TODAY, AFRICAN-American men will gather in large numbers in Washington, in a call for atonement, reconciliation and personal responsibility. Fathers and sons will come from the battered projects of Washington's Anacostia and the gilded apartments of New York's Upper East Side. These African-American men will come together to stand up: to stand up for themselves and their families and against the ruinous public policies that are destroying our young.
Sadly, this march -- like the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial -- may trigger very different reactions from whites and blacks. For African Americans, the march has attracted support across the entire community. Congressmen, mayors, ministers, civil rights leaders have rallied to embrace it. Churches and schools are providing buses for participants. It provides expression for the urgent belief that we must change our ways. We cannot go on as we have.
Call for social justice
The call for personal atonement and responsibility from African-American men reflects the moral revulsion at the drugs and violence, the broken homes that plague our communities. The call for social justice reflects the urgent need to resist destructive public policies.
Many whites, however, may miss the hopeful message of the march because of controversy over some of its messengers, particularly one of its initiators, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Yet most of those who come to the gathering will not be there because they are followers of Islam. Most will come not because of any one of the many leaders who have embraced the gathering. Most will come out of anger and hope, out of the shared sense that we must find a better way.
Why do whites and blacks react so differently? As with the O. J. Simpson verdict, our reactions are different because our reality is so disparate. We live next door but worlds away from one another. The warning issued by the Kerner Commission three decades ago -- that this country is moving to two nations separate and unequal -- is more evident than ever.
Much progress has been made since the civil rights movement ended a century of legal apartheid only 30 years ago. Blacks got the right to vote and hold office. Schools and colleges, workplaces and public facilities were opened. The skilled and the bright could grasp new opportunities. A vibrant black middle class has been created.
Yet, those who have succeeded still experience the lash of racial prejudice. Middle-class black couples are more likely to be turned down for apartments, more likely to be denied loans for homes or businesses. Black college graduates still earn less than white graduates. Racial discrimination is no longer legal, but only the willfully blind can ignore the prejudice that still scars our society.
For those who didn't make it, however, the situation has grown worse, not better. Poverty is deeper; isolation greater. The industrial jobs that once offered a ladder out of poverty have disappeared. In some cities, half of all young African-American men are unemployed. Those able to find jobs face declining wages and worsening conditions. They can work full time and be unable to lift their families out of poverty. With little hope, many surrender. Families splinter; violence and drugs spread. Today, according to the Sentencing Commission, 1-in-3 black males ages 20-29 is in prison or jail, or on parole or probation.
Neglecting our future
Over the past 30 years, the basic social response has been one of malign neglect. Wages fell, but nothing has been done for low-wage workers. Save the children was a popular slogan, but not reflected in policy or budgets. Infant mortality remains at Third World levels, reflecting the lack of prenatal care and nutrition. Inner-city schools continue to fail. Single mothers support children on welfare payments that have lost 30 percent of their value over the last two decades. During the same time period, the fastest-growing expenditure in the alleged "war on poverty" has been for prisons and jails.
Now conservatives are launching a new assault on the poor. "Welfare reform" ends the guarantee of aid for children in poverty. Congress has voted to cut an average of $5,000 from the poorest urban classrooms in the country next year to save $1.1 billion, which it then voted to spend on a boat that the Navy does not want. Taxes will be increased on the working poor. Medical coverage will be slashed. The minimum wage will
continue to fall; jobs will continue to flee. The only urban budget ,, that will rise is for prisons and jails.
So African-American men have responded to a call to stand up against this disintegration within and attack from without. We gather to take personal responsibility, to call for personal atonement. At the same time, we mobilize to counter the assault on poor people in this country. If we register and vote in large numbers, we can make a difference. If the poorest begin to rise, then working people across the country will benefit.
As African Americans stand up, let us hope that the white TTC community will look beyond the personalities to see the problem.
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is to speak at the Million Man