Lost Horizons

Now that Martin Luther King, Jr. is safely encased in a granite monument and people are congratulating themselves on living in a "post-racial" world with an African-American president of the United States and another African American candidate for the presidency on the right, can we lay to rest all remaining thoughts of fighting racism?

Nope. No. Nyet. Nada.

Racism remains both a prevalent cultural attitude in some places, and a corrosive force stunting the potential of children and communities.

Consider the racism that people feel free to express anonymously online. Here's a comment that appears in response to a Washington Post blog posting about a fight that occurred this week at a college fair at the Washington Convention Center:

The issue involved in the unrest is that they were mostly black students and you can't put that many black people in one place without something happening...............that's a fact.........

writes the anonymous poster.

Nothing "post-racial" about that.

What is true is that too many young people in the District of Columbia suffer the cruel betrayal of poor parenting, dismal schooling, inadequate healthcare, hunger, chronic poverty and violence in their neighborhoods. The fact that these conditions disproportionately affect African Americans is the real evidence of racism.

The behavior of children reflects the environment that raises them, so it is no surprise that some children will behave violently even in settings where people are gathered to help them rise above local conditions. That's not an excuse for bad behavior, of course, but understanding the symptoms is essential to finding solutions.

The college fair at the Convention Center was an example of an effort to help young people rise above local conditions. Unfortunately, the violent behavior of a few students caused the sponsoring organization, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), to cancel the entire event -- an action that now deprives thousands of other students of the opportunity to meet with college admissions officers and to get on track to pursue college degrees. I hope that NACAC will reschedule this fair very quickly so that the thousands will not suffer a loss of college opportunities because of the behavior of a very few.

But what is to be done about the disrupters? The anonymous commenter quoted above also writes

Damn the idiots in DC can't even act right at a college fair, send them directly to jail that's where most of them will probalby end up anyway.....................

Poorly educated children are not stupid. They quickly pick up the cues of a society that drives them to the margins. Sure, there's no excuse for fighting in a public place, and those students need and deserve appropriate punishment. But there's even less excuse for the racist response to misconduct.

Many good people in the District of Columbia are working hard to address the myriad problems of racial and social inequity in the city. The Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, where I am a board member, is conducting a series of conversations called "Putting Race on the Table." The Brookings Institution has conducted numerous studies including "Strengthening Educational and Career Pathways for D.C. Youth" cited in my last blog post and the earlier "Region Divided" report that set forth the data on racial and social inequality in the Washington region in stark relief.

These and many other reports point to this inevitable conclusion: whether we call it by the name of racism or something more euphemistic, several hundred thousand residents of the District of Columbia suffer levels of poverty, illiteracy, illness and violence that persist in spite of efforts to improve schools and provide better social services. These conditions repress the potential of children to succeed in school and to advance economically and socially.

Too many children in D.C. suffer diminished and even lost horizons for real achievement. Too many of the city's youth, especially among young men living in poverty, come to view educational achievement with skepticism if not outright hostility, believing that the ongoing prevalence of racism just beneath the surface pleasantries will make any investment in learning useless. Such cynicism is reinforced by the public expressions of racial hatred that electrify cyberspace and pervade many political rants.

Martin Luther King's legacy must be more than a beautiful monument, important though that place of hope and memory may be. For the generations of young people born decades after his death, the quest for true racial equality continues. Recovering the lost horizons of thousands of youth at the margins of the District of Columbia remains as one of the most urgent challenges for the nation's capital city.