Needed: Strong Black Community Leaders

Leading by example is the only way to improve inner-city problems. By D. Herbert Lipson

Over the past month, we’ve suffered through a continuing barrage of bad news about the inner-city schools of Philadelphia. There’s nothing new, really — just more of the same. It’s more of the same wherever you look — Wilmington, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago. The problems are endemic. After more than half a century, and many hundreds of billions of dollars spent, things are worse than ever. Old-school race-baiters like Jesse Jackson and, locally, NAACP head Jerry Mondesire keep screaming that racism and lack of money are the underlying reasons for the problems. There are only a handful willing to face up to the truth, that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society ushered in an era that destroyed the urban black family. This is the underlying cause of all our problems in the inner cities. And it seems to me that only strong black leadership will be able to solve them.

In this age of political correctness, frank discussion of racial issues is nearly impossible. But if we don’t find a way to deal with our inner cities, we’ll be creating a permanent underclass. And what hangs in the balance is the future of our cities’ children.

Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character and White Guilt as well as other books that wrestle with problems of race and poverty, discussed this issue at length with us. Steele is an African-American who was born on the South Side of Chicago, and something from his childhood that he shared is telling: His father was an ardent believer in education and personal responsibility. Half a century ago, when Shelby was young, a neighborhood boy got a girl pregnant; Shelby’s father told the boy he must marry the girl. When he didn’t, Shelby’s father would have nothing more to do with him, because he was disgusted with his irresponsibility.

Can you imagine such a response in today’s world? I think we know how Steele’s father would react to passing out condoms to 11-year-olds, as the city is currently doing. Now, though, there is silence. Fatherless children, rampant drugs, high-school dropouts, preteens having sex — that’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, children in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods have little chance of growing up to lead decent lives. But the solution to that is not to spend more on schools or government programs — not after we’ve wasted hundreds of billions since the 1960s trying to fix our inner cities, with a result that life there has only gotten worse.

Steele says the lack of black leaders standing up and calling out their own community to grow up and act responsibly is directly linked to how we’re still throwing money at the problem. The so-called leaders, Steele says, “have no connection to their own people, and the worse their own people do, the better their situation is with the larger society” — which is to say, the greater the chances of getting more money for social programs. A lot of people make a nice living off of them. Steele says something else that’s telling: “The worse off people are, our government tends to ask less of them. That’s backward. We should ask for an awful lot.”

That’s why the approach of throwing good money after bad makes no sense to me, given the state of things: When two-thirds of Philadelphia’s inner-city children don’t live with their fathers, when half of those children don’t even graduate from high school, something has gone terribly wrong.

“Great leaders help their own people out of problems,” Shelby Steele says.

“We have leadership that does none of that.”

The silence is deafening.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.