“Change” Must Cross the Color Line

By Benjamin Schwarz

25 November 1993 CHICAGO TRIBUNE
RobertTaylorHomes1965-600In an impassioned speech on Nov. 13, President Clinton urged an end to the violence and misery that plague our inner cities.

By directing his remarks to an overwhelmingly black audience, and by asserting that change must come from “the inside out,” the president sent a clear message: Those most affected by these conditions must take responsibility for reversing the material, social and moral deterioration of their community. Clinton’s Memphis audience listened eagerly and responded thankfully to his message.

But to realize Clinton’s vision of a civilizing change in America’s urban centers, the president must make an equally impassioned plea to all Americans. He must define the conditions in the black ghetto not as a crisis merely afflicting one group, but as our greatest national problem. He must, in short, bring his concern for the black urban poor to those who have remained largely indifferent to their plight.

It is a welcome sign of a new forthrightness on racial issues for President Clinton to adopt the message of such black leaders as Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, urging the black community to do all it can to help itself-it must, for instance, abhor, rather than celebrate, the exaggerated and misguided version of masculinity that glorifies gang membership and sexual conquest. But the president has a responsibility and an opportunity to address a wider America-an America that has at best ignored, and at worst shown hostility toward, those black Americans whose lives are punctuated daily by violence and terror.

It is understandable, if still repellent, that some liberals still play down those aspects of inner city life-drug use, out-of-wedlock childbearing, dropping out of school, the pervasiveness of robbery, rape and murder-that they fear will cause white Americans to conclude that the black poor are undeserving and should be written off. Too many Americans regard these conditions as a “black problem,” and as such as largely the black community’s responsibility. In America’s atomized society an emphasis on individual and community responsibility, laudable in itself, keeps the desperate conditions that black Americans in the inner cities experience off the national agenda.

The president must therefore not stop with this speech. He must tell all of America what is needed to create the kind of national community about which so many of us have dreamed but which we have not realized.

With moral urgency he must remind us that our black ghettos are among the worst places to live in the world and that to be born there is to be consigned to a fate that no American should have to endure. He could acknowledge that those now living there need to help themselves, perhaps even more than they have done up to this point, but he must remind America that if they had the proper tools of education, good health care, housing and equal protection under the law, they could do much better.

He must tell America that the claim that enough has already been done for poor blacks and that from this point forward they must fend for themselves is poison. He must make America understand that a great problem in the ghettos is a sense of separation from the rest of American society, and this problem can only be overcome by a great-and expensive-national effort. Mothers must believe that the American community cares if their children learn in school, if they are safe on the streets and if those who terrorize them will be caught and punished.

Those who live in the inner cities must believe that other Americans will be as outraged as they when Head Start programs, which have proved spectacularly successful, serve only a fifth of eligible children because of lack of funds. They must believe that other Americans will not tolerate situation in which American citizens live in constant fear because of inadequate police protection, and in which the wealthiest Americans receive more federal benefits than the poorest.

The president must hold a mirror up to America: He must spell out the hard truth that it is not a lack of the nation’s resources that denies the black urban poor decent access to education and adequate protection from criminals. Middle- and upper-income groups do their best to hold down tax revenues and simultaneously obtain every benefit they can for themselves. Americans’ generalized goodwill toward the poor thus gets squeezed out by what appears to be a lack of resources, after everyone else has done his or her best to make sure there is little left.

To be sure, as Clinton argued last week, government programs alone won’t cure the pathology of the inner cities. But the “crisis of spirit” of which the president spoke so eloquently is not limited to the ghetto. In tolerating the urban war zones in which its own people live, America has shirked its moral responsibilities.

President Clinton said that Martin Luther King would be appalled by the violence and misery in America’s inner cities. But that is not all that would sicken King. His great vision for America was that it would truly be one community, united by brotherhood and charity. But, 25 years after his murder, an indifferent America condemns its own citizens to terror and hopelessness, muttering that it has done enough and “they” must now help themselves. Were Dr. King to know this, he would despair of our ever reaching the promised land.

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