Panel on Disaffection of Black Youths Airs Concerns, Ideas

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Marcellus "Bishop" Allen, who joined the notorious Bloods street gang at age 9, had a blunt warning yesterday for the panel of national experts that gathered in Washington to discuss ways to reach troubled black men. Crime emergencies, prayer meetings and community vigils, he said, are ineffective after youngsters have turned to criminal activity.

"None of you can stop nothing we want to do," said Allen, a gang member who works to settle street conflicts in his hometown of Newark.

Allen's comments confirmed what academics, politicians and street-level organizers know from experience: People who feel disconnected from society do bad things.

Yesterday's forum, "Paths to Success: A Forum on Young African American Men," drew a crowd of about 150 to hear a 17-member panel discuss ways to end a cycle of neglect, abuse and violence that has led to high levels of incarceration and low achievement for too many.

Panelists said promoting positive behavior requires society to make significant changes in schools, churches and families. Former congressman Ronald Dellums took umbrage at the high rate of expulsions of black boys, particularly those still in preschool.

"Every institution is failing our young men," said Dellums, chairman of a national commission on the "life options of young black, Hispanic and Native American men."

"We're grinding young men of color up like glass," Dellums said. "We're not hearing them."

Allen, president of Saving OurSelves, a group that has brokered a cease-fire with the rival Crips gang, said that most gangbangers want to be loved and to know that they can be successful. "With our young brothers and sisters, we need them to know they got an option in life. If you don't, then you're lost."

The event was co-sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, The Washington Post and Harvard University, which funded a national survey this year on the attitudes of black men. One of the key findings was that -- despite common perceptions -- young black men are mostly optimistic about their futures. At the same time, 74 percent of young black men younger than 30 reported that a close friend or family member had been to prison, and 66 percent had a close friend or relative who had been murdered.

Professor Alvin Pouissant of Harvard, a panelist and an expert on race relations, said violence often begins as early as preschool, when children are abused, neglected or beaten too often by parents to get them in line. Parents who scold their children too harshly and ridicule them often are doing harm, he said.

"Research shows that the more you beat them, the angrier they are," he said. "It's much easier to pull the trigger if you are enraged, if you don't feel loved."

Whatever the reason, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said, the situation that has unfolded over the past several decades has decimated the role of a strong family -- something that had been the bedrock of black communities during slavery and the Civil Rights movement. She said the blame should be shared.

"Our community is full of marriageable young black women and unmarriageable young black men," she said. "The failure of government? Yes. But it's also a failure of black leadership. Government can't do it all."

Entertainer Bill Cosby, the featured speaker, has been on a national crusade to push for more parental involvement and has been criticized for saying that poor parents must do more to train their children. Yesterday, he chastised the media for distorting his comments and the images of black men. He stressed personal responsibility but acknowledged that stereotypes about black people remain so pervasive that every black baby -- even those of wealthy parents -- is assumed to be disadvantaged and poor.

"I don't like media who can't see or can't tell the truth," he said, singling out The Post for what he termed "drive-by" reporting. "I'm not interested in you telling me that things are not as bad as they seem. It's horrible out there."

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