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WHEN MORAL AGENCY DISAPPEARS

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Picture in your mind urban America at its most frightening, somewhere in Bedford-Stuyvesant or North St. Louis or the West Side of Chicago: open-air drug markets flourishing in the daytime, 30-year-old single grandmothers who have never worked, teenagers with AK-47s ready to use them in a fight over a pair of shoes.


If you are at all human, you can't help asking a few simple questions: How on earth did we arrive at this pass? None of these neighborhoods was like this a generation ago. Most of the people who lived there were poor, but they held jobs, married, and raised families. The streets, by and large, were safe. All of that has unraveled. Whose fault is it? And what can be done?


There are two simple answers. One is that the characters in this urban nightmare are victims of residual racism, trapped in misery by a white society that has deluded itself into thinking discrimination no longer exists. The other is that the quandered lives of the inner city are the plain fault of those who squander them, moral agents in a free society who lack the character and personal responsibility to conduct themselves in civilized fashion.


These are clear answers; they are also utterly incompatible. And they are pretty good microcosms of the larger ideological divisions in present-day American life. If you know what side somebody chooses to take on Who Lost Bedford-Stuyvesant? the odds are you know what he thinks about a whole range of political and moral issues.


William Julius Wilson, who has been studying the inner city for the past 30 years, takes neither side. In Wilson's view, the residents of America's most dysfunctional neighborhoods are victims neither of racism nor of their own moral failure. They are victims of economics. During the past generation, Wilson argues, the manufacturing jobs that provided the anchor to inner-city life have simply dried up: gone to the suburbs, or to the Arizona desert, or to Sri Lanka. In the 1990s, he argues, the honest work that once served to support struggling urban families in fragile respectability cannot be found. And all the pathology of the streets -- drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy -- flows from that one inescapable truth.


When Work Disappears, Wilson says in his new book by that name (Knopf, 322 pages, $ 26), middle-class residents pack up and leave the community. With few working adults, stores go out of business. Apartment buildings are abandoned, and banks refuse to lend money for renovation. Churches lose parishioners, and the civic organizations that once provided social control cease to function. Teenagers who see no hope for the future opt for the short- term satisfactions of sex and crack, and the consolations of juvenile motherhood. It is a vicious and familiar cycle. But it isn't a function of racism, in Wilson's view, and it isn't a function of individual weakness. It's a function of jobs.


Leon Dash does not explain things quite that way. He considers the residents of the ghetto to be victims more of caste than of global economics. But he shares Wilson's determined refusal to ascribe the problem to either current racial prejudice or individual moral failure. For Dash, as for Wilson, the true culprit is a larger historical force beyond the control of any individual in society, black or white.


Dash's book, Rosa Lee (Basic Books, 279 pages, $ 23), is the microcosmic companion to Wilson's volume of surveys, statistics, and generalizations. Based on the Washington Post series that won Dash a Pulitzer prize in 1994, it is the biography of Rosa Lee Cunningham, a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C., who has spent her entire adult life far outside the borders of respectability, and far from what virtually any human being -- including Rosa Lee -- would consider a decent existence.


Rosa Lee became a common thief at the age of 10, a middleschool dropout at 13, a single mother at 14, and a single grandmother at 29. Dash met her in 1988 in the D.C. jail, where she was incarcerated for the twelfth time, in this case for selling heroin. For most of her adult life, she had been a prostitute or a heroin addict or both, and she had taught virtually all her habits to her eight children, six of whom had never held down a job for any significant length of time.


Rosa Lee is the most powerful piece of reporting on modern ghetto life I have ever read. It takes the reader not only inside the physical world of Rosa Lee, the world of ratinfested apartments, crack houses, and endless visits to D.C. criminal court, but inside the minds of the inhabitants, so far as any middleclass reader, black or white, is ever likely to penetrate. It is difficult to complete this book without feeling deep despair, and yet it is almost impossible not to continue to the end.