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How to save America's cities.

SLAVERY was our original sin, just as race remains our unresolved dilemma. The future of American cities inextricably is bound to the issue of race and ethnicity. By the year 2000, only 57% of the people entering the U.S. workforce will be native-born whites. That means that the economic future of the children of white Americans increasingly will depend on the talents of nonwhite Americans. If we allow them to fail because of penny-pinching or timidity about straight talk, the U.S. will become a second-rate power. If they succeed, America and all Americans will be enriched. As a nation, we will find common ground together and move ahead, or each of us will be diminished.

Life in cities is full of more complexity and hope than the media or politicians will admit, and part of getting beyond color not only is attacking the sources of inequity, but also refusing to make race an excuse for failing to pass judgment about self-destructive behavior. Without a community, there can be no commonly held standards, and without some commonly held standards, there can be no community. The question is whether we can build a set of commonly accepted rules in our cities that enhances individuality and life chances, but also provides the glue and tolerance to prevent us from going for each other's throats.

Urban America is not only divided by a line with blacks on one side and whites on another. Increasingly, it is a mixture of other races, languages, and religions, as new immigrants arrive in search of economic promise and freedom from state control. More than 4,500,000 Latinos and nearly 5,000,000 Asian Pacifics have arrived in the U.S. since 1970. In New Jersey, school children come from families that speak 120 different languages at home. In Atlanta, managers of some low-income apartment complexes that once were virtually all black now need to speak fluent Spanish. Detroit has absorbed some 200,000 people of Middle Eastern descent. In San Jose, Calif., the phone book reveals that families with the Vietnamese surname Nguyen outnumber the Joneses by nearly 50%. In Houston, one Korean immigrant restaurant owner oversees Hispanic immigrant employees who prepare Chinese-style food for a predominantly black clientele.

Even though our future depends on finding common ground, many white Americans resist relinquishing the sense of entitlement that skin color has given them throughout our history. They lack any understanding of the emerging dynamics of one world," even in the U.S., because, to them, nonwhites always have been "the other." Moreover, people of different races often don't listen to each other on the subject of race. It's as if we're all experts, locked into our narrow views and preferring to be wrong, rather than risk changing them. Black Americans ask of Asian-Americans, "What's the problem? You're doing well financially. " Black Americans believe that Latinos often fail to find common ground with their historic struggle, and some Hispanics agree, questioning whether the black civil rights model is the only path to progress. White Americans continue to harbor absurd stereotypes about all people of color. Black Americans take white criticism of individual acts as an attempt to stigmatize all black Americans. We seem to be more interested in defending our racial territory than recognizing we could be enriched by another race's perspective.

In politics over the last 25 years, silence or distortion has shaped the issue of race and urban America. Both political parties have contributed to the problem. Republicans have played the race card in a divisive way to get votes--remember Willie Horton --and Democrats have suffocated discussion of self-destructive behavior among the minority population in a cloak of silence and denial. The result is that yet another generation has been lost. We can not afford to wait any longer. It is time for candor, truth, and action.

Cities in crisis

America's cities are poorer, sicker, less educated, and more violent than at any time in my lifetime. The physical problems are obvious: old housing stock, deteriorated schools, aging infrastructure, a diminished manufacturing base, and a health care system short of doctors that fails to immunize against measles, much less educate about AIDS. The jobs have disappeared. The neighborhoods have been gutted. A genuine depression has hit cities, with unemployment in some areas at the levels of the 1930s. Yet, just as Americans found solidarity then in the midst of trauma and just as imaginative leadership moved us through the darkest days of the Depression, so the physical conditions of our cities can be altered today. What it takes is collective will, greater accountability, and sufficient resources.

What is less obvious in urban America is the crisis of meaning. Without meaning, there can be no hope; without hope, there can be no struggle; without struggle, there can be no personal betterment. Absence of meaning derived from overt and subtle attacks from racist quarters over many years and furthered by an increasing pessimism about the possibility of justice offers a context for chaos and irresponsibility. Development of meaning starts from the very beginning of life. Yet, more than 40% of births in the 20 largest cities of America are to women living alone. Among black women, out-of-wedlock births are over 65%. While many single women do heroic jobs in raising kids, there are millions of others who get caught in a life undertow that drowns both them and their offspring. Many of these children live in a world without love and without a father or any other male supportive figure besides the drug dealer, pimp, or gang leader. They are thrown out on the street early without any frame of reference except survival. They have no historical awareness of the civil rights movement, much less of the power of American democracy. A substitute teacher in New York once told me about students who read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and wanted to know why they had been assigned a book about Malcolm Ten. Perhaps the move will change that.

