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A Response to "What Should be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind?"by Owen Fiss.

Better Neighborhoods?

Robert Coles

Many of us know and admire the work of Owen Fiss, and are grateful for his brilliant, wide-ranging legal scholarship that is grounded in a mind comfortable with literature and unafraid to grapple with the serious social and political matters that bear down on us Americans, for all our nation’s might and wealth. As I read his essay, I was not surprised by the moral urgency that informs the question that serves as a title for what follows--here is one academic scholar who knows the oughts and noughts of constitutional law, yet dares address his readers with an aroused conscience, alert to the travails of fellow citizens who are having no easy time of it. Look at those left behind, we are urged, and try to imagine significant, if not drastic, remedial recourses for what has happened over the generations in our American cities, where (in some neighborhoods) many poor and vulnerable people live hard-pressed lives.

The gist of this article is its answer to the question posed at its onset--a learned and privileged citizen’s conviction that those who live in our urban ghettos be enabled (and thereby encouraged) to move out, lest they continue to be threatened by rampant social pathology, which is either explicitly mentioned or summoned by implication--as in references to "better neighborhoods" that are supposedly spared the errant, the fearful, the downright illegal and violent kind of life that the author hopes the African Americans who live in ghettos will have "left behind," as they journey elsewhere. This proposal--that our government convert a present status quo (the passivity of being left behind) to the activity of deliberate departure--will, in effect, be subsidized by millions of taxpayers.

I must say that I was concerned on several scores as I read this spirited exhortation on behalf of a bureaucratically assisted realignment of neighborhood populations across our contemporary urban scenes. We are asked to believe that the "better neighborhoods," the "receiving communities," are themselves without the problems that plague ghetto residents--common drug usage, willful gangs, a somewhat demoralized atmosphere. Some of us who work in the relatively well-to-do suburbs know all too well the serious difficulties to be found in those communities, though often certain aspects of psychological and moral pathology are kept under the table--the cheating and lying in big-deal schools, the widespread drug use, the bullying and intimidating by some youths of others, the drunken driving that proves fatal to those induced to go along (and alas, threatened if they don’t agree to say yes, to put themselves in those recklessly mis-used cars given by parents all too self-absorbed by the demands of their jobs, by the preoccupations of their "successful" lives). One asks for context, for a close scrutiny of what takes place in economically privileged neighborhoods, and also, for a willingness to think of the serious neighborhood misfortunes, afflictions, disorders, and even calamities that afflict relatively impoverished white urban neighborhoods, or those populated by Spanish-speaking people.

I could take Owen Fiss to streets in Boston where gangs prey upon people down on their luck, where drugs are almost everywhere available, where a climate of futility, and even despair, is to be found, where some residents wish they could get out, though some stand fast and firmly live out a sincere loyalty to a given section of the city--and where, I suspect (in South Boston, say, or Chelsea, or parts of the North End or the South End) the lure of Quincy, of Everett and Marblehead, goes unnoticed, as well as the ever-present seductions of gentrification. (Talk about "better neighborhoods" that some working-class people, black and white alike, have no interest in joining!)

Speaking of the movement Fiss proposes, with his unfortunate talk of "tearing down" and "breaking up" certain ghetto neighborhoods, I have tape recorded another kind of plea for migratory possibility, albeit a distinctly qualified one, that ultimately leaves the matter of departure moot--spoken by an African American father as he contemplated the arrival of well-to-do white people not far from Roxbury streets that draw close to the South End: "They’re all dressed up and they are always trying to be fancy, and it’s antique this, and antique that, and I worry that they are not interested in families--they are interested in themselves, in showing themselves off. That is not what I want my kids to see--I wish I could get us out of here, but hell, we were born here, my wife and I, and now our [four] children and us will stay and do our own showing off: we’ll teach our kids what we believe is right and good, and we’ll encourage them to act like good, God-fearing folks. It’s nice to cut and run, but it’s nice to dig in hard and long--to keep remembering that you stood up for who you are, and for what you think really matters in this life that the good Lord has leant you to keep."

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist and James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University.

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Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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