Some Straight Talk About Black Males


December 05, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

There is little doubt that a new political mood is sweeping the nation.

For the first time in a long while, the dialogue on important issues has taken on a more honest tone. Whether the talk is about crime, free trade or health care, the public is getting some straight scoop for a change.

I don't necessarily credit the politicians for this. I suspect they're motivated by the same things that have always motivated them, which is whatever will get them re-elected. Instead, it's the voters from coast to coast who are demanding that their representatives cut to the chase or get out of the way.

Some of this refreshing honesty blew through Howard County last week, when Del. Elijah Cummings spoke at Wilde Lake High School on the crisis that confronts the African-American male.

Delegate Cummings, who chaired the Governor's Commission on Black Males, likes to talk about this subject. In fact, he likes to preach about it.

And he had plenty to say -- some of it not so pleasant -- about what must be done to reverse a trend that has far too many young black males winding up in jail, unemployed, on drugs or just generally contributing far too little to their communities.

By outlining the problems, Delegate Cummings had some straight talk about the solutions -- if only people would stop doing things the way they've been doing them.

Here's a shortened version of what the Democratic state representative from Baltimore had to say:

* Too many blacks are willing to accept defeat. Delegate Cummings referred to a "double" funeral he attended recently for a teen-ager gunned down over a bad drug deal, followed hours later by the death of the boy's uncle from the effects of alcoholism.

"We are in the last day," he quoted the presiding minister as saying. Such an attitude only leaves people feeling the situation is hopeless. It is not.

* Howard County, because of the emphasis its school system has placed on improving the achievement of African-American students, "pays more attention to the black male than any place in the state, including Baltimore."

But the delegate also warned that unless more is done quickly, Howard will experience the same level of dropouts among its black high schoolers as the city does, where the rate hovers around 70 percent.

* Young black men "need to be told the truth," not only that they can achieve, but that negative behavior has inevitable and lasting consequences.

A black mother who gives her son money rather than making him work for it, for example, is not doing him a favor, Delegate Cummings said. Likewise, a family that accepts gifts they know were bought with drug money is not helping, he said.

* Self-hatred is pervasive. When the peers of a black male call him a "sissy" for excelling in school, they perpetuate self-hatred. New, positive role models have to be created to counter negative peer pressure.

* Young black men turn to gangs out of a need to belong.

Delegate Cummings told how a young gang leader said he recruited new members as young as 5 years old, luring them into illegal activities by buying them fashionable clothes their mothers couldn't afford and by providing them with protection on the streets.

Young black males have to be channeled into other, positive pursuits at the earliest age possible to satisfy the need to belong.

It all sounds so simple, and it is, as far as the principles go. The hard part comes in turning theory into action.

Many of the problems affecting the black male impacts males in general. The difference is that white society has been better able to avoid pitfalls, primarily because of economic advantages. It's a difference that can't be understated, but neither can it be used as an excuse for throwing in the towel.

As Delegate Cummings said -- and he apologized to whites in the audience if they were offended -- the problems confronting young black males have to be solved by blacks.

"Before we talk about the last day, we have to be part of our own healing," he said. "If we don't become part of our own healing, no one is going to help us."

As I said, the rhetoric is beginning to reflect reality. The days of Band-Aid approaches, hiding from the truth and making excuses, I hope, are over.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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