The battle at home

Anthony Lewis

April 02, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

THE ECONOMIST of London reports on the United States with more care and insight than any other foreign journal -- or most American papers. When it analyzes a large subject, it speaks with the sympathy of a friend but the detachment of a realist.

In the current issue the Economist has an extended article on blacks in America. It summarizes its conclusions in this statement: "America is riding high on a wave of post-gulf confidence, but one part of the country is still missing out: the poverty-ridden ghettos where millions of black Americans live. George Bush cannot afford to ignore them."

During the Persian Gulf war, some of us wondered aloud why it was that the United States could bring so much energy and commitment to war and so little, comparatively, to domestic problems.

A president who had fumbled or avoided challenges at home was utterly decisive in the gulf conflict. An inert public became engaged.

Such comment was dismissed on the political right as the thinking of wimps or sob-sisters. But it is not so easy thus to dismiss the Economist, a magazine with a conservative outlook that expressed few doubts about the war.

The survey of black America begins with some statistics. They are familiar but still chilling.

The unemployment rate for blacks last year was 10.5 percent, twice that of whites. The leading cause of death among young black men in America is murder. By the official definition of poverty, 43 percent of black children are born poor. Two-thirds of black babies are born to unmarried mothers.

There is also a great black success story. In the last 30 years a black middle class has developed, growing from a tenth to more than a third of the black population.

The Economist does not explore how that happened, but it was undoubtedly the result at least in part of the removal of racial barriers. Blacks are welcome now in law firms and banks and other places where they were hardly ever seen before.

But while a middle class has grown, the picture has not improved at the lower end of the scale. About a third of all blacks live below the poverty line, a proportion unchanged for 20 years. An underclass made up in considerable part of blacks lives in decayed areas of America's inner cities.

One feature of ghetto life has grown strikingly worse in the last generation. The old Harlem had among its residents lawyers and businessmen and other leading figures: role models for the young and poor. Now they have virtually all left for desegregated middle-class neighborhoods.

That point was first made to me by Roger Wilkins, who contrasted growing up among authentic leaders as he did with the hopelessness and crime that are pervasive today. The Economist quotes William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago to the same effect.

Poor inner-city neighborhoods, Wilson says, now lack even the basic social models of responsibility and work. There are few jobs available, and vogue ideas such as enterprise zones seem to have little lasting effect.

The ghettos are a world apart, its young people growing up physically and psychologically separated from the American mainstream. But they deeply affect that mainstream, the quality of urban life, the economics of our cities and states. We are all in the same country.

Liberal and conservative Americans, white and black, probably agree more than they realize now on how to approach the daunting problems of the ghetto. Most would put more emphasis on jobs and job training and work incentives. Most would reject the ideas of black separatism. Most would do more for the health of poor children, and for their education in ways that work, like Head Start.

Why, then, is there no national commitment to fight the ills of the ghetto and the underclass? It cannot just be a shortage of money; we found money for the gulf war. It cannot be that wars have more definite objectives and neater endings; we are finding out in Iraq what a delusion that is.

No, the reason we do so little about our greatest domestic problem is a lack of political will: of courage. Perhaps our political leaders can take advice better from a friend abroad. Here is the way the Economist article ends:

"The slums in America's great cities are shameful. They are a damning indictment of the richest country in the world. The problems that fester in them are not peripheral; they constitute America's main domestic challenge today . . . .

"George Bush could now cash in on the country's post-war confidence by launching another war on the black home-front. America cannot afford to let down its blacks for much longer."

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