Leonard Pitts Jr

Nothing replaces family support for black kids

One month and 1,400 e-mails later, here is a progress report on What Works.

That's a series of columns I started last month in which I asked folks to tell me, in 250 words or less, about programs in their communities that have shown success in improving the lives of African-American children in five specific areas: self-esteem, violence prevention, education, fatherlessness and poverty.


And then came the deluge. So far, I've read through about 400 of your 1,400 e-mails. Let me share some impressions:

1. There are some rather . . . visionary thinkers out there. One person swears transcendental meditation will fix what ails African-American children. Another says a mass conversion to Orthodox Judaism will do the trick.

2. There is a lot of wonderful work being done out there. At the University of Dayton, for instance, they've got an effective college-prep program for at-risk kids. In Baltimore, there's a high school where I'm told 72 percent of the kids live below the poverty line but 90 percent go to college. In Indianapolis, they're using classical music to reach out to kids; in Detroit, they're using sports; in Miami, they're using the sea.

3. Many people consider "program" a four-letter word. They wrote emphatic notes stressing the value of stable, two-parent homes, parental involvement -- in a word, families. As one person put it, "program smogram."

I agree. I also disagree.

After all, it is not exactly rocket science that a restoration of families would go a long way toward redeeming African-American children and, for that matter, American children, period. But the truth of that does not foreclose a further truth: If there is a way we can organize to save children who have little or no family support, we should do so with all deliberate speed.


I find it interesting that some of us are suspicious of attempts at social engineering in the lives of black kids. That suspicion is, I suspect, a byproduct of the perception that the Great Society programs instituted by President Lyndon Johnson to tackle some of these same issues failed to achieve their stated goals.

I don't have the space to launch a defense of the Great Society, but I will say this: Even if you buy the notion that it was a total failure -- and I don't -- that's an indictment of that particular effort in that particular era, not of the idea that we can and should seek ways to make a difference.

Indeed, we have historically instituted programs to achieve other socially desirable ends. The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed in order to drive the nation's population west. The GI Bill created a generation of first-time college students and homeowners.

So why is this particular socially desirable end -- a world in which black kids live in safe and thriving communities and the education gap stands closed -- any different? Why are some of us so quick to conclude that the uplift of their lives is not a matter for the nation's attention?


I started this series because I got tired of reading stories about isolated successes: Farmer Bob takes at-risk city kids down to the farm and turns their lives around. When I see those stories I always wonder, why can't we just find a hundred Farmer Bobs and save a few thousand kids? More to the point, if we know how to do this, if we understand how to get these results, why are such programs the alternative and not the standard? Whatever they've got that works, why can't we make that available to all at-risk kids, instead of a lucky few?

You may think the question is about denying the importance of families. I think it's about saving black children by any means necessary.

Coming Monday: Assuming the news does not intervene, we'll talk about What Works in Austin, where they've got a program some troubled young men say has completely turned their lives around.