Soldier's death in Detroit focuses debate on blacks' fate

March 20, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun Arch Parsons of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The spirit of Anthony Riggs hung over the Senate hearing room yesterday as a dozen scholars, politicians and business leaders grappled with the rising numbers of young black men who wind up in jail or in the morgue.

"Anthony Riggs was a 22-year-old black man who had just recently returned from the Persian Gulf as a war hero -- only to be gunned down yesterday in Detroit," Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., said yesterday at a round-table discussion on the plight of African-American men in urban America. "This tragic event is all too common for young black men."

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder noted the irony that many Persian Gulf veterans might return "only to be caught in the cross fire of another war, one which rages -- even as a I speak -- in streets across this nation." The governor said that he was unaware when he wrote his statement that Army Specialist Riggs would illustrate his concern.

Homicide is the leading cause of death in the United States among black men ages 20 to 29, the panelists were told, while about 25 percent of black men ages 23 to 29 are in prison or on parole or probation.The unemployment rate for black males is 19 percent, compared with 7.8 percent for white males.

Many young black males are becoming "marginalized," said University of Maryland Professor Samuel L. Myers Jr., who cited federal training programs as a key reason that they are outside the economic mainstream. Such programs for disadvantaged youths focus on training

for industrial and manufacturing jobs at a time when blue-collar jobs are disappearing, he said.

But many inner-city black men also have the talent to become managers or risk-taking entrepreneurs, areas where federal money could be of help, he said.

"We could have helped market the phenomenal talents of young street hustlers so that they could produce and sell food and clothing products in the black community," Mr. Myers said.

More young black men are heading to prison through "get tough" sentencing provisions and the federal government's decision "to wage war on drugs primarily through law enforcement," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, an organization that studies the criminal justice system. But outreach programs for first offenders, and drug treatment rather than prison, could be more effective and less costly, he said.

All American youths share the pressures of reaching adulthood, said Margaret Beale Spencer, a developmental psychologist from Emory University. "For African-American males, they share with black females the added dilemmas which accompany poverty and racial tensions." Special support programs may have to be developed, she said, including one

encourage young black men to stay in school.

Corporate America also could be helpful to young black men, said Glegg L. Watson of Xerox Corp. Most business donations are sent to colleges and universities, he said, but more should be aimed at grammar and high schools.

Governor Wilder conceded that government "can't do it all," but he pushed for both Congress and President Bush to pass a civil rights bill this year. He later noted to reporters that President Harry S. Truman had paved the way for blacks to rise in the military by desegregating the U.S. armed forces.

"There's no one saying this likewise will apply to civilian life," said the governor. Without the legislation, he said, it will be "business as usual."

The discussion was intended as a precursor to a national conference in May of the 21st Century Commission on African American Males, a 29-member commission of civic, political, academic and business leaders, several of whom attended yesterday.

The commission, which hopes to devise a "national policy" for addressing the black male crisis, includes Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

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