Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Black Males Left Behind

The myth that Katrina reawakened America to the cruel inhumanity of black poverty in our society was officially put to rest last week. In case you missed it, the New York Times ran a highly damning front-page story on a series of new studies that indicate the plight of black men in this country is actually far worse than even most white middle-class Times readers already suspect -- and the nation effectively collectively yawned.

According to the Times story, the new studies by top researchers at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard show that “the huge pool of poorly educated black men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men. . . finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined.”

This used to be the kind of report that jolted complacencies and reframed debates – or at a minimum provoked anger and protest from civil rights advocates. But in this case, just six months after Katrina exposed the indefensible inequities that persist in our inner cities for all to see, the Black Males Left Behind collection has been greeted with barely a whimper of discomfort, even among progressives.

Indeed, no prominent Washington Democrat rushed to the microphones to denounce the damning findings -- that half of all black men don’t finish high school, that 72 percent of those dropouts can’t find jobs, or that 6 out of 10 of them spend time in prison by the time they reach their mid-30s. The DNC said nothing on the subject. And a quick scan of several leading Democratic blogs from last week showed no featured posts or detectable discussions.

That's hardly surprising. Iraq is sucking up most of the outrage oxygen out of the political atmosphere right now on the left. But that's probably irrelevant. The fact is the Democratic Party has been taking the African-American populace for granted for years, doing little serious policy work to address the complex problems of family and cultural breakdown, failing public schools, or economic opportunity that are perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Instead we have chosen mostly to throw a few rhetorical bones and some campaign cash around come election time to make sure the black vote turns out.

The inescapable horrors that Katrina brought into our living rooms temporarily changed that dynamic, not because our collective conscience was actually pricked in any sustained way, but because it was an effective vehicle to drive our animus towards President Bush. Now that the awful images from New Orleans have long receded with the flood waters, we have moved onto other Republican screw-ups and vote-drawing controversies.

What was truly remarkable about the reaction to the Times story, though, was the seemingly wholesale silence from the traditional spokesgroups for the African-American community. The NAACP did not bother to put up a statement on its website. Nor did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. And not even a pip out of Al Sharpton (never thought I would ever bemoan that).

Could it be that black America has joined white America in losing its capacity to be outraged by the dispossession and disconnection of a generation of African-American men, let alone its will to do something about it? Have we all grown so inured to these gross disparities that even the civil rights crusaders have come to accept them as inevitable and unsolvable?

Or could it be that black America has simply lost its voice?

Think about it for a moment. Who speaks for the nation’s African-American community today on the national stage? Who are the Frederick Douglas's and MLK’s of this generation, the kind of leaders who can force the country to focus, call it to account, and mobilize it to action?

To be more specific, who is challenging the establishment education groups that are self-servingly blocking meaningful reform of our urban public schools and trapping a generation of children of color into second-class status? And who is challenging the self-destructive mindset among many black students today that to achieve at a high level is to "act white" and is therefore worthy of contempt?

Who is challenging the political establishment -- and in particular the black community's supposed allies in the Democratic Party -- to develop a credible, forward looking economic opportunity and security agenda? Something that goes beyond the stale promises to raise the minimum wage and will actually help create jobs, and which will help the working poor build assets and attain self-sufficiency.

Not least of all, who is challenging the widely-accepted social norms within some quarters of the African-American community that have made out-of-wedlock births the domestic default and sharply diminished the two-parent household in our inner cities (as well as the economic and developmental security that comes with it)? Who is pushing black America to confront the deeply damaging consequences of the rampant marginalization and absence of fathers in high-poverty communities?

These are not easy questions to ask, let alone answer (especially for a white man). It is much simpler and safer to talk about lingering racism, the conservative assault on affirmative action, unfair drug laws, and removing "structural" barriers that are preventing African-Americans -- particularly black men -- from getting and keeping good jobs.

These are not insignificant issues. But as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, one of the nation's leading black scholars, pointed out in a presumption-shattering op-ed in this past Sunday's Times, they really don't get at the nub of the problem. His take, to fall back on a standard political trope, is that it's the culture, stupid.

In Patterson's view, the rote explanations for the plight of black men, which were echoed in the Black Males Left Behind studies, fail to address the critical questions raised by the data.

Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

Patterson argues that the answer, while hardly monolithic, largely lies in the roots of what he calls the "cool-pose" culture of young black men -- "hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture." He suggests this cultural influence has the addictive power of a drug and as such is much more of a deterrent to succeeding academically and integrating into the social mainstream than the fear of being seen as acting white.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

Patterson makes clear that this self-destructive subculture is inextricably linked to
America's long history of bigotry and racial repression, and has to be understood in that context. But his entire argument makes just as clear the folly of victomology, of placing all or even most of the blame for the plight of black men today on past or present racism or other external forces.

One of the only nationally-recognized black leaders to advance this argument, and to wade into this emotionally-charged debate about social norms within the black community, is Bill Cosby. As you may recall, he was roundly criticized by many leading black advocates, and vilified by some, for corraling a few sociological sacred cows and holding them up for scrutiny. That helps explain why few have followed suit.

So too does the fact that many of the black community's longstanding political allies on the left are often playing the George Wallace role now. The teachers unions have become the primary schoolhouse door blockers, preventing black children from escaping to high-performing public charter schools in the short term and stopping policymakers from adopting common-sense reforms like a longer school day and performance pay to improve the existing public school system in the long term. The women's groups have been doing their best to stifle any frank discussion about the indispensability of fathers to their children. And the Hollywood elite have long deflected serious questions about the murderous and misogynistic movies, music, and video games they peddle to kids by cynically crying censorship. It's a lot easier to take on Jesse Helms than Fitty Cent.

The reasons for this vacuum of African-American voices, though, are far less important than the ramifications. If Katrina taught us anything, it's that white America cannot be counted on to care about, let alone actively confront, the mass dispossession and disconnection of black men in this country on its own. It is going to take persistent prodding from morally commanding African-American leaders who are unafraid to ask tough questions and demand honest answers from all of us.

That is especially true for changing social norms in our inner cities. No matter how smart Bill Bennett may be, we know from experience that he and other white conservatives who have been raising alarms about the breakdown of the black family have no credibility or standing to lecture black Americans about their personal behavior. Nor do Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi or any other white progressive leader for that matter. This debate about the future of black America can only be prompted and advanced by prominent and respected black Americans.

The question remains: where are they? From what I can tell, there are thousands of passionate and principled African-American advocates and activists who are working to tackle these complicated issues on the local level and who could emerge in time on the national stage. Cory Booker in Newark is a prime example. But right now, the only leader in the national political arena who could credibly lead this kind of dialogue is Barack Obama. And so far he has not shown the inclination or the inspiration to take on the challenge.

As the only African-American in the Senate, I can understand Obama's reluctance. He has a world of weighty expectations on his shoulders; he also wants to avoid being pigeonholed as the black Senator. But given the paucity of alternatives at the moment, I hope he will soon see that his country needs his voice here every bit as much as the black community, if not more so.

I like this blog. I like what Bill Crosby did and it's sad that some black people were offended with his comments. I took it to heart because I'm out here pounding the pavement trying to change some of these kids minds in trying to be "gangsta". We as black people need to look into history and see how we were back when the Tuskegee Airmen (I hope I spelled it right) were around. These cats are still here taking care of business at the ages of 70 years old and above. I like Mr. Obama but we really can't depend on the government to help us. WE got to fend for ourselves. WE as a people especially males spend damn near 20 billion dollars in crap that we really don't need. WE as black men need to one learn about the power of a dollar and then learn how to make that dollar turn into a hundred dollars. Secondly, we as black men need to teach our young black kids of the importance of a dollar. Look at the stupidity of the kid on Black White. Cat goes spend $162.50 on a watch and he doesn't have a job or an education. Where was the crack at? Was it in the school system? Was it the parents? Don't know. I'm just glad the dad put the knowledge in his head about that. I can go on and on but it's time for us men to get off our asses stop watching the damn football and basketball games and teach our youth the rules of life
Excellent blog. Well written, well said.

I don't know if our community can overcome. Sometimes I wonder if we've gone to the point of no return. I can't imagine it getting any worse before it gets better. Either things will change or we're headed for an all out free fall.

I've talked about these very issues with my mother (who holds 3 degrees and has taught the very men you speak of). She still wants to blame racism and the establishment for our problems. She even denies the 70% illegitimacy rate stating "I'm sure it's higher for whites! They have affairs and mistresses you know?" I couldn't believe it when she said that!

The point is we're in a state of large scale denial which is extremely difficult to overcome.
Your thoughts are valid.

I think that we should take a holistic view of the ills of young black males. To say that any one system (government, peers, music industry, racial group, family, self, etc.) is the root cause of any problems facing young black males is unfair. Only when we take into account all of the systems that are part of the problem and examine the relationship among them, we will begin to see the real issues and ways to address them. Bro. Clark
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