M. Carl Holman doesn't preach and waggle accusing fingers; it isn't his style. But there is no mistaking the passion -- the almost palpable fear -- in his voice when he talks about the future of black children.
They are, he says quietly, in trouble; slipping academically to the point where a shocking percentage of the next generation will be economically expendable -- not because of racism but because they will lack the skills to compete in the labor market.
What can be done about it?
Holman, who, going back even before his tenure as president of the National Urban Coalition, has been as passionate as any civil rights advocate in pleading for government programs to help disadvantaged minorities, offers an answer that will surprise even some who think they know him:
"We must mobilize all our forces and begin again at the beginning, in preschool and elementary school, to educate our children for technological survival and maximum economic self- sufficiency . . . (and) much of the work to be done will have to be done by blacks themselves."
He wrote those words in a major piece in this month's Ebony magazine, triggering an avalanche of positive response that has disrupted the routine of his life. He underlined his points again in a recent interview.
"Black people really need to take charge of their own success and not look exclusively to those outside our community to chart our course," he said. "That's the first thing. The other thing is to concentrate on where our young people are going to be years from now.
"The demographic evidence shows clearly that we will need more and better-trained workers than we are now producing, particularly in the technical areas. Talking to scientists, we find that hildren need to get into the science/math/technical curriculum early, or we tend to lose them permanently. And yet black children are being allowed to get by taking only the bare minimum math and science courses."
Holman's notion, which he has been trying with some success to install as a national agenda, is to start exposing minority and female students to math and science as early as kindergarten to "get them hooked before they find out that math and science is something they're not expected to do well." To accomplish this, he is enlisting black superintendents, teachers, scientists -- anyone who understands the urgency of the situation and is willing to help address it.
"You get some interesting reactions," he said the other day. "First, I hear from those who tell me, 'What you're really saying is that the public sector doesn't have a role to play.' And then I hear from those who say, 'Good, Carl Holman has finally realized that the government is irrelevant to our problems.'
"I'm not saying either thing, of course. It's not a question of either/or but of emphasis. Obviously the government has an important role to play, but we can't afford to lie back and wait for government. Much of our help has to come from our own community -- churches, clubs, fraternities, sororities, fraternal orders and professional organizations.
"We may have to do some retraining of teachers. We may need to look at recapturing some of the 'burned- out' older teachers who have left the profession. We may have to give some thought to removing some of the rougher barriers to certification, so that people with PhDs in science won't be required to go back to teachers' college in order to teach."
Holman is on to something of profound significance, if he -- and we -- can pull it off. He understands the need for dramatic change: the drama and the sense of urgency can capture both the community and the children.
His emphasis on beginning with kindergarten and the earliest elementary grades is not to give up on remediation, he says. "We need to go on with the remediation we are now doing. But we also need to get to these youngsters right from the beginning. Why wait until they fail?"