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Leaders in New Orleans Aim to Stem Crime Wave Among Young Black Males

The black underclass - and violence - grows in the Big Easy; to show young men a different path, local leaders organize programs offering counseling, education, and casino jobs.

FOR Norman Francis, president of the mostly black Xavier University here, this year should be the best of times.

Not only is it his 25th anniversary as Xavier's president, but he has helped spur record-breaking fund-raising for the university, topping $18 million and resulting in a spate of new construction on the 23-acre urban campus.

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But Mr. Francis, like many black leaders in New Orleans, is troubled by an unprecedented wave of inner-city violence in New Orleans, in which there were 389 murders last year and more than 20 this month, mostly among lower-income, undereducated, young black males.

``It is one of the things that pains us very much,'' says Francis, who is recognized as a respected and eloquent leader of the black community in New Orleans.

``It is the greatest tragedy of our time, and the question is: `How much more can we do? How many of these lost young people can we save?' '' the university president adds.

For Francis, the answer is obvious - as many young people as possible. And as proof of his commitment to this task, the Xavier president has launched a series of innovative programs that include putting more than 1,000 low-income junior and senior high school students in college-track learning programs, as well as giving advice and counseling to low-income minority entrepreneurs through Xavior University's economic-development program.

Leaders alarmed at crime

In his efforts to throw out a lifeline to the thousands of minority residents still living in poverty and surrounded by crime in New Orleans, Francis is not alone.

He is joined by dozens of other black leaders from the business, educational, and political communities who are also alarmed by the explosion in young African-American crime.

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Part of the problem, according to Vincent Maruggi, assistant director of the University of New Orleans's division of business and economic research, is that the black upper class in New Orleans has barely grown at all in recent years, while the poverty rate among African-Americans remains one of the highest in the United States.

``Both the white upper-economic class and the black upper-economic class in New Orleans are shrinking,'' Mr. Maruggi says.

``And these are the kind of people the city desperately needs for its economic survival, even though they're leaving in droves,'' he adds.

According to the 1990 US Census, there are only slightly more than 1,600 black households in the city with combined incomes of more than $50,000.

More than 75,000 black households fall below the $25,000 mark, and, of that number, some 26,000 households earned less than $5,000 annually.

Such dire statistics have made New Orleans the third-poorest city in the country, with a poverty rate that has increased from 26 percent to 31 percent in the last decade alone.

According to city figures, as much as 80 percent of last year's murders took place in the poorest sections of this aging city.

But those numbers haven't dissuaded some black leaders.

``We have to do everything we can to reach out and bring in those whose poverty will lead them to a life of crime,'' says Morris Jeff, the director of the New Orleans welfare department, who himself grew up in one of the roughest housing projects in New Orleans.

Two of Mr. Jeff's efforts are the Louis Armstrong Manhood Development Program, which teaches minority youths responsibility and leadership skills, and the Black 100 Men of New Orleans, a business group dedicated to spending money and time in the depressed urban neighborhoods that many of these executives have long since moved out of.

``The problem is that New Orleans has a preindustrial economy,'' Jeff says. ``So even if we can save, say, a hundred young men or so, there are hundreds and hundreds more we'll never reach because we don't have enough money to help them, and there's not enough money to create new businesses and industries to give them jobs,'' he adds.

Berkes Plummer, a retired New Orleans school teacher who works in a program called Project Independence, which helps low-income people gain self-sufficiency, says it is the overwhelming nature of urban crime in the city that spurs him on.

``When you have this much work to do, the last thing you can think about is giving up,'' he says.

Young blacks on street corners

Noting the large numbers of young black males wearing expensive clothing and jewelry who spend much of their day wandering New Orleans streets, Mr. Plummer adds: ``I never thought I'd see the day when there'd be more kids on the corner than in the church, but that's what we've got today.''

Some black leaders in New Orleans see an opportunity in the 400,000-square-foot Grand Palais casino, billed as the world's largest, which is scheduled to open here by the end of the year.

``This could be just the break that many of us have been waiting for,'' says Jim Thorns, head of the Black Economic Development Council. Mr. Thorns helped broker a deal last spring with New Orleans officials that requires up to 55 percent of the 10,000 casino-related jobs expected to be created by the project to go to minority residents.

``And that's not including hundreds of other jobs that will come with casino-related businesses, such as the hotels and motels,'' he says.

Thorns adds that the casino could be the first opportunity in decades for city blacks to reverse economic fortunes that turned sour in the early post-World War II years, after suburban flight and automation eroded opportunities in masonry, bricklaying, and work along the port of New Orleans docks - previously lucrative areas of employment for black workers.

That so many black leaders are working to improve the opportunities for a new generation comes as no surprise to Francis. ``To me, the surprise would be if we did nothing at all,'' he says.

``If we don't try to reach out and save as many people as we can, we'll be condemned to whatever trouble befalls us as a community, and that would be totally unacceptable,'' he adds.

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