Spheres of city life lack sense of responsibility

December 18, 2005|By RODNEY D. FOXWORTH JR.

This year should be remembered as the Year of the Downtrodden.

Hurricane Katrina briefly brought the downtrodden into focus. Talk of two Americas was relevant and thought necessary and discussion of the poor and marginalized was in vogue. There was an abundance of literature, from Jonathon Kozol's The Shame of the Nation to the Michael Eric Dyson's book, Is Bill Cosby Right? to The New Press' aptly titled Inequality Matters.

So much talk reminded me of Boston's Rev. Eugene Rivers and his 1992 open letter in Boston Review, "On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack." Describing life in the "major post-industrial centers in the United States" as "genuinely poor, nasty, brutish, and short," Mr. Rivers concludes with a call to the Boston area's leading black intellectuals to "convene a series of discussions in Boston about the fate of the urban poor" and to "encourage [their] friends in other cities to do the same."

Baltimore, which is 65 percent black, suffers from a 24 percent poverty rate, ranking it as the sixth-poorest region in the nation. Thirty-five percent of the city's children live below the poverty line and 22 percent live without a parent in the work force. It is also the nation's sixth most dangerous city. At the time that Mr. Rivers published his letter, I was an 8-year-old elementary school student, unaware that I belonged to a generation destined to be "ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves."

My sisters were born two years later, and I now reflect upon Mr. Rivers' biting words with a mature consciousness. I admit that I fear the possible fate that awaits my sisters and their peers growing up in this city. I fear for their tender spirits and I am petrified that to misstep now is to derail a promising future. The conditions of the city, the dilapidated school buildings and inadequate schooling provide no cushion for those who slip, no matter how eager they are to get back up.

When I graduated from City College four years ago, I had little concern for the fate of my peers. I had in my hand a scholarship to a prominent university in the South, one of the "Hidden Ivies" as described by U.S. News & World Report, and my future appeared bright. I was simply ecstatic to leave behind the post-industrial dystopia that Baltimore is fast becoming for greener pastures, delighted to part from the slums and those relegated to them.

Now, as a prodigal son returned home to continue a pursuit of higher education, I am forced to confront the daily atrocities that afflict my fellow Baltimoreans. No, it is deeper than that: As a black male in college, a minority within a minority, I feel obligated to my peers whose lot in life may have been my own had it not been for circumstances beyond my control. This sense of responsibility - or at the least this heightened degree of sensitivity - seems absent from certain spheres within the city.

Baltimore recently made headlines for its growing prosperity. The Brookings Institution has characterized downtown Baltimore as an "emerging" area, just a few notches below the likes of Atlanta and San Francisco. Similarly, ground has been broken for the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Inner Harbor. Both have been met with celebration and neither will profoundly affect the city's working poor or very poor. Discussion regarding these two groups appears taboo.

Have we, as Mr. Rivers prophesized, produced a generation confined to an "economically and politically inferior position to their ancestors, who entered the century in the shadow of formal slavery"? While Mr. Rivers is prone to hyperbole, a 2001 Johns Hopkins University study concludes that 76 percent of the city's black males drop out before graduation. Alarming, but this has been so throughout my lifetime.

But there is possibility for change. The city's creative class - writers, educators, entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers - along with its body of gifted collegians is well equipped to provide solutions that will have meaningful impact on people's lives.

Isn't that our responsibility? If not, consider making it a priority for the new year.

Rodney D. Foxworth Jr., a 2002 graduate of Baltimore City College, attends the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His e-mail is foxrod1@umbc.edu.

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