Dear Marion Barry:
So it looks like you're on your way back to the D.C. Council, having trounced your former supporter and campaign manager in the Democratic primary for the seat.
Congratulations and all that, of course. But could I talk to you for a minute or two?
The adult illiteracy rate for the District of Columbia is 37 percent. We're talking about people who can't read a map, fill out an application for employment or Social Security, or hold a job that requires reading ability beyond the third-grade level. I'd wager that hardly any of that 37 percent are residents of the more affluent wards, which means that some places in the city -- most definitely including your Ward 8 -- have an illiteracy rate well above that 37 percent.
Now, I don't expect you to teach these adults to read. I make a different point -- a series of points, really. These are not necessarily people who came to Washington with inferior reading skills. An awful lot of them are products of the D.C. school system, which is still turning out functional illiterates. I'm sure you saw the report last year that the city's fourth- and eighth-graders score lower on reading and writing tests than their counterparts in such cities as Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.
We're about the same age, so I know you remember when people with marginal reading skills could still feed their families if they were willing to work hard. But when was the last time you had an attendant gas up your car or wash your windshield or do any of the things that poorly educated workers used to do?
Even low-paid, entry level jobs -- jobs your constituents could use -- are being outsourced to India and elsewhere.
What I'm saying, Marion, is this: There is a crisis in Washington -- even if our elected officials refuse to acknowledge it -- and your Anacostia home base is the epicenter of that crisis. And it exists not just in Washington but in much of urban and rural America, particularly among America's black and brown poor.
The implications of this crisis are staggering. Illiteracy obviously leads to unemployment, but it also leads to poor health, despair and crime. (You ought to check the illiteracy rates among our prison population or among the young mothers who keep our infant mortality rate embarrassingly high.) Ignorance produces a cohort of people with no stake in the civil society and thus is a destabilizing influence.
And we keep churning out more ignorance every day.
The wonder is that so many intelligent, well-meaning adults have failed to see all this for the crisis it is. Bill Cosby tried to help, but his initial criticism of "knucklehead" teenagers who behave poorly and don't speak proper English didn't go over all that well except among those who didn't really need his advice.
Cosby recently modified his approach along the lines I'm urging on you. When the flood waters threaten to inundate a community, it's not particularly helpful to yell at people who didn't pick up their sandbags or who built their houses too low to the ground. The people you and Coz are concerned about don't need yelling; they need leadership. And if you have been anything in the nearly 40 years I've known you, it's a leader.
You have demonstrated that you can use the Ward 8 folk who adore you as a steppingstone back to political power. I'm making the presumptuous suggestion that you lead them. Because you worked your way from the Mississippi cotton fields to a place of importance, you know that poverty is an inconvenience, not a life sentence. But you also know that ignorance can make it one. Lead your people out of ignorance.
Because they are our people, too, you needn't do it alone. If you will seriously undertake to make a difference for the people in Ward 8 -- not just summer jobs or a patronage position somewhere, but a real difference -- you'll be surprised at the amount of help you'll get from people across this city, even across this nation.
The truth is, America hasn't really figured out how to address the problems that have produced a crisis in our inner cities. Maybe you could show us how.