A couple of decades ago, millions of black youth were mindlessly chanting that "black is beautiful."
By itself, the slogan was little more than another feel-good chant. Sadly, while it was incessantly heard, there was hardly a pause in the drive-by killings, illicit drug trade, out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism, or any of the other pathologies that plague the black community.
February is Black History Month, and we have just observed Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday ... and the black community in the United States has not lived up to the standards King set for persistence, sacrifice, struggle and self-examination.
To be sure, racial progress in America since his day is nothing short of phenomenal. But something's missing. Something big. The black community has helped rear some of America's oldest and largest civil-rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, yet millions of black teens are still turning their backs on education and opportunity. While the black middle class has grown dramatically, too many blacks have been left behind to fend (and fail) for themselves. We have all heard the numbers and proportion of blacks, especially black males, in our prisons and jails.
Every black parent ought to be outraged at youngsters who believe that those who seek education are "acting white" and that those who speak well are "selling out the race."
Every black person should be dismayed at blacks who are resigned to living as second-class citizens - and even more at those resigned to dying by violence. I have spent 19 years teaching at a major university, and the saddest thing I've seen was when a 20-year-old stunned our class by announcing "there's a bullet in my community with my name on it."
People like Rosa Parks, King, Malcolm X and others once used their authority to help alter the lives of millions. Today, the black community lacks leaders like them, people willing to address these dismal and stubborn realities.
It is time for blacks to look squarely at the frightening statistics that govern many of their lives. Consider the AIDS epidemic in the black community. I find it hard to believe, but I must report it: Nearly three quarters of all new HIV cases among U.S. women occur in the black community.
From the time of their birth, far too many black children are at risk - at risk of disease, of abuse, of injury or of death from violence, from substandard nutrition and education, from a constricted future - and far too many grow up in single-parent homes. It is clear, too, that while there are more blacks in college than ever in our history, millions more must begin to reap the benefits of higher education.
Here comes a mandatory disclaimer: Racism is a reality in America and elsewhere in the world. But the time for blaming "society" - if that time was ever here - was over decades ago. True, we must always speak out against social evils. But we can't use "society" as an excuse not to work hard and excel. What is needed among blacks today is a resolve to effect changes within the black community.
There is an urgent need for a summit meeting among people such as Sen. Barack Obama and others (the list of leaders is so short!) capable of checking their egos at the front door. There is a pressing need for leaders who can identify common goals and ways of getting there.
I'll give them a starting place, a target on which to focus their massed energy. Nothing can replace the impact of strong families. The critical step toward progress in black America is the rebuilding of the black family - that necessary foundation that has become so tragically fractured.
Start there, and we'll make black more and more beautiful.