In the past several years, I've seen the children of friends and acquaintances grow up and meet their families' expectations--small victories such as a "Junior Miss" title, attending a local or an Ivy League college, taking top honors at tough private schools, winning musical or tennis competitions. But I've also seen the children of others I know get sucked into the maelstrom--crime, alcohol, abortions, psychological inertia that keeps them from getting a job.
I thought of this as I read about a District man who was indicted in connection with the shooting and wounding of an off-duty D.C. police officer. The defendant lived with his mother in the fashionable North Portal Estates of 16th Street, goldest of the Gold Coast. One can almost feel that mother's pain.
But she is not alone. While more young blacks are doing well than are doing poorly, I keep seeing and hearing that some who are reaching their adulthood are not doing as well as we had all hoped.
One middle-class couple who gave their children everything confess to a "deep, sad hurt feeling" over the results. "I can't do anything for them because they don't want to do anything for themselves. In the middle of the night, I wonder if my son is in Southeast or in jail," said that mother.
These problems are not exclusively black. Many a white parent has agonized over similar difficulties. But there is a special poignancy here because these black youth should be looked to as anchors--the stable, upwardly mobile who would be leaders.
This is the generation that should be involved in carrying forward the fight for social and economic justice in which their parents were involved.
"What is creating this?" one friend moaned. "We worked and fought so hard for 20 years to give them opportunities, but many are not emotionally and psychologically ready to take their places."
"What we're probably looking at," says Dr. Joyce Ladner, professor of social work at Howard University, "is second-generation middle-class kids who were products of parents who remember all too well the pain of economic deprivation and segregation and who set out to try to keep their children from having those same . . . experiences.
"In so doing, they probably rendered a disservice and brought some harm in their kids' lack of motivation," she said. "I hate to think black people are capable of achieving only during duress and suffering . . . I don't know what happened, but I sense from my role as a teacher and the youngsters that I see that they don't have the same fortitude, toughness and strength of survival."
The deeper question here, the open wound black parents don't like to discuss, is, what has been the price of their success? "A lot of black parents have given up a lot to acquire material things and the price is being seen in their children," said Ladner, who also is a wife and mother. "We are all two-career families busy doing our things and the kids are getting the worst end of the deal."
Many black families' problems result from having bought the myth of the American Dream. They have a desperate need to accumulate possessions and to be part of the society. They reason that their success will trickle down to their kids, but fail to give time and get emotionally involved. "If you work full time," said Ladner, "you must give up some of your pleasures to provide kids quality time. We failed as a whole generation to pass on the human values . . . charity, benevolence, helping people less fortunate."
The 1960s was the only time in history when a large group of young blacks were in the vanguard of a movement for social change that achieved international publicity. Today's young people have neither the umbrella of a social movement, the glaring inequities nor the sympathetic president that made our marches successful. But the problems haven't disappeared. They've just grown more subtle, and the needs remain.
On a recent TV show examining local government officials who were activists 20 years ago, interviewer Charlie Cobb asked Councilman John Ray if anybody was pushing him to solve problems. "Nobody!" Ray exclaimed. "Young people don't seem to be interested in this arena." Mused Cobb sadly, "No young men getting stronger."
Those were strong words. They also were a strong challenge.