Men with time on their hands

They sit on stoops. They lean against the corners of buildings. They pass the time in groups -- smoking, playing cards, drinking from bottles wrapped in paper bags. The street is their social club, their communal living room. Affection, mutual support, and frequent laughter bind them together, but their ties can be brittle and snap under pressure. In winter, they may build a fire in a trash can to get warm. In summer, they may find a discarded sofa to nap on. Walk down a street in any low-income black neighborhood and these men -- aged anywhere from 18 to 80 -- are likely to be the first people you see. Though they spend most of their time on the street, they are usually not homeless -- just jobless, most of the time.

``We got work -- like -- four months of the year,'' says Neville, a construction worker in Boston's South End. He chuckles sarcastically. ``That's not a lot.''

``I ain't worked in over six or seven months,'' says Herbert. He and two other men are sitting on a stoop on flattened cardboard boxes. He has a bottle of beer in his hand. ``I'd do any kind of work. I like to clean, sweep. I can't do no lifting, though, 'cause my legs won't let me. I'm 62.'' Herbert gestures toward the men sitting above him on the steps, who have become for him a kind of family. ``In the past, when I didn't have nothing to do, this man, and that guy, they always help me. And the guy upstairs here. He helped me buy food and rent. I had good jobs, though, I worked on the railroad. All of my life I been working hard.''

``I ain't worked in two years,'' says Sam on Manhattan's West Side. Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, articulate, he is having lunch in a soup kitchen. Sam is 33, and has worked mostly in construction. He says he has earned a good wage, when he can get work.

``I guess there are jobs,'' Sam admits. ``Little, minimum-wage-paying jobs. There were times when I'd go and work a minimum wage-paying job. But I feel like I got no business whatsoever working at one of those jobs. Maybe I got too much pride, you know?''

The perception of black men as lazy, irresponsible, and improvident is accepted by many whites -- and is even shared by some blacks.

``My husband was a nobody -- a veteran,'' says a mother of three living in Harlem. ``He did not like working at all. That's one of the reasons I left him.''

A Jamaican taxi driver in New York, who has put his three children through college, was equally blunt: ``American blacks are lazy,'' he said. ``It looks like they just don't want to work -- they'd rather live on welfare.''

But sociologists and other experts say that what is perceived as laziness is in fact lack of opportunities.

Robert Hill, former director of research at the National Urban League, a black advocacy and service organization, points to studies of the work habits and motivational level of black males. ``There's a consensus that shows most of those persons have a very strong orientation to work,'' he says. ``If they're standing around on street corners, it's because there are fewer jobs. In the central city areas many jobs have moved out. Two years ago in Baltimore, there were 27 low-paying jobs being offered by the government. You had over 500 people lined up for those jobs. And they're supposed to be not willing to work!''

Hill says that, among informed individuals, little credence remains for the contention that black men prefer not to work. ``That notion,'' he says, ``has really been refuted. Anyone who actually looks closely at these men knows that they want to work -- it's the people who look at them from a distance who believe the stereotypes.''

During the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (now a US senator from New York) examined black male unemployment, and he observed exemplary qualities of citizenship and support for their families by black postal workers. Finding that these workers were respected, needed, and well paid, and could hold their heads high in society, he recommended a simple step that would employ more black men: Deliver the United States mail twice a day, thereby hiring more postal workers. The plan was never adopted.

What has this perennial state of unemployment, or underemployment, done to black men in America? Most observers can easily point out the scars in these men's self-confidence and self-esteem.

Mildred Johnson, a widow in Brooklyn, remembers with regret the chance her husband had after World War II to purchase a house under the GI Bill -- a chance he did not take. He was afraid of the financial commitment of monthly payments, she says, even though he could easily have afforded them.

``They don't see past Friday's paycheck,'' Mrs. Johnson laments. ``The hardest thing is getting our black men to launch out and take that stand -- to say, `I'm going to buy my own home.' If we could just get our black men to feel good about themselves....'' But researchers agree that for black men, as for most other Americans, self-esteem is inextricably linked to status -- the status born of work, money, and class.

``You might see me working with a shovel or pushing a broom all day,'' says Sam. ``I used to work right off Wall Street. At lunchtime I'd go buy lunch. My clothes might be filthy. I'd see a guy come in with his hands manicured, with his three-piece on and a clean white shirt, no ring-around-the-collar. And he's looking at me like I'm a dog. I'm working seven hours a day, five days a week, but because I got dirty clothes on, and I work with my hands, I can't have any mind.''

``One of the biggest temptations we have in the black community is the temptation toward a negative self-concept,'' says the Rev. Frederick E. Dennard, executive director of the Harlem Interfaith Counseling Service, which specializes in family counseling. ``There's a big temptation to believe that you're nothing. There's also a big temptation to believe that if you don't have a particular kind of skill, and you don't have the education, you're too old to get it.''

``Everything is piled up against you,'' says Sam. ``The bony finger of indignity says, `Get in the hole, you got no business up here with us, get in the hole.' Some people just don't have the will to compete and survive, you know?''

Andrew Billingsley, an author and professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland, agrees. ``Blacks and whites don't really live in the same society,'' says Dr. Billingsley. ``That is to say, society doesn't function the same way for black people as for white people. It functions better for white people. It's called racism.''

``We all got the same abilities,'' says Sam. ``But in order to keep the better advantages, the ones with the advantages is gonna always have the other ones think that they have a lesser ability.

``There's training, but after you get trained you still might not be able to get a job,'' he says. ``Or they'll still have you doing the little nothing jobs.''

It takes a white reporter a moment to catch on. ``That sounds like discrimination.''

Sam smiles gently. ``That's what I've been trying to convey all along.''

``So, the white world is a different world?''

``Absolutely,'' says Sam, shaping a globe with his hands. ``Absolutely. We're all here on this same little surface here, but we're in two totally different worlds.'' Between 1969 and 1976 New York State experienced a net loss of 649,910 jobs - more than any other state.2 SOURCE: 2.`The Job Generation Process,' by David Birch, 1979. Between 1980 and 1986, New York City lost 108,000, or 22 percent of its manufacturing jobs.3 SOURCE: 3.US Census Bureau.

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