The Last Iron Curtain

May 26, 1991|By RAY JENKINS | RAY JENKINS,Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

On my way to a conference in Washington one morning last week, I parked on a side street near Penn Station and, as I was getting out of the car, noticed a man emerging from the adjoining tenement. He wore rumpled pants and an undershirt, appeared to be in his 50s and was black. He creakily took his seat on the steps and turned on a "boom box," which began to blare raucous music. For a moment, I confess, I wondered if my car would be safe.

The purpose of the trip was to attend a conference on the problems of Eastern Europe in the post-communist era. The panelists included a mix of people from both sides of the fallen Iron Curtain. The consensus was that the situation is fraught with peril as these countries turn to the mammoth job of repairing the damage of 50 years of war and communism. But even the darkest assessments contained a sense of optimism that something on the order of the Marshall Plan, which restored Western Europe to economic health after World War II, would be forthcoming; that Eastern Europe would one day arise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

When I returned to Baltimore that afternoon, I was startled to find the scene of the morning unchanged: The man was still sitting on the steps, still wearing his undershirt, listening to the incomprehensible music on the boom box. From all appearances, he hadn't done a thing all day long -- didn't even break into my car. I felt I had wronged him.

This experience led me to reflect on an episode early in my life. When I was a small child in rural Georgia, one of my playmates was a boy of my age, named Charlie, who was the son of one of our tenant farmers. He was black, I was white, but we got on well.

For all practical purposes my friendship with Charlie ended when we started school at the age of 6. I went, by bus, to the new brick school which was the pride of our rural district. Charlie went, by foot, to a one-room shack. His textbooks were those passed on from my school.

A dozen years later I went to the state university. On my first summer home, on a visit to the country store which supplied our modest needs, I encountered Charlie. We chatted for a few minutes, but it was clear that we may as well have lived on different planets.

That was the last time I ever saw Charlie. But as I drove back from the train station last Tuesday, it occurred to me that the man I saw sitting on the steps could well have been Charlie. Unlikely, to be sure, but possible. There were, after all, millions of Charlies who fled collapsing Southern agriculture in the middle third of this century, and millions of Charlies subsist today in conditions identical to that I had just witnessed -- without education, without jobs, without useful skills, without hope beyond making it to 62 when Social Security would kick in with its minimum payment.

I thought of the bitter remarks by Clifford Alexander, the nation's first black secretary of the Army, before a congressional committee which held hearings last week on the plight of black men in America. He said in effect that the nation just doesn't give a damn about the Charlies of this world -- just so long as they stay out of sight and don't break into our cars.

What a striking difference, I thought, between dauntless optimism that I found at the Brookings conference on Eastern Europe and Clifford Alexander's grim assessment of conditions in inner-city America which are, in fact, as bad as any you would find in Prague or Warsaw or Budapest today.

In practical terms, I know, it is wholly unrealistic to expect that anything can be done for Charlie other than to make his final years, which will be much briefer than mine, as tolerable as possible. The real problem is, Charlie has who-knows-how-many children and grandchildren who also face the same bleak life of malaise, deprivation and alienation.

Any perceptive person can foresee the consequences of allowing endless generations to vegetate in the squalor of America's inner cities. And yet, compare our indifference to the ebullient optimism of the Europeans. The difference, of course, is that when Western Europeans look east, they see white people; when America looks inward to its cities, it sees black people. Accordingly, the European commitment is real and urgent, and it will be carried out in the form of massive government intervention just like the Marshall Plan of 40 years ago.

Can anyone seriously doubt that, 40 years from now, that as a result of a Marshall Plan type of intervention the "Third World" of Eastern Europe will be a thriving, vibrant place, while as a result of our neglect our "Third World" will be just as it is today, or even worse? Is that what we want to leave to our children and grandchildren? And Charlie's children and grandchildren?

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