RECENTLY I got together with a guy who grew up in my old neighborhood in Harlem, around 145th St. and St. Nicholas Avenue. As we talked about the old days, the world that we discussed seemed like something from another planet, compared to today.
There have been many good changes but, on net balance, it is doubtful whether kids growing up in our old neighborhood today have as much chance of rising out of poverty as we did.
That is not because poverty is worse today. It is not. My friend remembers times when his father would see that the children were fed but would go to bed without eating dinner himself. There were other times when his father would walk to work in downtown Manhattan -- several miles away -- rather than spend the nickel it took to ride the subway in those days.
Things were not quite that grim for me, but my family was by no means middle class. None of the adults had gotten as far as the seventh grade. Down South, before we moved to New York, most of the places where we lived did not come with frills like electricity or hot running water.
Some people have said that my rising from such a background was unique. But it was not. Many people from that same neighborhood went on to have professional careers and I am by no means either the best known or the most financially successful of them.
Harry Belafonte came out of the same building where my old school-mate lived. One of the guys from the neighborhood was listed in one of the business magazines as having a net worth of more than $200 million today. If anyone had told me then that one of the guys on our block was going to grow up to be a multi-millionaire, I would have wondered what he was drinking.
Not everybody made it. One of my old buddies was found shot dead some years ago, in what looked like a drug deal gone bad. But many people from that neighborhood went on to become doctors, lawyers, and academics -- at least one of whom became a dean and another a college president.
My old school-mate retired as a psychiatrist and was living overseas, with servants, until recently deciding to return home. But home now is not Harlem. He lives out in the California wine country.
Why are the kids in that neighborhood today not as likely to have such careers -- especially after all the civil rights "victories" and all the billions of dollars worth of programs to get people out of poverty?
What government programs gave was transient and superficial. What they destroyed was more fundamental.
My old school-mate recalls a teacher seeing him eating his brown bag lunch in our school lunchroom. A forerunner of a later generation of busybodies, she rushed him over to the line where people were buying their lunches and gave some sign to the cashier so that he would not have to pay.
Bewildered at the swift chain of events, he sat down to eat and then realized what had happened. He had been given charity! He gagged on the food and then went to the toilet to spit it out. He went hungry that day because his brown bag lunch had been thrown out. He had his pride -- and that pride would do more for him in the long run than any lunches.
His father also had his pride. He tore to shreds a questionnaire that the school had sent home to find out about their students' living conditions. Today, even middle-class parents with Ph.D.s tamely go along with this kind of meddling. Moreover, people like his father have been made superfluous by the welfare state -- and made to look like chumps if they pass it up.
What the school we went to gave us was more precious than gold. It was an education. That was what schools did in those days.
We didn't get mystical talk about the rain forests and nobody gave us condoms or chirped about "diversity." And nobody would tolerate our speaking anything in school but the king's English.
After finishing junior high school, my friend was able to pass the test to get into the Bronx High School of Science, where the average IQ was 135, and yours truly passed the same test to get into Stuyvesant High School, another selective public school that today's community "leaders" denounce as "elitist."
The rest is history. But it is a history that today's young blacks are unlikely to hear -- and are less likely to repeat.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 94305. His web site is www.tsowell.com.