Saving Lives: A Call to Action
State of Emergency:
We Must Save African American Males
By Jawanza Kunjufu
African American Images, 202 pp., $23.95
Nearly 20 years ago, Jawanza Kunjufu penned the first volume of his classic, Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys. In this book, Kunjufu outlined what he believed to be the major challenges facing African American boys, both in America’s educational institutions and society. Looking at elementary school classrooms as a context, he evaluated the critical role that both parents and educators have to play to ensure the success of African American male children.
At the time the book was published, there were less than 100,000 Black males in jail. Only two decades later, 1.3 million Black males or one out of three are involved in the penal system in America. At that rate, it is projected that two out of every three will be court involved by 2020. Those of us who did not heed Kunjufu’s initial call must think seriously about what steps are necessary to reverse this trend.
Kunjufu’s most recent book, State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males, is a timely, although disturbing, exploration of the state of affairs for Black men in American society. Using a number of staggering statistics as his premise, Kunjufu focuses on what he feels to be the greatest influences on Black men’s lives: the education system, the economic system, the drug industry, the penal system and fatherlessness. Kunjufu offers a series of best practices and approaches to education for parents, teachers and community activists. These workable solutions promise to enhance Black males’ experiences in educational institutions, thereby reversing what would seem like a downward spiral for Black men in America.
Among Kunjufu’s major suggestions is a moratorium on the placement of Black males in special education classrooms. Nationwide, Black children, males in particular, comprise a disproportionate percentage of the population of children placed in special education classes, according to Kunjufu. His discussion begs the question of how school systems track and place students in special education. Also, it raises the idea that school systems must learn to accommodate the various learning styles and needs of all students.
Inherent in his discussion of Black males’ experiences in educational systems is the need to re-evaluate classroom practices, particularly at such critical stages as kindergarten, fourth and ninth grades. To that end, Kunjufu stresses the importance of reading and algebra as key components to students’ success — not only in their academic lives, but also in their lives as citizens and adults. Illiteracy, rather than race and income, is the single greatest predictor of crime, poverty and school failure, writes Kunjufu. To that end, he notes 90 percent of African American inmates are illiterate.
While keeping African American males out of the penal system is one of his obvious goals, Kunjufu also analyzes the growth of the penal system as an industry within the last 20 years. Looking back at the Reagan/Bush era, he illustrates the way increased government funding for prisons, growth of corporate partnerships, and privatization of jails all have worked together to render serious revenue for the penal industry. Accordingly, Kunjufu illustrates how African Americans have borne the brunt of new legislation such as the increasingly popular “three strikes” laws, which ensure that the growth of the prison industry remains steady.
Recognizing many of those incarcerated under the three-strikes laws are drug-addicted nonviolent offenders, he also examines the drug industry as well as drug treatment and rehabilitation. These he views as more effective alternatives to incarceration, highlighting programs that have worked to reduce the number of repeat offenders.
What is most refreshing about Kunjufu’s approach is the fact that he intertwines his own spiritual beliefs into this exploration of challenges for Black manhood in America. His discussion of fatherlessness, for example, as well as his examples of workable solutions and suggestions, confirm the need for both spiritual and practical guidance in the lives of Black males.
“This is not a Black problem, nor is it an education, economic, prison, or drug problem,” writes Kunjufu. “This is a moral problem which requires moral solutions.”
— Kenyatta Albeny is a doctoral candidate in the comparative literature department at the University of Maryland College Park.
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