Message for the Millenium

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By Joy Dryfoos

Everyone else is sounding off about the significance of the new millennium, so why shouldn't I? Who has a better right than an indignant die-hard liberal grandmother who has spent decades trying to figure out how to help the children of this country achieve "safe passage"? This is my message for youth workers in the coming century who want to ensure that all children grow up to be responsible adults: prepare for a long battle.

The most profound problem facing our nation is the protracted struggle to resolve racial issues. As long as inequity persists, we can never ensure that children will have equal opportunity for success. In the emerging landscape of children's lives, more and more white children live in isolated and privileged suburbs and more and more African-American and Latino children live in isolated inner cities or remote rural areas. Demographers tell us that by 2025, close to half of all teenagers will be "minorities." Most big city school systems will be entirely "minority." (How can 95 percent be a minority?)

Attending segregated inner city schools creates tremendous barriers for young people. They do not have access to the quality education of the suburbs, their teachers get less pay, their school buildings are over-crowded and falling down, and their test scores reflect these inequities. It is not a mystery why the achievement gap between whites and non-whites continues.

Most suburban school systems will be primarily white. How do young white children growing up in the suburbs view this situation? They don't. Unless they have particularly socially conscious parents, they suffer from non-exposure to people who are racially different from them. During the 1960s, at least young people of all races were exposed to the excitement of the civil rights movement. They saw pictures of people their age staging sit-ins and getting clubbed. They knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was and were inspired by the themes of equity and later, of affirmative action.

The debate about race has become muted. School systems have re-segregated based on housing patterns, and busing is over in cities because there are not enough white children left to bus. True, some middle-class African-American families have made it to the suburbs, but not enough to really make a difference. Americans claim that they are deeply religious, but apparently, with rare exceptions, their theology does not fully comprehend loving their neighbors.

The worst case scenario for the 21st century is the emergence of a kind of "apartheid" mentality. Older white people will opt for gated communities and younger white people for segregated villages. And in cities like New York, the price of economic rebound will be to put the squeeze on the poor, crowding them out with lofty sky-scraper mansions a la Donald Trump. Those who can't make it out of the costly city will be stuck in isolated tenements with no exit.

What can turn this around? Leadership is key. We do not have a Nelson Mandela that I know of, or at least a person so admired and so articulate. Will anyone currently running for office stand up and declare that racism is this country's most profound problem? Will anyone make the crucial connection between the potential for success and affirmative action?

No issue is more relevant to youth work than affirmative action. The fundamental practice in youth development is helping children achieve their full potential. Every youth worker knows that for some young people that means special attention, individual one-on-one support, bending rules to enable people to overcome otherwise insurmountable barriers. That is true affirmative action.

Each individual has to create his own strategies for combating racism in his community, school, place of employment and even family. All youngsters of every race and ethnic group must be exposed to the values of equity. My message for the millennium is simple: Do whatever you can to enforce the concept of equal entitlement across the land.

Joy Dryfoos is an independent writer and researcher in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.