American Dilemma -- Still


December 22, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

The other day I made a rough calculation that in 40 years in journalism, I have produced 33,265,485 words for publication in daily newspapers. Most of these, I hasten to add, were as ephemeral as yesterday's weather reports or movie schedules. And so, long-suffering reader, if you will indulge me a few hundred more, I promise faithfully that as of Dec. 31, I will be gone; I will give up the Sisyphean labor of daily journalism in order to pursue a few projects long postponed.

By accident of time and place, the area of journalism to which I have devoted most of my attention has been race relations -- which the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal so aptly called "An American Dilemma." As I look back upon that story, I see great successes -- and great failures.

Perhaps an anecdote will illustrate. One day around 30 years ago, when I was a young city editor in Montgomery, Ala., a well-dressed, well-spoken black minister brought in a routine news item for what was called the "Negro news page." He had in tow his son, a lad of six or seven. After our business was finished, the minister asked if there were a "colored water fountain" -- the boy was thirsty. There was a fountain in full view, but it was for use by "whites only." So I took my coffee cup and got the child water. A cop-out, of course, but a prudent one, because to have allowed that little boy to drink from the fountain could have gotten all of us in big trouble.

It is an unspeakable sin, to humiliate a man in the presence of his son; yet such acts of casual cruelty occurred a million times a day in the South in those days.

That episode could not be repeated today, but it took an act of Congress to change the custom -- an act which, let us never forget, was opposed by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who contended that a powerful corporation should be "free" to deny a little boy a drink of water. But despite this opposition of the doctrinaire conservatives, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. A year later, again over conservative opposition, Congress enacted the supremely important Voting Rights Act of 1965; after that the word "nigger" was never again uttered by a serious candidate for office in the South.

A success story? Undeniably. And yet neither of those laws seriously addressed the social corrosion already building in the inner cities of America such as Baltimore. Against the backdrop of the Kerner Commission report -- which grimly warned that America was heading toward two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal -- Lyndon Johnson tried to address the hydra-headed problems of poverty through his Great Society programs, and to an extent those programs worked. But in the end Johnson's vast energy and talents were tragically consumed by the Vietnam War. Can anyone doubt that if Johnson had put the money and the will into fighting the war on urban poverty that he did into fighting a winless war in Vietnam, America would be a different nation today?

But with the conservative ascendancy in 1980, the inner cities were abandoned to malign neglect. The prevailing political ethic seemed to be: What do we owe these people? They all vote Democrat, anyway. Let them stew in their own squalor.

And so the policy remains today. I truly believe that the nation's cities would have been better off had the Department of Housing and Urban Development simply been shut down under Ronald Reagan, who cynically appointed a black man to head HUD so as to deflect criticism of the policy of willful neglect. Jack Kemp has done not one whit better with his fatuous palaver about "enterprise zones" and "privatization of public housing." As a public policy, such rhetoric is a fraud, plain and simple. It is not even arguable that since 1980 conditions in the inner cities have worsened by any economic or social measure you wish to apply. Conditions in parts of Baltimore today are worse than you can find in Hungary after 40 years of communism, or even in China. Only in Haiti or Bangladesh can you find something comparable.

It seems reasonable that 10 years is quite enough to adjudge the Reagan-Bush policies in this critical area to be a total failure; the results are there for all to see. What is needed, what sooner or later must be done if the country is to be livable for any of us, is the kind of massive attack on the social pathology of the inner cities that was mounted in the Marshall Plan that restored an exhausted Europe after World War II.

But the task will never be undertaken as long as we have divided government -- a Republican president and a Democratic Congress that can blame one another for our failures. In a few final words next week, I will make a modest suggestion as to how to overcome this flaw in the American political system.


Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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