Jesse Jackson’s son has had the unfortunate duty of being a pall bearer at 12 funerals over his three high school years. All of them were for fellow students. “These boys can’t lose,” Jackson quoted his son in a recent television interview. “If they rob a bank and get the money, they win. If they get caught, they go to jail. It’s warm, they’re with their friends, they can eat, get medicine if they’re sick. If they get killed, they’re out of their misery.”

It is hard to conceive of human beings reduced to such reasoning. Yet this desperation testifies to the degree of the problem America’s black community faces.

Poverty and unemployment rates for blacks are at their highest levels since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1984, according to the Census Bureau, 34 of every 100 black persons were living in poverty; and the black unemployment rate is near 15 percent—more than 40 percent among teenagers of working age. In 1984, the median black family had about 56 cents to spend for every one dollar for white families. And the infant mortality rate is about twice as high among blacks as whites.

The black family, by all estimates, is disintegrating. Some 60 percent of black children have no father living in the home. More than half the births among blacks are out of wedlock, and 87 percent of those are to teenagers. According to a University of Chicago study, if things continue as they are, the turn of the century will see 70 percent of all black families headed by single women and less than 30 percent of all black men employed.

The current struggles of the black community, of course, must be under stood within the context of an abandonment of traditional values across racial lines. After all, rates of teen unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, school dropout, homicide, and suicide are at record highs for whites as well as blacks.

Yet America’s black culture is especially hard hit by these widespread social changes. It is a segment of American society that historically knew the immense suffering of slavery, and still suffers from the effects of racism. And just as the pain of this community is not contrived within racial boundaries, it cannot be contained within those boundaries. As sociologist Lee Rainwater has written, “The lower the level of resources available to an individual … the higher the risk to his sense of well-being and the higher the risk to the rest of society of his engaging in ‘deviant’ behavior that is destructive to the well-being of others.”

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All Americans (and Christians especially, who profess a concern for others) have a stake in seeing black culture recover. Central to the task of reversing its dissolution is the question of responsibility. Is it the fault of society, of the system? Is it fair to blame slavery and racism? To what extent are poverty’s victims themselves responsible?

Losing Ground: But Why?

Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground has fundamentally altered the debate on these issues (CT, June 14, 1985, p. 26). Murray essentially argues that American social policy, including affirmative action and welfare, has functioned to reward laziness and to break up families, resulting in the virtual institutionalization of poverty. Many black commentators agree there is something wrong with a system that pays a father to live apart from his family or to refrain from pursuing gainful employment

However, blacks by and large resent the implication that anyone who wants a job in 1986 can find one. (And a job does not necessarily mean escape from poverty: 20 percent of the black men working in 1980 remained a part of the the underclass.) Blacks maintain that wholesale critics of affirmative action have ignored the reality of contemporary racism and historical racism’s continuing effects.

Racism’S Effects

Some 20 years ago, Martin Luther King’s six-year-old daughter, Yolanda, saw a television commercial for Funtown, an amusement park near Atlanta. She begged her parents to take her there. King recounted the experience in a 1965 interview:

“I have won some applause as a speaker, but my tongue twisted and my speech stammered seeking to explain … why the public invitation on television didn’t include her, and others like her. One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her that Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized that at that moment the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky, that at that moment her personality had begun to warp with that first unconscious bitterness toward white people.”

Hollywood regularly reminds us of our country’s historical injustice to the black race with movies like Ragtime and Places in the Heart. Typically, these movies are set in the past. Racism is seen as a sad chapter of the past, but not the present.

Yet it was only in February of this year that Dallas County, Alabama, relinquished the “at-large” electoral system that had effectively excluded blacks from participating in county government. In some communities, the change has enabled blacks to serve in government for the first time since Reconstruction. There remain many jurisdictions in which the electoral system limits the effective political participation of blacks.

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There are many indications of subtle racism in society, including the church. William Bentley, head of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, Inc., says, “The problems of the black community cannot be explained purely by racism, but they can’t be explained without it. The vast majority of Americans aren’t even aware of how much racism is a part of the air we breathe.”

A recent study shows that the Southern Baptist Convention is the most racially inclusive of all major white denominations. But: “Believe it or not, there are still people who teach the curse of Ham story as the biblical sanction for racist attitudes,” says Emmanuel McCall, who is the first black director of the black church relations department for the Southern Baptist Convention. “Our department is there to help Southern Baptists be more sensitive to the need for dealing with racial immaturity.”

Rufus Jones, past-president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), agrees that racism still exists in the church. In the 1950s, as director of the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society, Jones broke new ground by recommending the appointment of a black missionary. “No evangelical leader would ever say he’s a racist,” Jones says, “but deep inside some are.”

So racism remains. But even if it were eradicated, its effects would not be. All blacks the age of Yolanda King are now only in their early thirties. Overt racism and its scars are barely beneath the surface of the nation’s history.

Peril—And Promise

A growing number of black spokesmen, while not denying racism’s reality, feel that it can become a crutch to avoid responsibility on the part of the black community.

One who thinks so is Harvard University professor Glenn Loury, who insists, “It’s about time we stop talking about white racism—the enemy without—and start taking action against black apathy—the enemy within.” Loury explicitly states that he is not in favor of eliminating all governmental intervention, as in Charles Murray’s proposed abolition of welfare. But the “generations of blacks who suffered under Jim Crow deserve something more than simply having their travails used as an excuse for current failures.”

Increasingly, blacks and whites recognize the need for both governmental and local initiative. They realize welfare’s systemic flaws, while acknowledging that some government programs succeed in giving deprived people a fair chance to become full participants in society.

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But once given that fighting chance, the black community wants to depend on itself. There are clearly problems—but there is just as clearly an abundance of resources.

Says Loury: “Modern research has shown that despite the terrible economic and social oppression to which the slaves were subjected, they created a vibrant familial, religious, and cultural tradition which continues to enrich black America.”

Since political and financial channels were long closed to blacks, it is the church that looms largest in the black American heritage. As Emmanuel McCall of the Southern Baptist Convention puts it, “The church has been the leader of all the positive struggles of the black community.” To meet the peril—and the promise—of black culture, he says, “We must do everything possible to re-empower the black church.”

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