August 16, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 1
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Melvin B. Miller
Editor & Publisher

Ignoring the past

Oliver Hill, a hero of the civil rights movement, died last week at the age of 100. The Richmond, Va., lawyer fought against segregation and racial discrimination when it was dangerous to do so in the South.

Hill’s great contributions to the country were recognized in 1999 when President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. At Hill’s death, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ordered that flags across the commonwealth be lowered to half-staff.

There was once a very strong tradition in African American communities that citizens like Oliver Hill would become elders of the community. Their many sacrifices for others and the quality of their lives would serve as a model for younger generations. And most importantly, they would be living repositories of ethnic history.

The nation’s obsession with youth has devalued the role of the elders. The deterioration of the black nuclear family has accelerated this decline. According to the U.S. Census, only 34.6 percent of black children under the age of 18 live with both parents. The number is higher for whites (73.8 percent), but it is extremely high for Asians at 83.75 percent.

It is important to note that studies on scholastic disparities among minorities do not usually include Asians. In fact, Asians often outscore whites. Chinese and Vietnamese students are disproportionately represented among the academic leaders. Despite extraordinary difficulties, Asians have been able to maintain the multigenerational family structure necessary to inspire and motivate students to excel.

The death of Oliver Hill should make African Americans aware that his generation of leaders is gone. Now the community rarely recognizes or respects elders. Parents exert minimal discipline over their children, and the youth tend to be self-indulgent.

Unless the young can be imbued with more discipline and constructive values, the future is not promising. Without the voice of the elders, there will be only a limited understanding of African American history to generate a sense of self-worth.

A vulnerable population

Anyone who has ever been a parent knows full well that an 18-year-old is unlikely to be independent and fully self-sufficient. However, the law dictates that when a child reaches the age of 18, all benefits expire — including monthly support grants given to parents that raise foster children.

Some youngsters that have grown up in the custody of the state Department of Social Services and are fortunate enough to have established a loving relationship with their foster parents might continue to receive care. Others are out on their own. They will have “aged out.”

Many years ago, this policy might have been justified. There were numerous jobs that could be performed by those who had learned enough by age 18. But in today’s workplace, jobs that pay a living wage usually require greater skills.

So what happens to these children who “age out”? Unfortunately, they have reached the age when many perforce must join the ranks of those living in poverty. The statistics cited in various reports are grim: One in five will become homeless, one in four will be incarcerated within two years, only half will graduate from high school and fewer than 3 percent will earn college degrees.

According to many studies, every year about 600 youngsters in Massachusetts “age out.” Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of The Home for Little Wanderers, and Gloria Nemerowicz, president of Pine Manor College, are to be commended for instituting a program to relieve the plight of young women who are otherwise alone in the world.

It is a callous society that ignores such a problem for so long.


“Maybe we would have been better off if we had listened to our elders.”

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