The Public Interest

Pro & Con: "The Great Sharecropper Success Story"

David Whitman & Nicholas Leman

Fall 1991

I FIND IT hard to argue with an author, especially one as thoughtful as Nicholas Lemann, who claims that I have misrepresented his book. After all, who better than Lemann can serve as a guide to The Promised Land after more than five years of research and interviews? The truth is that I concur with many of the points he makes in the preceding pages. The Promised Land is less mono-causal than his earlier Atlantic Monthly articles about a sharecropper-to-underclass link; he does present alternative explanations in his book for the formation of the black underclass, besides a heritage of backward, rural mores; he never seeks to portray the migration as a failure; and he does recount the stories of several migrants who prospered in the North. In fact, I plainly made each of these points in my essay on Lemann’s book. And yet I still conclude both that the sharecropper-underclass link is an important, dubious tenet of The Promised Land, and that many readers will close the book with the understanding that the great migration backfired.

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