One more civil rights taboo may be on its way out.
For a couple of years now, it has been all right for black leaders to talk about family disintegration as a source of some of the problems facing black America. More recently, the idea has gained acceptability that black people themselves, not just the government, must take a share of the responsibility for setting things right.
And last weekend in Jessup, Md., another taboo took a tumble when a speaker told delegates to the state convention of the NAACP that it is up to blacks to do something about black- on-black crime.
"Young black males between the ages of 16 and 24 comprise the majority of criminals and victims in violent crimes," Kurt L. Schmoke, Maryland state's attorney for Baltimore City, said. "We've got a generation of young men not giving themselves a chance."
Schmoke, who is black, acknowledged that social problems, including drug abuse and poverty, may contribute to the youthful violence, but he stressed that a substantial part of the solution lies with the black community itself, in cooperation with the authorities.
He and Baltimore Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson, also black, agreed that the problem of youthful crime is not just a criminal-justice problem but also a serious social problem, beyond the ability of the criminal justice system to handle, jail no longer being a deterrent to youthful crime.
"They begin to see (jail) as a rite of passage," Schmoke said. "They think it's expected. That's an awful legacy to pass on to our young people."
Schmoke, who, some say, may be Baltimore's next mayor, told the NAACP delegates little they didn't already know. The value of his remarks lies in the fact that he has opened the subject up for serious, public discussion.
Even so, some white people will cite his words to justify their opposition to training and employment programs for black youth, or as evidence that black attitudes and behavior, not racism, account for black disadvantage. It is the fear of this sort of (deliberate) misreading of what they say that has made black leaders reluctant to deal candidly with many of the problems confronting the black community, tempting them instead to attribute all black problems to racism.
"What I was trying to say," Schmoke said in a subsequent interview, "was that we have the responsibility to reach out to young men so that they don't continue to heap pain upon themselves -- and us. One of the toughest things to talk about, especially for a law-enforcement official, is this whole issue of race and crime. It can be inflammatory, especially when people take your words out of context and have you saying something you didn't intend to say."
But Schmoke understands at age 35 what a lot of people took a lot longer to learn: that telling the truth and running the risk of being misunderstood may be better than telling politically safe half-truths and leaving serious problems unaddressed.
It's like trying to be an effective auto mechanic in a shop where the only acceptable diagnosis is brake trouble. Sometimes it is brake trouble, and you need to know that in order to effect a repair. Sometimes the trouble has nothing to do with the brakes, and in that case it's important not to waste time talking about brakes.
Sometimes brake trouble is an important contributory factor. But even if it was locked brakes that overheated and ruined the engine, it is vital to understand that fixing the brakes won't rebuild the engine.
The point is not to exonerate the braking system (or racism) as a possible source of trouble. The point is that making a wrong diagnosis, even if it is politically popular, doesn't bring you any closer to an effective repair.