A private study released last week concludes that grass-roots efforts represent the best hope of improving the future of black males in America.
The W. K. Kellogg Foundation created the National Task Force on African-American Males in 1992 to develop ideas on how to strengthen communities, families, and black men. Its more than 60 recommendations are mostly a pulling together of ideas already floated and programs that have proven to work.
Headed by Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor, the 53-member panel of civic and religious leaders called for a national dialogue on race relations and appealed to the media to help change the public perception of black men through more-positive news coverage. Among the group's other recommendations:
*Teach entrepreneurship in elementary and secondary schools and enlist foundations to provide start-up funds for young entrepreneurs.
*Encourage black churches and the black middle class to promote business development in their communities.
*Make school a year-round activity, and create residential schools for black boys.
*Create a national network of black youth camps.
*Encourage black boys and men to use public libraries and encourage families to visit historic sites that focus on black history.
*Create a center to produce films, drama, and recordings with positive images of black men and boys.
*Establish an endowment, the Village Foundation, to raise $50 million to $100 million to implement the recommendations.
More than any other group, blacks have looked to the federal government for help in climbing the economic and social ladder. This reliance on federal assistance is understandable: The federal government, from Abraham Lincoln on, has been blacks' best friend, first in ending slavery, then in extending constitutional protections, and finally (and belatedly) in enforcing those rights - in education, voting, and employment.
But it's become increasingly clear over the last three decades that, despite the best intentions, the federal government's ability to end poverty is limited. At best, Washington can level the playing field so that all Americans, and all minority groups, have an equal shot at prosperity.
Beyond that, Americans must face up to their responsibility to eliminate prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities from their own thought and from every sector of our national life.
Some of the task force's recommendations are more promising than others. But the kinds of grass-roots programs it endorses, in which communities, families, and individuals begin to take responsibility for their own futures, are what will soonest take African-Americans the rest of the way.