D.C.'s broken families should be Mayor Gray's priority

Saturday, January 1, 2011

If experience, maturity and leadership abilities are key ingredients in the makeup of a good mayor, then the most qualified person to lead the District will take the oath of office tomorrow. Vince Gray - a 68-year-old native Washingtonian, product of public schools, George Washington University graduate, nonprofit-sector executive and D.C. Council chairman - has just about seen and done it all.

This new job will require every bit of the knowledge and skills that Gray has acquired in more than 30 years of service.

Keeping the city afloat fiscally should be a top agenda item. Balancing with fairness the competing claims on a limited D.C. treasury should be high on Gray's agenda, too. And then there's his campaign pledge to build one city by bridging the District's racial and class divides. Together, those challenges represent a tall, essential, but manageable, order.

How well those objectives are achieved, however, depends on whether Gray takes on and frames a discussion about the one serious problem that no District mayor has openly confronted: the nuking of our city's nuclear families.

The consequences of that destruction are evident in our streets, courts and funeral parlors, and on the District's strained budget. You see it in foster care for abused and neglected children, school failures, juvenile detention facilities and group homes, and welfare programs for fatherless families.

"Children are left unprotected by normal family life" is how D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton put it in her September 2006 call for a "frank discussion on the steep decline of black marriage and family life."

That discussion is needed citywide and in public. The issue is no longer about where we are headed. It's where we are now.

Just look around.

Responsibility for raising children now falls on young women, many of whom are little more than children themselves. And when those unmarried mothers fail in shaping their children, child-rearing responsibility lands in the city's lap. It is a job that the city doesn't do well.

Men are missing. There are no fathers to share head-of-household duties, to teach, by their conduct, what it takes to be a responsible adult.

Now let's get something out of the way. I'm not interested in having a self-righteous "blame the victim" parley. Neither am I inclined to spend a lot of precious time debating the Great Society or the causes of the breakdown in black family structure that Lyndon Johnson attributed to "ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice." The causes are both internal and external.

Besides, I'm willing to stipulate to just about anything.

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