By ROBERT STEINBACK
MIAMI -- Black America is committing suicide.
While poor and working-class Americans of all ethnicities are struggling under the Bush administration's six-year-old economic assault on the nation's have-nots and have-littles, black urban communities in particular are literally self-destructing. Black gunfire is killing black children. Black drug dealing is destroying black communities. Black criminality is rupturing black families and feeding the bustling prison economy. Negative black role modeling is corrupting young black minds. Black irresponsibility creates ever more fatherless black babies born to too-young unwed black mothers.
It's certainly happening in Miami. On Aug. 8, Miami Central High School senior Otissha Burnett, 17, was shot to death when gunmen strafed a Miami Gardens block party. Before I could arrange to gather a dozen of Otissha's friends and classmates together to talk about the tragedy, violence had claimed the lives of three more teen-agers in the region -- bringing to 35 the number of South Florida victims under 19 since June 2005. Most have been black.
But headlines from my recent travels show it's also happening elsewhere. Four people, including 16-year-old twins, were gunned down in New Orleans on July 28. A month earlier, five New Orleans teenagers were killed in a single hail of gunfire, allegedly from a 19-year-old shooter. In murder-weary Rochester, N.Y., a 19-year-old and two others were shot to death July 11 in the city's predominantly black northeast quadrant.
A crisis of death and dysfunction is quietly raging right under our noses in America's black communities, our fickle national attention diverted by exaggerated fears of terrorists, immigrants and gays. The black inner city's "tangle of pathology," as described in a seminal 1965 report by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, continues virtually unabated.
I expected to hear distressing accounts of life as a black urban teenager from Otissha's peers -- chosen by administrators as among the school's most promising students. I underestimated. What I heard made hell sound like a theme park.
The students, all seniors, told me they encounter guns everywhere, brandished by "drug boys" who fear neither death nor prison. Joeton Howard -- significantly, the only male among these top students -- described once having to run from a street shootout over drugs. "I felt one bullet go right by my ear," he recalled.
Jamesha Richardson is afraid to host a prom party for fear someone might bring a gun and start shooting. Ten of the 12 said they had a family member or personal friend who had served time in prison. Three said their fathers were drug dealers. One student, the sixth of nine children, said she is largely responsible for rearing for her younger siblings. I was told the first glimmer of responsibility shown by some young black men -- and this warped logic broke my heart -- comes when they commit crimes to support the babies they've brought into the world.
With heroic individual effort, these young people and some others will escape this environment and succeed. Many of their doomed peers, though, are condemned to underproductive lives -- if they survive at all.
Let's not pull punches: A large segment of black America is culturally and psychologically crippled. The causes, as Moynihan noted, are deep-rooted and historical -- a legacy of four centuries of overt, legal oppression -- but the pathology keeps cycling forward, generation after dysfunctional generation.
Black America must heal itself internally.
But every white American who stood and applauded the previous paragraph needs to sit back down. These children are the waste products of the society you designed: A justice and prison system that rounds up and ruins young offenders rather than trying to redeem them. Lax gun laws. A "drug war" that punishes users and street dealers while doing little to stem trafficking or demand. Eviscerated public schools, with testing policies that stigmatize and filter out the failures while providing insufficient remedial help. Urban job flight. Barriers to family planning.
Nothing short of a domestic Marshall Plan can reverse this dire condition. Liberal and conservative politics must be shoved aside, laws must be changed, resources must be mustered, profiteers and phonies must be thwarted, and a long-range strategy implemented to reconstruct families and rescue this squandered human capital. We'll all benefit if we can overcome our phobia about helping other Americans, regardless of color, class or culture.
In the meantime, if you think the next urban teen death in the news doesn't involve you, congratulations.
You're part of the problem.
Robert Steinback is a former columnist for The Miami Herald, now on a one-year sabbatical. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.