Walter Russell Mead: Life Beyond Blue: Faith and the Inner City

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at]

There are two big mistakes most Americans make about our inner city problems: we believe that the troubles of the inner city are mostly about race, and we believe that they can be solved without God.

The failure of the blue social model to solve the problems of the underclass in America’s inner cities was one of the great tragedies of the last thirty years. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent; tens of millions of lives remained blighted, and a culture of violence, degradation and despair has taken hold among some of our society’s most vulnerable and needy people. Generations of children are growing up in gangs; our scarce financial resources are being consumed by a grotesquely overbuilt prison system; whole segments of our population are unable to cope with even the simplest demands of modern life.

It is not that a generation of anti-poverty spending and affirmative action did not have some good results. The United States now has a larger, stronger, better educated and better off Black middle class than ever before. Many of these better off Blacks are leaving the inner city, just as whites in past decades fled the high taxes, high costs and high crime of the city for better schools, better homes and lower taxes elsewhere. America needed to do something to address the consequences of slavery, segregation and discrimination; what we did wasn’t always enough and some of it misfired — but I am proud that we tried, and proud of the progress, however incomplete, that this country has made toward the goal of a truly race-blind society.

There are some who blame all these problems on the culture of welfare and entitlements. Those can cause problems, but the tragedy of inner city social meltdown is not just an American problem and we can’t just look at American history and policy to understand what is going on. In Mexico, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and many other countries the mix of large cities and rootless young people without the academic or personal skills needed for success creates a dangerous social stew. Introduce the illegal drugs business into those settings, and you get the too familiar mix of gang warfare, drug addled youth and organized crime bosses who make Al Capone look like Little Lord Fauntleroy....

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