A tragic crisis of enormous magnitude is facing black boys and men in America.
Parental neglect, racial discrimination and an orgy of self-destructive behavior have left an extraordinary portion of the black male population in an ever-
deepening pit of social and economic degradation.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education tells us in a new report that the on-time high school graduation rate for black males in 2008 was an abysmal 47 percent, and even worse in several major urban areas -- for example, 28 percent in New York City.
The astronomical jobless rates for black men in inner-city neighborhoods are mind-boggling and heartbreaking. There are many areas where virtually no one has a legitimate job.
More than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers. And I've been hearing more lately from community leaders in poor areas that moms are absent and children are being raised by a grandparent or other relative -- or go into foster care.
That the black community has not been mobilized en masse to turn this crisis around is a screaming shame. Black men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, have nearly a one-third chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives. By the time they hit their mid-30s, a solid majority of black men without a high school diploma have spent time in prison. Homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men, in most cases inflicted by other young black men.
This is a cancer that has been allowed to metastasize for decades. Not only is it not being treated, most people don't even want to talk about it. White families are typically five times as wealthy as black families. More than a third of black children live in poverty. In Ohio, the National Center for Children in Poverty reports, the percentage is more than half.
There are myriad reasons for this awful state of affairs. As with many other problems in American society, lack of employment has been a huge contributor to the problems. Chronic unemployment is hardly a plus-factor for family stability. The absence of strong family units is at the root of the chaotic environment that so many black youngsters grow up in.
The incarceration rates among blacks are due two factors: persistence of criminal behavior by a high percentage of the black population, and a criminal justice system that in many respects is racially discriminatory and out of control. Both factors need to be engaged head-on. Both will require a staggeringly heavy lift.
Education is key to stopping this socioeconomic slide. People have to understand what is happening to them before they can do much about it. Young blacks who are on a wrong path, or are at risk of doing so, have to be shown a feasible legitimate alternative.
The aspect of this crisis that is probably the most important and simultaneously the most difficult to recognize is that efforts needed to alleviate it will not come from the government or the wider American society. This is a job that will require a campaign on the scale of the civil rights movement, and it will have to be initiated by the black community.
Whether it's is fair is irrelevant. There is little sentiment in the wider population for tackling the problems faced by poor and poorly educated black Americans. What is needed is dramatic mobilization of the black community to demand justice on a wide front -- think employment, education, criminal justice -- while establishing new norms and higher standards, for struggling blacks to live by.
For many, this is a fight for survival. And it is awesomely difficult. But the alternative is to continue the terrible devastation that has befallen so many families and communities: the premature and often violent deaths, the inadequate preparation for a competitive workplace, the failure to exercise one's intellectual capacity, the insecurity that becomes ingrained from being so long at the bottom of the heap.
Terrible injustices have been visited on black people in the U.S., but there is never a good reason to collaborate in one's own destruction. Blacks in America have a long, proud history of overcoming hardship and injustice. It's time to do it again.
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE