Scholars and Activists Debate the ‘Crisis of Young Black Males’
By Jamal Watson
A panel of high-profile academicians, activists and political leaders gathered in New York in mid-July to tackle what they called the most pressing issue facing African-Americans in the post-civil rights era: the plight of the Black male.
Charles J. Ogletree, who teaches and directs the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, convened the forum, “Winning Strategies for Young Black Men,” to propose ways to close the achievement gap between African-American boys and their White counterparts.
“I’m on a move to save African-American boys,” said Ogletree. “If we don’t save them, the ideas of families, personal responsibility, jobs, education, just won’t happen.”
Co-sponsored by the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell and the international financial firm Goldman Sachs, much of the conversation at the forum focused on the intertwined crises of high incarceration, high unemployment and low educational attainment among Black men. In all three cases, the statistics are alarming.
In Chicago, for example, 45 percent of Black men between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed. Only 18 percent of Black men in that city have earned a college degree. The numbers are similar in other major urban areas throughout the country.
“A lot of young Black boys look around and they assume at an early age that they are not going to make it,” said Dr. Harry J. Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
Holzer said Black men are slowly disappearing from the U.S. labor market. One-third of all young Black men will spend some time in prison and will have difficulty finding meaningful employment.
“There needs to be a natural effort to reengage these young men,” said Dr. John McWhorter of the University of California, Berkeley. “We need to do less talking about the causes and focus on practical solutions. We need to help people who need the help.”
But some argue that any conversation about the issue must include an examination of the years of systemic and institutionalized racism directed toward that group.
“Black boys are the country’s most venerable and disadvantaged group who are in great peril,” says Lani Guinier, a professor of law at Harvard. “It is not enough to focus on black boys, we need to also focus on the institutions that serve these boys.”
Theodore M. Shaw, the director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, criticized organizations and government agencies that have attempted in recent years to shut down academic and social service programs that cater exclusively to young Black males.
“This is a battle that goes to the core of whether we can specifically address the crisis of young Black males,” said Shaw, adding that as a youth growing up in New York he often participated in programs that were designed to nurture the self-esteem and academic performance of this cohort.
“We have to sustain these programs and make sure that they legally exist,” he said. “If we lose the battle to save these programs, it will be much more difficult to address the crisis of the Black male and Black folks in general, and we will pretend that racial inequality no longer exists.”
One such program, at Medgar Evers College, is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education after a conservative group accused the school of engaging in discriminatory practices by sponsoring programs directed at recruiting and retaining Black male students (see Diverse, June 15).
Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of Howard University School of Law, said Blacks should pool their resources to support organizations that focus exclusively on providing services that will steer young Black students in the right direction. Others suggested the creation of voluntary male-mentoring programs that will help low-income Black boys connect with successful Black men.
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