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William Raspberry

Show Blacks How to Fill Their Glasses

By William Raspberry
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A19

The National Urban League issued its annual State of Black America report last week, and you won't be surprised to learn that, once again, the league is worried about the gap in well-being between blacks and whites.

There is a small refinement this time -- an "equality index" designed to measure everything from health and employment to civic engagement and volunteerism puts blacks at 73 percent of parity. But both the general finding and the recommended solutions are the same as they have been for as long as I've been following these reports: The black/white gap shows no signs of closing, and in some ways may be worsening, and the general society -- the government -- needs to do more.

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I wouldn't disagree with either the analysis or the need for more help for America's poor -- black and white -- who are essentially disconnected from the economy.

But I would propose that, whatever the value of pointing out the black/white gap, it might be a good deal more useful to take a hard look at the black/black gap.

What am I talking about? Listen to the Urban League's chief executive, Marc Morial, in an NPR interview with newsman Ed Gordon:

"The gains of the last 40 years," he said, "have created a new, larger, stronger black middle class. But many have been left behind. Still, one out of every four black Americans lives in poverty, and almost half of those who live in poverty live in extreme poverty. So you've got, if you will, a paradox."

You've got, if you will, something a good deal more interesting than a paradox. If racism (and racial neglect) is the major source of the gaps the Urban League would so like to narrow, then how can it be that three-fourths of black Americans have escaped poverty and that there is a "larger, stronger black middle class"?

Instead of spending the bulk of our attention on what white people have done (or failed to do), wouldn't it be interesting to examine what the members of that growing black middle class have done and are doing?

I'm not decrying the pessimism of seeing the glass as half empty. I'm talking about the importance of understanding how the glass came to be half full.

An examination of that half-full glass would show that it didn't take a general confession of guilt from white people, but it did require some broad efforts at opening wider the gates of opportunity. America did that, and blacks who were qualified, or optimistic enough to go and get qualified, found opportunity. (Isn't it interesting -- and encouraging -- that even in a politically conservative administration, nobody bothers anymore to count the number of top-level blacks? Or that the elevation of another black to the top spot in a major U.S. corporation no longer shocks us?) Look at those who have flowed through those widened gates, and you will see an unusual commitment to education, to civic involvement, to clean records and sterling reputations, to long-term thinking, to responsible parenthood.

Now look at those who form the basis for the Urban League's annual song of woe, and you will see too little of all these things.

White America, I am saying, has done a reasonably decent job of increasing opportunity for minorities, and those who were ready took full advantage. But white America hasn't done a very good job of getting people ready. Maybe it can't.

We blacks who have achieved some success can, however, and I'm convinced we must. Surely there is value in the Urban League's call for renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, provisions of which expire two years from now. Surely there is value in the league's call for universal early childhood education, an increase in the minimum wage and all the things on the short list of "prescriptions for change" laid out at last week's news conference.

But those of us who have found our way out of poverty and despair need to remember those who abetted our escape -- and do what we can to lead others to economic, social and political safety.

It is right to demand, as the Urban League does, help from the general society in providing greater opportunity. But it is vital to understand that there are, in that half-empty end of the glass, children (and not just children) whose circumstances have blinded them to the opportunity that already exists.

I'm not sure the government can help them learn to see it. I know we can. Will we?

willrasp@washpost.com


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