An article Sunday incorrectly described Michigan District Court Judge Willie G. Lipscomb Jr. as a U.S. District Court judge.
Listen to the voices of black Detroit on the warts and scars of black America:
*"It's sad what we're seeing in our community, in terms of the teen-age pregnancy, in terms of the dope, in terms of the high school drop-outs . . . We have in the black underclass a culture of defeatism that says you can't even compete and don't even bother . . . so we're left to prey on our own . . . . We're now at the point where in the eyes of white people, our moral capital has been squandered," said Kenneth Cockrel, Detroit's leading black activist in the 1960s and 1970s, now a successful criminal lawyer and a likely future mayoral candidate.
*"A lot of the young [black] girls just want to have babies to get a bigger welfare check. And then they don't spend the money on the kid, they spend it on themselves. You see these young mothers wearing gold and designer jeans," said Vera Brown, a student here at Wayne State University.
"When a few blacks do make it over, instead of them trying to help those that they left behind, they . . . sell us out, sell us right out," said Sandra Gary, a divorced mother of three taking a machinists' training course so she can work her way off welfare.
*"Americans have grown comfortable with racism. People have become a little smoother about it, a little more polished about it . . . . But every day you step out that front door, if you don't think you're going to have to survive racism that day, you're mistaken," said U.S. District Court Judge Willie G. Lipscomb Jr.
Two reporters, one black and one white, spent a week in the nation's largest majority black city, where a blue-collar black middle-class coexists with a seemingly entrenched underclass, and where an emerging group of black professionals is following the time-worn path of affluence to the suburbs.
We interviewed blacks from all these walks of life to take the temperature of a slice of black America on the eve of the first national observance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
If there was a dominant flavor to the conversations, it was self-critical.
Why, we asked, do so many blacks remain stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder at a time when so many other blacks have marched into the economic mainstream through doors thrown open by King's struggles and, in cities like Detroit, into mayoral offices and council chambers?
Is it still racism? Is it some demonic structural change in the economy that has thwarted black mobility just as the legal barriers began to fall? Or is it a failing within?
The blacks we interviewed said yes, yes -- and yes.
The last yes, if not always the most emphatic, was surely the most difficult to deliver. And yet discussions about the collapse of the family structure in the black ghetto, about the social pathologies of wanton violence, dependency, alienation and self-loathing -- all taboo topics during the black-is-beautiful era of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- flowed freely through four days of interviewing.
"There used to be a reluctance to talk about these things," said Donald Woods, president of the Detroit Urban League. "The fact that we are starting now is progress in itself."
We also found blacks casting their search for solutions to these problems not toward government (whose motives and capabilities they seem to suspect), but toward themselves.
Three posters in the lobby of Woods' Urban League office on the edge of the city's sprawling east-side ghetto capture the mindset. Not a word in any of them about domestic budget cuts, affirmative action, civil rights enforcement or any of the other "black" debates that consume official Washington. They said:
*"Don't Make a Baby if You Can't Be a Father."
*"Blacks Killing Blacks Is the Leading Cause of Death Among Our Young People."
*"You Change a Life" (a call for blacks to volunteer in a Big Brother-type program for inner-city youth).
As blacks focus on what Woods' calls "internal development," they also worry that the economic gulf they see building within their community -- between those who are making it and those who aren't -- will render efforts at group self-help more problematic.
"We're seeing an increase in the estrangement between the 'buppies' black urban professionals and the people in the underclass," said Cockrel.
But there is another more cynical view, and it is widespread among all classes of blacks, which holds that white racism will always overwhelm black assimilation. "If I were Jewish, I could change my name, I could start anew," said Lipscomb, a judge in landlord-tenant court. "If you're black, you have a real difficult problem trying to blend in."
Coleman A. Young, Detroit's four-term mayor, is more blunt. "A black might be middle class and a black might make it, but a black can never escape racism. Blacks have historically tried to escape their blackness but racism has always driven them back . . . . In the words of boxer Joe Louis, 'You can run but you can't hide.' "
When the crusty Young became Detroit's first black mayor in 1974, it was a 50-50 city of 1.4 million, still polarized by racial tensions that had exploded seven years earlier in the worst urban rioting in American history.
Today, it is a 65 percent black city of 1.1 million, and demographers project it will be more than 80 percent black, with fewer than a million in population, by the turn of the century.
The depopulation is partly the result of white flight and partly the result of auto industry contraction. A generation ago, factory foremen would call Detroit's public high schools and ask that a busload of eager students be dropped off at the plant gates for the morning shift. Today, with Michigan's future pegged to high technology, high school dropouts wind up on city streets teeming with crime and drugs. The unemployment rate for black youth is estimated at 65 percent; even so, more than half of the students who enter Detroit's high schools drop out.
