Philadelphia Metropolis


An Uncomfortable Truth

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crime scene.jpgIn the early 1990's, when I was covering the poverty beat at the Inquirer, I was surprised at how many young black men were homeless. I had always associated homelessness with old winos, but these men were in their 20s.

When I talked to them, these men told similar stories: often, they were dropouts. Most had spent time in jail. They were addicted to drugs, often crack. They were alienated from their families, usually because they stole from them to feed their habit. They ended up on the streets, destitute and addicted, their lives over before they even began.

This experience led me to suggest a project to editors - a report on the state of young black men in Philadelphia.  They agreed and a colleague and I spent several months gathering data, talking to the usual suspects and interviewing many young men.  Here are the first fours paragraphs on the 5,000-word story that resulted:

 In relentlessly increasing numbers, this generation of the city's poor, young black men is ending up on drugs, in shelters, in jail or in the morgue.
 They show up so often and in such great numbers in the statistics on crime and drug abuse, homelessness and homicide that alarm is spreading among those who work with the poor.

 Louis W. Sullivan, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, calls black males a "species in danger. "
 Bilal Qayyum, a gang worker turned city housing official, fears "we are witnessing self-genocide taking place....

An odd thing happened when we were done writing the story and it began circulating among editors.  A group of reporters and editors, many of them black, objected to the story. One editor sat me down and told me the story should be spiked or rewritten because it was too negative and could be construed as racist.
Fortunately, for me and the project, that editor was not in charge of handling the story.
The editor who was in charge, who was also black, thought it should not be changed and it went into the paper as written. No furor ensued. As I noted at the time, what happened to the story was a nautical impossibility: it sailed from a stormy harbor into a calm sea. (You can read the full text of the 1990 story here.)

Twenty years have passed since that story ran and, if anything, things are worse today among young black men than they were then.

In this city of 1.5 million, there are 66,000 black men between the ages of 15 and 29. Yet, they dominate the statistics on violence and crime. In any given year, 30 percent of the young black men in this age cohort are under control of the criminal justice system - either awaiting trial, serving time in jail, or on probation and parole.

In one recent five-year period (2001-2006), 4,700 black men in their teens or 20's were shot, a number of them fatally -- 50 percent of all homicide victims are young black men.

If you take the words crime and violence and substituted them with AIDS or influenza or meningitis, and it would be clear we have a public health emergency on our hands.

You look at this data and two words come to mind: an epidemic and a crisis.

Yet, no one pays much attention to these numbers, unless the problem manifests itself outside the black community, as it has with the recent attacks on people in Center City by black teens.  What people now fear when they walk down Locust Street or Walnut Street is what people fear every day in sections of Germantown and Southwest Philadelphia and Fairhill.

Years ago, I covered the aftermath of the shooting of a child in Pointe Breeze - an innocent caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. In talking with residents, they told me tales that reminded me of those old western movies, where the bad guys take over a town and intimidate and abuse the decent folk.

These people in Pointe Breeze were fearful, even of sitting on their front steps. They were being oppressed by young men with Glocks who had no compunction about using them at the slightest provocation. They felt the bad guys had taken over and they were powerless to stop them. It was a triumph for thug culture.

That's why it was heartening to hear Mayor Nutter come out swinging when it came to the Center City attacks.  In the 90's, it would be taboo for a black leader to say what he said: calling out young men, labeling them as irresponsible "sperm donors" and scolding them about their behavior. The mayor told them, in effect, to get their act together or face the consequences.

Nutter's complaint is the same many middle-class blacks have about the corrosive culture and dysfunctional behavior among young men, particularly the ones back in the old neighborhood. They talk about it with a tinge of fear because they worry that their own sons may be infected by it, because they are young and impressionable, or be physically harmed by it because they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Twenty years ago, I was encouraged to spike a story about young black men, not because it was untrue, but because it told an uncomfortable truth.

We all have to take steps, as Nutter did, to begin to confront this reality. Otherwise, the epidemic will spread, another generation will be lost. The tragedy will continue.

-- Tom Ferrick


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