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Posted on Mon, Jun. 07, 2004


Wanted: Leaders to help folks get out of poverty

Nine years ago, on the heels of the Million Man March, the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Boston-area activist, wrote a scathing article in Sojourners magazine, warning of a black leadership vacuum being filled by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, capitalizing on the moribund state of the ''protest wing of the civil-rights movement'' and its adjutants in the black church.

Though the landmark October 1995 gathering didn't expand Farrakhan's constituency, or quite make good on its grander goals, to Rivers, its success in drawing the black community together and creating -- for a while, at least -- a sense of purpose and cohesion, signaled that the civil-rights movement as my mother's generation knew it, was officially dead and gone.

It's not entirely clear what has taken its place.

After my last column, for which I interviewed Rivers, I got a thoughtful letter from a 52-year-old man who grew up during what he called the ''heady days'' of the movement. He said that he could remember when lynching was considered commonplace and ''police dogs and fire hoses used to prevent us from voting.'' But he felt that blacks have lost something in the intervening years that helped prior generations right those wrongs: a strong emphasis on family, community, education, ''discipline, hard work and sacrifice.'' He said that when he was growing up, the message was: ``remove the barriers, and watch us thrive.''

Well, in many ways -- economic, social and political -- African Americans have thrived. Still, when I spoke to a lunchroom full of black seventh graders in Miami recently, I felt the need to remind them to go to college and not let anybody shame them out of doing well in school. When I was growing up in a black suburb in the '80s, getting straight A's was considered ''straight W'' -- meaning ''white.'' It still is. But if anti-intellectualism is all-American, it's especially destructive in black communities, where 50 years after Brown vs. Board, less than 50 percent of children are reading at grade level.

Studies show that black kids have a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school (versus a 68 percent chance for whites); 25 percent of black men are in court or prison and 25 percent of African Americans (and 20 percent of Hispanics) live in poverty (versus 8 percent of whites). In 2002, black child poverty outpaced white child poverty 30.2 percent to 9.5 percent.

What's the problem?

Maybe the po' folks' aren't ''holding up their end of the deal,'' as Bill Cosby said recently. But just what kind of bargain did economically disadvantaged blacks get from Cosby's generation? Integration? What difference does it make to a kid who can't read whether there are white kids in the class? What good is the right to sit at the lunch counter if you can't afford anything on the menu?

Cosby wasn't wrong to scold people for spending $200 for sneakers and nothing on ''Hooked on Phonics,'' and I know enough teachers to know that too often parents in poorer neighborhoods don't show up at the PTA.

But the socioeconomic wrongs of 2004 were just as wrong in 1994 and in 1964. Doesn't the fact that not much has changed reflect as poorly on the movement as on the unmoved?

''We don't have any national, high-visibility advocates for the urban poor,'' Rivers told me. ``The black middle-class political leadership ignored the poor. Affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act -- those things were important. But once the cities began to take a downturn, they didn't readjust the framework to take account of the change. The result is, the black, urban poor are suffering double segregation -- from whites and (from) middle-class blacks.''

Throw in a generation of welfare, which trapped millions of people in a cycle of poverty and dependence, plus a failure of the black leadership class to step in with an in-house ''Marshall plan'' on education, crime reduction and the promotion of values such as marriage after welfare reform took hold in the 1990s, and you begin to see why we are where we are.

''The broader political context -- and this is deep,'' Rivers said, ''is that the disinterest of the black core in the inner cities is now nonpartisan.'' Essentially, the black elite brokered a deal with white liberals and bought themselves a ticket out of the ghetto, and they never looked back.

''The new question,'' Rivers said, ``is: How do we get separate and equal? -- because poor black people are gonna be separate.''

Anybody up for a Million Man March?

Joy-Ann Reid is an online editor and a freelance writer.

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