- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

A disturbing number of youths died in the District in the past decade. Most of them were victims of violence in their home or on the street. Many died of sudden infant death syndrome, and some, born to adolescent and teen-age mothers, never had a chance. These are the depressing facts of life in the nation's capital. Still, there is good news. The District's infant mortality rate has declined dramatically, and D.C. officials pledge to bring those numbers down even lower. Their task, though, will be difficult if they do not reckon with the underlying causes and if they ignore the crucial roles of the clergy and community-based groups.

Anyone who paid close attention in the '90s is aware that a subculture of hip-hop is now the dominant culture in America's urban centers. It is a culture that extols not just violence, but promiscuity, misplaced values and what young folks these days call "hood life." Not hood as in neighborhood, but hood as in hoodlum, thug, gangster, loose women and the like. This culture continues to control the day-to-day lives of America's young.

See for yourself. If you missed the vulgar and contemptuous displays at Wednesday night's Grammy Awards, check out BET, or The Box, or MTV cable stations that give considerable airplay to hood life. Better still, slip on your child's headphones. What you see and hear might startle you:

"Can you pay my bills/

Can you pay my telephone bills/

Can you pay my automo-bills

Can you pay my bills"

Those lyrics are by the all-girl group Destiny's Child, which suggests the bottom line is money. The guys who sing rap, focus on machismo. Violence and disrespect of women, they sing, are the only way to go. Here is one sampling:

"Stop, drop/

Shut 'em down and open up shop/

Oh, no/

That's how Ruff Ryders roll"

That song, from the DMX CD titled "It's Dark and Hell Is Hot," adds to the propensity of hard-core hip-hop rhetoric. And, for the most part, urban teens everywhere listen to it 24-7.

While turning around such pathologies appears daunting, in some respects, the District has been successful. Thanks to public-private partnerships, infant mortality rates have dropped to 12.5 per 1,000 live births compared to 23.1 in 1989. In 1997, for example, teen births made up 16 percent of all births in the District compared to 15.3 percent in 1998, a slight decline, but nonetheless movement in the right direction. Teen pregnancies heighten the risk of infant mortality and low birth weight. The problem is particularly acute in Ward 5, which includes such neighborhoods and landmarks in Northeast Washington as Brookland, Woodridge and Catholic University. Ward 5 had the highest number of infant deaths 22 in 1998 and the second-highest number of low birth-weight babies.

Again, turning those negatives into positives will prove difficult if the government thinks it alone can solve all the city's social ills. For starters, D.C. officials must look beyond prenatal and neonatal care and ask self-help groups and other community organizations to preach abstinence and provide alternatives to hood life. Some organizations, such as the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, WIN, an interdenominational group, the YMCA and the YWCA, and the Boys and Girls Clubs. The point is there are alternatives, and that is where the Williams administration should focus its efforts if it wants long-term success. In other words, the Ruff Ryders badly need a new anthem.

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