OPED: The role of poverty in the black community
Recently, I had a conversation with a leading pastor about what is necessary to shift the trends and transform the urban centers of America. He shocked me by saying that he believes poverty is not the root cause of gang violence, substance abuse and lethargy among some in the black community today — lack of faith is. He began to highlight our own individual upbringings in abject poverty and argued that he and I obviously were able to choose positive paths of productivity. For him, the difference between the success of previous and present generations is an introduction to faith in the home at an early age and an intrinsic value system.
That conversation provoked me to examine my own conclusions on moral decay and lack of conscience in the black community. Questions began to surface in my mind, such as, what has happened to the black community that so many of our young people have succumbed to stereotypical behavior patterns and moral failure — even murder? And, what is the solution to address the pervasive poverty that has devastated the structure and the spirit of our neighborhoods? If employment was available, would residents go to work? If college were free, would young people apply? Is there a correlation at all between entrenched poverty and social dysfunction and apathy?
I still believe there is, though I don't discount the power of faith.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University once wrote, "In the political age of budget cuts and shrinking government services, politicians of all stripes, and the people who support their agendas, have a vested interest in blaming a 'lack of values and morality' for the problems of crime and violence in communities of color. It makes it a 'personal' problem and not one produced by a system of economic and racial inequality at its root." He went on to essentially blame poverty — or "the economic violence that provides the ravaging context" — for urban crime.
And Michelle Alexander in her book, "The New Jim Crow," also looks to economics for answers. "The impact of globalization and de-industrialization of America was felt most strongly in black inner-city communities," she writes. "The decline in legitimate employment opportunities among inner-city residents increased incentives to sell drugs — most notably crack cocaine."
Their views are more in line with my own than my pastor friend's; I believe entrenched poverty has deteriorating effects on the psyche and pathos of people across cultural and generational lines. And I contend that any efforts at community revitalization will fail if there is not also careful consideration to restore, retool, recruit and reinvest in the human capital of inner city residents — not just an area's bricks and mortar.
We have to systematically fix what was systemically broken. And the way forward must be a utilitarian approach to community redevelopment that enables sustainable impact through public and private investment. Moreover, municipalities should not enable scattered site developers to build in certain areas without also providing amenities and services that mitigate against gentrification and dilapidation. Revitalizing urban communities requires early childhood education, mental health services, workforce development training, health and wellness services and other amenities that transform the community toward quality and affordable living.
I believe it's possible to restore people while rebuilding properties in urban America. But it mandates a collaborative effort of community, developers, businesses and government.
And yes — a solid foundation in faith.
— Donte L. Hickman is pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, Maryland.