The young man, a serviceman about to finish his hitch here, had called because of something he'd heard me say on TV about children of the black underclass.
"We can rescue many of them," I had said, "but if a youngster is making $700 or $800 a week selling PCP or crack, I think we've lost him."
The serviceman agreed with that sad prognosis, but thought I should have pointed out that "the society" had so limited the options for so many of our young people that they "had no choice but to sell drugs."
It sounded like something I might have said a few years ago myself: just as impassioned, just as well-intended and just as wrong.
It is beyond arguing that black Americans, emphatically including youngsters in the inner cities, have fewer options than justice requires. But it is also true that too many of them fail to avail themselves of the opportunities that do exist.
Is this "society's" fault? Not if by society we mean what my caller meant: white people. The young man himself had grown up in Harlem, attended dreadful schools and been subjected to the temptations of the streets. But he had decided, on the advice of influential adults, to take charge of his life and avail himself of the opportunities before him, including the chance to join the military and learn a skill.
I don't mean to suggest that desperately poor youngsters -- naive, inexperienced and woefully ignorant of the world beyond their ghettoes -- should be blamed for all their bad choices. But the society that shares the responsibility is much closer at hand: parents, teachers, ministers, journalists. All of us have to help drive home to these young people the simple fact that even their limited options hold the potential for turning their lives around.
But we can do so only if we avoid two opposite traps. The first is the one the serviceman fell into: supposing that some amorphous "society" is principally responsible. The second is the one that proves so tempting to many conservatives: the notion that the solution is to stop mollycoddling the poor, including the children, and hold them responsible for their improvident behavior; that we should simply demand that they "shape up" and stop being stupid.
Well, yelling at these youngsters about their failure to make good decisions makes as much sense as yelling at me for using the wrong fork at high tea with the queen of England. Their inappropriate choices are the result not of perversity or willfulness but of ignorance. It's hard to make the right choices -- at tea or in life -- if you've never seen evidence that choices matter.
Too often, young people of the underclass see their own hard-working neighbors end up in poverty. Aside from the especially gifted -- the athletes and the entertainers -- the only success models they are likely to see in the neighborhood are the dope dealers.
Nor do they get much help from the "role models" we throw at them on school career days. They may admire the doctors, lawyers and TV anchors who come to tell them that hard work and perseverance pay off, but they seldom see any connection between these successful professionals and themselves. It might be far more useful to invite a handful of police sergeants, assistant fire chiefs, military officers and businessmen who grew up in the neighborhood, or one very much like it.
It does no good to show them that black people can make it. They know that. What they doubt is that black people like themselves can make it if they will only take fuller advantage of their too-limited opportunities.
The "society" of which my caller spoke certainly needs to do a lot more to increase the range of opportunities available to the children of the slums. But those of us whose stake is far more direct need to lay heavy stress on the necessity of taking advantage of the opportunities that already exist.
What our young people need is to be taught -- not just on career day but every day -- the extent to which they can control their own futures if they will only avail themselves of the options at hand