In his State of the Union address President Barack Obama made a cursory reference to the plight of Black males in the United States and the need to do something about our circumstances. He did not propose any specific remedies, but putting this before the American people is a breakthrough. North Star readers are all too familiar with the multitude of issues confronting Black males in America—from poor education achievement, poor labor market outcomes, disparities in health outcomes, to disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system. We also know what ails Black men is not limited to impacting Black men themselves but ultimately spillover onto their families, their communities and society at large. Many of these men become fathers but often lack the economic resources to form and maintain stable and healthy families that have resulted in about two-thirds of Black children growing up in households headed by a single female, nearly half of which live below the poverty threshold.
So, where to begin with helping Black males overcome our present set of circumstances? Obviously education is a critical area of concern particularly if you want to get young Black males on track early to build productive lives. While according the Schott Foundation’s 2012 report on Black male education, four-year high school graduation rates for Black rates have improved over the last decade—from 42 percent to 52 percent—they still lag significantly behind the 78 percent rate for white males. Schott’s president John Jackson questions society’s sincerity about improving young Black males’ academic achievement. According to Census Bureau data, the percentage of Black males over 25 years old with a bachelor’s degree (13.2%) is significant lower that white males (22.6%). For more advanced degrees, it’s worse—5.1 percent to 8.7 percent for master’s degrees and less than one percent for doctoral degrees compared to 2.5 percent for white males over 25 years old.
Lagging in educational achievement contributes significantly to poor labor market outcomes but it’s not the entire story. Needless to say, discrimination against Black males in the employment arena has existed since slavery. However, more recently, Black males’ involvement in the criminal justice system has erased whatever gains were made in the Civil Rights era. The graph below from the Pew Research Center documents that Black males have historically been unemployed at twice the rate of white males. This disparity existed before the huge growth in the nation’s incarceration rates beginning in the late 1970s. What it does not show is the thousands of Black males who are not counted among the unemployed because they are locked behind bars. If they and Black males who have dropped out of the workforce were included, male Black unemployment would easily triple that of white males.
When these men are released from prison many of them face daunting employment prospects because of their criminal records. A recent report from the Upjohn Institute documents the importance of stable employment in preventing ex-offenders from returning to prison. The report highlights many of the gruesome statistics we have almost grown accustomed to—the fact that Black males are incarcerated at a rate eight times that of white males and that a third of Black males born in 2001 are expected to spend some time in prison.
So what are we to do? The Obama Administration has begun to address this issue with Attorney General Eric Holder announcing several sentencing reforms last year. Bills to reauthorize the Second Chance Act have been introduced in both the House (H.R. 3465) and Senate with Democrat and Republican co-sponsors. There needs to be a fierce campaign on the part of every Black organization in the country to see that these bills are passed. While these measures are just a drop in the bucket, they are a beginning. One other bill introduced in the House (H.R. 645) and the Senate (S. 1837) deserves serious attention—the Equal Employment for All Act—which would prohibit credit checks as a prerequisite for employment. Needless to say Black males accumulate poor credit histories because of their limited employment opportunities.
President Obama’s ability to do something about the plight of Black males in America will depend on the response he receives from Black males and organizations working to help Black males. Just as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX18) announced after the State of the Union address that she and her colleagues will be submitting ideas to the White House for potential Executive Orders, we must develop a policy agenda with specifics that the President can get behind. We cannot simply wait around to see what he’s going to do.
Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. holds a doctorate in policy analysis from Columbia University and is the founder of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP), an outgrowth of the Congressional Social Work Caucus founded by former Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY).