One of my clearest memories of high school is me pleading with one of my older brothers to back down from the gang banger holding a switchblade knife to his neck and demanding we pay a toll to walk our usual route home. Only we didn't call them gang bangers in 1968. That's one of today's euphemisms for teen-age thugs who brandish weapons and find other than legal means to make money.
Life in the city is as it ever was, violent. But the result of that violence now is usually more tragic.
We walked home the same way we always did that day 27 years ago. My brother Don now teaches history in high school. He still stands up to gang bangers, but not when they're holding a weapon that these days is more likely to be a gun.
In the new book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun" (Beacon Press. 192 pages. $20), New York teacher Geoffrey Canada explores his belief that the media, particularly the movie industry and some "gangsta rap," have through their graphic presentations made violence more acceptable to young people.
I believe that acceptance, combined with a disdain for police that is also one of the vestiges of America's racist past, have made violence the only real authority in many inner city neighborhoods. The chances that a young person in such neighborhoods will actually use the weapon he's holding have certainly mushroomed since Don and I grew up.
And our neighborhood was tough. It was in the projects. Up the street lived Henry James Harris, who by the time he was 19 had so many bullet and knife wounds that his body resembled a sieve. But Henry James probably wouldn't survive one gang fight today. The weapons are more lethal. So are the attitudes.
The latest FBI statistics show that while homicides committed by adults 25 and older dropped 20 percent between 1985 and 1993, murders committed by 18- to 24-year-olds increased 65 percent, and murders committed by 14- to 17-years olds increased 165 percent. The old challenge to an after-school fight involves much higher stakes these days.
Too many young men today, particularly black guys in the inner )) city, are acting out a macho "gangsta" stereotype that is supposed to accept killing and being killed.
These are the children of children of children who have all grown up being told they match the description of whatever criminal suspect is being sought that day. Falling to the level of society's expectations, they have embraced the "gangsta" stereotype.
That's easy to do when your parents and most other grown folks you know also place little or no trust in law enforcement officials who historically have been white and seemed not really interested in the welfare of black people.
In "The American Street Gang" (Oxford University Press. 304 pages. $27.50), sociologist Malcolm W. Klein correctly concludes that street gangs and their violence are an amalgam of racism, poverty, "fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation" and "gross ignorance of inner-city America on the part of most of us who don't have to survive there."
I grew up in the South. But I later learned that black parents all over America during segregation taught their children - through their actions more so than their words - to tolerate the behavior of whites. We weren't taught that white people were superior; we were taught not to expect whites to treat us fairly.
Such lessons changed little until the civil rights movement of the 1960s when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the fear out of going to a white man's jail. King taught black children that it's all right to stand up to the police for your God-given rights. During the same period, Black Panthers were teaching black children to disregard all white authority because it is illegitimate.
By Panther rhetoric, all legal authority in America is derivative of the white man, so any representative of that authority, such as a policeman, has no legitimacy in the black community. A police officer thus becomes an object of derision rather than respect. Incidents of police brutality during the civil rights era helped to ingrain this negative attitude toward the police among blacks. Consequently, a shared legacy of King, the Black Panthers and also police brutes such as Bull Connor is a disdain for law enforcement officials in black neighborhoods.
Angela Davis successfully hid in Birmingham, Ala., while running from the FBI because Panther ideology - which said you never turn in a black person to the police - had become pervasive among blacks in her hometown, the town where Connor had been police commissioner a decade earlier.
Ironically, this rejection of police seems strongest in the urban black communities that need law enforcement the most. Their unwillingness to cooperate with police, along with intimidation by criminals, has turned them into sanctuaries for drug dealers and other crooks. The felons rely on their brothers and sisters in the 'hood adhering to the same code of silence that kept political fugitives such as Angela Davis hidden.
The Real Deal
The Panthers are gone, but young black men who assume the persona of "gangsta" rappers play the role of rebels who reject all authority and anything else they label "white" - anything except a recording contract, that is. Many of their otherwise talented peers, rather than reciting rhymes to a hip-hop beat, opt for the real deal.
These true "gangstas" take to new heights the rejection of authority figures that is often exhibited by teen-agers of any hue in modern America. Like the Panthers of old, they "don't see nothing wrong" with breaking the white man's law and, like Rev. King, they have no fear of jail. But it's not nonviolent civil disobedience they have in mind. Hurting someone else is part of being a "gangsta."
Young black men who want to be accepted as gang members try so hard to fit the mold that they don't see the strangulating limits of the stereotype they have decided to accept. It is a stereotype more dangerous than anything Stepin Fetchit ever did or said.
By agreeing through their violent and larcenous behavior that they are "gangstas," they provide all the evidence needed by those who want to dismiss every young black man as someone who is capable of criminal behavior and thus should always be treated as a "suspect."
The "gangsta" disdain for authority typically degenerates into a lack of respect for anything that has worth, including life itself. Devaluing even their own humanity, the "gangstas" wallow in a violent existence that places no value on living a long life.
This apparent apathy toward violence and death is discussed by psychologist Richard Majors and sociologist Janet Mancini Billson in their 1992 book, "Cool Pose" (Simon & Schuster. 144 pages. $10). They call it the "tough side" of being cool.
Majors and Billson trace being cool to the detached behavior exhibited by men in some African nations in 2000-3000 B.C. This aloofness was part of American slaves' ability to mask their true feelings while in the presence of whites who would punish them for any behavior that might be construed as rebellious.
During segregation, this masking of feelings through any indignity was one of the few expressions of manhood left for black men who were denied even the right to vote.
But today, this rigidity that once was an attribute has become a curse. It requires young black men and their women to succumb to violence rather than change their behavior. It also ignores that it wasn't rigidness but the ability to bend without breaking that brought African-Americans through slavery and segregation?
Black millionaire A.G. Gaston, who is 102 years old, once told me you can bend over backward and some white people will still keep pushing until you fall. He said it's important to know how to bend, but you also have to know when to stand up and push back.
Maybe it was easier for Gaston to bend when he was a young man in Alabama. Even with Jim Crow at its peak, there was the promise of better days. Many young African-Americans today are not convinced that they have any reason to hope. They don't believe the future holds anything more than continued illiteracy, poverty and violence.
That's where the rest of us come in. It's our duty to show them that with strength, courage and desire they can learn, they can adapt, they can bend and push and - by any means necessary other than violence - they can create the future they want, a future where no one will assume their skin color determines what they are and how they will act.
Harold Jackson, an editorial writer at The Sun, grew up in a housing project in Birmingham, Ala. A reporter and editor for 20 years, he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing in 1991.