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Analysis: Fighting for the Future of Black Men – Southern University’s Role

Southern University System President Ron MasonSouthern University System President Ron Mason

Over the past ten years there have been a myriad of programs aimed at uplifting Black men. Some of these programs focus on youth, some on college students, and others focus on older adults. Step by step, these programs attempt to chip away at the impediments standing in the way of some Black males’ success.

Ron Mason, president of the Southern University System in Louisiana, is taking a comprehensive approach to uplifting and empowering Black men. In 2012, he launched the Five Fifths Agenda for America, a national effort to reclaim and develop Black male human capital that has four goals. First, Mason wants to increase the number of Black males with bachelor’s degrees. Next, he wants to increase the number of Black male teachers and graduates in the sciences. Then, he wants the nation’s Black colleges to serve as institutional homes for long-term systemic change for America. And, lastly, he wants to facilitate a truthful, national conversation about the relationship between Black men and America. He plans to meet this last goal by focusing on research as well as advocacy.

Changing the perceptions of and realities for Black men is something about which Mason feels deeply passionate. According to Mason, “When you view the statistics relative to Black men in America they can be explained in only one of two ways. Either Black men are genetically predisposed to make more bad choices than everyone else, or there is something wrong in America. There is no science to support the former proposition, so the latter must be the case.”

When Mason explains the plight of Black men, he ties it to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, noting that Jefferson said: “We have a wolf by the ear. We cannot hold on to him, nor can we safely turn him loose. On the one scale we have justice, but on the other we have self preservation.”

According to Mason, “The Founding Fathers made a conscious decision to put justice aside and create a business model that required slavery, a system to control and exploit Black labor. When slavery went away, they weaned the country off of free labor by replacing slavery with a system specifically designed to drive Black men into prison so they could be rented to plantations, mines, etc. The replacement system was called Jim Crow. The ‘wolf’ business model is ingrained in the American psyche. Its latest iteration is the ‘War on Drugs,’ which has resulted in 74 percent of the people in prison in Louisiana, for example, being Black. 95 percent of them are men.”

Mason sees the lives of Black men as deeply rooted in American history and believes that change can only happen if America itself takes responsibility for its role. His beliefs fuel the Five Fifths Agenda for America.

As part of the agenda, Mason and his teams at Southern University and Jackson State University in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund have completed a year-long research project, which was funded by Lumina Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Open Society, and the Education Testing Service. Based on this research, Mason has made a proposal to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Board of Advisors and the Board has subsequently recommended the Five Fifths Agenda to President Obama.

Mason is testing the research with a pilot study, funded by the State of Louisiana, during the 2012-2013 academic year. The pilot study focuses on Black men who are “hidden stars” according to Mason. These young men have “high potential but are unable to meet college admissions standards in the Southern University of New Orleans standards (an entry point for underprepared students).”

Consider this an example of a “hidden star,” in Mason’s words: “‘John’ scored a 15 on his ACT. We were not going to grant him an interview. Then we noticed that he did relatively well on the English portion of the ACT, wrote a strong essay and had strong support from his counselors. He came to the interview with his caregiver, his 34-year-old aunt. We found out that he and his six siblings had been sent to six different families after Katrina. His father was in places unknown. His mother had a nervous breakdown. John had been raised for the last three years by his aunt, along with his two oldest brothers. The oldest is now in prison. The second oldest suffers from depression and never leaves the house. In spite of it all, John found a way to graduate from high school with a 2.5 GPA, has a passion and talent for writing, and is a very intelligent, engaging human being. The purpose of the Five Fifths Agenda for America is to find hidden stars like John and give them an opportunity to shine.”

All too often colleges and universities give up on students like John, using only traditional measures to define potential for success and not realizing that everyone comes to higher education with a unique background and varied circumstances that can either bolster or impede their learning process.

Mason wants HBCUs to look for the hidden potential in young Black men. He wants to replicate his ideas at other public HBCUs throughout the country. According to him, “the change with regard to Black men in America will have to be over generations so an institutional base is required. HBCUs are the only option for several reasons. First, they are the only American institutions historically and mission driven to stand up to the wolf and mitigate its damage. Second, they also don’t have to be coerced or provided incentives to do the work.”

Of course, Mason recognizes the obstacles that HBCUs face as well, noting that “the challenge with HBCUs is that they are an institutional reflection of the people they primarily serve, poor and Black with lack of access to wealth and the means to generate it.” Mason sees HBCUs embracing the Five Fifths Agenda for America resulting in increased recognition of the value of these institutions.

As we concluded our interview, Mason returned to Jefferson’s “wolf” analogy and placed it in a contemporary context. In Mason’s words, “even if one argues that the ‘wolf’ business model made sense when conceived, it is clearly working against America’s global interest today. It destroys families and neighborhoods. It increases the cost of education and health care. It puts crime on everyone’s doorstep. It compromises our moral authority globally. It bleeds off human capital and potential at the very point in history when America needs all the human capital it can muster. Maybe in 1800 Jefferson had to choose between justice and self-preservation. Today, however, justice, through the dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline for Black male, is self preservation.”

Mason’s arguments and his initiative speak to the late Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence—that the only way that the White majority will support the empowerment of Blacks is when that empowerment also benefits Whites. Although Bell’s theory might seem cynical, it has proved true over and over again in terms of laws, movements, and legislation concerning African-Americans. With regard to Black men in America, their success is our success as a nation. The majority, and in fact everyone, should start paying attention to their potential and ensuring their success.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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