To say to kids who have no connection to religion, no family outside a gang, no sense of place outside the territory, no imagination beyond the cadence of rap or the violence of TV that government is on their side rings hollow. Their contact with government has not empowered, but diminished them. To them, government at best is incompetent--look at the schools, the streets, the welfare department--and at worst corrupt, with cops and building inspectors on the take, white-collar criminals who get nothing but a suspended sentence, and local politicians with gross personal behavior. Replacing a corrupt white mayor with a corrupt black mayor won't make the difference.

In such a world, calls to "just say no" to drugs or "study hard" for 16 years to get an $18,000-a-year job are laughable. Instead of desires rooted in the values of commitment and service to the community, as expressed through black churches and mosques, desires--like commodities--have become rooted in the immediate gratification of the moment. Television bombards these kids with messages of conspicuous consumption, and they "want it now." They become trapped in the quicksands of American materialism. The market sells images of sex, violence, and drugs, regardless of their corrosive effects on hard work and caring--values formerly handed down from an older generation. With no awareness of how to change their world through political action and no reservoirs of real self-knowledge, these youngsters are buffeted by the winds of violence and narcissism.

The physical conditions of American cities and the absence of meaning in more and more lives come together at the barrel of a gun. If one were to select the one thing that has changed in cities since the 1960s, it would be fear, which covers the streets like a sheet of ice. Every day, the newspapers tell of another murder. Both the number of murders and violent crimes has doubled in the 20 largest cities since 1968. Ninety percent of all violence is committed by males, and they are its predominant victims. Indeed, murder is the highest cause of death for young black males. In 1968, there were 394,000 security guards in this country. Today, it's a growth industry, with nearly 700,000 jobs in this sector.

For African-Americans in cities, the violence isn't new. You don't have to see "Boyz N the Hood" to confirm it--just visit public housing projects where mothers send their kids to school dodging bullets; talk with young girls whose rapes go uninvestigated; listen to elderly residents express their constant fear of violation; and remember the story of a former drug dealer who once told me he quit only after he found his partner shot, with his brains oozing onto the pavement.

What is new is the fear of random violence among whites. No place in the city seems safe. Walking the streets seems to be a form of Russian roulette. At the core, it is a fear of young black men. The movie "Grand Canyon" captures the feeling. It sends the message that if you're white and you get off the main road into the wrong territory, you're a target just because you're white. You're a target for death, not just robbery. Even if you stay on the main road, you still might be shot for no apparent reason. Guns in the hands of the unstable, the angry, the resentful are used. As the black youth in "Grand Canyon" says, "You respect me only because I have a gun."

Never mind that, in a society insufficiently colorblind, all black men have to answer for the white fear of violence from a few black men. Never mind that Asian-Americans fear both black and white Americans, or that, in Miami or Los Angeles, some of the most feared gangs are Latinos and Chinese. Never mind that the ultimate racism was whites ignoring the violence when it wasn't in their neighborhoods, or that black Americans always have feared certain white neighborhoods.

There are two phenomena here--white fear and the appearance of black emboldenment. Today, many whites responding to a more violent reality, heightened by sensational news stories, see young black men traveling in groups, cruising the city, looking for trouble, and they are frightened. Many white Americans, whether fairly or unfairly, seem to be saying of some young black males, "You litter the street and deface the subway, and no one, black or white, says stop. You cut school, threaten a teacher, |dis' a social worker, and no one, white or black, says stop. You snatch a purse, crash a concert, break a telephone box, and no one, white or black, says stop. You rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist, and when they catch you, if they catch you, you cry racism. And noboby, white or black, says stop."

It makes no difference whether this white rap is the exact and total reality of our cities. It is what millions of white Americans feel is true. In a kind of ironic flip of fate, the fear of brutal white repression felt for decades in the black community and the seething anger it generated now appear to be mirrored in the fear whites have of random attack from blacks and the growing anger it fuels. The white disdain grows when a frightened white politician convenes a commission to investigate the charges of racism, and the anger swells when well-known black spokespersons fill the evening news with threats and bombast.

