They line some streets. Staggering; calling to passerby; remembering a thousand disappointments out loud. They're disheveled, often filthy and almost always casualties of a hard life.
They are D.C.'s drunks. Chicago's drunks, L.A.'s, New York's and Atlanta's drunks. Wherever they are, if they're black, you can safely bet the rent money they're leaning against a wall or settled in on a stoop in the black part of town.
They're a two-fold problem; the publci nuisance and the private statistic with its own excuse. They're got a million stories to tell, but most people don't want to know about public drunks. We avoid eye contact and hurry past. That is, if we happen to have a reason to be in that kind of a neighborhood.
As it happens, that kind of neighborhood is almost every black community, and in this town, most of them are still black.
Whether they're private or public drinkers, blacks, about 70 per cent of the town, comprise 80 per cent of its alcoholics. Estimates on the total extent of alcoholism in D.C. vary widely. The Washington Area Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse says 129,000, or one in every five or six people in the city are alcoholics. The D.C. Office of Health Planning and Development (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Planning Division) perfers 1 in 10, and feels even better about 1 in 14.
Whatever the number, they're our husbands, wives, sisters, mothers and children. Our next door neighbors and best-loved friends. They go to our churches, and we sit in their outer offices waiting from them to mend our ills.
Our children pass them on the way to school -- and giggle and point. Whatever their reaction, they're being exposed every day. And we all know, we learn from our environments.
Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke talked to dozens of experts as she put together her series on the destructive force of alcoholism in the black community. Themes kept recurring. Racism is playing a major role in the increasing incidence, she was told again and again.
An acceptability of heavy drinking in the black community was traced back to segregation, when drinking was one of the few social outlets. Overwhelming sociological, health and environmental problems, many directly attributable to being black, rest on the shoulders of black Washington.
But most disturbing of what she heard was that alcoholism is increasing among blacks. And the numbers are including more women -- and worst of all, more children.
The tide will not be stemmed unless people start to care.
Janet Cooke found the same group of truant teen-agers boozing it up on the same corner three times in a two-week period. Where was the schools' truant officer? The responsible adults in the neighborhood?
Dr. Frederick Harper, a Howard University professor who studies black alcoholism extensively, says treatment is "too fragmented" in D.C. But he places part of the blame for the increasing alcoholism at the community's door. The biggest problem, he said, is getting black alcoholics to admit their drinking is a serious problem. Well-wishing friends and family, the people who stand the best chance of persuading them, should be on that job.
Alcoholism not only threatens the health and stability of black Washington, it also diminishes the prospects of its future, a forecast the community can least afford.