Three months ago, my daughter and her husband were walking on the West Side at night when two purse-snatchers hit them. Her husband was knocked down and the thieves ran with her purse containing two weeks' pay.
Each time, the attackers were black.
Each time, I felt a surge of racial hostility.
Each time, I cooled off when reality set in, when I mulled over the dilemma of race, when I remembered that we live in a country where whites always got the gold mine and blacks got the shaft.
Increasingly, America is plagued by a dual black crisis of rampant violence and rampant unwed births. Young black males are setting records in (a) killing each other, and (b) fathering out-of-wedlock children they can't support. It's costing taxpayers billions in prison expense and welfare expense. Everyone from Jesse Jackson to President Clinton is talking about it, but nobody seems to know a solution.
We're bombarded with ugly reports showing that two-thirds of black babies are born out of wedlock, destined to poverty -- and that half of young black males in some cities are in jail, or awaiting trial, or on parole or probation. Murder is their leading cause of death. Experts expect black incarceration to worsen.
The situation is spurring white bigotry. Contemptuous wisecracks are more common. The blame game is being played.
How did we get in this mess? First, remember the basic facts:
White Americans dragged millions of Africans here in chains, and used them as unpaid work animals for two centuries. Our Kanawha Valley thrived on slavery. In the 1850 census, the valley had 12,001 whites and 3,140 slaves. In the Civil War, most Kanawha whites fought for the Confederacy in a futile attempt to preserve slavery.
After emancipation, most white Americans treated blacks like scum, calling them degrading names and passing hundreds of segregation laws to bar them from white schools, white neighborhoods, white restaurants, white hotels, white jobs, white theaters, white toilets, white swimming pools. Whites made it a crime for a black to sit in the front of a bus or drink from a white water fountain. All this in a nation symbolizing equality.
I came to Charleston in 1949, a callow hillbilly teen who had scarcely seen a black. I joined an art club that included a black schoolteacher -- and was jolted to learn that she couldn't accompany the rest of us to a restaurant after a painting session. I was jolted again when a black elevator operator in the old Charleston National Building told me she had a college degree, but college-level jobs were closed to her.
Once I interviewed Charleston's "king of the numbers racket'' (in the days before government usurped that role, with state lotteries). The shrewd old black told me: "When I was growing up, I saw that I had a choice of being the white man's mop boy, or going into the rackets.'' I respected his choice.
A black psychologist at Lakin State Hospital once called me a racist. I protested that I'm not prejudiced. He replied: "Yeah, but you took all the advantages that are open to whites -- just took them for granted -- when we couldn't. That's a kind of racism.'' He had me.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s finally wiped out the segregation laws and allowed gifted blacks to escape from the ghetto. Many lifted themselves into the middle class. But the blight of three centuries of debasement clung to inner cities. Young black males suffered nearly 50 percent joblessness.
The left-out ones, with little chance to achieve and build self-esteem, behave like people with nothing to lose. Their self-destructiveness emerges in alcoholism, brutality, drugs, gangs, theft, riots -- all hurting both themselves and society.
Can anything be done? Social scientists aren't finding any cures, so I'll toss out a couple of possibilities: To fight unwed births, offer cash inducements to anyone who accepts vasectomy, tubal ligation or birth-control implants. To fight unemployment and the resulting sense of worthlessness, try every conceivable job-training and job-creating program.
(These programs would be color-blind, of course. Thus they'd benefit West Virginia, which has America's worst rate of white poverty, white joblessness and white illegitimacy.)
As for assessing blame in the hurtful black crisis,
keep in mind that whites imposed two centuries of slavery and one century
of segregation -- the prologue to the current scene.
This nation has sown the wind, and we all are reaping the whirlwind.