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WHEN MORAL AGENCY DISAPPEARS

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Dash is a reporter, not a sociologist. And yet, like any intelligent reader, he feels compelled to ask the elemental question: How did this happen? Rosa Lee's parents were poor people, sharecroppers up from North Carolina, but they didn't live this way. They worked all their lives, and they stayed out of trouble.


In an effort to explain the enormity of Rosa Lee's plight, Dash dips into the work of Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s and into the concept of caste.


It's not that opportunity doesn't exist in a city like Washington for Rosa Lee and her people (he readily concedes that it does), it's that everything in her personal and family history -- the feudal power structure of rural 1920s North Carolina, the rigid segregation of Depression-era Washington, D.C. , the absence of any appreciation for learning on her parents' part -- all combined to make her less than a moral free agent.


"It is obvious to me," Dash writes on his last page, "that what happened to Rosa Lee, and continues with three generations of her direct descendants, is tied much more strongly to the low class and caste level to which her family was relegated before she was born than to her many admittedly bad choices."


But just how obvious is it? Perhaps the most powerful argument Dash presents in favor of his caste theory is the fact that six of her eight children are living the same squalid life she lives. All six use hard drugs; all six have been in jail. Only two sons, Alvin and Eric, a D.C. bus driver and a National Park Service employee, have managed to fashion stable and productive lives. Dash believes they are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that the burdens of caste and class are simply too much for the average ghetto resident to overcome.


But this whole line of argument is challenged by another piece of information Dash does not give us until the last few pages of the book, and even then he presents it in a peculiarly offhanded way. The success of Alvin and Eric, Dash says, is "a testament to what can be achieved under the most dire circumstances. So are eight of Rosa Lee's ten brothers and sisters, who moved from poverty into the working and middle classes."


Could that be true? Eight out of ten? Apparently it is true, because Dash repeats it, although he gives next to no information about where all these siblings are or what they are doing. But it is pretty clear that if, among Rosa Lee's children, the norm is imprisonment, virtual and literal, then among her many siblings the norm was escape. Rosa Lee was the exception.


This in no way minimizes the diffculties these siblings faced in the Washington, D.C., of the 1940s and 1950s, marked as it was not only by racial prejudice but by formal segregation. All of Rosa Lee's brothers and sisters were confronted with the temptation to make a series of foolish choices that precluded their rising into the middle class. Rosa Lee made every one of them. Obviously, these temptations were much harder to avoid in the slums of inner- city Washington than they would have been in the neighboring suburbs of Maryland or Virginia. But the ability of Rosa Lee's eight siblings to avoid these traps suggests that it is reasonable to treat her own life as a sequence of genuine choices -- and to portray her six failed children as products not merely of ghetto conditions but of life with a mother who had rejected stability and chosen degradation.


Dash does not see it this way, and neither does William Julius Wilson, whom he brings in from time to time to comment on the story. Wilson says he is " not at all" surprised by Rosa Lee and her family. He says that this is "what happens when you have people who live in these kinds of neighborhoods."


As a statement of literal fact, this is unassailable. These things happen all the time in the D.C. ghetto of Anacostia, and they don't happen very often in the wealthy suburb of Chevy Chase. But does that allow us to relieve the inner-city inhabitants of all responsibility as individual moral agents -- as choosers -- and label them as the virtually helpless victims of a global economic order?


I don't think so. Consider teenage pregnancy, the most important issue in this entire debate. Rosa Lee became pregnant at 13, and by age 20 she was a single mother with six children by four different men. It isn't too big a stretch of the imagination to view all of her subsequent problems as consequences of that first pregnancy. If she had not become pregnant, she might perhaps have had a chance at a stable life, even as a sixth-grade dropout. Once she was pregnant, that slim chance was pretty much gone.