Posted by: Bill Tracy | May 15, 2010

And How Are the Children?

Your heart is your only real credential.

-Henri Nouwen

Children are murdered morning, noon and night on the streets of this country, and no one much cares. At least no one cares enough to stop it. That’s the crux of the column by Bob Herbert in The New York Times on Saturday, May 8.

Herbert wrote from Chicago, documenting many instances of violent death there. A 16-year-old shot to death here. One of the dead boy’s fellow students beaten with boards and kicked to death there. A little farther down the street a 7-year-old girl on a scooter was shot in the head. Up the block, a 20-month-old fatally shot in the head in the back seat of her parent’s car. Those not murdered have been injured physically and/or psychologically. Herbert says our apathy is an indictment of this whole society:

“The crazed, almost apocalyptic violence that is destroying the lives of so many young men, women and children here and in other major cities across the country is a crisis crying out for national attention. But, so far, it’s been met mostly with a shrug.

“That we tolerate this incredible carnage, that there is not even much of a national outcry against it, is a measure of how sick our society has become.”

Children in the park

These children in a suburban park will probably not be murdered in the streets of their neighborhood.

I agree with Bob Herbert and so does every successful society in the history of humanity. How a society cares for, protects and nurtures its children has always been a primary measure of civilization. True or not I don’t know, but I love the story I’ve heard many times of the African Masai Tribe. These legendary warriors are said to always greet one another by saying, “And how are the children?” The significance being that the welfare of the children is the measure of everything that matters. They don’t ask, “How are you?” They ask, “And how are the children.” It tells me they have their priorities straight.

Comments that typically follow Herbert’s columns fall into two categories. First are people like me who agree with him that something needs to be done. Most often they suggest that Herbert needs to supply some answers rather than just telling how bad things are. The other responses simply say he’s a liberal, perhaps socialist nut who wants the government to tax us out of existence – as if caring about one another created a tax burden. Once in a while there are a few thoughtful and insightful comments worth reading. This particular column on Saturday recorded 237 response comments. I read them all and was deeply saddened; almost no one understands the profound seriousness of this issue. Many were offended he raised the issue; accepting the reality of it is just too damning of a country they want desperately to believe is great.

The very first comment is so outrageously dumb it upset me immediately; it also upset many others who subsequently commented. Someone calling himself M. Smith from New Hampshire had this to say in response:

“This is the end result of the well-intentioned “Great Society” intitative, (sic) Bob. The government covers all costs from cradle to grave an (sic) never insists that people act responsibly and live productively. Such violence, as you wrote, isn’t happening yet in the suburbs, but as more and more nanny-state programs invade more of our society, it could. As a society, We (sic) need to stop rewarding bad behavior. And, as a community, we need to ostracize those that defile our civilization.”

Children are murdered on our city streets, and Smith is blaming president Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs from almost 50 years ago. I can’t imagine how Smith can believe there are any government programs that support people as he describes. If there are, I’d like to get in on that action! Having done a bit of social work I know what safety net social programs are available, and Smith is simply wrong. The welfare state, such as it was, has been “reformed” in the last 15 years. In most states you have very limited access to such public assistance, and all programs require education, job training, etc. Accountability is required, and at some point the benefits end regardless of your situation. I worked with a woman once who was a single mother on welfare. They got her trained for the workplace while taking care of her and her children. That enabled her to get an entry-level job and she improved herself as she went along. Today she is a deputy sheriff in a California county and proudly works hard taking care of her community and her children.

The only sort of “cradle-to-grave” program I know of such as Smith suggests is what Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, calls the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.” That’s our system of condemning 30% to 40% of poverty-born children to life in the criminal justice system where they will spend most of their lives in jails and prisons. I suspect Smith doesn’t understand anything about that. What I’ll bet Smith does know are the lies Rush Limbaugh and his ilk spew out all day every day over the broadcast airwaves. Smith’s comment sounds straight from Limbaugh’s self-enriching propaganda factory.

Lott APC

This is the response to violence in South Carolina by Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County. A military armored personnel carrier with mounted 50-caliber machine gun surely would prevent children from being murdered in the streets.

An alarming number of responses simplistically suggest that drenching children in violence and death  is just a policing issue. Tougher laws and more police will solve the problem. One wrote a paean to a Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County in South Carolina. The description suggests he is the living reincarnation of Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, J. Edgar Hoover and Jesus the Christ combined – with a touch of General George Patton thrown in for good measure. When you look into Lott you find out he’s nothing more than the classic egomaniacal and tyrannical southern sheriff sans the pot belly. He wears expensive suits, courts the TV cameras and is said to drive a fast sports car. One of his latest stunts was acquiring a military armored personnel carrier topped with a 50-caliber machine gun. No doubt the children on Chicago’s south side yearn to escape the menacing nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistols, preferring instead the soothing rattle of a 50-caliber machine gun in South Carolina.

The next solution category is parenting and personal responsibility. “Sandman,” of Miami Beach, has this to say:

“The problem emulates from the parents and or lack of parenting and good family (mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents) mentors and EXAMPLES. I will bet that the VAST majority of these murderers come from one parent households or that the father is absent more often than not and both parents are disinterested in their children.”

Sandy is partly correct, most likely. Good parenting involves being there and modeling what the sociologists call “pro-social” behavior. However, this is another symptom, not the heart of the issue. The so called adults in these communities will not all miraculously wake up and decide to be great parents one fine day. You don’t jackhammer a hole in the sidewalk, stick in a rose bush and expect lovely flowers to appear. Good soil and water and light are the nurturing elements that make that happen. I suggest we focus on the nurturing factors that make lovely families grow and prosper.

Marian Wright Edelman provides a good starting point. In 1993, she published the book, The Measure of Our Success. There is one paragraph in it that I’ve quoted countless times:

“I was fourteen years old the night my Daddy died. He had holes in his shoes but two children out of college, one in college, another in divinity school, and a vision he was able to convey to me as he lay dying in an ambulance that I, a young Black girl, could be and do anything; that race and gender are shadows; and that character, self-discipline, determination, attitude, and service are the substance of life.”

Parenting education classes I facilitated always began with a discussion of that paragraph. I asked prison inmates to say what it meant to them. Eventually, every group at least agreed she was saying the needs of children are more important than the needs of parents. As I put it, once you have a child, life is no longer about you. It’s about your child. Sadly, for every parent who learns this, there are multitudes who do not.

Facebook Game

Hundreds of millions of children and adults encounter this image each day on Facebook. They are encouraged to play a game where they can kill at will. How does a society with this kind of value take seriously the murder of real children in the streets?

Marian Wright Edelman was raised in a poor family – and Black in a Jim Crow south. Her parents overcame every obstacle to being good parents. That model of parenting is what nurtured Marian Wright Edelman into the successful woman and parent she is today. Is the current poverty of south Chicago and other poverty enclaves more oppressive – even impossible to overcome? I think it almost certainly is.

Many children born into poverty today are born to children. How does a 14-year-old girl with no education and no husband properly care for a child and help him grow to responsible adulthood? Given the state of schools, that mother has a sub-standard education and no skills whatsoever that will get her paid work. The extended families have vanished. If a local church happens to know about her, she may be fortunate to get some assistance from that small community. The streets are filled with drugs and gangs and heartless/thoughtless 16-year-olds fueling their mayhem with an anger they cannot comprehend. How does that young mother’s child hope to cross such a void and find his responsible adult self on the other side? How does a mother who doesn’t know what it means to be an adult show a child how to be an adult?

I think most who commented on Herbert’s column do not have that perspective. Their simple solutions do not get at the heart of the issue. And as is most often the case, heart is really the issue. We who are well off and living in reasonably safe communities simply do not have the heart to face the pain of these poor people. And when Bob Herbert sticks it in our faces in The New York Times, for most of us, our hearts harden and we resent what he has to say.

A commenter calling himself walter Bally (sic) of Vermont sums up his resentment with good old fashioned Yankee self-reliance:

“We’ve been too generous with the ghetto blood suckers. Leave ’em in their ghettos to their own devices. Let them kill each other. Sooner or later they’ll reduce their own problem.”

And how are the children, Mr. Bally? How are the children?


  1. A very thoughtful essay, Bill. Thanks for this. It was interesting to read some of the comments to Herbert’s op-ed piece. Every time I look at on-line comments I am horrified to witness so much hate and disdain that some people hold.

  2. Wonderful thought provoking article Mr. Tracy, as is your habit. These are some sad statements to come from a “civilized” people. I do knoe though that there are also good decent people out there who do care how the children are but they are probably much less likely to respond. We have a tendency to only respond if we have something negative to say. I propose there are still many people who would value what you have to say and are out there trying to make a difference. Maybe it will be slow, but little by little I believe we can be that person to give a little hope and kindness to a child who needs it. I happened to have many of those adults in childhood who made that difference and I am sure many of them never realized what some seemingly small, kind gesture did to change my life. I vow to be one of those people who is a part of the solution more often than I am a problem. Not perfect but working to help make some lives a little better. Thanks for giving us all so much to think about and remind us of the needs of our children.

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