Vernon Jordan and the inner-city challenge

In the wake of Miami's recent weekend of rioting and looting, warnings have been sounded about the possibility of another "long, hot summer" of racial violence in America's inner cities. The shooting of Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League and one of the country's most respected civil rights leaders, will hardly dampen such speculation. The challenge for all Americans, blacks and whites alike -- state and federal officials, community leaders, and residents of urban neighborhoods, in particular -- is to work harder together to see to it such prophecies are not self-fulfilling.

The initial reaction of Mr. Jordan himself to the shooting attack in Fort Wayne, Indiana, could be said to exemplify the kind of restraint and magnanimity that blacks and whites everywhere would do well to strive to emulate. Mr. Jordan reportedly told doctors he held no bitterness toward his would-be assailant but was saddened that such an incident could still occur in the US after all the civil rights progress of recent years. If there is one message that wends through Mr. Jordan's two decades of dedicated work in behalf of blacks it is his insistence on moderation and working together with whites to overcome trying circumstances.

Largely as a result of organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP working within "the system," constantly prodding corporate executives and government officials to do more, blacks in America in general have made notable economic and social progress since the urban riots of the 1960s. Still, Miami's violence must serve as a grim reminder that for many blacks locked in urban ghettos without the education or training or jobs to improve their lot, the civil rights gains of the past decade have meant little.

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In response to Miami's outbreak, Mr. Jordan warned, "There is a national insensitivity to the needs of blacks and poor people. The ingredients that caused the explosion in Miami are present in every city in this country."

Further complicating the situation in Miami has been the large influx of Cubans who are welcomed with an official "open arms" policy and government assistance. They compete for jobs and, with the help of family and friends, most find a niche for themselves in Miami's large Cuban community. All the while blacks in the ghetto, unable to get off the lowest rung of the economic ladder, see black refugees from Haiti encountering red tape in trying to relocate in the US and jump to the not surprising if not completely correct conclusion that the better treatment afforded "white" Cubans stems from racial discrimination.

Nor are Cubans the only recent immigrants to elicit the kind of special consideration from white, middle-class Americans denied their own black fellow countrymen. Waves of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, too, were taken in and cared for by concerned volunteers. An irony that is not lost on American blacks is that many of their numbers were recruited from the ghettos to fight in Vietnam, only to see refugees from Southeast Asia now welcomed to a new life with offers of help not available to America's own impoverished "refugees." Mr. Jordan has called inner-city residents America's "boat people without boats, cut adrift" from the promise of a brighter future.

The national economic problems, recession coupled with inflation, are making it difficult for Americans this summer to be as generous as they might like to be to their own "huddled masses." Still, President Carter is right to resist proposed budget trims that would cost thousands of jobs for inner-city youth and reduce subsidies for low-income housing. The economic squeeze already has forced the Carter administration to dismantle much of its program for helping the cities. One of the most effective ways the federal government can help provide essential economic development in the ghettos is through "leveraging" -- i.e. using federal funds to attract private investment and jobs. The White House has had considerable success in providing low-interest loans and loan guarantees, grants, and interest subsidies for this purpose.

More of this kind of federal assistance -- helping cities to help themselves -- will be needed to give inner-city residents the hope and encouragement to ride out this and many other summers to come.

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