Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Apr 06, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson will be online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome. Lots to talk about, as usual -- this morning's column was about the neighborhood where President Obama and his family went for Easter services and how entrenched African-American poverty and dysfunction have dropped off the radar scope as issues. I'm sure we'll get onto other subjects as well. Let's get started.

I agree with you on most issues, BUT what is Obama supposed to do? Can he force marriage and functionality on the black family? I understand that many of these issues are rooted in history, but in the here and now what can a president do?

Jobs, I agree, will help but again we have seen that the President ability to generate jobs is very limited. The black family dysfunctionality makes education very hard and that is the KEY to this problem. There is a recession and a structural realignment of the world economy, there are not many unskilled jobs around.

You also know as well as I do that native born American do not like those unskilled jobs. Illegals do them. This is an enormously complex issues that the President can do little to solve, except to be a role model.

You're right that it's a complicated, multifacted problem. No one person can solve it, nor can any one policy or program. But we ought to at least try.

I am a Ward 8 resident and I agree with Mr. Robinson 100% - we must do something productive and effectively to help ourselves.

The sad fact of the matter is that in Ward 8 we have too many cooks in the kitchen - and most of them can't cook. Most of our community leaders are unfortunetly out of touch with the people and mostly out of touch with reality and common civility.

How can we expect our "leaders" to fix these serious issues when most of them can't even run functional organizations? Our ANCs are in a shambles, the Ward 8 Dems are fighting each other and most non-profits are not only effective but in many ways are contributing to the problem.

As a community of residents, as a community of people we need to look in the mirror and take a hard look and own up to our own failings and stop acting like children fighting over a toy. We need to stop being outraged over what other folks are doing to us and start doing stuff for ourselves.

That being said, Mr. Robinson in a Ward where one man is King what will it take for us to make a change? New residents? New leadership? A new mindset? A drastic politcal shakeup?

My solution is a comprehensive approach and a lot of hard work. We've all gotten to the point, I think, where we realize that personal responsibility is the ultimate solution. But I disagree with those who just want to lecture poor people without taking the context into account. Let's start with the fact that you don't get go pick your parents. Successful programs that I've encountered all seek to intervene with kids before they get to school, and also seek to intervene with the families. It's hard, and it's expensive.

I am a resident of Ward 8, specifically the Hillsdale Community and I too am tired of the rhetoric and few days of media blitz for each senseless and tragic act of violence. Sadly, this problem will not be solved overnight.

Why? First reason, there are too many people, organizations, churches, nonprofits, etc. with good intentions but with an inability or unwillingness to collaborate with each other. Many limited resources are being used by individuals and organizations for sub par services and performance. There is no accountability and defined outcomes.

Secondly, too many people and entities are concerned with having "THE" answer. The simple solution is multifaceted and will require a holistic approach that includes your community activists, lobbyists, mental health providers, social workers, educators, politicians, philanthropists, foundations, government and the people in need of service.

Third. Stay on the ground. Stop convening all these expensive forums, conferences, workshops, etc. in venues that the "targeted population" can not even afford to attend.

Fourth. START highlighting the POSITIVE. All is not doom and gloom. Do we hear about every bullet fired in war zones? There are several groups and individuals that are making a difference East of the River. Yet, these individuals/groups do not have the resources for fancy letterhead or eye-popping websites to get much needed visibility for the work they are doing.

Fifth. Live, work, fellowship and shop East of the River before making anymore judgments about what needs to happen and who should make it happen. Learn who is doing what. Engage and agitate your neighbors, the Councilmember, the City Council, the Mayor and yes the President.

Thanks for a good and thoughtful post.

In the opposite way that Richard Nixon was uniquely qualified to -- and inoculated from criticism for -- going to China, I fear Barack Obama will be unable to constructively address the vast employment, education, and cultural needs of the black underclass.

Won't commentators and officeholders on the right, whose opinion Obama seems to worry about more than those on the left, criticize him relentlessle for even the smallest effort he might make on behalf of "his own race?"

Surely they will. But one thing I think President Obama has demonstrated is that he's not afraid to take political heat.

You only touch on the real causes of the astonishing level of poverty that continues to plague the black community. Things like the high illegitimate birth rate, low marriage rates, men who refuse to take any responsibility for the children they father and an environment that actively discourages academic achievement (peers of mine in high school were called 'sell-outs' and 'Uncle Toms') are the real culprits.

When any of these are addressed, the messenger is excoriated. Bill Cosby was attacked and Jesse Jackson even expressed a desire to castrate then-candidate Obama when he brought it up. No amount of money and no government program (which must irritate the heck out of you) can fix what is a cultural issue in the black community. Until members of that community are willing to be honest about what ails them their situation will never improve.

You are being unfair to the Rev. Jackson, who has been preaching about personal responsibility for decades. Literally. It simply is not true that prominent African-American figures have shied away from that topic. You can question their effectiveness, but not their understanding or their activism.

Do you believe that race still plays a factor in America regarding poverty?

