Would A New Mass Movement Turn Around The Black Male Crisis?

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert pulls together diverse facts and figures to show that “a tragic crisis of enormous magnitude is facing black boys and men in America.”

Most of the indicators have been reported before, but seeing them all together is still a shocker:

  • In 2008, the on-time high school graduation rate for black males was 47% — even worse in several major urban areas. (In the District, it was 41% — down by 17% for the year before.)
  • Jobless rates for black men in inner cities are “astronomical,” such that, in many areas, virtually no one has a legitimate job.
  • More than 70% of black children (presumably about half of them boys) are born to unwed mothers.
  • Community leaders in poor communities say that many of them are being raised by a grandparent or other relative or ending up in foster care.
  • More than a third of all black children are growing up in poverty. Here again the figure is presumably about the same for black boys.
  • Black men have a near one-in-three chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives.
  • A majority of those without a high school diploma have spent time in prison by their mid-30s.
  • Homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men — in most cases due to “murderous wounds” inflicted by their peers.

Herbert asserts that the “heroic efforts” needed to alleviate this crisis won’t come from the government or our society as a whole because there’s “very little sentiment in the wider population for tackling the extensive problems” it reflects.

So, he says, the black community has to mobilize “on the scale of the civil rights movement” to “demand justice on a wide front.” At the same time, it has to establish “a new set of norms, higher standards, for struggling blacks to live by.”

No doubt a portion of the black male population is in a world of trouble — and, as Herbert says, for a “myriad of reasons,” including persistent race discrimination. But would a campaign like the civil rights movement halt “the terrible devastation?”

Consider the differences.

The civil rights movement had very specific solutions to the very specific problem of race discrimination. The solutions were new federal laws to bolster and expand Constitutional protections — voting rights, school desegregation, equal employment opportunity, equal access to and treatment in public accommodations, nondiscriminatory practices in the housing market and related financing.

These affected blacks, regardless of economic and educational level. And they were indeed matters of simple justice. That’s why the civil rights movement gained active support from so many predominantly white groups. Seems to me that any effective mass movement on behalf of the disadvantaged would have to do likewise.

The civil rights rights movement paved the way for a plethora of Johnson-era programs aimed at eradicating the ingrained disadvantages of slavery, Jim Crow laws and less explicit, but no less powerful forms of discrimination.

Many of the programs are still with us today, though some have morphed over time — Head Start, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now No Child Left Behind), the youth Job Corps, the Legal Services Corporation, Medicaid, welfare and more.

Later administrations have added programs — the Work Investment Act, for example, and the Community Development Block Grant, which targets communities with high poverty rates.

Yet we’ve still got all those black boys and men on a “socioeconomic slide” into “an ever-deepening pit of social and economic degradation.”

I think it’s too simple to attribute this to a lack of concern.

The federal government is still making large investments and exploring new approaches. Likewise many state and local governments. There are scads of nonprofits working on the issues — and foundations supporting them. Academic research centers, think tanks and independent experts regularly issue new research and reform proposals. Whites, as well as blacks volunteer their time.

My sense is that, on a broad scale, we really don’t have the answers, though we do know enough to do a better job than we’re doing now. Whatever consensus might be forged would be far more complex and iffy than prohibiting race discrimination — or enforcing the laws now on the books.

Could a campaign like the civil rights movement translate a demand for justice into a relatively limited, compelling list of asks that would galvanize a critical mass of the population? Would they get to the roots of the crisis?

What would the black community do that hasn’t already been tried to establish a new set of norms for its struggling members? Is there really, in the sense Herbert means it, a black community anyway?

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