For the cities, not nearly enough

December 01, 1993|By Benjamin C. Schwarz

IN AN impassioned speech the other day, President Clinton urged an end to the violence and misery that plague our inner cities. By directing his remarks to an overwhelmingly black audience, and by asserting that change must come from "the inside out," the president sent a clear message: Those most affected by these conditions must take responsibility for reversing the material, social and moral deterioration of their community.

Mr. Clinton's Memphis audience listened eagerly and responded thankfully to his message. But to realize his vision of a civilizing change in America's urban centers, the president must make an equally impassioned plea to all Americans. He must define the conditions in the black ghetto not as a crisis merely afflicting one group, but as our greatest national problem. He must, in short, bring his concern for the black urban poor to those who have remained largely indifferent to their plight.

It is a welcome sign of a new forthrightness on racial issues for Mr. Clinton to adopt the message of such black leaders as Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, urging the black community to do all it can to help itself -- it must, for instance, abhor, rather than celebrate, the exaggerated and misguided version of masculinity that glorifies gang membership and sexual conquest.

But the president has a responsibility and an opportunity to address a wider America -- an America that has at best ignored, and at worst shown hostility toward, those black Americans whose lives are shadowed daily by violence and terror.

AIt is understandable, if still repellent, that some liberals play down those aspects of inner-city life -- drug use, out-of-wedlock childbearing, dropping out of school, the pervasiveness of robbery, rape and murder -- that they fear will cause white Americans to conclude that the black poor are undeserving and should be written off. Too many Americans regard these conditions as a "black problem," and as such largely the black community's responsibility. In America's atomized society, an emphasis on individual and community responsibility, laudable in itself, keeps the desperate conditions afflicting urban black Americans off the national agenda.

The president, therefore, must not stop with his Memphis speech. He must tell all of America what is needed to create the kind of national community about which so many of us have dreamed but have not realized. With moral urgency, Mr. Clinton must remind us that our black ghettos are among the worst places to live in the world and that to be born there is to be consigned to a fate that no American should have to endure.

He could acknowledge that those who live there need to help themselves, but he must remind America that if they had the proper tools of education, good health care, housing and equal protection under the law, they could do much better.

The president must make America understand that one of the ghetto's greatest burdens is the sense of separation from the rest of society, an obstacle that can be overcome only by a great -- and expensive -- national effort. Inner-city mothers must believe that the American community cares about their children -- that they learn in school and are safe on the streets, and that those who terrorize them will be punished.

The people who live in the inner cities must believe that other Americans will share their outrage when Head Start programs, which have proved spectacularly successful, serve only one-fifth eligible children because of lack of funds. They must believe that other Americans will not tolerate a situation in which the wealthiest Americans receive more federal benefits than the poorest.

The president must spell out the hard truth that it is not a lack of the nation's resources that denies people in the ghetto tax-funded services. He must hold up a mirror to middle- and upper-income groups who succeed at holding down tax revenues while simultaneously obtaining every benefit they can for themselves. Americans' generalized good will toward those in need comes up empty after everyone has done his and her best to make sure there is little public money left.

The "crisis of spirit" of which the president spoke so eloquently in Memphis is not limited to the ghetto. The America that condemns its own kin to living in terror and hopelessness is an America that has lost its moral compass. The president said that Martin Luther King Jr. would be appalled by the violence and misery in America's inner cities. But that is not all that would sicken King. His great vision for America was that it would truly be one community, united by brotherhood and charity.

Twenty-five years after his murder, an indifferent America mutters that it has done enough and "they" must now help themselves. Were Dr. King to know this, he would despair of our ever reaching the promised land.

Benjamin C. Schwarz heads the international policy department at RAND.

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