Yes, I do. I don't believe we are in a "postracial" era. Maybe someday we will be.

What precisely is entailed in a "massive intervention on every front"? The Democratic Congress just ended funding for the one program that was making a difference in some of the kid's lives, i.e. the student voucher program for D.C.,  so it seems that the interests of the kids are not a top priority.

My own opinion is that the single most effective thing that Obama could do to help would be to end the war on drugs. I agree with David Simon that the war on drugs is now indistinguishable from a war on the "underclass," and I don't see any hope for the "underclass" as long as the allure of the drug trade is the only lucrative job possibility for those with criminal records. Ending the war on drugs might also do some good for Mexico too.

I'm a deviationist from what I guess would be considered standard "progressive" dogma on the subject of student vouchers. I believe Congress was wrong to end funding for the D.C. program. I also support the public schools -- despite their parlous state -- on the grounds that ultimately, public education has to be the answer. But I believe it is wrong to tell a parent that his or her child has to wait for "ultimately" to come. We just can't write off a child because we have failed to fix the public schools. If there is an alternative, we have to make it available.

As a resident of DC for 20 years, I cannot even begin to count the number of instances where improperly released, recently released, or flat-out-shouldn't be released criminals were involved in killing. It always strikes me as amazing that many victims would be alive had their killers simply been born (or arrested) a mile or two away. What role does criminal justice have to play in DC and in uplifting the black community? While I realize there are lots of complaints of excessive police force, it seems that a lot of these perps just simply should not be out among people.

My colleague Colbert King has been doing an amazing job reporting on the District's "system," and I use that word loosely, of dealing with juvenile offenders. I urge everyone to read the column he wrote last Saturday. It's fair to say that as far as the juvenile system is concerned, it's the norm that offenders who really ought to be incarcerated are released or allowed to simply walk away from halfway houses.

As a resident of Congress Heights in Ward 8 it is very disappointing and frankly frustrating to constantly read Washington Post articles that only reference "Southeast" as if it was some vast kingdom or as if it were the size of a postage stamp when in truth Ward 8 is composed of two quadrants - SE and SW and both Wards of three different quadrants and two police districts.

What will it take for the Washington Post and other media outlets to use neighborhood names and to look deeper than the "Southeast" label?

A fair criticism. Many people don't realize just how big the Southeast quadrant is.

I've heard almost no criticism from Republicans about the nuclear arms treaty with Russia. This seems out of character, as they continue to criticize virtually everything the President does, even things they agree with (e.g., forming a commission to develop a bill about a balanced budget). Does this issue just not resonate with their base? I figured they would have said that Obama is weak on national defense because he capitulated to the Russians, or something like that.

Changing the subject for a moment: That has been out of character. Maybe the attack is coming. Maybe they figure that even the Tea Party wing knows that we still have enough nukes to blast Russia to smithereens, and vice versa, and figure that  none of this really changes the strategic balance.

Given that "all politics is local," to what extent can Washington solve the problems in Gary, IN, on the one hand, and Moreno Valley, CA, on the other? It seems like we have so many different ways that an underclass is perpetuated, and what some people seem to see as causes (single-parenting, poor academics, etc), to me are really symptoms of a deeper problem. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm just wondering what role DC can play in commnities from coast to coast that are dealing with their local issues that help maintain a generational underclass. What is the proper balance of Federal, State, and Munincipal actions that could overcome this?

You're right that local specifics vary and that solutions have to be place-specific. I believe the administration can focus attention and federal dollars in ways that can be applied pretty widely -- Head Start, for example, and enterprise zones. But yes, there are some things that might work in Moreno Valley that wouldn't work in Gary.

Jesse Jackson made his unfortunate remark about Obama because he thought candidate Obama was being patronizing toward blacks. Obama has on many occasions expressed his convictions and then a short time later done the opposite - witness his signing off on Stupak/Hyde without a word of concern for how it would affect poor women. I don't expect much from his preacher summit but I wish they would go take a trip to Ward 8 . . .and get out of the car. I grew up in DC and it pains me to see that nothing has changed in that neighborhood (I'm 57 now).

Actually, something has changed in Ward 8 -- the poverty rate has gone up. On your other point, I think the president had to make a decision: Stupak/Hyde, or no bill. I think poor women will be better off, overall, with a bill than without one.

I mostly agree with all the posts but where do we go from here. I feel like we are all on the same page so what is keeping us from moving forward? As a society, have we become comfortable with the ever increasing gap between the haves and the have nots? As long as poverty and its ills are confined by geography or class or we okay?

We haven't really been talking about the polarization of wealth, worsening income distribution and declining economic mobility in this country. But I think these trends are beginning to manifest themselves in our politics. I think they are one of the sources of energy fueling the whole Tea Party thing, and I think there will be other outlets as well as time goes on.

I am writing from outside the beltway, and will expect being piled on...but here goes: It breaks my heart to see this in the nation's capitol. It seems there is a lot of assistance being applied with little effect, as in the "too many cooks" comment." And I agree that what needs to be done must be multifaceted.

