Civil rights talk won't cure black poverty

August 25, 2006|By Clarence Page | Clarence Page,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Amid the flood of one-year-after analyses of Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast, it is important to remember what Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said on the Senate floor shortly after the storm: "I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

Indeed, despite the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement, the black poor of New Orleans, like poor communities in many other cities, were failed, abandoned and left isolated, not only by Washington but by all levels of government long before Katrina blew in.

And the failure was not limited to government, as my friend and colleague Juan Williams argues in his new book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It.

Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, targets a failure of black leadership too.

"We are facing a series of crises in the black community today," writes Williams, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and political analyst for Fox News Network. "A century's worth of progress seems suddenly in peril. The lessons and values that carried an oppressed people from slavery to freedom seem in danger of being forgotten. Hard-won victories seem in danger of being squandered."

Mr. Williams takes on superstar black leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton - unfairly, both say - and major civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for letting black people down.

Of course, the Jesse-and-Al-bashing is bound to make the book a big hit with the Conservative Book Club. But the problems Mr. Williams spotlights are real. Today's problems associated with black poverty call for a broader array of remedies than those offered by the civil rights medicine cabinet.

In fact, I wish Mr. Williams had spent as much time on that last part of his title, What We Can Do About It, as he does in telling us what's wrong.

Like Bill Cosby, Mr. Williams calls on black parents at all income levels to begin the next revolution with their own children. Few would argue that we need to restore the family as a bedrock institution of black progress.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Cosby also call on the black middle class to reach back through mentoring and other support to help break the culture of poverty.

An anti-poverty political agenda also is needed, but with a realization that government can't solve all of our problems.

All of this has the makings of a new consensus on which most Americans can agree across racial lines.

Marriage, for example, is easy to promote as a concept but more difficult to realize against today's cultural headwinds. Welfare reform reduced national welfare rolls and put mostly mothers to work but left young black males, in particular, more isolated from the work stream, according to several university studies.

It is important for young parents to know that marriage usually provides a better environment for kids than a single parent can manage. The federal government has a $1.5 billion Healthy Marriage Initiative to help educate people on how to be "better married." But the government can't do that job alone. Whether through the media, community organizations or just word of mouth, we can all help.

That won't end poverty, but it's a good first step.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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