A thick cloud of depression has hovered over Washingtonians, indeed all Americans, in recent days. Shaken by the television report on the crumbling black family structure and dismayed by the tales of young children having children as revealed in this newspaper by reporter Leon Dash, District residents are experiencing a confluence of emotions ranging from embarrassment and anger to the determination to effect change.
Many people are searching for solutions to this complex phenomenon. A few have even cried out for extreme measures such as incarcerating black males who father children and take no responsibility for their upbringing.
As CBS' Bill Moyers put it in his recent two-hour report: "What nearly four centuries of slavery, racism and segregation failed to do has happened in one generation. The black family structure -- the extended web of kinship ties that held blacks together through many hard times -- is crumbling."
In the documentary, viewers met Timothy McSeed, a high school dropout who had been arrested several times on robbery and drug charges and who had fathered six children by four different mothers but supported none of them. When asked by Moyers how he felt about having fathered so many babies, Timothy replied without any compunction: "Well, you get to see, if it ain't one thing you done -- like artwork, for instance . . . you can see what you've done if it's anything." Later, when Moyers asked where the mothers get the money to support his children, Timothy said: "Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare. And welfare gives them the stipend for the month. So what I'm not doing the government does."
After establishing that the children were accidents, Moyers went further, asking Timothy if he was just having a good time. "Yeah," answered Timothy. "A lovely time. I enjoyed myself."
If a fiction writer were looking for a character to live up to all the mythic and negative stereotypes of the black male, he could not have found a better subject than Timothy, who all during his responses exhibited unrealistic bravado and narcissism. But what Timothy did not say, and is probably ignorant of, is that even in his wildest fecund joys, he is a victim. Indeed, many poor young inner-city black men, like Timothy, are victims -- victims of historical racism as well as of their own fears, anxieties and perverse values.
But it wasn't always this way for black males. Only two decades ago, 75 percent of all black children had two parents in the home; today, nearly 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock. Single mothers, many of them teen-agers, and their children are the fastest growing segment of black America -- and the poorest.
In the wake of this increasing tragedy, the question must be asked: What happened? One answer might lie in the kinds of institutions that were developed during 200 years of segregation, and that have deteriorated during the brief decades of integration. During segregation, black communities were strong; a middle class existed that would not tolerate the irresponsible behavior of a Timothy McSeed.
But between 1954 and the present, the middle class moved out of many black communities, leaving behind their poorer neighbors who have become increasingly isolated. During that period our nation has experienced the civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and other movements, along with a sexual revolution, that have changed the social mores of our whole society.
In no way do I mean that integration is a bad thing or that we should abandon it. What I am saying, however, is that, with integration, blacks must begin to build stronger institutions to meet our changing needs, particularly those of the underclass.
Perhaps the aspect of black life that has suffered the most in recent years has been that of values. But reshaping black values in the inner city is not the answer by itself. Jobs pay a pivotal role. "Unless we deal directly with black male unemployment," said John Jacobs of the Urban League, "we can only treat the symptoms of family disintegration." Certainly, incarcerating black males who take no responsibility for their children, as Sol Levitan of George Washington University suggests, is not the answer. Unless inner-city children have an education, they will not be able to get decent paying jobs, and that frightening suggestion could become a reality.
The present conservative administratiion has chosen not to adequately address any of these issues. While many black organizations have mounted new efforts to address all of these problems, much more needs to be done, especially by black churches.
In the meantime, one of the things that the black middle class must do is go into the inner cities and try to do something, however small: make a friend, adopt a family, tutor a child, and become our brother's keeper.