BUT...if you don't get rid of the corruption, nepotism, union control, all the money is worthless. For example, when charter or parochial schools are proven to be successful, they are opposed by the "educators" themselves?

Answer: self preservation.

And why aren't slum landlords thrown in jail for ignoring housing violations?

Answer: graft.

Daniel Patrick Monynihan said, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

The DC culture is now self-sustaining. DC residents must realize they alone can save themselves, and vote in new leadership, across the board. Second, caring, honest government officials who see corruption are morally bound to report and, if necessary, fight it.

In your list of corrupting influences, you leave out the corporate campaign funds that the Supreme Court says may now flow like a waterfall. Are you ready to go as far as public financing of campaigns? I've never advocated that, but I've also never figured out how to get money -- and its influence -- out of politics.

For those who fear/oppose the "Europeanization" of health insurance in the US, where in the First World can they go to find a health-care system that's more to their liking? Are there any developed nations besides the US where health insurance is still so privatized, and such a high percentage of the populace uninsured?

Noplace else. We're it. There are systems, such as Germany's and Japan's, that rely on private health insurance companies, private doctors and private hospitals. But they still cover everybody -- at a much lower cost -- and they get better health outcomes than we do.

I am a 31 year old African-American living in Detroit. My husband and I both graduated from college and moved back to the city hoping to be a part of the renewal. I don't have to tell you about the challenges Detroit faces. I am all for government helping the community but I drive pass the graveyard of ideas that have come through the city. The only thing that remains are the signs that mark off the different Enterprise Zones and Renaissance projects funded by government/non-profits.

Besides throwing more money at the problem, what viable ideas are out there that haven't already been tried? When does it become a question of self-reliance and personal responsibility? My husband and I defied the odds (I came from a home with two drug-addicted parents) but it wasn't that hard. We scratch our heads wondering why our peers haven't made it or at the very least made it out of high school. There is more opportunity out there than my grandparents had and yet there has been little changed as far as graduation rates.

I know this is a complex issue but it seems to me we need to start a cultural revolution before we throw more money at it. I'm not trying to get all Bill Cosby on my people, but he and others like him have valid points that are being drowned out by people like M.E Dyson who are calling for more government/structural changes as a opposed to more personal responsibility, entrepreneurship/ community building.

One more thing: How is the President supposed to pass any kind of legislation to only help African-Americans at this time hyper-partisan politics? He could barely get health care reform through and that's supposed to help everyone.

I agree that Bill Cosby makes some valid points, but I disagree that he's being drowned out. I think everybody knows what he's been saying about personal responsibility. My question is, okay, once we establish that people should take more personal responsibility for their situation, then what? What's the next step? Most mothers and fathers want their children to have better lives, but if they don't know how to give them better lives, yelling isn't going to help.

Have to disagree on your assessment of private school vouchers. Yes, it's undeniable that they help some kids. But it's a small percentage of kids compared with those who remain in the public schools. And I also view vouchers as a tool for shifting our educational system toward a private religion-based model. Allocate money toward the private schools, and shift talented and motivated students from the public schools to the private schools, and then it will be even more difficult to reform a troubled public school system.

A very good counter-argument. But I'm still hung up on the children. If you have a child who could get a voucher to go to a good school -- religious, non-religious, I don't really care -- and who otherwise will have to go to what everyone knows is a dysfunctional, failed school, I don't see how it's moral to withhold the voucher. Maybe it does help just  few kids, but that's a few who otherwise wouldn't have been helped at all. We have to do what we can.

The entry of corporate money into political campaigns will make no difference in the already impossibly incumbent-favoring finance regulations. I don't think public financing is the answer, I hate to admit it, but term-limits are probably needed...it added another check to presidential power, which I think was necessary after FDR.

The problem with term limits is that some elected officials are actually good at their jobs. Not all, obviously, but some. It makes sense for the presidency, but I'm not sure it would make sense for Congress.

What are your thoughts on concepts like modern social policy simply maintaining the permanent underclass? Ie as we give people more and more money (via housing, WIC, and straight cash) we make them (and their children) more and more dependent, thus removing any chance that they'll escape poverty. Moreso, in a city like DC, supporting this underclass is a multibillion dollar industry in which a wide variety of government and private players make their fortunes. In short, is hunger and a harsh winter the best thing "we" could do for Southeast? I hope this doesn't come across as too evil, I just really wonder if we are doing any good with such communities and I have trouble believing we are (I live on Georgia Ave in Ward 4, often not a pretty place).

Um, it does sound slightly evil. I mean, first of all, we're not giving people "more and more" money, we're giving them less and less -- remember welfare reform under Clinton? And then it's one thing to say that people should go out on their own and "escape poverty," but how? Where are the blue-collar jobs that used to be the ladder out of poverty? Plenty of young men and women have become entrepreneurs, only the goods they're selling are illegal. Tough love alone isn't going to get it done, at least not in this economic era.


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for a lively and interesting hour. See you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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