ANTHONY NASH was the best visual artist ever to graduate from the special Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Washington - class valedictorian in 1987, a scholastic ``gold key'' winner, the kind of student you ``want to teach 24 hours a day,'' one teacher said. Yet last August, after a year on full scholarship at the New York School of the Visual Arts, Anthony Nash was dead - shot in the head three times in a District of Columbia ghetto, in what police say was a drug-related killing.
He was one of 555 blacks murdered in the District last year. If that number seems high, it may be higher this year: Since Jan. 1, 118 blacks have been killed in Washington - mainly by one another, and mainly by high-powered assault weapons. Murder rates among inner-city youth were up last year in a host of cities: Houston (37 percent), Miami (28 percent), Philadelphia (18 percent), and New York (12 percent). Detroit and Atlanta already rate second and third in similar homicides nationwide.
Yet cases such as Nash's are particularly tragic. They illustrate the pressure-filled half-life of many young black inner-city males who are trying to escape their surroundings. They have one foot in an increasingly violent and seductive world of drugs, poverty, and peers, and the other foot in a world with very different expectations about everything from use of time and language, to social behavior, wealth, success, and family values.
Take the case of Donald Johnson. On Jan. 31, this 19-year-old from Boston, who had been cited as a hero and role model by Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, was shot to death by a policeman as he tried to drive a stolen Greyhound bus through a police barricade.
The black community was outraged. Donald Johnson was a Boy Scout, a familiar face in outreach programs. But while he was not involved in drugs, investigations showed a troubled youth from a broken home who hid his problems and felt a need to impress others. He had a history of arrests - breaking and entering, auto theft, disorderly conduct.
Other cases include that of Edmund Perry. This top Phillips Exeter student by way of Harlem won a scholarship to Stanford, but was shot and killed in June 1986 by a New York plainclothes policeman whom he and his brother (from Cornell) were brutally beating for movie money.
Ghetto culture has always had exaggerated crime rates. But today the pull within the inner-city black-youth male peer culture is more aggressive, more malevolent, and more anarchic. Views of manhood have deteriorated, and so have many unwritten codes:
``It used to be that fighting was what you did as a man. If you were a problem, I might mess up your face,'' says a Washington youth who says he used to sell drugs and who attended Duke Ellington High with Anthony Nash. ``But now it's `Why don't I just kill you?' Manhood now is, `Who's got the biggest gun that shoots the fastest?'''
In the inner-city culture that Nash came out of, many girls brag about how many people their boyfriends ``have sent away,'' says another source; it's a status symbol.
(Blacks who knew Nash did not want their names used in this report. As one put it: ``Your mouth is how you get shot; you get killed not minding your own business. That, drugs, owing money, and girls are what get you killed.'')
Teachers and administrators say they had no idea Nash was into drug dealing; it came as a shock. ``We would have fought you tooth and nail if you'd said he was involved in drugs,'' said William Harris, his painting teacher.
Nash's peers, however, say his dealing was known to them, though Nash was so cool ``you could feel the draft when he walked by.'' One friend points to a freshman photo of Nash in jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt: ``Does that look like a dealer? Naw. Now look here.'' He points to a senior photo: ``See? He's got a silk shirt, lizard shoes, hat - he's dealing.''
HIS art work offers another clue. Early paintings are calm, balanced, lighted still-lifes and portraits. Later college paintings are of haunted, ghostly figures twisting in a dark mass of psychedelia.
``It's like he was telling us about his predicament, his inability to escape his world,'' says Melchus Davis, another teacher.
``Tony had it too good, too fast,'' says a friend. ``He was living in two worlds. He thought he was smart enough to handle it, but he wasn't.''
Asked why Nash didn't quit, given the high murder rate, one friend discussed the typical attitude on the street: ``My best friend gets shot and killed, but I'm out there selling [drugs] the next day because until I die, I'm superman - nothing's going to happen to me.''
The need for spending money - to buy the things the people on TV and in the wealthy parts of town have - is a constant pressure. Nash could make several hundred dollars a day dealing, compared with $5 an hour at McDonald's. But the price is high:
``Nobody cares because the dollar is god and killing is nothing,'' says one of Nash's buddies.
Nash got little academic support from his immediate peers. His teacher, Mr. Harris, said Nash ``relied mainly on his white friends at the school to talk with about artistic questions - they were the ones who could afford to think about a career in art.''
Too, there is little family support in the ghetto. In 1960 about 20 percent of all black children lived in fatherless homes. By 1985 the figure was 51 percent, though it is 80 percent in many large cities. Nash lived with his grandparents. Edmund Perry, the Exeter student, lived with his mother. Nobody, including his separated parents, knew where Donald Johnson from Boston lived.
Young black men in general feel less useful, ``more expendable,'' says Harris - in a society placing greater value on high-tech work.
Robert Moses, a leading civil rights worker in the South who won a MacArthur Fellowship in the early '80s and now teaches algebra to junior high blacks in Cambridge, Mass., says simply, ``The situation is critical.''
It may be easy to take promising youngsters out of the ghetto. But it is harder to take the ghetto out of them - and the situation may not change until the ``ghetto culture'' itself changes. Many recent books on the subject argue about whether it is historic discrimination, the exodus of the black middle class from the inner city, a deindustrialized economy further isolating the ghetto, the welfare state, or the lack of moral leadership among blacks that is the central cause.
One recent work, ``The Truly Disadvantaged,'' by University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson contends that inner-city blacks understand the work ethic, ideas of responsibility, and family values - but cannot act on them.
Christopher Jencks, a well-known Northwestern University sociologist, says that while more and better government support may be needed, the best trend in helping for ``self-conscious cultural change'' in the inner city is a switch from a reluctance to discuss the problem (for fear of being labeled racist) in terms of what blacks themselves can do.