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TO LIFT A COMMUNITY // A death, a riot and responsibility

In his 1994 article titled "Newspapers' Quest for Racial Candor," former Milwaukee Journal editor Sig Gissler wrote: "Race _ it is America's rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting."

As our rawest nerve, race is a subject most Americans try to avoid. Now, though, in the wake of the recent riot, St. Petersburg residents know that long ago race turned this city into two camps. Here is where blacks, some of them armed with guns, battled police and burned and looted businesses their relatives and neighbors depended on.

But because race is encrypted in our every word and thought about the riot, we are engaged in a skewed debate laced with personal attacks, lies and dangerous fallacies. The result is that we cannot honestly search for the root causes of and solutions to our enduring problems.

Some background to the crisis: As has happened elsewhere, white cops chase a speeding car driven by a black male in a low-income, mostly black area. After the stop, one of the cops shoots and kills the driver. In this case, which occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 24, police say that the officer fired because the car "lurched" forward. Witnesses say, however, that the car "inched" forward.

My purpose is not to sort out what happened at that intersection. Instead, it is to examine some of the issues _ such as a "culture of poverty" or a "culture of welfare" _ that spokespersons on all sides of the tragedy do not talk about.

As word spread that a white cop had shot a black teen, a mob gathered, pelting police with rocks and bottles. More police arrived. One officer was shot in the shoulder, and a few journalists were injured. At nightfall, the burning and looting began. Officials imposed a state of emergency. Twenty arrests were made. National Guard troops were encamped.

Even before the flash point had cooled, black activists were saying that racism had killed 18-year-old TyRon Mark Lewis. Time may prove them right. But many activists went off track, claiming that police brutality is what ails St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods. They are wrong. The problems are systemic.

Still, a veteran black city commissioner added to the volatile mix by saying that white officers come to the black community with "their minds cocked and their guns cocked." Many blacks of this mind-set justify destroying property in their own communities and assaulting white motorists.

White liberals also weighed in, arguing that the residual effects of slavery, centuries of racism, poverty, joblessness, bad housing, misery, low self-esteem and the Republican-led 104th Congress caused the conditions that ignited the violence.

Most rational leaders on all sides agree that unemployment and low earnings have destabilized the riot zone more than anything else, prompting one writer to label the incident a "poverty riot."

About the area, the 1990 census finds more than 96 percent of residents are black, while citywide the number is 20 percent black. Median income for the city is $23,577 annually but $14,000 for this sector. Citywide, 14 percent of residents are below the poverty level, while the figure stands at 37 percent here. Twenty-three percent of households are on welfare, while citywide the number is 6 percent. And 10 percent of residents 16 and older are jobless. For the entire city, the number is 5 percent.

These statistics show the stark disparities between this area and the rest of the city. And, for my purpose, they form the basis for discussing a culture of poverty, which cannot be separated from race, as a possible source of many intractable problems in the riot zone.

In his latest book, When Work Disappears: The New World of the New Urban Poor, based on research conducted in Chicago, Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson argues that long-term economic decay breeds "cultural traits and behaviors" that trap inner-city residents in misery.

A close adviser to President Bill Clinton on social issues, Wilson writes that the perpetual failure to get and hold steady work, low wages, the flight of positive role models from the neighborhoods and the lack of viable community networking have eroded moral standards. As these conditions persist, the sense of powerlessness widens and deepens. The result is that irrational, self-destructive behavior and lifestyles and negative attitudes become the norm.

In time, these pathologies assume a life of their own.

The greatest tragedy is the perception of the family. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, also published in this newspaper, Wilson made this point by comparing inner-city blacks and other groups, especially Mexicans, who come to the U.S. with a solid commitment to the traditional family unit, who view men as the main wage earner. Although Mexicans may accept the extra-marital affairs of men, single pregnant women are "a source of opprobrium, anguish or great concern." Parents of the pregnant woman and those of her lover pressure the couple to marry.

"The family norms and behavior in inner-city black neighborhoods stand in sharp contrast," Wilson writes. "The relationships between inner-city black men and women, whether in a marital or non-marital situation, are often fractious and antagonistic. Inner-city black women routinely say that black men are hopeless as either husbands or fathers and that more of their time is spent on the streets than at home.

"The (black) men in the inner city generally feel that it is much better for all parties to remain in a non-marital relationship until the relationship dissolves rather than to get married and then have to get a divorce."

In When Work Disappears, Wilson maintains that a culture of poverty has been most destructive in employment. Work "constitutes a framework for daily behavior and patterns of interaction because it imposes disciplines and regularities," he writes. "The fact that blacks reside in neighborhoods and are engaged in social networks and households that are less conducive to employment than those of other ethnic and racial groups in the inner city clearly has a negative effect on their search for work. In the eyes of employers . . . these differences render inner-city blacks less desirable as workers, and therefore many are reluctant to hire them."

Currently, St. Petersburg officials are asking the federal government for $28-million for an anti-poverty effort. The bulk of it will be wasted, however, if plans ignore a culture of poverty, especially the harmful effects of poor employability skills. Tough conditions, including specific outcomes, should be placed on groups and agencies wanting to participate.

Officials also should consider some of Wilson's proposed solutions to the inequalities threatening inner cities. As a first step, the mayor and others should establish public-private partnerships that have real, not token, long-term goals to fight poverty.

City and school authorities should create policies that require youngsters to perform at high levels before they can receive diplomas. And black students should be taught to encourage one another to meet these high standards. "Students who meet high standards are not only prepared for work but they are also ready for technical training and other kinds of post-secondary education," Wilson said.

The $28-million certainly should include plans to improve child care in the area so that parents, many of them single moms, can afford to work and buy health insurance at the same time. Private and public institutions could jointly begin to solve this serious problem.

Above all else, though, officials should confront the problems associated with a culture of poverty. Far too many parents in the riot zone have poor parenting skills. Leaders should establish programs to deal with this problem.

Although the mayor and the commission should listen to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, they would be smart to look next door and seek the wisdom of people such as Johnnie Mack, a 70-year-old neighborhood leader, who understands a culture of poverty.

"All I can say for the neighborhood is that parents, they need to get up and teach their children to have respect for the law and respect for themselves," she told the St. Petersburg Times. "You got to respect yourself before you can respect someone else."

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