Remember the Lawrences
It's been an all-too-familiar American phenomenon in recent decades: summer violence in city streets. Police move into a run-down neighborhood, arrests are made, a curfew imposed. With the lid on, city officials, the news media, and state, federal, and private social agencies make their assessments.
Was the flare-up racially motivated? Does it reflect competition for scarce low-cost housing? Is it the result of abysmal housing conditions, high unemployment, rampant drug-dealing, or simply the heat?
Lawrence, Mass., a city of about 60,000 north of Boston, is in the assessment stage now. Two nights of street violence in the shabby Tower Hill section apparently grew out of a neighborhood disagreement between Hispanics and whites.
The television network crews are gone, the print reporters are writing their analyses. Local officials calculate the immediate costs and prepare their requests for more state and federal help.
Lawrence has become, barring some new outbreak, yesterday's news. But the conditions that underlay the little city's brief outbreak remain in dozens of communities, large and small, in almost all regions of the United States.
The nation must not ignore its Lawrences.
Urban deprivation is a very old and complex problem. It involves joblessness, often the result of technological change; immigration, a renewed source of pressure and competition between racial and ethnic groups in the US; crime, especially linked to illegal drugs; educational disadvantages, which still are not being adequately addressed; underrepresentation of minorities and new arrivals in local government; and the failure so far of either the public or the private sector to ameliorate these conditions in a major way.
America responded to the urban riots of the 1960s with the so-called War on Poverty. That violence sprang from racial and economic discrimination. It subsided for two main reasons: government, especially at the national level, responded with money and programs that offered some hope; and those involved discovered that violence was largely self-destructive.
Despite progress in some directions - particularly desegregation of education and the strengthening of civil rights - most of the basic urban ills remain. The towering hotels and office buildings that dominate most city skylines and the high-tech industries that dot suburban landscapes are accessible to few of those who live in places like East Los Angeles, Boston's Roxbury section, or Lawrence's Tower Hill.
We know now that the problems of urban deprivation cannot simply be covered up by the appropriation of federal and state dollars. We know that no program, however innovative, is likely to solve the problems within even a decade.
But Americans and their leaders, from the White House to precinct level, must face the moral and social obligation to commit more energy and resources to alleviating these situations.
It is not enough for officials to respond only to the violence and to turn their backs on the underlying problems when it is quelled. Local leaders have to resist the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that stifle initiative.
With the country's economy on the rise, it is time to make a new effort to bring those who have experienced little of prosperity into the mainstream.
Jesse Jackson, in his recent campaign for the presidential nomination, eloquently warned the nation against ignoring this challenge.
How quickly the thunder of oratory is forgotten! But there is little Lawrence and its problems, reminding us: ''We're still here.''