Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Race, Class, and Society

BOND: You look at black America today and there's a tremendous crisis in what is called the underclass -- family disintegration of the sort you've described, fatherless families, the numbers going up, women with children never married, not just divorced or widowed, absence of some kind of corrective structures that say, you know, "We need to do better than this." How do we deal with this?

NORTON: This is a difficult issue and I think it's the overriding issue of the black community today unlike when I was in the civil rights movement forty years ago where the overriding issues were just sheer opportunity basics. Now that you have this opportunity, there are millions of black children who can't take advantage of it because they don't have the nurturing of families. By families, I mean families of any configuration. We haven't had nuclear families as the only family. Of course, until the 1970s, nuclear families were the rule in the African American community, but it was also the rule to have extended families, which do not thrive nearly as much in urban settings and those children are raising themselves very often. Getting into this issue is very different from getting into a better education or the rest of it, but all of that may depend upon whether we get into this issue of surrounding children, if not with nuclear families, at least with proxies for those families. I don't talk --

I have worked with this issue now in a pro-active way at least since that Urban League speech. In the early '80s, I wrote the first piece in a major magazine that frankly discussed the black family. It appeared in the New York Times Magazine. All of the major civil rights organizations speak about family, find ways to deal with family in one sense or the other. The way I have found that is most satisfying to me may be ironic, because as I analyze what has happened, what we have is a huge generation of girls who have profited from the attention that feminists gave to opportunity, have profited from birth control, from the availability of abortion, and are -- we have fewer and fewer -- or at least teenage pregnancy is going down. That's on the one hand. I see progress for girls and women.

And I see the opposite for boys and men. That for both whites and blacks, there are more women graduating from college. The white men, of course, may find less than a college education giving them quite a good income -- for example, in IT or some of the professions like that, high technology and the rest of it. That is not what is happening to black men. What has happened to black men is a combination of ruthless law enforcement strategies like mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines that have sent an entire generation of drug peddling, non-violent black men to jail. What's happening to black men is that the street culture which now, of course, is amplified through television and the media, siphons off young men at a very early age, indeed, when they're children, into the underground economy. And because there are not jobs for able-bodied people who don't have good educations, as there were for their fathers and grandfathers, they've created their own economy -- a drug economy and a gun-running economy and the rest of it.

Therefore, since seeing this truly catastrophic, in my judgment, difference between the number of marriageable young women -- and this is women of every class -- and marriageable young men, I want to know whether we can bring the boys and men at least to the point where the girls are, so they can form families and want to form families. And I've started here something called the Commission on Black Men and Boys. It's preparing an action plan. It's not your normal commission. It consists of men with credibility with black men and their families in the District of Columbia. We've had hearings, but they're like none of the hearings we have on the Hill. All kinds of people come that you would never expect to come, and we're talking straight out about some stuff here.

I'll give you an example. The first one was on the family, and we had a judge who had -- now, a federal judge who had grown up as a thug to talk about how he got away from that life. And then we had three witnesses -- a family -- a woman raising two sons, a man raising two sons, and a third black family raising two sons and a daughter, and they each testified. [We] said, "You all listen to them yourselves and you decide." And then at the end of the hearing, the Commission -- I'm not on the Commission, remember, these are black men -- they take testimony from the people who come, so they can testify, too, because there are a small number of witnesses and they get up and testify.

It's a moment like the moment at the Urban League in 1974 that told me, "People are ready, where's the leadership on this?" It's real hard to find a way in. You've got to deal with people as they are, and then you've got to deal with the generation who may in fact be different. You've got to find your way into it. I thought feminism was a way into a whole set of problems for women. It takes two to tango if you're going to have a family. Somebody's got to deal with the fact that I'm a card-carrying feminist has not diminished my interest in what has happened to black boys and men. If anything, it's increased it.