What most politicians want to avoid is the need to confront the reality that causes the fear. They don't want to put themselves at risk by speaking candidly about violence to both blacks and whites and saying the same things to both groups. Essentially, they're indifferent to the black self-destruction. Violence only hardens their indifference--not only to the perpetrator, but to all African-Americans.

Physically, more white Americans leave the big city. (From 1970 to 1990, over 4,000,000 moved out.) Psychologically, white Americans put walls up to the increasingly desperate plight of those, both black and white, who can't leave--those who are stuck trying to raise kids in a war zone, holding jobs in a Third World economy, establishing a sense of community in a desert where there is no water of hope and everyone is out for themselves.

It's not that there isn't racism. It's alive and well. It's not that police brutality doesn't exist. It does. It's not that police departments give residents a feeling of security. Few do.

When politicians don't talk about the reality that everyone knows exists, they can not lead us out of our current crisis. Institutions are no better than the people who run them. Because very few people of different races make real contact or have real conversations with each other (when was the last time you had a conversation about race with a person of a different race?), the white vigilante groups and black TV spokespersons educate the uneducated about it. As a result, the divide among races in our cities deepens, with white Americans more and more unwilling to spend the money to ameliorate the physical conditions or to see why the absence of meaning in the lives of many urban children threatens the future of their own offspring.

Yet, even in this atmosphere of disintegration, the power of the human spirit comes through. Heroic families do overcome the odds, sometimes working four jobs to send their kids to college. Churches are peopled by the faithful, who do practice the power of love. Local neighborhood leaders have turned around a local school, organized a health clinic, rehabilitated blocks of housing. These islands of courage and dedication still offer the possibility of local renewal, just as our system of government offers and makes possible national rebirth.

The future of urban America

The future of urban America will take one of three paths: abandonment, encirclement, or conversion. Abandonment means recognizing that, with the billions of investment in the national highway system which led to suburbia, corporate parks, and the malling of America and with communications technology advancing so fast that the economic advantages of urban proximity are being replaced by the computer screen, the city has outlived its usefulness. Like the small town whose industry leaves, the city will wither and disappear. Like empires of ancient days, the self-destruction has reached a point of no return and will crumble from within, giving way to a new and different form of social arrangements. "Massive investment in urban America would be throwing money away, " the argument goes, " and to try to prevent the decline will be futile."

Encirclement means that people in cities will live in enclaves. The racial and ethnic walls will climb higher. The class lines will be manned by ever increasing security forces, and communal life will disappear. What will replace it are deeper divisions, with politics amounting to splitting up a shrinking economic pie into ever smaller ethnic, racial, and religious slices. It will be a kind of Clockwork Orange society in which the rich will pay for their security; the middle class will continue to flee as they confront violence; and the poor will be preyed upon at will or will join the army of violent predators. What will be lost for everyone will be freedom, civility, and the chance to build a common future.

Conversion means winning over all segments of urban life to a new politics of change, empowerment, and common effort. Conversion is as different from the politics of dependency as it is from the politics of greed. Its optimism relates to the belief that every person can realize his or her potential in an atmosphere of nurturing liberty. Its morality is grounded in the conviction that each of us has an obligation to another human being simply because that person is another human being.

There will not be "a charismatic leader" here, but many "leaders of awareness" who champion integrity and humility over self-promotion and command performances. Answers won't come from an elite that has determined in advance what the new society will look like. Instead, the future will be shaped by the voices from inside the turmoil of urban America, as well as by those who claim to see a bigger picture. Conversion requires listening to the disaffected as well as the powerful. Empowerment requires seizing the moment. The core of conversion begins with a recognition that all of us advance together or each of us is diminished; that American diversity is not our weakness, but our strength; that we never will be able to lead the world by example until we've come to terms with each other and overcome the blight of racism.

The first concrete step is to bring an end to violence, intervene early in a child's life, reduce child abuse, establish some rules, remain unintimidated, and involve the community in its own salvation. As a young man in dredlocks said at one of my town meetings, "What we need is for people to care enough about themselves, so that they won't hurt anybody else." That is the essence of community policing-getting a community to respect itself enough to cooperate and support the police so that, together, security is assured. Our schools no longer can allow the five to 10% of kids who don't want to learn to destroy the possibility of learning for the 90 to 95% who do. In addition, we need gun control, draconian punishment for drug kingpins, mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns, and reinvestment of some defense budget savings into city police departments, schools, and hospitals.

