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Black Men: The Crisis Continues

BY Salim Muwakkil

A confluence of ills has long conspired to marginalize black men and track them into a trajectory of failure.

According to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration seems poised to bomb Iran and drag us further into the pit of international infamy. Bush has admitted he declassified data to damn critics and that he’s wiretapping Americans at his own discretion.

Thousands, perhaps millions, of Latinos demonstrated in the streets of America this spring, forcing this nation to take note of an awakening giant. Even as war drums rumble in the oil-rich Middle East, oil-rich Nigeria is rising as the new focus of U.S. belligerence. My mouth waters at the prospect of tackling some of those issues. But that will have to wait.

Instead, I must return to a subject that is depressingly familiar: African Americans are in the midst of a social crisis that threatens the very viability of the black community. The core of this crisis is the deepening plight of black men.

Although black men are conspicuously successful in many arenas of American life, they are facing a social emergency. Throughout America, but especially in the inner cities, African-American men are disproportionately surrounded by poverty, violence, mass incarceration and disease. A confluence of ills has long conspired to marginalize black men and track them into a trajectory of failure.

But a flurry of recent studies reveal that their decline in socio-economic status is more rapid than previously thought, and prompted the New York Times to publish a front page story in late March on their deepening plight. “Black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is portrayed by common employment and education statistics,” reads the lead sentence.

The problems afflicting black men have been well-charted both in academia and in the streets, so this information is not exactly new. In fact, African-American activists have long quipped that black men were an endangered species. As these new studies reveal, we still have failed to summon adequate concern for the wide scope of these problems, which I believe have now reached emergency status.

The Times quoted Ronald B. Mincy, professor of social work at Columbia University, who said, “There’s something very different happening with young black men, and it’s something we can no longer ignore.” Mincy is also the editor of Black Males Left Behind, a 2006 book that attempts to quantify the extent of their decline. “Over the last two decades, the economy did great,” he told the Times, “and low-skilled women, helped by public policy, latched onto it. But young black men were falling farther back.”

Mincy favors increased public investment into the education of black men as the most promising strategy. But because of the current political climate, he has few hopes the government will implement such a policy.

The various studies outlined in the Times piece reached sobering conclusions about how we’ve previously understated the extent of black men’s problems. Among other things, the new studies found:

  • More than half of all black men in the nation’s inner cities drop out of high school.
  • More than 70 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were out of work in 2004.
  • By their mid-30s, 60 percent of high school dropouts have served time in jail.

The scholars cite many reasons for this deterioration. Primary among them are bad schools, absent parents, racism, structural changes in the economy and a subculture that glorifies gangsterism.

The Times piece is just the latest in several articles that have brought attention to this growing crisis and its many implications. Perhaps the most distressing implication is the growing gender imbalance between black men and black women.

The toll of inner-city life is serving to de-populate many black communities of its men. I wrote about this problem last year in a column, “Black Men: Missing,” that examined these gender imbalances. Homicidal violence, life-style morbidity, environmental hazards and mass incarceration are depleting the ranks of African-American males at an alarming rate, I wrote. This gap threatens to destabilize the black community in ways no outside force has managed to in the entire history of African Americans, most of whom are the progeny of enslaved Africans.

In most of America’s cities, black women outnumber black men by large margins and the gap grows wider as women become more educated. But even as they prosper, black women still withstand the worst of urban poverty as single parents in their disinvested neighborhoods.

I’d like to focus on other subjects, but the ramifications of the current crisis are too broad and deep, with ominous implications for the nation at large.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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