William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washington Post, once invoked the book's title in a column to describe what was happening to young black men in inner cities across America. He said that without the civilizing influence of older men to guide them, young black men never develop an internal moral compass. They become castaways. I read Raspberry's essay after college and kept it for years. It spoke so well to what I saw in the 1980s when the crack epidemic first hit my neighborhood.
I heard Raspberry's voice again this week when I talked to a 27-year-old black man named Juan Grant. He knew Gray, whose death in police custody lit the fuse in Baltimore. Grant stood no more than a foot from me, but as he talked, he yelled at me in frustration, spittle coming from his mouth. He said Gray's death had convinced him and his friends to stop "ripping and running" the streets. They wanted boys to respect them as men.
But they didn't know how to get that respect because their fathers had never been around. He described their dilemma with a bitter laugh:
"It's men learning on the job trying to teach young men how to be men."
Raspberry wrote his column 28 years ago. Now there are even more castaways like Grant in West Baltimore. Yet here's the twist: They don't just feel abandoned by indifferent white people; many feel ignored by the city's black political leaders.
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