Two quick reactions crowd the mind at the shocking revelations by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives about the percentage of Washington's young black men caught up in the criminal justice system: 1. How horrible. What can we do about it? 2. How horrible. It can't be true.
The second reaction, exemplified by D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in a television interview, is probably shared by many blacks. For while that study focused on Washington, Harvard professor Mark A. R. Kleiman chimed in to say the numbers would hold true for other cities with large poor populations. He did point out, however, that how you draw the map of the black community, including or excluding the middle class, greatly tTC affects the results.
But let's not quibble. Washington's black community has a severe problem, however we define it. So does Baltimore. So does every other large city with a big, closed-in population of poor people. It's everyone else's problem, too, and its scary proportions mean everyone better get serious about doing something. And so much of this problem centers around drugs, which a 1991 Bar Association report found to cause 90 percent of the violent crime in Baltimore.
What we are talking about here is chickens coming home to roost, in one of the most horrifying ways imaginable. Gunnar Myrdal, in his landmark study of America's racial problems, called the situation of the urban poor ''social dynamite.''
He didn't anticipate the drug demiurge sweeping the country, but his basic reasoning is still sound: People who are condemned before they are born, confined in ghettoes and rebuked by much of the prevailing culture will eventually explode. And when they do, they will create alternatives for themselves that no one concerned about the country's future can really like.
The National Urban League, in its annual ''State of Black America'' reports, has documented the continuing lack of alternatives for legitimate growth accorded the country's still-growing population of urban blacks. In the 1988 report, Bruce R. Hare noted that ''one out of every 22 Black American males will be killed by violent crime . . . 51 percent of violent crime in the U.S. is committed by Black youth . . . one out of every six Black males will be arrested by the time they reach 19
But then, noting that ''the cornerstone of the health of an adult is the capacity to take care of one's own, and one's own self,'' chiefly through gainful employment, Mr. Hare found that ''not only do Black Americans remain twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, but when they are employed they can expect to hold lower-status positions and to be paid less even if holding the same occupational positions as their white counterparts. The social and psychological consequences of job discrimination remain enormous both for the individuals and the relationships within the community and its families.'' He might add, for everyone else, too.
Washington's poor have been abandoned by an economy that grants others high incomes: a $30,727 median income in the city; $44,600 in Arlington; $41,472 in Alexandria; $59,284 in Fairfax; $51,011 in Falls Church; more than $54,000 in Montgomery and Howard counties; $43,127 in Prince George's and $45,147 in Anne Arundel.
Baltimore, like Washington, is surrounded by high-income suburban communities, peopled by individuals and companies that have abandoned the inner city. Its percentage of poor residents is even higher. And like Washington, its drug and crime problems have skyrocketed. CBS News' ''48 Hours,'' highlighting drug problems Wednesday, showed that the same is true in inner cities across the country.
Look at the money involved. Of Maryland's estimated 50,000 heroin addicts, more than half are in Baltimore. Users buy drugs repeatedly throughout their day as their addictions demand. The police say heroin sells for as much as $60 or as little as $10 a ''bag.'' If every user ''cops'' $60 worth of the drug, 25,000 users spend $1.5 million a day. That's $10.5 million a week, a market big enough to draw in thousands of would-be entrepreneurs and their employees, who have given up on ever finding legitimate means of supporting themselves, their families and their dreams.
Hope had already been given up, by a society which had no place for them. The social chaos which flows from that disengagement is drawing in people from outside the inner city as well, as addicts or, as ''48 Hours'' showed, even as drug couriers. It is finally big enough to be everybody's problem. Now, we have to create better alternatives for the inner city's young people, or we'll lose even more of them to a trade that destroys its practitioners as surely as it kills its customers.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.