When I was a kid my Uncle Robert, for whom I was named, used to say that blacks needed to “fight on all fronts, at home and abroad.”
By that he meant that while it was critically important to fight against racial injustice and oppression, it was just as important to support, nurture and fight on behalf of one’s family and community.
Uncle Robert (my father always called him Jim – don’t ask) died many years ago, but he came to mind as I was going over the dismal information in a new report about the tragic conditions confronting a large portion of America’s black population, especially black males.
We know by now, of course, that the situation is grave. We know that more than a third of black children live in poverty; that more than 70 percent are born to unwed mothers; that by the time they reach their mid-30s, a majority of black men without a high school diploma has spent time in prison. We know all this, but no one seems to know how to turn things around. No one has been able to stop this steady plunge of young black Americans into a socioeconomic abyss.
Now comes a report from the Council of the Great City Schools that ought to grab the attention of anyone who cares about black youngsters, starting with those parents who have shortchanged their children on a scale so monstrous that it is difficult to fully grasp.
The report, titled “A Call for Change,” begins by saying that “the nation’s young black males are in a state of crisis” and describes their condition as “a national catastrophe.” It tells us that black males remain far behind their schoolmates in academic achievement and that they drop out of school at nearly twice the rate of whites.
Black children – boys and girls – are three times more likely to live in single-parent households than white children and twice as likely to live in a home where no parent has full-time or year-round employment.
In 2008, black males were imprisoned at a rate six-and-a-half times higher than white males.
The terrible economic downturn has made it more difficult than ever to douse this raging fire that is consuming the life prospects of so many young blacks, and the growing sentiment in Washington is to do even less to help any Americans in need. It is inconceivable in this atmosphere that blacks themselves will not mobilize in a major way to save these young people. I see no other alternative.
The first and most important step would be a major effort to begin knitting the black family back together. There is no way to overstate the myriad risks faced by children whose parents have effectively abandoned them. It’s the family that protects the child against ignorance and physical harm, that offers emotional security and the foundation for a strong sense of self, that enables a child to believe – truly – that wonderful things are possible.
All of that is missing in the lives of too many black children.
I wouldn’t for a moment discount the terrible toll that racial and economic injustice have taken, decade after decade, on the lives of millions of black Americans. But that is no reason to abandon one’s children or give in to the continued onslaught of those who would do you ill. One has to fight on all fronts, as my Uncle Robert said.
Black men need to be in the home, providing for their children. The community at large – including the many who have done well, who have secured a place in the middle or upper classes – needs to coalesce to provide support and assistance to those still struggling.
Dorothy Height, the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, who died in April at the age of 98, always insisted that blacks “have survived because of family.” And she counseled: “No one will do for you what you need to do for yourself.”
There are many people already hard at work on these matters, but leadership is needed to vastly expand and maximize those efforts. Cultural change comes hard, and takes a long time, but nothing short of a profound cultural change is essential. Let the message go out that walking down the aisle carries with it great responsibilities but can also be great fun, and watching your kid graduate with honors is a blast.
Black children can’t wait for Washington to get its act together. They don’t have time to wait for the economy to improve. They need mom and dad and the larger community to act now, to do the right thing without delay.
This is not a fight only for blacks. All allies are welcome. But the cultural imperative lies overwhelmingly with the black community itself.