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Published: Saturday, 2/12/2005

Newest gang fighter wears pearls, pumps

BY ROSE RUSSELL

FOR all I know, Laura Bush could become the nation's most effective frontline soldier in the battle against gangs.

All right, all right. I too was bowled over when President Bush said during his State of the Union speech that she would head the initiative to reduce gang and youth violence.

I thought, that librarian will to have to shed that demure look and send the staff out to get her a pair of biker's shorts, leather jacket with metal studs, and a doo-rag.

Then, if she sports a pair of big hoop earrings - silver tone, please - and trades the pearls for some chain necklaces and the leather pumps for some tennis shoes - OK, I'm dating myself - to wear with the laces untied, maybe she'd appear a more believable figure to go up against hardcore gangs.

Hold your emails, critics! Where's your sense of humor?

The obvious cultural differences suggest the First Lady is out of her league when it comes to showing young people that gang membership isn't a good idea.

The whole thing's laughable, as a friend put it.

On one point, Mrs. Bush might seriously consider the language she uses.

In interviews about her role as gang fighter, she said, "Boys get in trouble more. They're adjudicated more. Fewer boys are going to college than girls. Boys drop out of school at a higher rate. Boys father children and aren't fathers, don't know how to be fathers."

All true. However, if she's going to reach the 8- to 17-year-olds in the $150 million, three-year intiative called Helping America's Youth, she shouldn't call them boys, although they are. Young men don't like to be called boys. It raises the hair on my back when I hear them referred to that way.

Nitpicking, you say? Fine.

Then you try approaching male gang members intending to show them a better way of life by first referring to them as boys and see what kind of reaction you get. For Mrs. Bush, that issue is easily repaired.

Meanwhile, the support the First Lady is getting on this official policy role is interesting, particularly considering the grief the Clintons got when Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to foster an affordable national health care program.

Congress' round of applause in response to the President's announcement showed it was pleased.

I suppose, then, that taking on policy initiatives is fine for some first ladies, and not for others.

But hey, the gang problem is so vast that it just might work with Mrs. Bush in charge. If this is what it takes to stem gang membership and turn around its 750,000 members, then let's move forward.

Although 90 percent of gang members are young men, the percentage of young ladies joining gangs is rising. Many female gang members are Hispanic. And to shatter other preconceived notions, the problem isn't only in urban areas, but has taken root in suburban and rural communities, too.

Many people were admittedly shocked to learn about Mrs. Bush's role in gang fighting. However, there's plenty of hope she will be effective.

"To have a non-law enforcement person involved is probably a good thing in terms of trying to reach kids prone to joining gangs," Jim Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police said. "She gives us another point of access in the White House and another ear, which we'll gladly take."

Of course, the Bushes hope this will result in a legacy for Mrs. Bush. After all, her first term as First Lady wasn't particularly distinctive. To make history, she'll have to employ more than personal appearances, posters, and pep talks about the evils of gangs.

The initiative will be a failure if it doesn't address the ills that prompt young people to join gangs, and cursory acknowledgement of those problems won't be enough.

But whatever it takes, as unusual a figure as she is for the job, for the sake of the nation's youth, I hope she's effective. Even if she keeps wearing those pearls and pumps.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

Email rrussell@theblade.com



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