Washington Post Opinions
By George F. Will Opinion writer
The worst day of Sugar Bear’s 55 years was one of the days — there have been many of them — when he got out of prison. In the early 1990s, in a prison where people whose sentences have ended and are being released see those whose sentences are just beginning, he saw one of his sons coming in.
Generational recidivism is not unusual in Sugar Bear’s world of fatherlessness. His son, who was convicted of selling drugs, is still incarcerated because he has not been a model prisoner. He is an apple that did not fall far from the tree.
Sugar Bear — few call him Robert Lewis Jackson — was a precocious lawbreaker. His first arrest — “for GTA” (grand theft auto), he explains — involved a 1959 Chevy El Camino. He remembers that it was orange. He pulled off the freeway, into a gas station, and climbed down from the vehicle. The police who apprehended him there were startled. He was almost 5.
Really. LAPD records confirm this. He drove the El Camino by sitting on a large pillow so he could see out the windshield and using a long stick to work the pedals.
Born to an unmarried, mentally ill prostitute, he acquired his interest in driving from his grandfather, who would drive around the block with Sugar Bear in his lap. Not until Sugar Bear was 25 did he learn that his grandfather was his father, too, having had a sexual relationship with Sugar Bear’s mother.
Sugar Bear grew up mostly on the streets, episodically drifting into and out of the care, such as it was, of various female relatives. He kept moving on because one relative was beaten to death in an alley, another was killed by a shotgun blast and another had Drano poured in her eyes for reasons Sugar Bear does not remember. He supported himself gathering discarded bottles for their deposits and cadging hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches from sympathetic strangers.
Although he has never been married, he has five children. He has been shot only once. He says he “did juvenile time” but managed, largely because he was an athlete, to graduate from high school. After that, he was incarcerated five times, for sentences ranging from six months to 11 years. He says he was implicated in “a 187” — murder of a corrections officer — but was exonerated. Then his life’s gyrations intersected with some benevolent institutions.
In 1965, immediately after the Watts riots that announced to a largely oblivious nation the volatility of some pockets of social regression, a UCLA undergraduate, Keith Phillips, moved into this devastated section of the city of angels. Now 65, Phillips is the reason why World Impact, his creation, is a presence in 13 of America’s most troubled cities, such as Newark and East St. Louis. Its focus is on fatherlessness and the social pathologies that flow from it.
This is the preoccupation of Ken Canfield, 58, a Kansas State Ph.D. who, until five years ago, headed the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City. He then moved here to help Pepperdine University develop a Center for the Family, and he now labors with World Impact living among the city’s most troubled people.
Canfield acquainted Sugar Bear with Psalm 68, which speaks of God as “father of the fatherless” who “put the lonely in families.” For people like Sugar Bear, people with holes in their souls never filled by the love of fathers, Canfield says religion offers the “spiritualization of fatherhood”: “If you don’t have the calm self-respect that a father gives, your passions go sideways. For a number of men, their passions become sexualized as they look for comfort and affirmation of their manhood.”
On a recent day, Sugar Bear, a burly, cheerful survivor, was wearing a windbreaker bearing the logo of the Union Rescue Mission. He works there, helping provide services to, among others, a small portion of L.A. County’s 50,000 homeless, 30 percent of whom are under 35. Bailing an ocean with a thimble? Perhaps. Still, Phillips, Canfield and Sugar Bear, this unlikely American trio, exemplify a very American approach to social regeneration: one by one, from the inside out.
George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Washington Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. His column appears weekly in over 400 major US newspapers.
Below are selected comments from one of the newspapers (Washington Post) who run Will’s opinion columns.
Well done, Sir George. Now if only this “one soul at a time” approach could get put to work wherever troubled souls go — schools, training programs, churches, corrections facilities, neighborhood policing, social services, housing authorities, even the design of public spaces, and the like. I am not talking about wallpapering the social welfare state everywhere. I am talking about existing institutions doing what they should, as a matter of course. jane Jacobs called this “eyes on the street.” Without it, we have no hope….
But Sugar Bear HAD a father–an apparently terrible one, his own grandfather, but the problem was the lack of a father, but the lack of a good father….
Good article. We must bring back dads….
Wow. Most of the time, George Will, you rail about how we should abandon people like Sugar Bear and cut taxes on the richiest richie-riches a percent or two instead…..
Mr. Will this was a good and thoughtful column. Makes me remember being 16 and growing up outside Detroit. I wondered then what I would be if I were born into circumstances like Sugar Bear. Those circumstances were, and still are, quite common in Detroit….
Beautiful …. thanks for writing…I worked in juvie probation 72-78… still happening, same sorrows….
I agree that children growing up without fathers (or appropriate father figures) is a serious problem. However, I think Mr. Will’s particular example, Sugar Bear, is more one of lack of parenting in its entirety than one solely related to an absent father. Having said that, however, there are far too many other examples which would prove Mr. Will’s point. This is an issue that requires thoughtful debate and consideration. Who will lead it?….
Very nice to see George Will advocating a humane position. Perhaps compassionate conservatism does exist…..
Interesting column, I like balanced, thoughtful Will much better than shrill partisan Will. Fathers are important true. Also important is a sense of contributing to society, it has been pointed out that militiary service is one of the most reliable ways to turn troubled youth around, giving them the feeling of working together and performing a vital service for society. Perhaps we need to reform welfare so that no one gets anything for free, in order to qualify for assistance you would have to do something- clean up litter, clean streets, plant trees, get rid of invasive weeds, something so you could have the feeling of contributing to society. No, this wouldn’t be done to be cruel, just the opposite, perhaps there is a corrosive effect on people of receiving welfare-something for nothing- maybe we all need to contribute, to be a part of society, of community….
Thank you George Will. Half the reason the world is in the mess it’s in is because we have banished fathers from the family — and blamed it on them. The other half is the right-wing politics you so religiously espouse, but I will give you a bye on that today. Thanks for talking about fathers. and it’s not even Fathe’rs Day….
People who are distorting this article into a game of political one-upmanship reveal much more about their own character than I suspect they realize. Pettiness of spirit is not pretty to behold. Get away from your keyboard and go do some personal good in the world – directly help someone who needs it. The parable of the good Samaritan is just as relevant to atheists as it is to devout Christians. There’s a lot of truth in the Bible. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water….
It’s good that Mr. Will is praising the efforts of these three men, trying to help homeless-fatherless youth. It would be far better would Mr. Will & his ideologues put their sentiments for the poor-fatherless-homeless into action, rather than mere lip service:
Adequately fund nutrition, job-career counseling, healthcare and other services upon which fatherless-homeless-poor families must rely for their immediate-temporal needs.
Most important, adequately fund public education, which would prepare all youths for their futures with requisite academic skills and (but not limited to): critical-thinking, creativity, linguistic, technological, etc., rather than finding means to de-fund schools (via vouchers that divert taxpayer’s dollars towards private charters – which fare no better than regular-district public schools and/or religious schools).
It’s telling that most states spend far more to incarcerate people than to educate-train them for a meaningful, productive future. Of course, many of those large banks, lawmakers (state and federal) have substantive investments in the private detention centers, and thereby profit personally-financially by locking our citizens behind bars. In CA, we spend more to incarcerate one individual than for a K-12 education for a child. Now that’s criminal!!!…
One by one, which is fine, if you have 50,000 other volunteers, for DC alone. One by one, yeah, that works, on one….