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Nicholas Lemann
1954 -

American writer, columnist, editor, former national correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly (1983-98), staff writer at The New Yorker, author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991) and The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999)


A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. This line gets brighter all the time. Whether a person is on one side of the line or the other is now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw: region, race, age, religion, sex, class. As people plan their lives and their children's lives, higher education is the main focus of their aspirations... A test of one narrow quality, the ability to perform well in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don't have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later.... Those who do best under this system make up a distinct class, with its own mores and beliefs and tastes and folkways.

1999 - from The Big Test
The view [on the left] that conditions in the ghetto would change only when white society decided to change them seems contradictory to the creed of community development, but it really isn't. The connection is this: if there is not a self-defeating culture in the ghettos, and if the ghettos nonetheless have problems, then white society must be to blame -- who else could it be? The changes by white society that would heal the ghettos were usually described as 'deep,' 'sweeping,' and 'structural.' ... The trouble with this argument is that it is defeatism clothed in hope. This country so far has been unideological and uninclined to engage in deep, structural change except by accident and in order to meet pressing needs. To single out poor blacks as the one group in our society that will really suffer unless deep, structural changes are made, or unless an entirely different value system takes hold, is to consign them to suffering for the foreseeable future.

Jul. 1986 - from "The Origins of the Underclass", published by The Atlantic Magazine
Ascribing a society's conditions in part to the culture that prevails there seems benign when the society under discussion is England or California. But as a way of thinking about black ghettos it has become unpopular. Twenty years ago ghettos were often said to have a self-generating, destructive culture of poverty.... But then the left equated cultural discussions of the ghetto with accusing poor blacks of being in a bad situation that was of their own making; thus they would deserve no special help or sympathy from society. The left succeeded in limiting the terms of debate to purely economic ones, and today the right also discusses the ghetto in terms of economic 'incentives to fail,' provided by the welfare system...

Jun. 1986 - from "The Origins of the Underclass", published by The Atlantic Magazine