Teach a man that he needn't work for his daily bread, and you destroy a life. Teach a child he can forever "inherit" the previous generation's entitlement and you destroy an entire generation.
The Lyndon Johnson administration (1963-1968) legislated a national welfare system into existence that "reenslaved" thousands upon thousands of predominantly African-Americans for whom and all succeeding generations slavery was supposed to have ended with the addition of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
There was though one important difference between that which the Union victory in the American Civil War ended and that reinvented by the Lyndon Johnson Administration; unlike their nineteenth century predecessors, the "reenslaves" did not have to work.
One needn't look very far around the streets of Chicago to see that a permanent, welfare-based underclass of Americans has arisen whose way of life, de facto confinement to the urban ghetto, is on the public's dime and ever growing resentment of tax-paying Americans of whatever ethnic or racial background. Remember our country is a rainbow, right? Do you remember the words of poetess Emma Lazarus? 'Give me your tired, your poor ... yea, that's the one.'
The consequences for our nation have been staggering. The folks who brought us the perpetually-funded welfare state are the same folks who brought us such architectural and urban planning catastrophes as Cabrini Green public housing in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis (or should I say "warehousing" more accurately?)
And however horrendously difficult it was to escape the urban ghetto, it was never inescapable. Leaders of "African America" such as Malcolm X were only partly right. Black Americans did then and still do need more privately-owned enterprises and family businesses. And while the brotherhood of man was fraught with "generational stumbling blocks, the arguably justifiable anger of a Malcolm X never evolved beyond the stultifying counter progressive impact of anger and hate. If I simply cannot accept a man for being as much a human as I because his skin tone varies from mine, then I feel justified in wondering what hope have any of us .
Our Sages of Blessed Memory often remind us that "sinat hinam"-baseless hatred brought on the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. The only effective antidote to the scourge of baseless hatred is "ahavat hinam"-baseless love.
Put another way, we have to live out our own teachings. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" does not mean love your neighbor's wife instead of your own.
Unhappily, the "code of conduct" of countless American youth is NOT what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours, but rather what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine. It's played out on the streets of Chicago hundreds of times every hour of the day and night, every day of the week, every week of the month, all year round.
Hopelessness and violent criminality notwithstanding, the welfare state, our national encumbrance from a half-century ago, continues to be funded despite the fact its devastating effects worsen over time.
Are the established churches reliable allies in the fight to save minority youth from becoming residents of the state penal system?
As in any community so much of its success in retaining youth participation depends upon the wholesome direction and quality of its leadership, its teachings and values.
Does the church help to steer young, vulnerable people along the right path? I wish the truth were otherwise, but the gangbangers have upstaged the moral legitimacy of the church with their offers of protection, easy money, drugs, guns, sex and violence. Mayhem in a nutshell.
Teaching our nation's youth is, in fact, the job of the public schools, but doubt arises all too often whether they are fit for the task.
Do we have honest, courageous principals who care about Johnny and Mary's education? The mighty dollar talks; in fact, it shouts and a great deal more loudly than parents who should be shouting their lungs out about local fiduciary mismanagement and corrupt hiring practices by incompetent and corrupt principals for whom cronyism is simply part of taking of care of business.
A principal must be a leader whose vision for the greater good of the school community must first be credible, challenging but achievable, and ultimately beneficial. He sees beyond the confines of any one classroom and academic department; a visionary whose torch illumines what for many kids is a dark and gloomy path toward a brighter tomorrow.
What about our teachers?
Are they well-educated and enrolled in continuing graduate education? Do they speak standard English and insist upon its routine usage in all classrooms? There is no greater surety of a substantial portion of yet another generation of African-American youth lost to its future than to miseducate them in the language of Plessy vs. Ferguson*.
Does that seem harsh, Mr. President? Consult the spirits of great American luminaries: Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Dr. George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and convince me any one of the above wouldn't agree that fractured language skills put African American kids at a decisive disadvantage by the time they enter kindergarten.
Are our teachers creative thinkers who can inspire learning through their use of diverse educational materials and teaching methods? Are they tough enough and consistent enough to handle what are in many cases some very difficult classroom management situations?
These questions could continue for pages, but at the end of the school day, the bottom line is 'Can Johnny and Mary read and how well?'
Lesson of Love
"No, no, not 'axed' but 'asked'-pronounced 'a-s-k-t'".
