Outstater: ‘Your Life Matters’

April 21, 2015

BLACK FAMILIES in Indianapolis might want to keep their sons close in coming months. The gentry there is coming to help them.

One hundred executives of groups with missions as impossibly diverse as the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana are organizing to save young black men. They march under the banner “Your Life Matters.”

Nobody can argue with that, certainly, but the campaign and a companion study include nothing that hasn’t been tried recurrently for five decades. A Star editorial described an approach familiar in its tired old “root-cause” explication that omits individual choice, self-control or societal absolutes. The editors have succumbed to what the novelist Tom Wolfe once labeled “radical chic.”

“The initiative has now evolved into a plan of action — and an aggressive one at that,” the editors enthuse. “Over the next 18 months, Indianapolis will tackle a broad range of problems, from reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions and changing related policies, to building a larger network of mentors to creating a private-sector youth-employment program.”

The omissions are convenient because they are the hard part. Without that, it is mere posing and a dismaying waste of a community’s most heartfelt concerns. And the poseurs in their shallowness risk reinforcing a corrosive excuse- and envy-driven bitterness among the young of any poor neighborhood.

It is telling that this week’s public-relations rollout contains no hint of three of the freshest thinkers on this intractable subject. Their work, in different ways and from varied perspectives, defines the social plight of today’s young men, black and white. It does so in realistic terms, making it possible to draw plans that are applicable rather than merely self-congratulatory.

“Please Stop Helping Us” by Jason L. Riley — This book is a blend of empirical evidence and personal memoir from a prize-winning journalist whose older sister was a single mother and whose niece died of a drug overdose. Riley, an intellectual in the mold of Thomas Sowell, argues that liberal initiatives intended to assist blacks have hurt them more than they have helped. Among his points: Social-welfare programs of the 1960s helped ruin the black nuclear family and degraded self-independence; minimum-wage laws priced young blacks out of entry-level jobs; weak law enforcement endangered crime-ridden neighborhoods; and affirmative action either benefited blacks already academically qualified or put unqualified blacks in rigorous schools where they struggled.

“Shame” by Shelby Steele — The author, whose parents met working for the Congress of Racial Equality, believes that America has been flummoxed by those who would stigmatize it with past hypocrisies. For the last 50 years, government intervention has been the means of redemption. Now there is an opportunity to change directions, Steele argues, because the government is guaranteed failure: Only human initiative is transformative, and it is an eternal arrogance to assume that government can somehow engineer or inspire or manipulate transformation. You cannot help people who have not already taken initiative — meaning total responsibility for their future. And it takes very little to help those who have actually taken such responsibility.

“Coming Apart” by Charles Murray — The former Peace Corps volunteer turned eminent social scientist throws aside the failed policies of his generation to start anew. His advice to those of us who want to help troubled youth is to begin with what has worked for us personally. In most cases that will not involve applying political leverage to petition authorities for a more lenient school-suspension policy. Bradford Wilcox underlines the point in his review for the Wall Street Journal:

“Members of the upper class must abandon the modern horror of being thought ‘judgmental.’ Instead, Murray says, they should ‘preach what they practice.’ This does not mean turning the clock back to the 1950s or the Victorian age. It just means that the elites who control the heights of government, education, business and the popular culture could do a lot more to encourage the core American values that they themselves now live by.”

That would involve accepting that blacks are capable of fending for themselves. Riley reminds us that in 1880, at a time when it was debatable whether American society thought black lives “mattered,” 75 percent of black families in Philadelphia had two parents and children. In the mid-1930s, with a “New Deal” ambivalent about the fate of young black men, black unemployment was lower than white unemployment. In 1964, with the “Great Society” in its planning stages, black poverty had already been falling steadily for decades — 40 percent from 1940 to 1960.

Finally, it means taking a look at data comparing the nuclear family — its obvious failings acknowledged —with other human social arrangements. Could it be that the path out of poverty in a nation as economically blessed as the United States is to: a) find a job and keep it until you find a better one; and b) get married and stay married to the same person?

That doesn’t make for sparkling dinner-party conversation or mortified Erika Smith columns. Nor does it yield the kind of results that can be presented at the next board meeting. But it seems to be the only thing that works — a plan around which sincere persons of all races can rally, not just this fiscal year but for the long haul.

— Craig Ladwig

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