Integration-segregation bows to empowerment

November 22, 1995|By GREGORY KANE

The letter came to me marked "not for publication," meaning, I suppose, that the prominent Baltimorean who wrote it does not want me to divulge either the entirety of its contents or his name.

But as he took issue with my Nov. 1 column about a desegregation lawsuit filed on behalf of poor black Baltimore residents by the group I affectionately call the A-C-To-Hell-With-You, I feel compelled to respond. On this issue the gentleman and I will have to agree to disagree. He writes as if public housing assistance is some kind of constitutional right. I defy him or anyone else to find a passage in the U.S. Constitution explicitly establishing such a right.

The argument, as I wrote Nov. 1, involves integration vs. empowerment. The gentleman asked why would I deny the choice to integrate to someone else if I chose not to do so myself. But that's not the point. With empowerment, integration or segregation no longer become relevant, because people would have the means to live where they want, when they want.

"Neither you nor I should be able to dictate, as society has for many years, where poor black families should live," the gentleman observed in his letter. Such a statement implies it's much better to dictate to middle-class folks who should live with them. But I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the hard-working, taxpaying members of the middle class just may have some rights of their own.

But as a black who was once poor and as a child lived in public housing, I might point out to the gentleman that society dictated to my mother for only a brief period of time where she would live.

Living in public housing, she told me recently, is supposed to be a temporary condition. We lived in the Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes high-rises for just a few years. But my mother had a plan for society "dictating" to her where she and her children would live. She empowered herself. She studied to get her GED. I remember when she would come home from work haggard, whipped and dog-tired. She would hit the books to study. I helped her some with her algebra.

With her GED, she got a better job, worked overtime and saved enough money to buy a house in an integrated Pimlico neighborhood in 1969. After her children were grown, she sold the house and moved. She now lives in an integrated senior citizens' apartment complex in Randallstown.

In my subjective and totally biased opinion, hers was quite an accomplishment for a woman who, at 14, found herself cast onto Baltimore's mean streets, having to fend for herself in the middle of the Depression. Her eventual landing of a good job and a home was an achievement attained without the help of liberals or those Friends of the Negro in the A-C-To-Hell-With-You.

Sounds like a classic "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" tale, doesn't it? Sounds like values associated with good old American -- dare I say the word in this liberal bastion of a newspaper? -- conservatism.

Well, that's what it is. Conservatives are able to recognize some basic truths, ones liberals haven't quite grasped yet. One such truth is that ultimately we, at some point, have to stop helping the poor -- of whatever race -- and ask them, indeed, challenge them, to help themselves. Liberals recognize no such point.

It is no wonder, then, that conservatives are, as you read this, kicking ass and taking names in their ideological war with liberals for the hearts and minds of Americans. It is a classic liberal mind-set that says that poor black people can't help themselves and that they need the help of the government or the A-C-To-Hell-With-You to get out of poverty. The notion is not only wrong, it's an execrable insult.

My college roommate, who grew up in the same impoverished, treacherous streets of West Baltimore where I did, is a successful lawyer living in Odenton.

A junior high school classmate lives in Jessup and runs an organization to help poor women start their own businesses. Another is a former police officer turned actor who lives in San Diego. The movement of poor black folks into the middle class with little or no assistance is something that happens all the time. It's just not written about very often.

"You assert that the ACLU only cares for Nazis, Klansmen, or pornographers," the gentleman wrote. "Are you not troubled by the fact that the poor black plaintiffs in this case fit none of your categories?"

No, I'm not troubled. What does trouble me is his ridiculous assertion that poor blacks are almost inherently incapable of helping themselves.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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