.”

Undoubtedly, those many generational and familial assets contributed to your success. How might that contrast with the experiences of the descendants of African Americans who arrived in the Bay Area later than yours, who were poor and uneducated and had few assets, or none at all? Are you saying that their current predicament is simply because of their low IQ’s?

A 14-year-old boy today may have had intelligent and hard-working great-grandparents (b. circa 1919) who moved to Oakland in 1943 from Louisiana to work in the shipyards. Unfortunately, their son, the boy’s grandfather (b. circa 1944), would have had a much more difficult time finding work upon graduating from high school in 1962. Despite difficulties finding regular, adequate employment, he might have still produced a son (b. circa 1969).

That son would have been 18 years old in 1987 at the height of the Crack Epidemic which lasted from about 1984 to 1990. Having experienced weak mentoring from his father and with few prospects for legitimate employment in sight, we can speculate how that young man may have been tempted to make money, or to feel better for a time. And when he was 25 years old, he may have produced a son of his own – thus the existence of the 14 year old boy of today.

So, by the time the great-grandson of a couple from Louisiana was born in Oakland in 1994, no male in his family had been steadily employed for at least three generations. Because the unemployment has been so widespread for so many years, it’s very likely that few men in his neighborhood have ever held a legitimate job, either.

This situation is why a "street" culture developed and has taken hold. It is also why the Underground Economy, simply an alternative system of producing income, thrives so vigorously in these neighborhoods. Guns are just a tool of the trade for the men who work in this non-mainstream economy.

It took about four decades of societal neglect for life skills that have been traditionally transmitted by fathers to sons — about being a steady mate and a good provider — to float away from these family groups. Those vestiges of a bygone era that were perpetuated for many generations are now nearly absent from the bodies of knowledge held by families today.

As for the traditional family unit, the short term effect of long-term unemployment on a marriage is always intense stress for the family. Eventually, the idea of marriage would be rendered completely irrelevant for a social group experiencing multi-generational unemployment. Isn't this exactly what has happened? 

Despite their dabbling in the Underground Economy, I would also imagine that today's men who have little knowledge about how to go about being productive members of mainstream society may feel a level of despair and lack of purpose that contributes to substance abuse, pathological levels of anger, carelessness about life, etc. These feelings provide nourishment to the “street” culture.
During the ten years of the Great Depression, unemployment climbed from 3.2% at the beginning of 1930 to 24.9% in 1933. It only took four years for our nation to muster the political will to create the Public Works Administration and other programs. What would have happened to mainstream American society if high, widespread unemployment had been sustained for over fifty years?

According to a 2006 New York Times article, “The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.”*

With one subgroup suffering from such high levels of unemployment for decades, and with such incredibly disastrous social consequences affecting us all, why has there been such meager Federal response? And how realistic is it to now expect our public schools to bear the burden of rectifying the effects of such immense damage to this current generation?

*Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn, Erik Eckholm, March 20, 2006,

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