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A Black Journalist Looks At Civil Rights Today

Columnist William Raspberry says the next great cahllenge for balcks is to take responsibility for their young generation

IT'S a hard sell in light of such ongoing racial attacks as the New Year's day burning of a black man in Florida, but William Raspberry insists that racism no longer is the principal barrier to the progress of African Americans.

Using the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a vantage from which to survey the past and future of racial justice in the United States, the respected Washington Post journalist said in a Monitor interview, "Racism is alive and well in America ... but what is a more important barrier to our progress now has to do with our own [black] behavior."

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In between commentary ranging from foreign affairs to domestic politics, the syndicated columnist spends considerable space on the opinion pages of 180 of America's newspapers promoting and nurturing the notion that the next great movement in the black community is one of taking "civil responsibility."

Using the civil rights won by King's generation, the next step for blacks is to take responsibility for the generation of children at risk of sinking ever deeper into the ravages of inner-city poverty, violence, and drug dependence, Mr. Raspberry says.

"We've spent a generation essentially telling [black children] that nothing good can happen for them because of racism.

"We thought we were saying it to the racists ... to the political leadership ... to people we could put a guilt trip on [so] they would come and help us. But whoever we were saying it to, our children heard it, and it's frightening to me to listen to some of them talk now about the futility of trying," he says. One of the first black journalists on a mainstream white newspaper, Raspberry has been observing social issues for the Post since 1966.

Talk like this often gets Raspberry branded a "conservative" among black critics, explains Jannette L. Dates, a Howard University associate professor of communications and the author of a history of African Americans in mass media.

But she explains that the effect of Raspberry's columns - which don't necessarily elevate one side of an issue in order to criticize the other - is to steadily chip away at the stereotype of black community thought as monolithically liberal and Democratic.

Those who read him closely find that he labors to cobble reason together in an approach to social problems that often defies political labels, says Derek McGinty, a black talk-show host on local public radio station WAMU.

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Indeed, Raspberry's signature writing style - reminiscent of his studied furrowed-brow conversational style - is to wrestle with himself on paper, exposing his own struggle to resolve tough issues.

For example, a recent opinion piece in favor of gun control also included his admission that he probably would like to have a gun in hand if someone were breaking into his home. Also, he frequently argues with a "cabbie" - a.k.a. himself - as a way of airing all sides of an issue. Following the Los Angeles riots, he and his cabbie dickered over shades of right and wrong, the cabbie likening looting to white-collar crime.

Raspberry, who works out of a cluttered private office just off the Post newsroom, says that placing Martin Luther King Jr. in historical context helps to reveal where today's parallel to the civil rights movement may be emerging.

"King managed to move almost an entire population beyond the gut-level fear of what seemed blatantly suicidal - defying Southern sheriffs. And that may be the most significant contribution of his," observes Raspberry.

But he also points out that among many others, like the freedom riders and Malcolm X, King "wasn't the only one who was rising up to challenge the system."

"The march on Washington in 1963 has come to be reduced in the public mind to the occasion on which King made his `I have a dream' speech," he says. "It was almost as though we assembled 250,000 people on the Mall in order to provide an audience for King's speech."

But Raspberry says a review of the Washington Post issue the day after the march shows that King rated only a few paragraphs on an inside page and that the reverend's famous line was not quoted.

"The `I have a dream' thing gathered momentum and importance in the weeks and months following that and eventually became the essence of the march. That's, in a way, what has happened to King himself. He's come to personify the entire movement," says Raspberry.

Today, that "magical transformation into a movement" hasn't happened, he says.

Yet, he adds, "There are wonderful things scattered out there ... [black] people teaching children to be strong and ethical ... people encouraging youngsters to sharpen their math skills ... getting young men to claim responsibility for their out-of-wedlock children...."

Those constitute a nascent movement that he says "could be as important historically to us as the 1960s movement to get Jim Crow off our backs."

King's accomplishments in civil rights are not always recognized by young people under 35, Raspberry observes. He says his own college-age children are "convinced" they would have done the same thing King did.

Often when young people today see racial injustice, he says, "they get outraged, but they have not yet understood that outrage is not a program. They express their rage and think they have done the 1990s version of what King did."

As unproductive as the youthful rage, he says, is the other side of the coin, in which the black community often shrugs off responsibility for inner-city youths. The common cop-out, he says, is to suggest that the promise of school and a minimum-wage job can't compete with the lure of drug-dealing.

"A big chunk of [the answer] is optimism that [the black community] can [compete]," he counters.

Raspberry says that the black community first has to believe - in order to portray to youths - that "the gold chains, and a life looking over your shoulder and killing and being killed" are more absurd than the possibility of "putting on a suit and going to an office, and to college and learning chemistry and computing, and having a house with a picket fence and children running around."

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