The second step is to bolster families in urban America. That effort begins with the recognition that the most important year in a child's life is the first. Fifteen-month houses must be established for women seven months pregnant who want to live the first year of their life as a mother in a residential setting. Young fathers would be encouraged to participate, too. Fifteen-month houses would reduce parental neglect and violence by teaching teenage mothers how to parent. By offering a program of cognitive stimulation, they would prepare a child for a lifetime of learning. These 15-month houses need to be combined with full funding for Head Start and the WIC (Women with Infant Children) program, more generous tax treatment of children, one-year parental leave, tough child support enforcement, and welfare reform that encourages marriage, work, and assumption of responsibility, instead of more children they can't afford.

There also is a hard truth here. No institution can replace the nurturing of a loving family. The most important example in a child's life is the parent, not celebrities, however virtuous or talented they may be. You might want to play golf like Nancy Lopez or play basketball like Michael Jordan or skate like Kristi Yamaguchi or display the wit of Bill Cosby, but you should want to be like your parents. In a world where there are few involved fathers, mom has a big burden. There are no shortcuts here, only life led daily.

Creating employment

The third step is to create employment for those who can work--jobs that will last in an economy that is growing. It is only through individual empowerment that we can guarantee long-term economic expansion. Without growth, scapegoats will be sought and racial tensions will heighten. Without growth, hopes will languish. How do we get growth?--through enterprise zones, full funding of jobs corps, and more investment in low-income housing; by helping to finance small businesses and providing technical assistance in management. Investment in urban infrastructure such as ports, roads, and mass transit will become a source of jobs and training for urban residents at the same time it builds part of the foundation for private investment. Allowing pension funds to make some investments in real estate and assessing a very low capital gains tax on the sale of assets that have generated 500 urban jobs for 10 years will attract more investment.

However, no targeted program can overcome the drag of a sluggish national economy. Reducing the deficit, consuming more wisely, increasing public investment in health and education, and avoiding protectionism all are essential for long-term growth. Combined with assuring economic opportunity for all, long-term growth can save U.S. cities while taking all Americans to the higher economic ground.

Finally, the political process holds the ultimate key. It has failed to address our urban prospects because politicians feel accountable mainly to those who vote, and urban America has voted in declining numbers. So, politicians have ignored them.

The history of American democracy is a history of broadening the vote. When the Constitution was adopted, the only Americans who had the vote were white males with property. Then, in the 1830s, it was extended to white males without property; in the 1860s, to black males; not until the 1920s, to women; and finally, in the 1950s to 1970s, to people aged 18-21. Yet today, if one-third of the voting-age population in America woke up on Election Day and wanted to vote, they would not be allowed to because they are not registered. Again, what is needed here is not so much charismatic leadership, but day-to-day, truthful leadership, dedicated to real and lasting change, leadership that has the power within the community by virtue of its knowing the life of the spokesperson. That is leadership that can get things done. In the end, for change to come, decisions have to be made, work has to get done, and some group of individuals has to accept collective responsibility for making change happen.

Steven Vincent Benet once said about American diversity: "All of these you are/and each is partly you/and none of them is false/and none is wholly true." This is another way of saying out of many, one. He was describing the U.S. Whether the metaphor is the melting pot or a tossed salad, when you become an American citizen, you profess a creed. You forswear allegiance to a foreign power and embark on a journey of development in liberty. For those who came generations ago, there is a need to reaffirm principles--liberty, equality, democracy--that always have eluded complete fulfillment. The American city is where all these ideas and cultures have clashed--sometimes violently. Nevertheless, all--even those brought here in chattel slavery and subsequently freed--are not African or Italian or Polish or Irish or Japanese. They are Americans.

What we lose when racial or ethnic self-consciousness dominates are tolerance, curiosity, and civility--precisely those qualities we need to allow us to live side by side in mutual respect. The fundamental challenge is to understand the suffering of others as well as to share in their joy. To sacrifice that sensitivity on the altar of racial chauvinism is to lose our future. We will lose it unless urgency informs our action, passing the buck stops, scapegoating fails, and excuses disappear. The American city needs physical rejuvenation, economic opportunity, and moral direction. Above all, what it needs is the same thing every small town needs: the willingness to treat another person of any race with the respect you show for a brother or sister with the belief that together you'll build a better world than you ever would have done alone, a better world in which all Americans stand on common ground.
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Title Annotation:racial tolerance is needed
Author:Bradley, Bill
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:3889
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