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Don't Flunk the Future By: Bob Herbert
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 19, 1998


New York Times | August 19, 1998

THE PRESS IS DRAWN IRRESISTIBLY to that which is loud and destructive. This seems especially true when it comes to leadership in the black community. Persistent, quiet, dedicated work generates little in the way of headlines or air time. But if someone starts making outrageous comments and playing the fool, the reporters will come running.

Hugh Price, President of the National Urban League, is not a noisy man. But he is saying some things that need to be heard. "The data tell us loud and clear," said Mr. Price, "that our children are decaying academically. We say our children equal our destiny. But what destiny awaits us if nearly 80 percent of our youngsters in Denver fail the fourth-grade reading tests, as they did last year?"

Delivering the keynote address at the annual Urban League conference, which was held in Philadelphia last week, Mr. Price warned: "The achievement deficits facing our children will be our undoing if we don't reverse them."

His words echoed those of retired Gen. Colin Powell, who said at the NAACP conference in Atlanta last month that there would be no point in preserving affirmative-action programs if black youngsters were not prepared academically or socially to take advantage of them.

Both men stressed that a vast field of opportunity is now open to black youngsters in the U.S. But only catastrophe will result if the black community fails to do a better job at what Mr. Price calls "the urgent matter of preparation."

The basic preparation begins long before conception. "We must make certain that our youngsters don't start out behind the eight ball," said Mr. Price. "Yet that's exactly what we do by bringing infants into this world before their parents are mature enough to nurture and provide for them."

He told his audience that at a minimum, just to avoid the scourge of poverty, "There are three things black parents must persuade their teen-agers to do. First, get their high-school diploma. Second, get married before having their first child. Third, hold off on having their first child until after they turn 20 themselves."

He said: "Only about 8 percent of children raised in households that follow these rules experience poverty. By contrast, 80 percent of the youngsters in households that ignore these rules end up poor."

Mr. Price was blunt at times in his speech and in a recent interview, but he was not pessimistic. He cited a number of encouraging trends, including the birth rate for unmarried black women, which has reached a 40-year low, and the high-school graduation rate of black youngsters, which now equals that of whites.

Still, too many black youngsters are in serious trouble academically, including a large percentage of those who are graduating. And Mr. Price seemed astounded by what he described as the "blasé" attitude toward this continuing academic failure.

"We say we want our youngsters to do well in school," he said, "but how involved are we in making certain that actually happens? Blasé is the word. There's no other way to describe why we tolerate the lackadaisical attitude of many of our children and the lousy performance of the schools they attend."

He said: "I know I'm butting into other people's personal business. But this is no time for politeness, obliqueness, or complacency. There's too much at stake and time is running out—for our children and, thus, for our people."

Despite the myriad problems that continue to plague African-Americans, Mr. Price believes that the current conditions in the United States offer blacks the "best shot we have ever had to shove ourselves the rest of the way into the American mainstream."

He said: "With unemployment so low, employers are gobbling up almost every willing and able worker with a pulse. Shame on us if we don't seize this historic opening in the economy."

Racial discrimination? It must be fought wherever it still exists, said Mr. Price. But he suggested that the most egregious forms are, in fact, abating. He said, "I think we are moving rapidly toward the day when if you've got something to put on the table, employers aren't going to care what color you are."


Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Bob Herbert writes for the New York Times.

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