Tuesday, April 04, 2006

 

Feedback on Black Males Left Behind

I have gotten some very thoughtful responses to my post on the growing disconnection of black men in America and the state of black leadership today. One in particular I wanted to share was from an African-American friend of mine from college named Jerome Maddox, who is now a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He raises some important questions, which I would welcome feedback on.

I saw your blog comments on the New York Times story and the depressing data on black males. I wanted to comment on three things.

First, as you know, it is important to note that there is a lot of variation in the experinces of black males. I would like to know more about the relationship between parental income and male outcomes. Here in Philly, the experience and goals of black males in Mt. Airy, Chestnul Hill, and West Oak Lane are very different from those of kids in brutally depressed areas like Strawberry Mansion and Tioga. Test score data for 2005 shows that pretty clearly, though females do better than males.

This is not to diminish a huge problem, but to note that a specific subpopulation of black males are disconnected. Indeed, the graphics and comments attached to the piece point to the prospects of dropouts and non-college attendees. I would wager that these are tied to parental educational attainment and income. The problem is pressing, but I wonder whether this is a black male crisis, an urban black male crisis, or a child of poverty black male crisis.

Second, I'm leery of efforts by any person to claim to some self-appointed leadership role for the black community. My concerns are general and specific to this problem. In general, except in unusual circumstances, I don't know how anyone can legitimately claim to represent people absent some form of election or grass roots movement.

Consider how hard it is for someone to claim space in the press, even if they wanted to assert such a position. The Democratic Party, full of ambitious, elected people, struggles to find meaningful national leadership. I don't think that this is because of a lack of potential leaders, but because it is so difficult to amass the kind of media coverage and presence that allows a person to convey a national message. (Note that Republicans expressed the same concerns about lack of leadership while in the minority.) You've been in Washington, how hard is it to get national coverage when in the minority?

Now, consider how hard it would be to get national coverage on issues of race and poverty, no matter how hard you worked. Specific to this issue, do you think the black males we are talking about are going to pay attention to the efforts of so-called leaders? Will they even here them? Their problem is a problem of disconnection. I don't know that external leadership is the issue. They don't get much attention, but there are a lot of voices in black communities that talk about the importance of education and developing useful social skills. If you want to argue that a national voice for building grass roots movements would be helpful, I would agree, but it's not clear that an individual "leader" is going to alter behavior through the force of rhetoric. Such a person might make us feel better, but I have doubts about effectiveness. (By the way, what percentage of blacks do you think read or were directly influenced by Frederick Douglass in his time? I say it
was low.)

Third, there are lots of institutions that are in place that could help, but need more support. My wife Val's dad runs an organization called Project Forward Leap that is an academic enrichment program for 6th-8th graders from Philly and a few smaller cities in Southeastern PA. They provide support through the high school years as well. Their record is remarkable; extremely high high school graduation rates, high college attendance, and low criminal and other social problems. I'm
actually amazed at the number of similar programs out there. Helping these folks in local communities might be more valuable than national leadership.

I somethimes wonder if one of the larger problems is that once young men get ensnared in the crimnial justice system, it's just too hard to become employable or is just too scarring (culturally, emotionally, physically). I can't help but wonder what would happen if we legalized and regulated drugs, removing the lucrative, but risky, drug trade that serves as an entry to the criminal justice system. I know it won't
happen, but incarceration for petty drug offenses is an enormous waste.

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