“I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on the plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. . . . I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American nightmare.” — “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X Speaks (1965), Ch.3.
Malcolm X systematically exposed the hypocrisy of touting democracy and opportunity in America when African Americans enjoyed neither. He demanded both immediately. After more than 40 years, however, the number of young black males staring at empty plates is on the rise.
Two studies published recently by the Urban Institute have sounded the alarm on the plight of these young men: Black Males Left Behind edited by Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University, and Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men, co-authored by Peter B. Edelman, et al. The prospects that these researchers discovered facing many young Black males are bleak:
- The proportion of young black men without jobs is increasing. Between 2000 and 2004, the jobless rate among black male high school dropouts increased from 65 to 72 percent compared to 34 percent for white male dropouts and 19 percent for Hispanic male dropouts. In Black Males Left Behind, researchers found that the total numbers of employed black males aged 16-24 with a high school education or less had actually fallen from the peak of 1.03 million in 1979 to 898,000 in 2001 despite the growth of that age group.
- During this same period there has been a rapid growth of this target population’s numbers under correctional supervision (incarcerated or on probation or parole). In 1995,16 percent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, the proportion had increased to 21 percent. By their mid 30s, six out of every ten black men who have dropped out of school have spent time in prison.
- Other measures of the quality of life of these dropouts, like health, marriage rate, family stability, and housing show similar trends of degradation.
- In the inner cities of the U.S., more than half of all black men never finish high school.
Malcolm X’s dire warning to the black youth of the 1960 — “Without education, you’re not going anywhere in this world” — has proven to be prophetic for many young black men in the U.S.
The Cost of Doing Business?
So why is that today, more than 40 years after the open recognition of the problem, increasing numbers of young black men face such bleak prospects, and what can be done about it?
The authors of Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men offer three recommendations that fly in the face of current economic and political trends: 1) increasing expenditures for education and training in a era of reduced taxes for the wealthy, the abandonment of inner city public schools, and major initiatives for the privatization of education; 2) increasing the minimum wage during a period that has seenmassive offshoring of both production and service industry jobs in order to exploit cheaper labor overseas and a concurrent decline in real wages for U.S. workers; and 3) reducing barriers to employment associated with incarceration in a societywhere incarceration has become an institutional alterative to employment.
All three recommendations are divorced from contemporary politico-economic reality, and all they will receive is a shrug.
The underlying problem is that current thinking on social problems in the U.S. is shaped by free market paradigms where responses to “market demands” entail “structural adjustments” that result in “austerity measures” for some groups. Concern and compassion for the disadvantaged has been replaced by a cynical accounting system that dismisses social problems as the cost of doing business.
It’s time to revive the political Weltanschauung that views social problems like those plaguing disadvantaged young black men as political issues that require political solutions. To continue to embrace a free market paradigm in thinking about social problems is to remain hostage to the neo-conservative agenda of privileges for the few over the needs of society.