Occasionally, this column features kindred voices on issues related to the status of Black Americans. Veteran New York columnist Bob Herbert’s piece “Too Long Ignored” (August 2010) is such a voice. He addresses social, political and economic injustice against Blacks that have virtually not changed; some have actually gotten worse. Herbert’s perspective and insights help Black people better understand the systemic factors that still oppress them. His column follows in its entirety.
“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, especially, in an ever-deepening pit of social and economic degradation.(Of course, this is a short list).
The Schott Foundation for Public Education tells us in a report that the on-time high school graduation rate for Black males in 2008 was an abysmal 47%, and even worse in several major urban areas, for example, 28% in New York City. And the astronomical jobless rates for Black men in inner-city neighborhoods are both mind-boggling and heartbreaking. In many neighborhoods few residents have a decent livable wage job.
More than 79% of Black children are born to unwed mothers and I’ve been hearing more and more lately from community leaders in poor areas that moms are absent, for one reason or another, and the children are being raised by a grandparent or some other relative, many of whom will likely end up in foster care and eventually, jail.
That the Black community has not been mobilized en masse to turn this crisis around is a screaming shame. Black men, according to the Federal 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-thirties, a solid majority of Black men without a high school diploma will have spent time in prison. Homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men with the murderous wounds 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. In virtually every facet of life in the United States, Black people—and especially Black boys and men—are coming up short. Moreover, white families are typically five times as wealthy as Black families while more than a third of all Black children are growing up in poverty.
There are myriad reasons for this awful state of affairs. And as with so many other problems in American society, a lack of gainful employment has been a huge contributor to the problems faced by Blacks. Chronic unemployment is hardly a plus factor for marriage and family stability. And the absent of strong family units with mature parental guidance is at the very root of the chaotic environment in which so many Black youngsters grow up.
The abominable incarceration rates among Blacks are the result of two overwhelming factors: The persistence of criminal behavior by a relatively small but significant percentage of the Black population and a criminal justice system that, in many respects, is racially discriminatory and out of control. Both of these factors need to be engaged head-on and both will require a staggeringly heavy lift to make a real difference.
Education, in the broadest sense, is the key to stopping this socioeconomic slide that is taking such a horrific toll in the Black community. People have to understand (and acknowledge) what is happening to them before they can really do much about it. Young Blacks who have taken a wrong road, or are at risk of taking a wrong road, have to be shown a feasible, legitimate alternative in order to buy in.
The aspect of this crisis that is probably most important, and simultaneously the most difficult to recognize, is the heroic 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 will have to be initiated by the Black community itself. Whether this is fair or not is irrelevant. There is very little real sentiment in the wider population for tackling the massive problems faced by poor and poorly educated Black Americans. What is needed is a dramatic mobilization of the Black community to demand justice on a wide front, e.g., employment, education and criminal justice system—while establishing a new set of norms and higher standards for all Blacks to live by.
For many, this is a fight for survival and it is an awesomely difficult fight. However, the alternative is to inadvertently help perpetuate the terrible devastation that has befallen so many families and communities, e.g., the premature and often violent deaths, the inadequate preparation for an increasingly competitive workplace, the widespread failure to exercise one’s intellectual capacity and the insecurity that becomes ingrained from being so long at the bottom of every educational and political metric.”
Terrible injustices have been visited on Black people in the United States but there is never a good reason to collaborate in one’s own oppression. We have a long and proud history of overcoming hardship and injustice. It‘s time to again demonstrate that pride, collectively.