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Heal the Pain of the Underclass

September 10, 1989|DANNY GOLDBERG | Danny Goldberg is the chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and president of the Rock Against Drugs Foundation.

Like a drug addict ignoring that he has a problem, President Bush is in a state of denial about the true nature of America's drug crisis. The President and the so-called drug czar, William Bennett, seem to think that they have some charismatic personal powers of leadership that will change deeply rooted patterns of self-destructive behavior with little more than macho rhetoric from Bennett and platitudes from Bush.

The anecdotal piece de resistance of the President's drug speech on Tuesday was his description of a 6-year-old boy named Dooney who supposedly lives in a crack house near Washington. Like the Wizard of Oz pretending to be omnipotent, the President said, "No child in America should have to live like this. Together, as a people, we can save these kids."

Did Bush propose money for day-care so that working mothers can be assured of good supervision for their children? No. Did Bush suggest higher salaries for school teachers, or more school teachers, so that Donney's chance of ever being able to read were more than 50/50? No. Did Bush propose funding for treatment so that any member of Dooney's family who wanted to get off of drugs could do so? No; his treatment budget of $321 million, less than the cost of a single Stealth bomber, will still leave more than 80% of addicts who want to get off of drugs unable to get help. Neither was there any proposal from the President to ensure that there would be police officers patrolling near Dooney's school to keep pushers away. Nor were there any ideas about housing or job programs to give Dooney reason to hope as he gets older.

One of the great intoxicants of anti-drug rhetoric is "toughness," and it has been a long time since the world has produced villains as deserving of harsh treatment as the venal Colombian drug cartel. Clearly, we should support the Colombians in their fight against these monstrous drug lords. But even if the drug cartels were crushed tomorrow and cocaine miraculously wiped from the face of the Earth, the alienation and lack of confidence in the future that have spawned drug gangs would still be there. Amphetamines, angel dust, alcohol, airplane glue--all made here in America--would instantly replace cocaine if the misery of the underclass were not reduced.

Bennett seems to look at "getting tough" as a mystical quest for the America of his youth. He sees the drug problem as "a crisis of authority," and he hasproposed, along with beheading drug dealers, taking driver's licenses away from drug users. This makes Bennett kind of a super-parent "grounding" his delinquent "children." Unfortunately for teen-agers who willingly risk their lives for the quick high of crack and the camaraderie of gang affiliation, this "Leave It to Beaver" approach won't do much good.

Apparently, the President feels that it is not worth mentioning that crack use has increased in neighborhoods that are poor and drug use has decreased in areas that are wealthy and white. To mention this would be to acknowledge the "r" word, racism, and might lead people to point out that in Los Angeles the school district with the highest percentage of blacks gets about $500 less per pupil than the districts with the highest percentage of whites.

Addiction to drugs clearly is a problem that cuts across racial and economic lines; drugs appeal to people of all types who are unhappy and hopeless. Yet it is obvious that communities that offer few job options, high illiteracy and second-rate government services are producing the most hopelessness and need special help.

For the super-wealthy who can afford private security systems, private schools and gated communities, the alienation of the "underclass" is an abstract problem that has to do with a lack of "personal responsibility." For average people, however, the alienation of tens of millions of their fellow Americans poses not only a moral problem, but a practical one as well. There will never be enough money to physically contain the drug problem. Under President Reagan the jail population of America grew from about 350,000 to more than 650,000 without making a dent. The Bush anti-crime plan that would build prisons for 24,000 new inmates won't make many streets safer.

Only an America that gives every child a real stake in our future can produce the kind of social cohesion that will restore stability. The New Deal was not some charitable program designed to assuage millionaires' guilt. It was a brilliant structuring of society that extended to everybody the hope of living the American dream, giving everybody an incentive to keep the society strong.

Successful wars are won because they become the society's absolute priority. When the lives of our children become more important than bombers, pork-barrel politics and tax breaks to the super-rich, or even "no new taxes," America will at last be on its way to living up to its ideals. Until then, the sober truth, Mr. President, is that we have the wallet, but we don't have the will, and today's PR bromides will be tomorrow's shameful hangover.

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