Op-ed: Three steps forward, two steps back

*As originally published on January 12, 2005*

Three steps forward, two steps back


By Tawana Jacobs
(Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service)

This is a busy time of year for black Americans. The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is upon us and Black History Month is looming. A host of activities and events designed to celebrate the black community’s colorful past and complicated history are filling up the calendar. But one question looms even larger than coming events: When looking at the state of blacks today, would our past leaders — Dr. King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois among them — share in our celebrations and be confident about our future? Or would they hang their heads in shame?

We’ve all heard the pitiful statistics: 70 percent of black children are born into homes headed by single women. More than 80 percent of black children are being raised in poverty. More black men go to prison than college every year. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they account for 54 percent of all new AIDS cases. And although the size of the black middle class has quadrupled in the last 40 years, the median net worth of white families is nearly 10 times the median net worth of black families.

Although the civil rights movement is responsible for the huge strides made by blacks in business, entertainment, politics, science and countless other arenas, since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 an overwhelmingly large part of the community has lost its way. The morals, values and principles that were once the backbone of the black community, which helped to insulate it against a number of negative outside influences, no longer exist in many households.

The black community as a whole has talked unceasingly about the decline of its fortitude and moral strength for years and come up with lots of ideas. But the reluctance to act consistently on those ideas means that we are continuing to lose ground. It’s because many of those responsible for the downward slide don’t want to accept responsibility and those in a position to comment or effect change don’t for fear of offending anyone. Now is the time to move forward, develop a list of tangible solutions and start moving through that list item by item.

Let’s galvanize our energies and focus first on black mothers. With an overwhelming majority of them raising children alone, they are the obvious key to solving many of the community’s ills.

Raising children alone is nothing new. Children have been born out of wedlock since the beginning of time and will continue to be raised by single women in the future. It’s one thing for an unmarried, emotionally and financially stable woman to make a conscious decision to have a child. It’s another when a woman who lacks a basic high school education, is struggling to provide for herself financially and is already likely to live in poverty makes a purposeful decision to have children out of wedlock.

What was once an unpleasant rarity that caused tongues to wag is now commonplace, and in many circles considered acceptable. With contraception readily available and increasingly inexpensive, why is this happening? None of us know for sure, but many in the community believe that some women have bought into the myth that a man will stay with you, and eventually agree to get married, if you bear his children. Others seem to think that marriage, because of its high divorce rate, is a waste of time.

Unfortunately, the children are the ones who suffer. The majority of children born into these situations are instantly relegated to live in poverty, attend substandard schools, get stuck in near-minimum wage jobs and continue the cycle of fatherlessness and poverty.
A recent article in Newsweek by Ellis Cose talks about how hardened the children, born into single-parent households in marginalized communities, become and how many of them, if given an opportunity and the means to succeed, would indeed try to do better for themselves. With so many children essentially raising themselves these days, it’s not hard to understand why our children have lost their sense of optimism.

To give their kids at least a shot at succeeding in life, many black women need to make better choices about men. We need to understand why so many black women are willing to give away their love and respect without demanding the same in return. Too many make excuses and are willing to look the other way when the man is participating in activities either illegal or immoral.

What many of these women are forgetting is that their children are watching and taking detailed notes. The boys are being taught how to disrespect women. The girls are learning to accept the fact that they will be disrespected by men. This sad cycle has now permeated so much of the black community that expectations for black men are at an all-time low. Single mothers, regardless of how lonely or stressed they are, must learn to place the support for their children — financial and otherwise — above all else.

Not surprisingly, many of these same single mothers who cater to a boyfriend’s needs before their children’s are skittish when questioning a man about his sexual history. In fact, this lack of resolve is a problem throughout the black community.

At a recent gathering of professional black women, I was flabbergasted to hear many of them express discomfort with asking partners, with whom they had a limited sexual history, to wear condoms during sex. With black women accounting for the majority of new HIV/AIDS cases in this country at 64 percent, the belief that black women have to be willing to go to extremes and be willing to sacrifice almost anything, including their health, to hold onto a man is costing us precious lives.

The time to get started is now. We all know single black mothers who are struggling to raise their children. Many are working hard to do better and have reached out to local organizations for assistance with a laundry list of concerns. Others haven’t made that step. We need to reach them.

If someone at your church, in your family or in your neighborhood is struggling, but stubborn, offer a hand. If they shun you or question your motives, work to win them over. Show the kids a positive example. Help a single mother arrange for babysitting. Assist her in uncovering resources to help women and families in her situation and just listen to her worries and concerns.

The black community as a whole was able to progress when our people were concerned about more than our own needs and wants. If we all make a valiant effort to support the mothers in our midst who are struggling and trying to make it alone, maybe they’ll then have the energy and tenacity to make the world a little better for their children.

Let’s do our part to ensure that the efforts, dreams and passions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others live on and resonate clearly in our lives. We cannot let the bright light of the work that paved the way for the success of the black community burn out now. It’s up to you.  Do you want to be a part of the problem or will you stand up and be a part of the solution?

Tawana Jacobs, an African American, is a communications officer with Population Action International in Washington. Readers may send her e-mail at tjacobs@popact.org.
This essay is available to Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.
© 2005, Tawana Jacobs
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services


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