03/18/2014 06:27 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

The Culture Gap

Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Committee on the Budget, ran into strong headwinds this week when he made comments regarding the culture in our inner cities. During an interview on William "Bill" Bennett's Morning in America radio program, Congressman Ryan in response to questions from Bennett stated:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

Ryan's statement was criticized as being "offensive" and "racial" by Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) among others. Ryan backed off the statement a bit by declaring that he was inarticulate in making his point. While Ryan was correct to retreat from the statement, his point about there being a "real culture problem" is correct, there is, but it is not with the "inner cities" it is with the few in corporate boardrooms and the policy makers who believe that communities can develop in the absence of jobs and access to opportunity.

It doesn't take a whole lot of science and detailed studies to figure out the problem, although the science exists and the studies have been done. The problem has been that over the last three decades there has been a systematic exclusion of working men and women from the labor force and access to economic opportunity and a particular exclusion of black and Hispanic men from the labor force and access to economic opportunity. This exclusion didn't just happen, Black & Hispanic men, (young and old), have been excluded through direct discrimination in the work place and institutional discrimination as a result of the criminalization of "inner city" men as has been argued by scholars like Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, or demonstrated in studies like Devah Pager's "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration." Pager's studies, in fact, demonstrated that whites with felonies were more likely to be hired or given job opportunities than were black applicants without criminal records.

Most statistics show that the top 1 percent has gained tremendously in wealth and income, since the 2008 financial collapse, while everyone else has either stood still or declined. Corporate board rooms are trying to maximize their profits and therefore jobs suffer, while some policy makers find every reason in the world to block any sensible and focused job and economic opportunity plans.

Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "benign neglect," Ryan's "generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work..." is a myth to support a policy that in fact, aims to prevent fuller employment and educational opportunities in the urban centers of this nation. Most poor and working class families, whether black, white, tan or brown, would much rather be working and earning a livable wage than being excluded from the workforce by institutional situations whether policy driven or profit driven.

We are coming up on the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, 1964 and the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), signed into law on August 20, 1964. Of course, the Civil Rights Act has had tremendous impact on eliminating racial barriers to everything from education to accommodations to employment. The EOA help to shepherd in an era of close to full employment with the creation of Neighborhood Youth Corps, Job Corps, and Community Work and Training programs, among others. During those hey days in the '60's and early 70's young men and women in urban communities had an abundance of opportunity to work and study. You did not have to sit around and sulk or wonder whether you would be given a chance; there was a job on every corner and in many businesses. Those that wanted to entice you and distract you in negative ways had to compete with the real opportunities that were present and available. That era produced lifetime workers, professionals, educators, entertainers, entrepreneurs, civil servants, political leaders and success. In fact, it was a culture of opportunity and success.

Congressman Ryan is absolutely correct to say that there is a "real culture problem." The problem is Ryan's political/social policy culture and the cultural gap that is created when we turn away from the policies and practices that work in both the private and public sectors to educate our children and create real opportunities for the majority that want to live, work and realize a better life.


Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice.