Today's Native Sons

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"The only thing I did in school every day was fight and shoot," says 27- year-old Booker Cole, with an air of bravado. "There was a time when people wouldn't even talk to me because I would either beat them up or 'smoke' them if I didn't like what they said." A member of one of Los Angeles' biggest black street-gang networks since he was ten, Cole has served time for robbery and cocaine dealing. Now he is back in jail after being sentenced last May to serve six years for assault with a deadly weapon. "Death is a part of living," says he. "The only thing I can do is strap two .44s on my chest, keep an Uzi under the seat and a .45 in my hand. If they're going to get me, I'll take some of them with me."

Booker Cole belongs to the black community's newest lost generation, the shadow that America crosses the street to avoid and finds uncomfortable to discuss. It evokes a sense of fear laced with guilt, anger tinged with racism. For many of these youths, fathering children out of wedlock and committing crimes are rites of passage. Richard Wright drew a complex portrait of such disaffected young black men in the character of Bigger Thomas, the antihero of his controversial 1940 protest novel Native Son. Today there is a new generation of Bigger Thomases in the U.S., thousands of Native Sons who can be seen hanging out on street corners, talking tough, listening to music boxes, dealing drugs, slipping into lives of crime.

In Washington, as elsewhere, downtown shopkeepers lock their doors and refuse to buzz them in, provoking an agonizing debate about whether such actions are justified. In New York City, conflicted emotions simmer to the surface when the subject turns to Bernhard Goetz and the shots he fired at four young blacks aboard a Manhattan subway train. A nation that would like to believe it can shun stereotypes, that cherishes the ideals of equality and brotherhood, continues to be haunted by the plight of a segment of its citizenry that remains mired in a seemingly intractable dilemma of race and poverty: the young, black males of its underclass.

Despite all the problems that have historically afflicted their community -- from slavery to Jim Crow laws to de facto segregation -- large numbers of blacks in recent decades have been able to work their way into the broader economic and social life of the nation. Though the poverty rate for blacks is 31%, compared with 11% for whites, many have become part of a growing black middle class, enjoying hard-won gains in civil rights, politics and wage equality. Yet a seemingly unshrinkable segment of urban males -- perhaps as much as 50% of young black males in certain cities -- still find themselves cut off from the American mainstream. Unemployed and undereducated, they seem unable, and in some cases unwilling, to fit into the broader society. While black men account for only 6% of America's population, they make up half its male prisoners. The leading cause of death among young black men is murder: they have a 1-in-21 chance of becoming murder victims, more than six times greater than the population as a whole. While the national unemployment rate is 6.9%, for black men it is 15%, and for black teens it remains more than 40%. Some 18% of black males drop out of high school. This hard-core segment of the community, dominated by young men who are both the victims of broken families and perpetrators of new ones, has evolved into an entrenched subculture, where poverty and despair and crime are recycled from one generation to the next.

Some attribute the Native Sons crisis to chronic unemployment, segregated ghettos, poor education and sweeping changes in America's industrial economy. Others point to the steady migration from the inner cities of successful blacks who could serve as role models and hold together the institutions of church and family. To many conservatives, the situation reflects a social pathology caused by welfare handouts and the decline of morality. It is, understandably, an explosive topic, one fraught with a blame-the-victim undertone that many people believe is thinly disguised racism. Yet there is a growing awareness, particularly within the black community, that the issue can no longer be ignored and the debate no longer muted. "The facts started coming out, and people realized that a lot of the problems had reached catastrophic proportions," says William Wilson, an economist at the University of Chicago. "I think a number of black leaders and intellectuals are getting up the nerve to talk about the issues."

In the complex mix of forces that has led to the dilemma of these young % men, joblessness is perhaps the most central. A report released this month by the Census Bureau and the Conference Board finds that a "large number of blacks are falling out of the mainstream of our economic life." In 1950 the unemployment rate for young blacks was 1 1/2 times greater than that for young whites. Now it is more than two times greater.

Blacks have been particularly hard hit by the shift to an economy geared more to service and high-tech opportunities than to factory jobs. In The New American Poverty, Michael Harrington writes that the greatest movement of Southern blacks to industrial cities came just as American manufacturing was beginning to decline after World War II. "That huge migration from the rural south . . . was much too great for a society that was switching from smokestacks to services, from high wages to low, and eventually to chronic high rates of unemployment that penalized the young, the less educated and the latest arrivals. That is, it penalized blacks most of all." Says Wilson: "It's as though racism, having put the black underclass in its economic place, stepped aside to watch technological change finish the job."

Some theorists put part of the blame for the unemployment problem on the behavior of black youths. Glenn Loury, a political economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, notes, "The characteristics, the attitudes, history, criminal-arrest records and other qualities of the young men themselves make them difficult to employ." Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of A Place on the Corner, a 1978 study of the lost men of the ghetto, believes that out of a misplaced sense of pride, many black youths are unwilling to accept the low- paying, low-prestige jobs that their forebears held. "They puzzle the older generation," says Anderson, "who say, 'I was brought up to do any kind of work I could in order to survive.' These youths will not settle for menial labor."

Getting a good job in America often depends on being part of a culture that instills ambition, provides examples of the work ethic and, not least of all, offers personal connections to potential employers. But the migration of successful blacks out of the ghetto has left it populated by the less skilled and the less hopeful. Most ghetto shops and small businesses are run by outsiders. Says Harriet McAdoo of Howard University's Department of Social Work: "Unlike kids in black communities in earlier years, where poor and not- & poor were in the same school together, kids today don't have somebody moving up and out, somebody going to college, somebody as an example."

Drugs have produced an alternative economy that can provide high wages and self-esteem to young men who cannot earn either in the mainstream. With the lack of role models in the ghetto, successful neighborhood drug dealers often become heroes to inner-city kids. "The males in the community who are law abiding and decent have less and less respect," says Anderson. "Today you find the hustlers out there taking time for young people." Many residents of Chicago's South Side last week grieved over the assassination of 49-year-old Willie ("Flukey") Stokes, a flamboyant drug dealer who enjoyed handing out thousands of dollars to the needy.

Drugs also fuel much of the violence in the inner city. "The ones that are dopers, they don't fear nothing," says Hermon DeJurnett, 26, of south central Los Angeles. He knows. Almost two years ago, a good portion of his calf was blown away when he was shot at point-blank range -- by his cousin. "He wanted money for drugs," contends DeJurnett. "He just flipped out and blasted me." A heavyset former gang member who once served eleven months for mugging a woman and dislocating her shoulder, DeJurnett now has a part-time job as a construction worker and lives in a small stucco house with his wife and two boys. He blames the drug trade for much of the violence that marked the life he used to lead. "There was a time when a guy could smoke a joint and be content. Now they want to smoke $1,000 worth of cocaine in a night. That's where the violence starts."

For this generation of street-corner men, violence has reached such a level of pervasiveness that it is accepted almost matter-of-factly. Young men are beaten and killed not only over money, girlfriends and drugs but often for saying the wrong thing or wearing the wrong type of clothes. Acts of brutality serve as a way of proving one's manhood, and the casual nature of the violence might reflect a general feeling that life is not worth much in the ghetto.

"The idea of mask and game playing is very important here. We're talking about an almost Oriental kind of concept of face and honor," says John Edgar Wideman, author of Brothers and Keepers, a 1985 book about his relationship with his brother Robbie, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Says Wideman of life on the street: "There is an invisible value system in which people are quite literally willing to go to war because somebody looks at them cross-eyed. When you have that kind of tension, when you have those rules that are worth life and death over very minimal matters, you have a situation that is obviously very explosive, which nobody is in control of."

Given the vicissitudes of inner-city life today, the odds against escaping the ghetto and the treachery of the street seem greater than ever before. "It was difficult for me and my generation," says Claude Brown, whose 1965 autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, drew a harrowing picture of teenage delinquency in Harlem. "It's almost impossible now."

The Native Son crisis is contributing to the breakdown of the family structure in the inner city, a trend that is seen as both a cause and an effect of the poverty cycle. According to Census Bureau statistics, nearly two-thirds of all black children are born to unwed mothers. Of the nation's 4.6 million black families with children, 2.6 million are headed by a single woman -- and in some ghetto areas it is estimated to be close to 90%. As a result, most inner-city black children never know the experience of having a father at home with steady work who can instill the ambitions and habits that lead to success.

"It's like a pattern," says Sybil Lemon. "I never thought about that. If I had, I wouldn't want to be like that." At 22, Lemon can see the pattern clearly now. "We're talking about my mother, my auntie and two cousins." Each of them became pregnant in her teens, dropped out of school, went on welfare. So did Sybil. She was 17 when she met Jeffrey. "I was introduced to so many things through him," she recalls, "like liquor and drugs and stuff." Today she lives with her mother in a suburb of Chicago and supports her two-year-old twins and an infant on a monthly welfare check. She no longer sees Jeffrey, an unemployed dropout. "I didn't love him," she says. "Why did I go with him?" she asks. "Why not?"

The pattern that Lemon describes is more than one just of teenage pregnancy. In fact, the rate of births to black teenagers shows signs of declining. Yet the number of fatherless black families continues to grow, because a lower percentage of pregnant women are getting married. Census figures show 42% of single black women ages 18 to 29 have one or more children, vs. 7% among whites that age. "They are not following up pregnancy with marriage," says Chicago's William Wilson, "because joblessness among young black males in the inner city is so high that the male marriageable pool has declined to almost nothing."

Indeed, Wilson estimates that there are fewer than 50 "marriageable" black men between the ages of 20 and 24 for every 100 black women of the same age group. Says Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley: "We now have a black population whose labor has been rendered superfluous." He adds, "Statistically, it is impossible for even a third of all black women in this age group to be married to employed black men earning above poverty incomes." Some partly blame a welfare system based on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which often makes it financially disadvantageous for a man to stay at home. In California, for example, a person in a minimum-wage job would gross about $580 a month. Factoring in Social Security deductions, food stamps and other benefits that would go to a typical worker with a spouse and child, the family would get a monthly income of about $737, that is, $246 per family member. If there were no wage earner, however, the mother and child would receive about $498 from AFDC, along with $74 in food stamps, for a total monthly income of $572, or $286 each for the mother and child. They would also receive comprehensive medical coverage. Percy Steel, president of the Urban League chapter in Oakland, says of an unemployed father: "If he has feelings for his family, he gets lost. Welfare is tearing these families apart."

At age 26, Willomenia Williams of Los Angeles is the mother of eight children, fathered by three different men, none of whom has provided much help in raising his offspring. She gets $698 a month in AFDC and $125 in food stamps, more than any of her former boyfriends could offer. "If they can't do their part," she says, "I don't think they should be coming around." For a while, Williams lived in a private shelter run by a group called Parents of Watts. Alice Harris, a woman known for her ready smile and generosity, runs the program. "Of course welfare is breaking apart families," Harris says. President Reagan's task force on the American family made a similar contention two weeks ago: "Easy availability of welfare in all of its forms has become a powerful force for the destruction of family life through perpetuation of the welfare culture."

But others sharply dispute this notion. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of ! New York, who brought attention to the plight of the black family in a controversial report two decades ago, called the Administration study "less a policy paper than a tantrum. They're not writing from facts. This is just ideology." Indeed, there is little hard evidence to show that welfare alone encourages family breakdown. A study by Sociologists David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, of Harvard's Kennedy School, found no correlation between the birth rates for unwed mothers and welfare-benefit levels from state to state. They argue, "As an explanation for the dramatic changes in family structure, welfare benefits are largely impotent."

The persistence of the Native Sons problem shows how difficult it is to find solutions. Neither the spending programs of the 1970s nor the modest sustained growth and laissez-faire attitude of the Reagan years have reversed the decline.

One area of agreement is that the first necessity is to get people into the workplace. Family stability would be vastly greater, says Harriet Michel, president of the New York Urban League, "if black men, women and teenagers could get jobs when they needed them." When asked what would alleviate the breakdown of poor families, Moynihan replies simply, "Jobs." President Reagan defends his policies by arguing that his economic approach has led to the creation of new jobs, which he has called the "greatest social program we have."

The problem facing inner-city youths, however, has been that they seem to reap little of the economic benefit even when the job market is expanding. Congressman Jack Kemp, a Republican from upstate New York, is a leading advocate of urban enterprise zones, which would use tax incentives to encourage businesses to provide jobs in depressed urban areas. Others feel that it is necessary to create work programs that will draw young blacks away from the inner cities, where the underclass culture makes it extremely difficult to break out of the poverty cycle. Nicholas Lemann, a journalist with the Atlantic, describes the migration of unskilled Southern blacks into the inner cities followed by the subsequent migration out by those with steady jobs. He argues that the only path into the American economic mainstream involves breaking out of the ghettos.

Another avenue being explored is welfare reform. More than 20 states are experimenting with some form of "workfare," which requires recipients to accept training and jobs. According to Governor Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts' highly successful program, launched in 1983, has placed thousands of AFDC beneficiaries in full- or part-time jobs and has saved tax- payers an estimated $69 million. New York hopes to enroll more than 200,000 of its 1.1 million public-assistance recipients in a remodeled workfare program.

Critics of Reagan's domestic policies say that the cuts in social spending he has made hit the poor particularly hard. According to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, programs aiding impoverished children and families have lost $10 billion since 1980. The federal Work Incentive Program, which provides job training and support services to welfare recipients, has been cut from $210.5 million to $110 million in the fiscal 1987 budget. The President has proposed junking the program altogether.

The problems facing black America's impoverished youth, however, cannot be solved simply by more Government spending. Black leaders are becoming increasingly outspoken about the need to confront the problem within the community. In cities around the country, programs run by such groups as the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P. and by neighborhood activists are seeking to promote job training, education and stable families. "We have to get these young males to understand the responsibilities that go along with fathering a child," says Mary Frances Berry, a veteran civil rights leader. "We have to make that the issue to highlight in the black community."

Basic education is also crucial, but with so many of America's inner-city schools in disarray, outside programs are often the key to childrens' academic success. "It's a vicious cycle," says Babette Edwards of the Harlem Tutorial and Referral Project. "Low standards, the lack of a rigorous, challenging curriculum is detrimental to kids." Her organization stresses basic reading and writing skills in individual and small-group after-school sessions.

Some of the most successful projects are those that offer job training. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee employs 600 people and runs on a $7.4 million annual budget. Each year the organization trains as many as 400 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 and boasts a 90% placement rate in such jobs as security guard, bank clerk and computer operator. Chicago's nonprofit Safer Foundation helps get jobs for about 60% of its clients. But for kids who go to Safer, young offenders with an average of ten arrests in their short lives, just having someone to talk to can be as important as getting work. "We're like the hole in the teakettle," says Counselor Dan Coughlin. "We can let off some of the pressure, but we can't solve the problem."

William Jones, 39, never knew his father. He and his six siblings grew up on welfare in his mother's Harlem household. Like so many in the inner city, he became disillusioned with high school, dropped out, got into drugs. "I was on the street. I felt I knew everything," he remembers. "I only started missing my schooling when my kids came along. That's when I knew what I didn't know." Eleven years ago, the teenage mother of Jones' two children left, never to be heard from again. Shortly thereafter, Jones lost his job and went on welfare.

Today he is raising his kids, as well as seven of his nephews and nieces, ages 6 to 18, whose mother could no longer cope with the pressures of bringing them up. He and his mother, along with the nine children, live in a two- bedroom, $134-a-month apartment. He is off drugs. He is also off the welfare rolls, earning his living as a community organizer at Harlem's Family Life and Sex Education Program.

"We try to give kids things to go for," says Jones. He knows there is no easy way to conquer the cycle of broken homes and poverty. "There are a lot of roadblocks out there. You got drugs on the street, you got alcohol," he says. "But if you keep behind your kids and give them a helping hand, it's O.K." Each week he gets on the phone, reminding his teenage charges about their next meeting. Those who have no phone he visits in person. Every week he and a co-worker remind all 75 of them, and they keep coming back.