HARVARD DIARY
The Underclass, Part VI: What Is to Be Done?

March 1990By Robert Coles



I am still struggling with the phenomenon of the so-called underclass — struggling with the question of what ought to be done, what can be done, once the nature of such human suffering and jeopardy has been described, analyzed. When someone like me poses such a question (to himself, to readers) or when others, such as public officials, pose such a question to me, a so-called “expert,” the temp­tation to self-important pronouncements be­comes substantial — and often they include no small number of banalities and pieties. Who in his or her right mind, for instance, wouldn’t recommend the availability of more jobs for our ghetto youth, or better education, or im­proved housing, or programs that offer drug counseling? Not that our country has shown any great interest in such efforts in recent years — hence the final political exhortation: the need for a shift in “priorities.”

Yet, when I pose the question of what is to be done to parents and grandparents of ghetto children, and to the boys and girls themselves, I hear a different kind of expert comment. They are witnesses with their own shrewd wisdom; they speak not to earn the praise of others, not as an act of self-en­hancement, but out of a desperate knowledge earned every day in a particular world. One listens; then one listens with a certain quiet awe, one’s own ambitions, one’s proposals, and, yes, one’s conceits as a researcher and writer for a while subdued by a cry from the heart, a statement that becomes, finally, a life’s testimony.

“I don’t know enough about things to give you the answer [to the question as to what ought be done], but I’ll tell you this” — and a pause by a 28-year-old mother of four, a black woman on welfare living in Roxbury, a Boston ghetto. In 10 or so seconds she resumes: “I hear talk of more jobs and better schools, and I sure agree. But let me tell you something: There’s people here, there’s some of us, that’s beyond that — I mean, there’s kids who are so bad and mean, and there’s kids that are so confused and scared and ‘out of it,’ that they don’t really go to school, not regularly some of them, and not at all, some of them, and they’re just lost, that’s what I think, and the same with their families. Look here, we have people who are so lost here, you’ve got to fig­ure out a way to go find them, and get them listening to you, not to the drug dealers and the pimps, and not to the gangs, fighting each other like crazy.

“How? [I’d asked her how ‘we’ might get to ‘them.’] I don’t know! They’ve dropped out; they’ll be 9, 10, and they’re running [for drug dealers], and they’re already in gangs. They’d put a knife to their own blood [family members]. You know how some of them get ‘saved’? They’ll get to jail — finally, they will — and the Muslims will come along and talk sense into them. I know — a kid across the street, I watched him from a baby grow, and turn into what he is, and now he’s got religion, and he’s behind bars. Some of them, I see them come out [from jail] and the reli­gion sticks with them, if they’ve got it, and it makes a difference. But you just try that [preaching religion] to these young kids! They’d laugh you all the way to nowhere!


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