The lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has captured national attention. But Flint is hardly the only town with dirty and poisonous drinking water. A 2014 report by the Pennsylvania Department of Health revealed that 18 cities in the state had higher rates of children who tested positive for lead poison.
Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third-most-populous city, had 23 percent. But unlike Flint, where the disaster occurred after city officials switched to a cheaper water source, lead poisoning in Allentown came from homes built before 1978. Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation in homes built before 1950. That little has been done to solve this problem underscores the depraved indifference to issues plaguing inner-city youths in the United States.
Environmental racism goes beyond black and white. Allentown is more than 40 percent Latino, most of them low-income Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who migrated to there from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia since the 1980s. Real estate agents steered minorities into the most hazardous section of the city.
Allentown is a city I once called home. When I visited the city in 2015, I noticed positive and disturbing developments. Local government officials proposed more than $1 billion for a downtown revitalization project, but the poverty rate had increased to almost 39 percent as of 2013. There were more boarded-up and abandoned homes and police cameras at major intersections.
Low-income students make up almost 90 percent of the public school district. National street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and the Trinitarios have a visible presence. Last year Karina Bermudez, an Allentown resident for more than 33 years, blamed a recent spike in school violence on “the people from Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey who are coming here.” But Allentown is not unlike many other urban communities in the U.S. Old-time residents ignore social and economic factors and place the blame on the behavior of newcomers and poor residents.
The Flint water crisis and the student sickouts in Detroit have brought some issues plaguing minority communities into the national debate. But that is not enough. Most of the problems affecting minorities — including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), struggling school districts and child homelessness — don’t make headlines. As a result, they are not deemed national crises and receive less sympathy than other issues such as the heroin epidemic.
The lack of national outcry on issues affecting primarily poor nonwhite children raises the question, Do inner-city youth lives matter?
Several commentators have noted the racial hypocrisy in the current debate around the opioid crisis. Statistics show that about as many people are dying from heroin and opioid-based drugs as people died of AIDS during the height of that crisis in the 1990s. Most of the people dying from drug overdoses are non-Hispanic whites. During the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, nonwhite drug users were demonized and incarcerated. By contrast, today we see white heroin addicts viewed as victims. “It is a disease, not a moral failing,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of the heroin crisis on Feb. 6 during the Republican presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Americans react to issues affecting minority youths in urban areas differently from problems of white young people in middle- and upper-middle-class suburban and rural areas. Crime and persistent poverty among predominantly poor and working-class blacks and Latinos (and in some cases Southeast Asians) are seen as moral failings rather than the effects of historical and current discrimination.
A significant number of inner-city black and Latino youths have parents who are incarcerated. Many have lost siblings or parents to gang violence. Latinos with undocumented parents have had their families broken up because of deportations. These issues hinder social mobility and often lead to psychological problems.
Yet inner-city youths continue to receive shrugs from the mainstream society. In fact, there is a tendency to belittle their problems. For example, when KPIX, a CBS TV station in San Francisco, ran a segment about PTSD among East Oakland youths in 2014, it labeled the crisis “hood disease,” a controversial term for a complex form of PTSD resulting from persistent exposure to violence and trauma. Conservative critics often use inner-city youths as pawns to score political points in a game of critiquing America’s underclass.
Apathetic responses to social disparities affecting inner-city youths are not new. In the 1950s, trade associations blamed lead paint poisoning on parenting. “They literally said that ‘Negro and Puerto Rican’ children were the problem and middle-class parents had nothing to worry about,” public health scholar David Rosner, a co-author of “Lead Wars,” told Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer in 2015. The newspaper acknowledged referring to the city’s lead-poisoned children in the 1950s as “paint nibblers” who regularly consumed “bugs, dirt, crayons, pebbles — or paint.” Such racist remarks may no longer have a place in this society, but the blatant indifference to the lives of inner-city youths has never truly dissipated.
Inner-city youths are not victims. In fact, they consistently vocalize their concerns and work with their communities to address them. Last year five students and three teachers in Compton, California, filed a lawsuit against the school district, citing the lack of trauma services. Last month high school students in Detroit walked out of school in solidarity with teachers who were protesting the poor physical conditions of classrooms.
Yet too often critics focus solely on the supposed negative behaviors of inner-city youths. Some have argued that parents and minority communities need to take more personal responsibility. It is inconceivable to think that parents are apathetic to their children’s falling victim to the streets. True, there are individuals in every community who lack a sense of responsibility, but the focus on accountability ignores systemic racial and class bias. The U.S. will not become a truly compassionate country until poor nonwhite children are as valued as middle- and upper-middle-class whites. Inner-city youths deserve at least the same amount of empathy from U.S. politicians and policymakers as heroin addicts get.
Americans have a collective stake in making sure that all youths have an equal opportunity to succeed. The marginalization of a large percentage of nonwhite youths will have serious social ramifications. The crises befalling young Americans in Allentown, Flint and many other inner-city communities demand much more than local activism. We can start by properly funding schools, investing in programs such as summer youth employment opportunities and fixing dilapidated homes. U.S. policymakers and politicians cannot continue to blame Wall Street without taking responsibility for ever-widening social inequality. Taxing Wall Street alone won’t end lead poisoning or PTSD among America’s children.