Beating the `street' with good role models

September 01, 1999|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- If you pay much attention to the presidential campaign (and these days our numbers seem to me to be remarkably few), you will hear a lot of talk about who is setting the best example for young people.

President Clinton's scandal with Monica Lewinsky was a particularly strong issue with Republicans. Some viewed with alarm a front-page Washington Post story last spring about an apparent upsurge in oral sex among students at a local middle school. It quoted one eighth-grade girl as excusing her act with, "President Clinton does it."

I, too, was startled by her statement. I could easily imagine what my dearly departed parents would have said to that: "If President Clinton jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?"

More recently, the question of who sets a good example jumped party lines. GOP front-runner George W. Bush set tongues wagging by refusing to give a flat "yes" or "no" to the question of whether he had ever used cocaine.

The Texas governor's refusal to say he didn't has led many to presume he did, which his opponents fear will lead to countless youths staggering around with coke up their nose, muttering, "George W. Bush did it, too!"

To which Mom and Dad undoubtedly would have said, "If George W. Bush jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?"

Parental direction

Such talk of bridge jumping was common among the parents in my neighborhood. It was one of those things we promised never to say to our own children. But we use them now because

of a simple reality: Examples matter. We look everywhere for role models.

Unfortunately, when life does not easily provide you with good examples, bad examples rush in to fill the void.

Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, has spent years studying the lives of youngsters who didn't have enough good examples to follow. His laboratory is the high-crime, low-income ghettos of big cities.

Many of these ghetto kids find themselves in a constant tug-of-war between upstanding "decent" people and the morally questionable, often-violent people of "the street."

Too often, since civil rights reforms of the 1960s opened new opportunities for "decent" families to move out to better neighborhoods, the values of the "street" have gained dominance for those left behind.

Surviving the streets

For many otherwise "decent" youths in such areas, adopting the "street" pose is a means of social and physical survival. "Regardless of race, alienation sets in when people see advances for everyone but their group," Mr. Anderson said. "Alienated people begin to feel that they are on their own for personal safety and security. That's the code of the streets. Decent people often feel they have to mimic the street people just to get along."

Fortunately, good examples of hope, ambition and decency can be found in the grimmest ghetto. Mr. Anderson presents several encouraging cases of decent people who learned the code, yet escaped the life of the "street."

The most impressive is Rob (who didn't want his full name used), who decided while serving time for drug dealing that he was going to go straight after his release. Defying the suspicions of those who knew him on the street, he actually helped move drug dealers out of his old stomping grounds and replace them with a fruit stand and later a hot dog stand. He has returned to college, and Mr. Anderson helped him get a job at the university.

When I asked Rob what made the difference in his life, he cited two older men. One was a fellow inmate who assured Rob he was too good to return to crime. The other was an older community activist, Herman Wrice, who Rob approached for help.

There's a lesson in stories like Rob's: Role models matter. The best example that any of us, including presidential candidates, can set is to involve ourselves in the lives of troubled youths. If decent folks don't keep them from jumping off bridges, no one else will.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/01/99

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