I unashamedly taught this prototypical language arts lesson to my 7th grade classes in a Chicago west side school for four years before transferring to a high school. "If you want, I mean really want to succeed in today's working world, you must speak Standard English," I emphasized.
"Okay, again, ask-t, ask-t, ask-t." And, do you know what? No parent ever accused me of racism. My kids learned because their teacher cared enough to teach them properly. Simple as that.
It's All About Literacy
I've long been critical of our over-reliance upon standardized testing scores as a predictor of likely college success. They do, however, point to one undeniable fact.
The reading and comprehension skills of many of our so-called high school graduates are not even close to that which a typical college freshman requires. As far back as 1971, when a freshman at Northern Illinois University, I volunteered as a peer counselor to assist African-American students who had been admitted under provisions of the Affirmative Action program. In other words, they were not educationally qualified to be at the university. That was nearly forty years ago, but it might as well have been yesterday.
How does this happen? Many questions come to mind: Are Johnny's parents literate? Did a good reader read to Baby Mary when she came home from the hospital? I'll stop here. If either one or both of the answers is no, then we, as a nation, will soon face (if indeed we aren't already) an ever worsening incidence of illiteracy in our nation's youth, leading but not limited to higher dropout rates, escalating violent gang criminality and big city police departments worn down and out by the relentless continuity of urban crime.
As always, there are legitimate concerns about and exceptions to every rule without invalidating the rule: 1) Not all students in troubled high schools have been lost to their own futures. 2)There are many fine teachers in these same troubled schools who struggle daily to make a difference and are succeeding. 3) How many teenage biological parents are even aware of the difference between making a baby and raising a child and, of those, how many could explain it in a one page essay? "Every creature procreates but raising a child requires the maturity and commitment of mother and father," I used to preach to my own children as they were growing up, a lesson lost everyday on thousands of young people and whose preparedness for parenthood is non-existent. 4) While we recognize that not all children are not intellectually equal, we must renew our efforts to a national commitment "which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."*
No child gives up on himself before the adults in his life have. Nearly every child can scale the height of his/her educational wall if guided by caring, loving and knowledgeable parents and teachers who understand that a child can learn if taught according to his abilities.
Young Parents, Wake up!
How many children come to their first day of school not knowing their abc(s)? I am not a statistician, but I do know you must make every effort to insure that your child is not among them! Furthermore, read to your child. If you can't read well enough, find someone who can. Illiteracy has borne its ugly fruit by the time kids reach high school. It is your obligation to educate your pre-Kindergartners in English language proficiency and general preparedness which includes: toilet training, knowledge of one's first and last name, address, phone number and parents' names.
Turn your baby's room into his/her first classroom. Your child will be miles ahead of those kids whose parents use schools as drop off centers. Much of American education is in its current state of disarray because many young parents never understood the necessity of early childhood education and preparedness.
Charity Begins At Home
When was the last time you heard that? An old-fashioned moral teaching to be sure, regrettably no longer as commonplace in the American home today as it once was when folks were not embarrassed to admit they were God-fearing-when our nation's torch was a beacon for all people of good will and respect for the law.
I submit that Americans welcome the eternal tradition of the Ten Commandments (of which charity begins at home is a derivative teaching)into their homes and place them atop their mantles as once they were long ago.
Sneaking God back into our public schools? Oh please! That should be our worst problem. Let's be perfectly clear. We're not discussing an anomaly here but an ever more pervasive norm for a growing percentage of American high school graduates who are as ill-prepared to enter the marketplace and parenthood as the typical paroled felon is to re-enter society.
To The President of The United States of America
Please find the opportunity to speak to the nation in plain, old-fashioned, no-nonsense terms.
If I may, Mr. President, suggest the following speaking points to all American youth to whom it may apply:
1. Pull up your pants.
2. Buy a belt.
3. Turn your hat around.
4. Make a baby? Become a married parent.
5. Stop the epidemic of battering black women.
6. Apply for a library card and wear it out.
7. If you need a reading tutor, ask the librarian.
8. Speak properly, act like a person for God's sake.
Do you remember, Mr. President, beginning forty years ago, what the United Negro College Fund used to say? Is that no longer true?
*1898 Supreme Court case which held that "separate but equal" was not inherently unfair.
*from President Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island.