Young takes the traditional black politicians' view of the source of these problems. He said the black community is suffering from a "wholesale abdication of government responsibility for the social welfare of people," and laid the blame squarely on the doorstep of the federal government. He calls "asinine" the assertion by conservative thinkers, black as well as white, that welfare programs do more harm than good.
But another black elected executive in Detroit, William Lucas, whose office is four stories below Young's in the City/County Building, has an outlook worlds apart.
Lucas, a Democrat turned Republican, is set to run for governor this year from his current perch as executive of Wayne County, which includes Detroit and some of its suburbs. Lucas called government welfare programs "a drug . . . . that, instead of encouraging initiative, actually ends up keeping people pacified."
Debates of this kind played out among the nearly 100 blacks we interviewed, including a group of self-described "buppies" who are part of Detroit's expanding black professional class; a group of welfare recipients training to become machinists; a group of students at the sprawling, inner-city Wayne State University; a racially mixed group of high-school students in a suburban high school in Southfield, as well as teachers, social workers, clergymen and elected leaders.
Through all the conversations, common themes emerged: Family Unity, Moral Values
Nearly everyone agreed that the breakdown of the traditional black family structure -- teen-age pregnancies and the increasing number of female heads of households -- was the key internal problem underlying black America's continuing social and economic ills. "I'm all for the strengthening of the black family," said Sundiata Karamo, who is unemployed and studying to become a machinist. "We're not living up to our ideals."
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a Democratic senator from New York, published "The Negro Family," an analysis of the breakdown of the black family structure which warned that out-of-wedlock births and teen-age pregnancies could relegate large segments of black America to unequal status. The "Moynihan Report," as it came to be known, was vehemently attacked by black activists as racist and one-sided. Discussion of such matters immediately went into a deep freeze.
Now, 20 years later, as the disturbing statistics on family structure have grown far worse, many blacks are raising the same questions that Moynihan first asked.
In 1965, one-quarter of black births were out of wedlock. By 1983, 58 percent of all black births were to women without husbands -- and for black women under 20, the number was 86 percent.
Some blacks blamed a welfare system that they see as driving a wedge through black families, either by accident or design.
"We've been separated from our families," said Buford Glanton, an unemployed Detroiter taking the machinist training class. "We don't have any family structure, so you have mothers raising four or five kids by themselves and getting more money on general assistance than their man can make working a minimum-wage job, because the system is set up like that."
"You can't get a job when you drop out of school," said Laura Thomas, a journalism student at Wayne State University, "but you can have two or three kids and get on welfare."
Others look not to the system, but at a loosening of morality throughout society. "It's a deterioration of morals," said Kimberly Thigpen, another Wayne State journalism student. "When Reagan said 'bring America back,' I wish he'd bring back the morals and morality. I'm sick of seeing topless go-go places right around the corner from me."
Added Rev. Charles Butler, pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church: "We must start with the babies. We must start by instilling new values -- or, rather, old values. We must start with the young boys who think that the way to be a man is to inject semen into a woman."
"The only thing keeping us apart is the scuffling for that dollar," said James Breedlove, who has been unemployed or underemployed for as long as he can remember.
"Everybody knows the family is what's happening. But when you got to spend 18 hours out of every day just to get up that little chump change that you need, you cannot be in two places at one time. Then when you get back, you're evil because you had to go through ten piles of you-know-what just to get the little money together. You walk in the door and Momma's upset because you've been gone. She doesn't know what's happening and the kids have been bugging her to death. So now you got to fight.
"Everybody is aware of that. The family is what's happening. You need a male figure, you need a female -- a mother figure -- and the kids are supposed to do what they're told. But you can't be there and be out here trying to make what you need to keep the gas man from turning the heat off on a day like this, to keep that water running through those pipes when you turn that old spigot on, having some groceries in that old box when you open the door.
"I am not stupid. I am a black man and I know how important a family is. But I can't be in two places at once, at the house and out here trying to make money." Group Cohesion
The black family's state of disrepair was often viewed against the cohesion of the family structure in other immigrant groups, whose success stories seem to weigh heavily on blacks, provoking a curious mix of envy and resentment.
Here as elsewhere, blacks have seen successive waves of immigrants seize their slice of the American dream by moving into the small grocery stores, 7-Eleven convenience stores, gasoline stations and liquor outlets in black neighborhoods. Often their presence has been the source of tension, as blacks see these groups catapulting over them on the economic ladder.
In Washington, D.C., it's the Koreans. In Detroit, it's the Chaldeans -- Catholic Iraqis escaping persecution in their country who began landing here in the 1950s.
In any group of blacks, from the welfare recipients to professionals, the first mention of "those Chaldeans" was sure to incite an immediate chorus of complaints -- much based on hearsay -- about how they cheat the system by not paying taxes and using family members to avoid paying the minimum wage. But blacks often ended up praising those same Chaldeans for their close-knit families and their industriousness.
A discussion at the machinist-training school went this way: When asked about the Chaldean success in Detroit, Sundiata Karamo said, "They get a better break. Racism works differently for them."
Then Glanton spoke up. "What they do too is, they have their family structure. They come over and -- I know a Chaldean guy who did this -- they sponsor someone else to come over. They all lived in the same house. They all got welfare. The checks all went into a general pool. They divided that money for what had to be done for the families. They took the rest of the money and they bought property. Or they bought stores.
"They did it as a family unit, but we, as black people, from the beginning since we've been here, have been divided. We don't know our family structures, we don't know about pooling together because all we know how to do is pull away from each other in order to survive. If you had a piece of bread you had to grab that piece of bread because we didn't know about pooling bread together. We have been divided and conquered as a people."
This theme of blacks distrusting themselves came up in the buppie group. Richard Jones, an advertising executive, recalled the old adage he said still holds true today for too many: "If you want to die, go to a black doctor. If you want to go to jail, go to a black lawyer." Obligations of Success
Nearly everyone agreed that blacks who move into the economic mainstream had some obligation to reach back. But poorer blacks said the successful ones had a tendency to cut their ties from the old neighborhood, while some of those who reached middle-class status said they resented being made to feel guilty for their success.
"We are made to feel guilty because the underclass is looking at us," said Ed Dixon, who markets medical products to Detroit area hospitals and has been able to move his family to the suburbs.
"I may move my kids to Southfield, but I still have to come back to the city to get a haircut. When I come back, people say 'you owe us' and I resent that. That makes me feel guilty. But I looked at my insurance rates. I looked at the education of my children. I said my commitment was to my family. How do I get my children into an environment where they do not have to speak black English?
"It's not that I have forgotten. But I was concerned with my children."
With an increasing number of better-off blacks making the choice to leave inner cities for the good life of the suburbs, black America faces the prospect of a new generation of black youth growing up insulated from the blight of the inner city. While some of these young people insist they have not lost their social consciousness, they also said that when they return to old Detroit neighborhoods from the suburbs, they often feel like strangers.
"They look at us like little rich boys out here," said Don Walker, a black football player for Southfield High who says he takes the precaution of removing his suburban varsity letter jacket whenever he ventures back into his old neighborhood downtown. "They think we're weak. They say, 'Wow, he lives in a mansion now' . . . . That's how a lot of people perceive us, as the rich black kids." Racism
In virtually every conversation, the exercise in self-criticism was accompanied by assertions that white racism persists and is responsible for many black pathologies. "It is a hard job to re-psychologize your people after 400 years of degradation, to teach them to love themselves," said Schavi M. Diara, a Wayne State African-American studies teacher.
"I am prepared to say that this history of oppression has done more to blacks than whites will admit it has," said Arthur Johnson, Wayne State vice president of community relations. "It has done a lot. One way that experience has warped the minds of blacks is black kids who want to be white; is parents who have to train their kids to want a black doll; parents who have to teach them that Santa Claus is not white in their home. In our community, it's commonplace for parents to go out and buy a white doll. It seems prettier. That's the saddest part of it for me.
"I am into the (Bill) Cosby show and the almost redemptive experience of seeing 'The Color Purple' because you have a large group of black performers doing superbly. It is not the stories -- it is the time given to something that is real to me." Barriers to Progress
Even if less overt, racism still defines the barriers to black progress, blacks said.
"The history of Europeans in America leaves no doubt that racism is a very prevalent and violent disease in America," Rev. Butler said. "Racism, clearly and plainly, has done much to undermine black unity and blacks pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps."
For many here in Detroit, a rude reminder of persistent white attitudes about race came last November, when the people of neighboring Dearborn -- a virtually all-white bastion with a history of not allowing blacks to move in -- approved a referendum limiting the use of Dearborn parks to residents only. The park ban was widely viewed in black Detroit as a racist law.
Detroit's black leadership responded with a boycott of Dearborn stores -- a shopping ban which put a dent in the business of Fairlane Shopping Center, which was used by many black Detroiters. But Dearborn stuck by its new regulation on use of town parks.
While blacks accept white racism as a fact of everyday life, the perception of the barriers it presents varied widely along economic lines -- reflecting the different worlds separating the black middle class from the black underclass.
In inner-city Detroit, the black welfare mother, Sandra Gary, described her barrier this way: "The most I can hope to be is in the upper part of the lower class."
Several miles to the north, in the still predominantly white and affluent suburb of Southfield, one black high school student from a well-to-do family, Duminie Allen, saw his barrier in a different place: "I'll never get to be president," he said.
NEXT: Successful young blacks