While middle-class blacks are doing fine, the inner-city poor are being ravaged by crime, drugs, and family disintegration. The best solution: jobs.
December 18, 1989
By John Paul Newport Jr.
Picture Editor: Michele F. McNally

In February of 1988, Lionel Harris, 17, a black honor student at Calvin Coolidge High in Washington, D.C., wrote an article for his school newspaper. It began: "For the first 40 days of this year there was a total of 44 murders in the District of Columbia. That is more than a death a day. Seventy percent of them were drug related. Among this number, teenagers are [often] the victims and the criminals."

Two weeks later, Lionel was shopping with a friend for some clothes to wear for a sales job that he had recently been offered. A misunderstanding led to words between the two and a stranger. The stranger shot once at the friend but missed, then turned and shot Lionel in the chest. Police say that the 21-year-old convicted for the killing tested positive for the drug PCP.

In death, Lionel Harris joins thousands of other missing young black men. Some are unemployed, some are school dropouts, some are in jail, some are simply unaccounted for in the census rolls. Many are dead.

Murder is the No. 1 cause of death for black men aged 15 to 44. Alcohol and drug abuse among poor urban blacks are epidemic, and AIDS is increasing rapidly. The death rate for young men is a major reason that the life expectancy of blacks as a whole has declined for each of the past three years.

Roused by frustration and anger, the black community is taking stock. Recently in the New York Times Cary Clack 29, a freelance writer in San Antonio, said, "Our generation of successful African-Americans appears destined to be known as the one that took more than it gave-modern day Neros who fiddled with our expensive toys while black America consumed itself in its apathy and despair." A November cover story in Essence, a black women's magazine, is titled "Our Men in Crisis" and recommends helping them with increased political activity and support for volunteer programs. In cities, blacks have united with their neighbors to win back their buildings and their blocks from drug dealers. The National Black MBA Association encourages members to visit inner-city schools to talk with youngsters about opportunities in business.

Cynthia Harris, 37, reacting to the death of her only child, Lionel, started a foundation called Stop! The Madness, which sponsors counseling programs and other services for children who have been threatened by drugs or crime and for their parents. Says Harris, a former radio and TV newscaster: "If we don't do something soon, we will go down as the first generation of black Americans to fail to leave a better life for our children."

No American of any race can accept such a bitter legacy. Policymakers, civic groups, churches, and corporations are searching for solutions to the problems afflicting the urban poor, particularly blacks and other minorities. Attention-and money-tend to go to women and children, America's most vulnerable citizens. This story maintains that poor black men need help too, and suggests some preliminary steps to encourage their return to productive society. The timing is critical: Between now and the year 2000 white males will account for only 32% of new entrants into the work force. The rest must come from the ranks of minorities and women.

The focus of this story is men of the underclass. According to sociologists, this group is characterized by poverty combined with such endemic problems as incomplete education, unemployment, welfare dependency, and female-headed households. Underclass men commit-and are victims of-crime in much higher proportions than their population would suggest. The association of young black men with violent behavior has fed the regrettable resurgence of racism in America.

According to Ronald Mincy, a poverty expert at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, the underclass more than tripled from 1970 to 1980, the year of the last census. But it still encompassed less than 5% of the black population. Far more blacks are doing well: The median U.S. family income in 1988 was $32,191, and roughly 30% of blacks live at or above that level. (For white families the figure is about 54%.) New York City and Seattle have just elected their first black mayors-black mayors already preside over Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.-and Virginia has become the first state to elect a black governor. A black man has run two creditable campaigns for President, two others manage major league baseball teams, another has one of the highest-rated TV shows, and yet another is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Still, most black men from America's urban ghettos are grossly ill prepared for the demands of modern employment. The process starts long before adulthood, in the earliest days of childhood when possibility flowers and lifelong expectations are formed. "When you grow up in a poor area, all kinds of people are always tearing hope down," says Sherman Howard, 27, from his cell at Chicago's Cook County jail. "A child just needs someone to build hope up."

Fathers would be ideal candidates, but they are not around. More than two-thirds of the black children in some poor neighborhoods live apart from their fathers. Not only does that force families into welfare -today an astounding 45% of black children under 18 live below the poverty line-but it also deprives young boys of the role models they need to succeed later in life and little girls of the expectations that someday they will have complete families of their own. "The flip side of a female-headed family is a father-absent family," says Mincy of the Urban Institute. "The only long-term solution to the underclass problem is to find ways to increase the employment and earnings of black men, and to get them to take more responsibility for parenting."

The economic prospects of poor black men have worsened in recent years in part because unskilled entry level jobs have largely disappeared. As late as 1974 nearly half of all employed young black men worked at relatively high-paying blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing sector. Ten years later, after companies cut the numbers of these jobs or moved them offshore, the portion of young black men laboring at them had fallen to 26%, according to economists Gordon Berlin and Andrew Sum in a study commissioned by the Ford Foundation. Inflation-adjusted earnings for black men under 30 with only a high school diploma shriveled by more than 50% from 1973 to 1984. Berlin and Sum found that young white high school graduates saw their earnings shrink as well, but only by half as much.

