When a recent caller asked what help he could be _ financially or otherwise _ in solving some of the problems young people face in St. Petersburg, he asked specifically about the predominantly black community of the inner city.
It's easy at such times to get defensive, to say _ quite truthfully _ that the escalating problems of crime, violence and compromised morality know no economic or cultural boundaries.
I could have argued, truthfully, that some of the problems attributed to inner city residents are a result of misrepresentation of black people in the media. I could support that with a local television report Friday morning on a study that found drug use on the rise among high school students. As the newscaster spoke, a mug shot of a black youth provided the background, suggesting that the black youth personifies the problem.
The study on which her report was based had found just the opposite: Drug use is lowest among black students.
I could have argued, truthfully, that the problems extend far beyond the inner city; it's just that poor people can't afford the shields that rich people use to hide their problems.
When people with money get strung out on drugs, they have a thicker cushion to wear out before they hit the sidewalk. When the long arm of the law reaches out to slap one of their children, they can afford the lawyers and the facade of wholesomeness that act to soften the blow.
I resisted those defenses. They pale in the harsh light of the fact that problems are amplified in poor, black communities.
When murder rates are examined, they show, overwhelmingly, poor people killing poor people. When drugs hollow out the soul of a community, the inner city is the first shell that's left.
The answer to my caller's question: What could he do to help? was not an easy one.
Any number of programs for young people are screaming for help _ donations of money or time.
Thomas "Jet" Jackson, who runs the Wildwood Community Center, and Lou Brown, a real estate agent, could use a few hundred dollars to outfit a few more baseball teams with uniforms, equipment and officials. A few hundred dollars more would help them with the transportation to get the teams to the games.
Their sports programs do much more than teach athletic techniques. They incorporate character building, academics and respect, all qualities that chip away at the problems that lead to crime and dysfunction.
Iveta Martin, a pharmacist who is perennially on the ground floor of community self-help efforts such as Blacks Against Dangerous Drugs and the People of Color AIDS Coalition, could put a few dollars to use in any of the armload of activities she has helped initiate.
So could Leontyne Middleton, who oversees the galaxy of purposeful, effective programs at the Enoch Davis Community Center.
All of those programs are good and provide irreplaceable services for those who take advantage of them. They deserve any help they can get.
But, as good as they all are, each program Jackson and the others champion could get all the money they need to operate for maximum effect, and the problems young people face would still be there, probably unabated.
For too many children, the problems start long before they have a chance to be influenced on a softball field or in a classroom. Too many children are born to parents who have not thought beyond the sex act that conceived them.
Too many young girls are having babies; too many young boys are fleeing their responsibilities. Too many of both have no conception _ from example or teaching _ of what parenting is.
Too many parents of all ages are neglecting, through ignorance or indifference, the most fundamental parental duties _ discipline, love, and a foundation of respect and morality. They are a pipeline supplying an endless flow of aberrant behaviors into adolescence.
That pipeline needs to be plugged.
We don't do that with baseball teams and tutoring programs, although such programs can save a lot of children.
The best thing my caller can do is keep looking for a place to help and to hope that more of us come to understand what he does: Society's problems are our own _ no matter what boundaries seem to contain them.