WASHINGTON -- In an emotional homecoming to his old high school in the South Bronx last month, Gen. Colin L. Powell urged the students there to stay away from drugs and stay in school.
"Stick with it," Powell barked at the students of Morris High. "I'm giving you an order -- and I'm the chairman. Stay in high school and get that diploma."
But Morris High, the South Bronx and America have changed dramatically in the 37 years since Powell graduated and went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest military rank.
Many of its students stay in school simply because it offers them shelter at a time when the country's leading cause of death among young black men is murder.
"For many of them, we have to kick them out at the end of the day because they're safe here," said Assistant Principal Fern Revzin.
Violence is just one of the urgent topics facing the 21st Century Commission on African American Males as it convenes its first national conference in Washington tomorrow.
The commission, created last year with funds from private foundations, is also seeking solutions to other problems:
* Nearly one-third of all blacks live in poverty, compared with a tenth of all whites.
* More than 10 percent are unemployed, twice the rate of whites.
* A total of 43 percent of all black babies are born poor, and two-thirds are born to unmarried mothers.
The commission reflects the growing sentiment among sociologists and policy analysts that young black males are the key to breaking the cycle of despair in America's ghettoes. To the degree they achieve economically productive lives, these young men can lift up their families.
But Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the nation's first black elected governor and an honorary co-chairman of the commission, said the crisis goes beyond the young black males of the inner cities.
"There is no such thing as a 'black male problem' or a 'black family problem,' " he said in an interview. "These dilemmas are part and parcel of American society."
If nothing is done, Wilder said, young blacks "will not be the only citizens of this nation bearing the massive long-term costs and consequences of our inertia."
Wilder said "access to opportunities" -- both economic and educational -- is the key to "breaking free of the vicious cycle of drugs, dropouts, unemployment, teen pregnancy and violent crime."
So far, government initiatives lag far behind the recommendations of academics. The political debate is mired in disputes over quotas and the electoral use of racial antagonism. And the huge federal budget deficit casts doubt on government's ability to do more.
Corporate America has taken notice, however. A group of Fortune 500 chief executives and university presidents have formed the Business-Higher Education Forum to explore options for rescuing America's poverty-ridden ghettos.
Sociologists say there is no single solution to the problem because there are too many causes. Even so, they generally recommend job training, improved prenatal and child care, increased police protection, housing and prevention of teen pregnancy as short-term responses.
Their longer-range solutions involve education -- the classic route to upward mobility -- and proposals such as housing subsidies and improved public transportation to end the isolation of the inner cities.