Archived Opinion

Out of the headlines, but not out of the woods

op frThe rioting in Baltimore has settled down and we haven’t heard much out of Ferguson, Missouri, recently. The uproar and incessant debate over what is happening in our inner cities — racism, poverty, violence, drugs, police brutality — has, for the moment, quieted down. But problems don’t go away just because they are left unspoken.

The festering wounds in those towns were on my mind as we settled down Sunday night to watch the award-winning movie “Selma.” The film is about a few weeks in Martin Luther King’s life as he organized and marched in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were specifically calling for an end to laws that kept blacks from voting, and despite the mortal dangers they faced — there were deaths in those few weeks among whites and blacks who supported the marchers — it worked. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that same month.

It’s a moving film, and its scenes of violence and fear and of prejudicial laws and institutional racism are presented in very a straightforward manner. I found it unsettling that such things were happening just 50 years ago — in my lifetime — and that so much has changed over these last five decades.

Or maybe not? At least that’s the message that kept blasting from the pages of the different newspaper stories I read as the unrest gripped Ferguson and Baltimore. Inner-city minorities are still locked in a cycle of generational poverty. Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post story — not about police brutality, but about poverty — I found while doing some noodling around online: “intergenerational income mobility was lower in metropolitan areas with a larger share of single mothers, a bold-faced finding that touched off a new round of public debate over what this relationship means.”

Here’s another statement from the same story: “It’s clear in America that family structure and poverty are intertwined: Nearly a third of households headed by single women live below the poverty line. And just six percent of families led by married couples are in the official ranks of the poor. Poverty, meanwhile, touches an astounding 45 percent of children who live without a father.”

Two factors seem to rise to the surface again and again in discussions about inner city problems: poverty and single-parent families. I won’t even get into the nightmare of cops gone bad because that’s another issue altogether. 

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I’m likely the opposite of whatever a social conservative is, but I’m also a realist. The single-parent issue is a huge part of the problem. 

I was raised by a single mother from the time I was 11 until I left for college at 18. My mom worked 40 to 50 hours a week, tried to have some kind of social life, and despite her best efforts I had way too much unsupervised time on my hands. In the Southern suburbia of the 1970s where I grew up, there were a slew of drugs, drinking, crime and sex all around. Another parent at home would have made a huge difference. 

But inner-city poverty, perhaps, is an even a larger problem. If there was hope for a better future — more jobs and more economic opportunity — then young inner-city kids could more easily break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. This current recession — coupled with government actions that have sent jobs overseas — contributes mightily to the restive atmosphere in our urban areas that has shocked most of us who are on the outside looking in. 

I want better. I’m a 50-something white guy who grew up in an era when his older brother was advised to stay home from high school on some days for fear of “race riots,” whose Southern mill-town father grew up using the now-sickening “N” word regularly to banishing it from his vocabulary as he became older and wiser. I want this country to get over any kind of racial divide and work together to solve the big problems confronting us.

So even though there is a lull in the debate, the problems persist. The tinderbox will ignite again and again until real change occurs.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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