Jack Connelly, the director of the nonprofit Jobs for Youth program in Chicago, often asks young clients who have fathered babies while still in their teens why they didn't postpone parenthood until they could afford it. Typical response: "Yeah? And when will that be?"

William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, notes that "marriageable" black men are in very short supply. Wilson finds that for every 100 black women between 25 and 44, only 63 black men survive to the same age and have a steady job. The rest are unemployed or in prison. Employed fathers, studies show, are twice as likely as unemployed fathers to marry the mother of their first child.

Some programs, such as the Teenage Fathers Responsibility and Support Program in San Francisco, try to persuade teenage boys not to get into the baby business in the first place. How? First, by identifying those at risk of fathering unwanted children-one criterion is that they have older brothers who did. Then, by bringing those youngsters together with young fathers for rap sessions and parenting tips, the program provides a sobering look at the consequences and responsibilities of fatherhood.

Rigorous enforcement of child support laws can function as a kind of financial prophylactic. Ronald Mincy at the Urban Institute suggests making regular child support payments a prerequisite for fathers who receive job-training assistance.

Kids at play in Dallas. Children not much older are being arrested for real.

Almost every one of the 50 people interviewed for this story-social workers, lawmen, academics, ministers, and poor black men themselves-cited negative self-image as a crucial obstacle that black boys growing up in poverty must overcome to participate successfully in the American mainstream. Says Robert Woodson, the conservative founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise: "Imagine what kids think when they hear our black leaders saying that if a neighborhood becomes too black, it's bad; that if schools become too black, it's bad and they must be desegregated." Garland Brown, who counsels ex-offenders in Philadelphia, remembers being asked at age 6 what he wanted to be when he grew up. He answered with complete sincerity, "A white man," because it seemed from TV that white men were always doing interesting things.

Numerous programs have sprung up in black communities around the country that try to provide male role models to poor black boys who lack them. One is Project Image, a nonprofit umbrella organization that helps churches set up counseling and cultural programs for black men. "Black boys have to learn to become men, and unfortunately they can't learn that from black women," says Waldo Johnson, a member of Project Image's board of directors. Discipline is a key concern. By adolescence, many boys toughened by life on the streets are physically intimidating even to their own mothers. If these boys also bring money into the household, by legal or illegal means, the authority of an impoverished mother may vanish entirely.

Fathers or other role models are important links to the world of work. Says Johnson: "Some of these kids grow up in communities where they almost never see men getting up in the morning and going off to work." Boys without fathers may never learn, for example, how a man deals with conflicts verbally rather than with his fists, how to dress appropriately for an interview, or how to respond calmly to racist remarks.

Elijah Anderson, an ethnographer at the University of Pennsylvania, bemoans the demise of the influence of what he calls "old heads." These men, usually employed in manufacturing, encourage young men to meet responsibilities. Says Anderson: "The street-smart young boy sees the old heads' views as irrelevant in the new economy."

Fair housing legislation in 1968, which outlawed race-based housing discrimination, encouraged a mass exodus of the black middle class from inner-city neighborhoods. As the middle class pulled out, a wealth of role models and institutions, from entrepreneurs to churches, went with them. Unlike European immigrant groups, which left their ghettos gradually, the black middle class moved out almost overnight. Another difference: Groups of Chinese, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles tend to have more in common culturally -in religion, ethnic holidays, and customs- than American blacks do.

Black youngsters' low self-esteem hurts them badly in school. Margaret Beale Spencer, an Emory University professor who specializes in minority educational development, explains that until age 7 a child is so bound by his ego that he can successfully ignore what the world thinks of him. Then the ability to reason in a more objective way kicks in. Says Spencer: "He begins to pick up on prevailing expectations. 'Okay,' he thinks, 'I guess I no longer have initiative. I guess I am no longer expected to succeed.'"

Many don't: More than a quarter of all black boys drop out before finishing high school, though many go on to earn a diploma later. Says Alvin Poussaint, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school: "Frequently you hear kids saying that doing well in school is sissy, or that doing well is trying to be white. In a weird twist, this turns racism on the self." Spencer suggests that schools recruit black male teachers more actively, perhaps by linking college scholarships to requirements that recipients teach in inner-city schools for one or two years after graduation.

Disheartened by school, abandoned by father, often forsaken by mother (particularly if she is on drugs), a black boy often finds solace in peer groups and gangs. For many black youngsters drug dealers become the role models. They have the cash, the cars, the chains, and the chicks that amount to high ghetto status. The bleakness and perversity of ghetto life is such that dealing can come to seem almost honorable. Philippe Bourgois is an anthropologist living in East Harlem to study the underground economy, including drug trafficking. He says: "Crack has created a new Horatio Alger myth for inner-city kids searching for meaning and upward mobility. It's really their American dream." Bourgois contends that the illegal drug trade has two important advantages over legitimate business: big money and no racism. Says he, explaining a view commonly held by dealers: "Compared to earning chump change working for the white man at McDonald's, the drug trade can seem more realistic and even noble."

