restricted access 114 White Out
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114 White Out ROGER WILKINS I live on a street in Washington, D.C., where the Speaker of the House, senators, congressmen, and a couple of Supreme Court justices also live. A few blocks away are two large public-housing projects. The Safeway where we all shop may be the most racially and economically integrated supermarket in America. Public servants with big titles shop alongside people who buy their staples with food stamps. And a couple of times a year there are street murders a half-mile away. Since the late fifties, when I was a welfare caseworker in poor black precincts in Cleveland , my heart has never left the inner city. I've lived elsewhere and have had varied jobs in the ensuing thirty-five years, but the problems I wrestled with in Cleveland have remained at the core of my concerns. Twenty-five years ago, I was the Justice Department official President Lyndon Johnson most often relied on to respond to urban riots. Fifteen years ago, I was writing an urban-affairs column for the New York Times. I lived in Greenwich Village, and, when I wanted to get the feeling of black poverty back into my veins before I began writing, I would have to ride the A train to Harlem and then suppress the feeling that I was a voyeur before getting down to work. I live where I do now because I hated being a voyeur among the most vulnerable of my fellow citizens, and also because I want my daughter Elizabeth, who is nine, to grow up in a truly integrated neighborhood. I want poor black people to be not just in our heads, but in our lives. I want us to see them whole, not as statistics and not as the stereotypes presented by our culture, but as neighbors. Whites spend a lot of time spinning fantasies about black people-especially the poorest of us. I want my poor neighbors to define themselves directly to me, unmediated. The night before I sat down to write these words, I left a neighborhood restaurant with my daughter and one of her closest friends, a little girl named Mercy. Mercy is white, the daughter of good people and close friends of my wife and me. They are at the far end of the political pole from us: they were Reagan political appointees. But our friendship, which grew from our children's friendship, is deep and real. As the children and I were walking from the restaurant toward Mercy's house we ran into a poor black woman with a child. She told me she was homeless and that the father of her child had disappeared. She had worked as long as family members could care for her child, but, when this support collapsed , she had to leave her job. She ended up in shelters and on the streets. The child, still in a stroller and not yet talking, was, in fact, black and beautiful. The young mother was distraught, clearly under great stress. In our neighborhood, there's not much likelihood that she would find a man with whom to form a family. There Mother jO'1es magazine. Copyright © 1992, Foundation for National Progress. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material White Out 659 are some single black men, but the ones I know live in a homeless shelter and the most enterprising try to eke out a few dollars by wiping off our autos at the car wash. Some are quite intelligent, but none has been able to catch on. As one said to me as he was scouring my wheels one night: "The world don't seem to have no more use for me." If drastic change does not occur, that doleful predicament may someday claim the child I saw in the stroller that night. With a distressed mother without income or a supportive extended family, the child is apt to be exposed at an early age to some of the hardest streets in our town. By the time she is fifteen, it is entirely possible that those streets, filled with poverty and with peers who have had no more chance in our America than she, will have claimed her. And so it goes. The industrial manufacturing jobs that have been points of entry into the mainstream of the economy for unskilled southern blacks-just as they had been for wave after wave of unskilled European immigrants in earlier decades-are disappearing from this country. Dr...


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