Saving our young men


Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 at 11:09 a.m.
Before the ascendancy of conservatism and throw-away-the-key crime legislation, a high school diploma, with few questions asked, satisfied most U.S. employers with jobs that did not require college degrees.
Now, to get most of those jobs that required only a high school diploma and nearly all of those that require college degrees, you must have a background that is free of crime and other forms of dubious behavior. As a result, many young blacks, especially males, face bleak futures in this new world of the crime-free past.
I was reminded of this ugly truth a few weeks ago, when University of Alabama standout linebacker Juwan Simpson, 21, was arrested near Birmingham. He was charged with receiving stolen property, possession of marijuana and carrying a handgun without a license.
Simpson is free on a $7,000 bond, and Alabama coach Mike Shula has not announced a decision on the star's future with the team.
I wanted to cry when I read about Simpson, whom I met last year. With the NFL holding its breath, Simpson is yet another black male who may be headed for a life of self-made tragedy if he is convicted and sent to prison. If this happens, he will join the ranks of tens of thousands of other young black males whose criminal records automatically lock them out of decent employment.
My citing grim statistics will not solve the problems black men face. But statistics often serve as a wake-up call for those of us who have the power and resources to help if we choose to get actively involved.
In Alabama, according to the Birmingham News, almost six of every 1,000 residents are behind bars, but the incarceration rate for black men is a whopping 36 per 1,000. Nationally, nearly 5 percent of all black men, compared to 0.6 percent of white men, are locked up.
In many states, especially in Southern states, such as Florida and Alabama, the figures exceed the national average. In 12 states, more than 10 percent of black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated. The same percentage is true for those ages 20-29. These figures show that more black men are in prison than are in college.
Fewer than one in five black males graduate from high school with the so-called necessities - college prep courses and a demonstration of "basic literacy" - to be considered "college ready." Black males are expelled, suspended and flunked at rates five times higher than that of other groups.
Most of these men are behind bars on drug and drug-related convictions. The youngest worry me most because they had their lives in front of them.
Why do so many black men fall under the spell of drug trafficking? A story about Robert Gill, in the May 28 issue of the Birmingham News, offers some insight into problem. Gill, 34, is serving a life sentence without parole as a repeat offender.
What, the reporter asked Gill, is the allure of drug trafficking for young black men? Although Gill speaks of Alabama, his words unwittingly describe a national crisis: "Once drugs hit Alabama and a lot of guys started making money and the young guys started seeing all that, they didn't care nothing about school no more. They just wanted to make them some money."
While many of these men will serve their sentences and leave prison, very few will find legitimate work. They will not be able to pass background checks, and most are doomed to a lifetime of crime and low-wage jobs, if they work at all.
What can we, successful black people, do to reverse this slide into permanent unemployment and self-destruction? I do not know of a panacea, but I know that we must do something - and fast - lest we are left behind forever.
Just as millions of us mobilized to create the civil rights movement to fight the evils of Jim Crow, we should mobilize to create the save-our-young-black-men movement. Churches, civic groups, businesses, teachers, entertainers, athletes, parents and others should organize for that sole purpose.
We must be of one accord. Those who want to showboat and become the new H.N.I.C. should stay home.
Because we are losing our young men, we are losing our future as a people. If we fail to act, we have only ourselves to blame for our fate.
Bill Maxwell is associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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