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Two Nations? We Should Be So Lucky


Washington. -- Judging by most of the retrospectives the silver anniversary of the Kerner Report has produced, you might think there's no hope. A number of observers conclude that we are still "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal," just as the commission chaired by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and created by President Lyndon Johnson declared on March 1, 1968.

One anniversary report by former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, a commission member, and Roger Wilkins, then assistant attorney general, declares gloomily, "All major cities studied by the Kerner Commission have been resegregating. Credit, housing and job discrimination on the basis of race have gained new footing." Worse, infant mortality, unemployment and poverty have increased among blacks since 1968, while life expectancy has decreased.

A 309-page report by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation expresses "grave doubts about whether the gridlocked American federal political process would ever or could ever enact informed solutions to the problems of the inner cities and the persons who live in them."

Still, many white Americans ask, if things are so bad, why do so many blacks seem to be doing so well? As they used to sing on "The Jeffersons," we're movin' on up. In spite of media-driven poverty stereotypes from hip-hop videos to the evening news, the upper 60 percent of African-Americans lead normal working lives. Some even lead quite affluent lives. Our income as a group actually increased at a faster pace in the 1970s and '80s than it did for the upper 60 percent of whites.

Old-timers who remember harassment of baseball's Jackie Robinson not so long ago marvel at how vigorously white America embraces Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell or the two Michaels, Jackson and Jordan.

Nevertheless, today's silver linings still have their clouds. The races that get along so much better today as individuals do less well as groups. Black income, even among the affluent, still lags noticeably behind that of our white counterparts and, even while most black Americans benefited from the hard-won civil-rights reforms of the 1950s and '60s. And while income rose for the upper 60 percent of black America, it fell for the bottom 40 percent and at a faster pace than it similarly fell for the bottom 40 percent of white households.

Let's face the new realities:

Two nations? We should be so lucky. America has become subdivided into several nations defined by ethnicity, class and, most significantly, economic opportunity.

Revisit today's inner city and you won't find the same "ghetto" we knew 25 years ago. For one thing, there are fewer people. Those who could "escape" did. So did industry and jobs, leaving behind vacant lots, empty storefronts and a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

Among those left behind, a perverse psychology of resentment encourages a disturbing number of youngsters to view academic success as "selling out" or "acting white," broadening the gap between themselves and the economic mainstream.

We saw the new realities play themselves out in last year's Los Angeles riots. Despite media descriptions of it as a black riot, the largest group arrested were Central American Latinos. Black-owned businesses were looted and burned right along with those of whites, Latinos and Asians in a multicultural looting spree.

Quite simply, we will not solve the problems of the '90s with '60s solutions, although we might learn a thing or two from '60s lessons.

One lesson should be that the amount of money government spends is less important than how well it spends it. The Eisenhower report offers a wide range of recommendations, some of which call simply for a redirection of current spending into programs with proven track records, ranging from Head Start, Job Corps and drug rehabilitation to community-based development programs run democratically by community residents.

Ideas that empower local communities are beginning to gain a bipartisan constituency. They tap the best impulses of the political Right and Left. They call on us to see the urban poor not as helpless perpetual victims but rather as people who need help so they can help themselves.

Instead of helping young people "escape the ghetto," leaving other poor prisoners behind, or luring suburban yuppies to "regentrify" the city, pushing the old residents out, we should be looking for ways as a nation to help inner-city residents prosper ,, where they are.

Local community-based development corporations are rebuilding neighborhoods without much fanfare in cities nationwide. Run democratically by local residents and helped by Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the Enterprise Foundation, these corporations have brought together a partnership of business, government, foundations and local sweat equity to build thousands of low-income housing units, even while federal housing funds were being cut in the 1980s.

President Bush dropped the ball when he vetoed the only urban aid package to emerge out of the ashes of South-Central Los Angeles. I hope President Clinton, who has spoken favorably of community-based development, picks it up. We need more blessings to count.

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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