Let the Poor Eat Cliches

WILLIAM PFAFF

May 21, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA — South Bend, Indiana. -- In a speech both unctuous and, to a university audience, condescending, President Bush told the University of Notre Dame commencement Sunday that family values create social stability, and that ''government is simply not enough'' to install those values.

This unexceptionable argument was delivered in terms that suggested that government scarcely has a role at all in America's social crisis, and that Mr. Bush himself is little more than a concerned bystander. After what has happened in Los Angeles, it was a strange performance.

It was above all strange when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., was also on the platform, being honored by Notre Dame. In accepting the university's Laetare Medal, the senator spoke succinctly about the ghetto family in America, a subject on which he has been a prophetic analyst as well as an advocate of policies much attacked from both left and right for the challenge they have posed to the self-serving assumptions of activists and politicians.

He said that cohort after cohort of young American black males have reached maturity deprived of firm male role models and stable family circumstances, without trades or useful education, with no reasonable prospect of meaningful employment -- without ''man's work'' to do, as Paul Goodman put it more than 30 years ago.

He said that those national leaders who allowed this have invited the conditions that now prevail in our big cities. We accordingly earned the violence we are getting.

Those programs to strengthen families and provide training and employment to the black underclass that were established under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- in both of whose governments Senator Moynihan served -- were deliberately neglected or dismantled under the Reagan and Bush administrations. Mr. Bush enjoins virtue without practicing it.

The riots in Los Angeles have changed the political dialogue in the United States, making social policy an unexpectedly serious electoral issue. Polls indicate substantial public support -- indeed, public demand -- for new measures to deal with the problems of the black underclass. There is a near-tangible spirit of good will in the country today.

But good will is not enough. It simply is not serious for Mr. Bush to tell a Notre Dame audience which is overwhelmingly white, middle-class and Roman Catholic, that family stability is a good thing. What news is that? What responsible point is made by saying it while doing little at the federal level to support the family?

The problem of the black underclass is rooted in the 250-year practice of slavery in the United States and in the century of quasi-official racial segregation and oppression which followed Emancipation.

The underclass thus produced was, with the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, offered a promise of escape from racial discrimination and the poverty that overwhelmingly was part of the black condition. Those who could seize this opportunity did so and escaped the ghetto.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, however, the United States has seemed to say to those who failed to escape that the fault is theirs; they have been given their chance.

The principal public preoccupation has become the attempt to assure the security of those outside the ghettos -- overwhelmingly white -- from the depredations of rootless and violent young black men. This effort has not been very successful, so that Americans cities today, their shops, offices, apartments and homes, must be fortified and patrolled in a manner that suggests an urban America under siege.

As for the black poor left behind, the rest of us step over their ragged persons in downtown Los Angeles, on Connecticut Avenue and in Georgetown in Washington, and on Madison and Fifth Avenues in New York -- avoiding eye contact, glancing over our shoulders, ignoring their requests for ''spare change'' and hurrying on.

On the political right it is contended that destitution and misery for some is an essential discipline of the market, a matter in which race is of no intrinsic significance and where interference would distort the market's ultimate benevolence.

On the left the destitute are offered advocacy but are also treated either as a class phenomenon -- again apart from race -- or as if their condition was a career decision or lifestyle choice.

It is politically incorrect to say the poor are poor -- blighted, miserable, derelict -- since this might seem condescending and damaging to their self-esteem; they are described as economically challenged and called ''street people.'' Churches enjoin us to respect the street people. You and I are home or apartment people; they are street people.

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