Tag Archives: civil rights

The “dream” plus 50

I watched with interest the series of commemorations a couple of weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. As I listened and read about the speeches, I began to wonder about the issues facing the African-American community, and for that matter, the entire American culture, today.

This is a sensitive topic to address, simply because I’m a 60-year-old white guy. I don’t want to come across as an insensitive bigot, but that seems to be the risk whenever you touch on anything related to race.

My question is this; after 50-plus years of struggle against oppression from outside the African-American community, has the civil rights movement now reached the point where the most fertile territory for continued growth is not outside that community, but rather within?

50 years ago, the issues were fairly clear. African Americans were restricted by a series of restraints imposed from outside their community — segregation, voting rights, fair housing, and so on. What’s the story today? Specifically, what are the issues, the causes and the solutions?

For the issues, I’ll turn to former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, who spoke at an event at a local college. He is a smart guy, a former two-term mayor and college professor. As quoted in the local newspaper, Johnson said:

“The fight definitely is not over.”

“Our unemployment rate is still twice that of whites, our poverty rate is astounding, our dropout rate is still very unacceptable, and you go on and on and on about the key factors in the lives of people of color…So the struggle must continue.”

Unemployment, poverty and dropout rate – those are good places to start. I’ll add a fourth — single parenthood, especially teenaged single-motherhood.

It is obvious the first three, and even the fourth, are all connected. If you drop out of high school, you will probably be unemployed, or only qualified for only low-paying jobs, and hence, be poor. If you start having children in your mid-teens, and without the benefit of a committed husband/father, the odds are also excellent that you will drop out of school, be un- or underemployed and poor. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the African American community is outrageous — nearly 68% (two and a half times the white community’s rate.) Unfortunately, that frequently means “Dad” is not around, and the children are being raised by single mothers, grandmothers, and so on.
The Brookings Institute produced its fairly famous three rules for avoiding poverty.

  • Finish high school
  • Don’t marry until 21 and don’t have children before marriage.
  • Have a full-time job.

It sounds simple. It is also clear that many young men and women of color are not following these guidelines.

I realize there are still external barriers that minorities will face. I won’t pretend it’s an entirely level playing field.  However, on an individual basis, none of these steps is all that difficult. For today’s young black teens, the right course is obvious. So how do you convince a generation of young people to actually act in their own best interest? I don’t think the answer is going to come from Washington or from people who look like me. The answer has to come from within the young people’s own community. Ultimately, you have to convince young African Americans (and young people of any ethnicity, for that matter) to stay in school and out of their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s pants. That ethic must come from within the families and the community, not from a government program.

Yes, Dr. Johnson, the fight must go on, and there are still steps society in general can take. But for a significant part of the problem, the solution must come from within. Perhaps it is time for African American leaders to look to that great comic strip philosopher, Pogo.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Two good summer reads

Over the past two weeks I finished two more books that were well outside of my usual subject matter. I typically go for adventures, thrillers, military or history. When I step out of my usual subject areas and enjoy the book, it must be pretty good.

The first is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The story focuses on the tumultuous domestic life of semi-pro race driver Denny Swift. His ups and downs are almost two steep to be believable, and he does some things so stupid you want to reach into the book and slap him “up da sida da head.” However, the saving grace of the book is the story is told in the first person, by Denny’s dog, Enzo. He is quite a character — with the soul of a human and forever frustrated by his lack of opposable thumbs and his inability to speak. He actually looks forward to the end of his dog-life, because he is certain he will be reborn as a human. Enzo’s observations on his master’s turmoils are both insightful and hilarious. You will want to strangle Denny, but you’ll love Enzo.

While I was reading the book, I kept looking down at Casey the Lab and wondering, “So what are you really thinking?”

Mrs. Poolman recommended “The Help” by Kathering Stockett, although she warned me it might be “too chicky” for my tastes. She was partially right, but the story is good enough to overcome the chicky-factor.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It is also told in the first person by “Skeeter” a young Ole Miss grad who wants to be a writer, and two African-American maids, aka “The Help.” Skeeter convinces several of the maids to help her write a book about their lives as black domestic help in pre-civil rights Mississippi. If “The Help” had been published in the time the story was set, it probably would have been considered shocking. Nearly 50 years later, much of the intensity of the social issues is now history. The draw to the book is not so much in the plot as in the characters. The two maids, Aibileen and Minnie are great. For much of the book, Minnie worries about a “great terrible awful” she has perpetrated on one of her former employers. When you find out what she actually did, you’ll want to cheer.

This is Stockett’s first novel, and she has room to improve. Skeeter’s primary antagonist, Hilly, her former college roommate, is overdrawn. She is viciously mean and vindictive, but still manages to be able to order her contemporaries to do whatever she tells them. And Stockett throws a major illness at another key character that adds nothing to the plot, and is just distracting.

All having been said, however, it is a good read. It’s on the top-ten list this week, and deserves to be there. I’ll be interested to check out Stockett’s next effort.