With disturbing regularity in interviews for this story, blacks in the inner city and elsewhere voiced the idea that crack is part of some vague, unspecified "plot" by those in power to suppress or even wipe out the underclass. The idea is nonsense, but the fact that it has taken hold is alarming and significant. By doing whatever it takes to win the war on drugs-and President Bush's initiative is only a start-society can send the simple but profound message to urban minorities that it values them as citizens.

Bush's drug control strategy proposes $200 million for extra police, judges, prosecutors, and prisons. Instead of paroling first-time drug offenders (a popular tactic since most jails have no vacancies), the courts could send them to prisons run as "boot camps." At one in Forsyth, Georgia, convicts serve 90-day sentences under a strict regimen of labor, physical training, and discipline-what some call shock incarceration. Though the experience is limited, the inmates released from these new boot camps seem slightly less likely to return to a life of crime than convicts treated traditionally. The boot camps cost no more and may bring self-discipline to young men who have lived their lives without it.

The Job Corps also removes young people from the corrupting influences of their neighborhoods and imposes strict order on their lives. This federal program takes about 65,000 poor, unemployed people a year and trains them in basic skills at a campus-like setting, usually from six months to two years. A decade of research has shown that the Corps more than pays for itself in decreased crime, increased tax revenue from working graduates, and lower welfare costs. Congress would be wise to double the program's annual budget to $1.5 billion over the next few years. While they are at it, legislators should also make changes in the $3.6-billion-a-year Job Training Partnership Act, which operates locally through contractors to train over two million people annually in specific office or trade skills. Several bills now before Congress would refocus JTPA to serve a higher percentage of people from the underclass.

Another proposal worth exploring is a national service corps. Several politicians from both parties, including Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), are advocates. Young people, working for room and board, low wages, and in some cases future educational benefits, would perform useful tasks such as forest conservation and care of the elderly.

What else should the government do? Start at the beginning, and increase the funding for Head Start. Youngsters with preschool training tend to stay in school, and those who finish high school are more likely to get jobs and avoid jail than dropouts are.

Companies can help the urban underclass by backing school reform and other measures to lower the dropout rate and by sponsoring training programs. Coca-Cola initially funded the Valued Youth Partnership plan in San Antonio, which identifies junior and senior high school minority students at the greatest risk of dropping out. Then it pairs them as tutors with younger students. The high school tutors learn responsibility and self-respect, the younger kids get needed attention, and both tutors and tutees end up improving their attendance and academic performance.

American Express and its subsidiary Shearson Lehman Hutton, in conjunction with school districts in 18 cities, have started academies that teach the rudiments of the travel business and finance to mostly minority kids. Though the academies were originally intended to help students who were not college-bound to get jobs as clerks and tellers, exposure to the world of work persuaded 90% of the 1,279 graduates (45% of them men) to go on to higher education. The National Academy Foundation in Washington, D.C., is seeking corporate sponsorship of more such academies.

The Jobs for Youth program in Chicago and related groups in New York City and Boston use volunteer tutors-typically business people-to help teach basic academic subjects and practical business skills to young unemployed minorities, many of them high school dropouts. Jobs for Youth also serves as an employment clearinghouse. Kraft, Marshall Field's, law firms, banks, restaurants, and other service businesses finance the program and also use it to help fill their entry-level jobs. Says Chicago director Connelly: "If you never encounter business people, it's hard to imagine what kind of skills and personal qualities businesses are looking for. We try to teach that."

Company managers need to understand that their new worker from the inner city may not be entirely comfortable in the inner sanctum. Says Kaaria Mucherea, who grew up in Chicago's all-black Robert Taylor Homes housing project and now works for Project Image: "I went to work at Standard Oil Co. when I was 17, and it was the most frightening experience of my life. I had never really been around whites. Everything was scary. I had no support system at work, and I didn't have support when I came back home because nobody there knew what I was experiencing either."

Middle-class blacks, returning to the tradition of self-help that enabled them to survive slavery and segregation, are reaching out to their less fortunate brothers. Charities, including the United Negro College Fund, report a significant increase in individual giving by blacks. Local chapters of the Links organization, a black women's group that specializes in social service, often give college scholarships and may even pay for clothes so that boys from poor neighborhoods will not feel out of place on university campuses. At Morehouse College in Atlanta, fraternity members become mentors and tutors to disadvantaged kids.

In Washington, D.C., a volunteer group called Concerned Black Men matches local lawyers and other professionals with homeless youths in a tutoring program. Last year the organization, which has affiliate groups in seven other cities, adopted a class of first-graders at an inner-city elementary school and intends to sponsor the class for the next 12 years, until their high school graduation. Every school day at least one man from the organization takes time out from his work to serve in the classroom as a teacher's aide, passing out papers and helping children with their studies. By their very presence these men show that education is not sissy.

In the voice of blacks like Spencer Leak, the warden of the Cook County jail, one hears new self-reliance and determination: "The black segment of society must be held accountable. Here in Chicago, we've got a black superintendent of schools, a school board that is almost half black, and a largely black bureaucracy. Yet we've got a 50% dropout rate in the inner city. Are we supposed to blame President Bush? It's our problem."

Yes. And it's a problem other Americans can help solve too.