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Rescuing the children who come after McKenzie [Letter]

Thanks for Raymond Daniel Burke's poignant commentary on the drive-by shooting of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott ("Apathetic no more," Aug. 5).

In 1992 Dantrell Davis, a 7-year-old resident of Chicago's Cabrini-Green who was walking to school on the project grounds holding his mother's hand, was fatally shot by a sniper. Dantrell was one of those who, as Mr. Burke says, "have gone before" — as we know others "will surely come after."

Why do we have this state of affairs? Mr. Burke mentions the lack of decent jobs, single- and no-parent households, teenage parenthood, lack of regard for the value of education, the drug culture and its violence — all factors which, together with others, amount to "racially and economically segregated place[s]" where people are raised in the midst of our culture but are "entirely apart from its traditions and values."

In 1967, when ghettos in cities across the land exploded in riots, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to determine why it had happened and what could be done to prevent a repetition. On March 1, 1968, the Kerner Commission, as it had come to be known, proffered answers. Segregation and poverty had created in the racial ghetto a distinctive environment unknown to most white Americans. Federal housing programs had to be given a new thrust aimed at overcoming the prevailing patterns of racial segregation.

Then in the first Nixon administration there came a moment when the federal government seemed poised to begin redressing the most visible current manifestation — housing segregation — of the historic wrongs visited upon black citizens. George Romney (father of Mitt), President Richard Nixon's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was imbued with a mission. It was vital, he asserted, for subsidized housing to be dispersed more broadly than in the past. Federal funds had been concentrated in the core cities. HUD was going to put greatly increased resources into the suburbs, "where the solutions are, not where the problems are."

But as soon as the president learned of Mr. Romney's initiative he called a halt, telling the nation in a televised press conference that "I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest." In an instant, Mr. Nixon stamped out Romney's effort.

That was some 40 years ago. Since then, our society has done absolutely nothing to deal effectively with our racial ghettos. The report card on enterprise zones, promise neighborhoods, and the like — on "gilding the ghetto," as it used to be called — shows a failing grade.

So too with efforts to deal with the plague of guns, or the benighted war on drugs, or our vaunted free enterprise system's failure to provide enough living wage jobs. And so on, even as we have learned that concentrated, racialized urban poverty destroys lives — not only with guns but with early life traumas that impair brain development and lead to blighted adulthoods. Nor do I see any remedy on the horizon.

Mr. Burke suggests a "reasoned debate" about tackling at least "some piece of this unacceptable puzzle of despair." So here is one thought: The Thompson mobility program is enabling hundreds of McKenzies to move out of neighborhoods of despair into safer neighborhoods with good schools. The program uses federal housing vouchers and professional counseling to enable families to navigate new opportunities.

Now the Thompson people are seeking to persuade the Baltimore Housing Authority to expand the program so that every family with a young child living in any of those despairing Baltimore neighborhoods will have a chance to move that child out of harm's way.

Years ago, Brent Staples, devoting one of his New York Times columns to what he called "butchery" in our ghettos, asked us to remember how Britons shipped their children out of London during the blitz.

"What American cities need," Staples wrote, "are evacuation plans to spirit at least some black boys out of harm's way before it's too late."

It's already too late for the McKenzies and the Dantrells. But maybe with an enlarged Thompson program it would not always be too late for some of those who will otherwise surely come after.

Alexander Polikoff

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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