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Celebrating black history as the black family disintegrates

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 5, 2011;

Here we are, another Black History Month: time to lionize great black men and women of the past. Twenty-eight days to praise the first African American to do this and the first African American who did that. Another month of looking back with pride - as we ignore the calamity in our midst.

When Black History Month was celebrated in 1950, according to State University of New York research, 77.7 percent of black families had two parents. As of January 2010, according to the Census Bureau, the share of two-parent families among African Americans had fallen to 38 percent.

We know that children, particularly young male African Americans, benefit from parental marriage and from having a father in the home. Today, the majority of black children are born to single, unmarried mothers.

Celebrate? Let's celebrate.

Three years ago, I wrote about young girls in our city who are not learning what they are really worth, young men who aren't being taught to treat young women with respect, and boys and girls who are learning how to make babies but not how to raise them ["A Tragedy That Is Ours to Stop," op-ed, July 19, 2008].

Those conditions, the column suggested, find expression in youth violence, child abuse and neglect, school dropout rates, and the steady stream of young men flowing into the city's detention facilities.

Boys get guns, girls get babies. To buttress that point, I referred to the Web site of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which posted maps from 2005 and 2006 identifying the location of juvenile arrests and births to 15- to 19-year-olds in the District. Neighborhoods plagued by youth violence, the maps showed, were the same neighborhoods where birth rates among teenagers were highest.

Fast-forward to 2008, the latest year for which the organization has such data. The statistics are updated, but little changed: The maps show that juvenile arrests and teen births are still clustered in the same areas of the city. The three jurisdictions leading in teen births and juvenile arrests were Wards 8, 7 and 5.

Ward 8, represented by D.C. Council member Marion Barry, is first, with a total of 1,487 teen births and juvenile arrests.

Council member Yvette Alexander's Ward 7 ranks second with 1,386 combined teen births and juvenile arrests.

Third place goes to Ward 5, represented by council member Harry Thomas Jr.; it racked up 1,186 teen births and juvenile arrests.

This isn't top-secret stuff. Nor is the pattern new. We don't need maps to tell us what the problem of teen births means to the city.

We know that most teenage mothers don't graduate from high school; that many of the youths in the juvenile justice system are born to unmarried teens; and that children of teenagers are twice as likely to be abused or neglected and more likely to wind up in foster care.

We know, too, that children of teenage parents are more likely to become teen parents themselves.

An intergenerational cycle of dysfunction is unfolding before our eyes, even as we spend time rhapsodizing about our past.

No less discouraging is the response that has become ingrained.

Sixteen, unmarried and having a baby? No problem. Here are your food stamps, cash assistance and medical coverage. Can't be bothered with the kid? No sweat, there's foster care.

Make the young father step up to his responsibilities?

Consider this statement I received from a sexual health coordinator and youth programs coordinator in the District concerning a teen mother she is counseling: "She recently had a child by a man who is 24 years old and has 5 other children. He is homeless and does not work, but knows how to work young girls very well. . . .This young man is still trying to have more children."

He's a cause. Our community deals with his consequences.

A 16-year-old mother who reads at a sixth-grade level drops out of school? Blame the teacher. Knock the city for underserving girls during their second and third pregnancies. Blast social workers for not doing enough to help children with developmental disabilities or kids in foster care. Carp at the counselors responsible for troubled youth in detention.

Sure, tackle the consequences. Construct a bigger, better, more humane safety net. I'm for that, especially where children are concerned. And the causes?

God forbid, don't mention causes.

Celebrate? Let's celebrate.

kingc@washpost.com

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