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, wouldnt 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, ones own ambitions, ones proposals, and, yes, ones conceits as a researcher and writer for a while subdued by a cry from the heart, a statement that becomes, finally, a lifes testimony.
I dont know enough about things to give you the answer [to the question as to what ought be done], but Ill 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: Theres people here, theres some of us, thats beyond that I mean, theres kids who are so bad and mean, and theres kids that are so confused and scared and out of it, that they dont really go to school, not regularly some of them, and not at all, some of them, and theyre just lost, thats what I think, and the same with their families. Look here, we have people who are so lost here, youve 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? [Id asked her how we might get to them.] I dont know! Theyve dropped out; theyll be 9, 10, and theyre running [for drug dealers], and theyre already in gangs. Theyd put a knife to their own blood [family members]. You know how some of them get saved? Theyll 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 hes got religion, and hes behind bars. Some of them, I see them come out [from jail] and the religion sticks with them, if theyve got it, and it makes a difference. But you just try that [preaching religion] to these young kids! Theyd laugh you all the way to nowhere!
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