Challenges Facing Young Black Men

Leaders of this past weekend's Millions More Movement march urged action to tackle challenges facing young black men in America, including a rise in high school dropouts and incarceration. Two experts discuss the challenges and potential solutions: Nathan McCall, professor of journalism and African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The future for many young black males in America is not bright. More than any other group in this country, young black men face a greater rate of imprisonment, a greater chance of being killed and a greater chance of being unemployed. For many young black men, life holds no opportunity and the future holds no promise. The fact is, they are living day to day with very little expectation that life will get better and that the limited conditions they know today are the conditions they will live with for the rest of their lives.

We're joined by two men who work with young black men and have done so for years. Nathan McCall, author of the best-selling book "Makes Me Wanna Holler." He is a professor of journalism and African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta. We're also joined by Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley in California. Mr. Edwards has written extensively on sports, family, race and ethnic relations.

Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us. Greatly appreciate it. I should note that I wanted to do this show after seeing a young black male in Toledo during last week's riots. And when being interviewed, he was asked why he was out there accosting the police, helping to tear up his own environment and neighborhood, and he said, `Look, for me, life's just a game. That's all it is, and then you die.'

Nathan McCall, when you hear that--you've been dealing with young black men for years. Why are we at this point with so many black men in this country?

Professor NATHAN McCALL (Emory University): Well, I think it's an expression of the level of frustration that's out there and particularly among young black men. We're in a country where we constantly talk about there being boundless opportunities if you play by the rules of the game, and many young black men, in particular, just see that that's just not true. And, you know, so there's frustration out there because there is the sense that there is a kind of hopelessness and a sense that we're lost as a country. And the ripple effect of the country being lost is felt mostly, most profoundly, by young black men.

GORDON: Professor Edwards, how much of the problem can be laid at our own doorstep? Go ahead.

Professor HARRY EDWARDS (University of California at Berkeley): A great deal of it can. And the reality is that sometimes it occurs for the best of intentions. For example, we're not just talking about the decline in institutions and so forth within the traditional black society, but we're talking about the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was a middle class-oriented, middle class-led movement and it was basically, in the final analysis, about advancing beyond the traditional African-American community. So a lot of people were left behind. Even people who participated in the movement--they participated in it, they saw in their newspapers, they saw on their TV sets, but they never saw it in the streets of the African-American community. These young men are the children of the civil rights generation that was left behind. So a great deal of it can be laid at our doorstep, both in terms of institutional deterioration as a result of the black middle-class creep, if you will, onto and into the traditionally white institutions and as a result of the civil rights movement really not targeting the masses in the traditional black community and those communities for development.

GORDON: Nathan McCall, how did you make it out? I mean, you wrote so eloquently in your book, "Makes Me Wanna Holler," and you talked about all the conditions you had to deal with, what you had to overcome. There are many young men, for whatever reason, who are faltering and failing and not overcoming.

Prof. McCALL: Well, you know, as you know, I ended up in prison. And again, I felt the same level, prior to then, of frustration and sense of being lost that that young man expressed to you. It was while in prison that I began to read and think and try to figure out what had happened in my life and in the lives of so many of the other guys that I saw around me in prison that resulted in me being there. And I became a serious student of history to try to understand what had happened. And after reading and thinking very seriously about the country and the way that it has evolved and the way that it has impacted my own life, I realized that the best thing that I could do was nurture my mind and do--not cooperate in my own destruction. And so I came to the conclusion that if there was a system out there working systematically toward destroying me, then the worst thing that I could do was cooperate by being uneducated; cooperate by not showing initiative. And so it was still a sense of defiance that led me to move in a different direction than I had moved in before.

GORDON: Harry Edwards, you come from a very interesting perspective, I think, and it's that, for those that don't know, you deal with a lot of professional athletes. These are men of great means and great opportunity, yet many of them still are plagued with the issues that haunt so many of us. What is it about being black and male in this society that, even for those who have means and opportunity, have not allowed us to step beyond some of the issues that, quite frankly, plague many of us?

Prof. EDWARDS: Well, the reality is that, individually, you can move up and move through American society with some degree of fulfillment, but unless those means of moving, unless that freedom of development is broad-scale and institutionally established, not just within America more generally but within African-American society with links and bridges to the mainstream, then you're simply out there in the midst of a tremendously developed, technologically sophisticated and literate white mainstream with no supports. And so a lot of these young men who come out of the traditional black community, which has always developed the overwhelming preponderance of black athletes--the black middle class does not develop black athletes; they develop college professors, engineers and so forth--they end up in the mainstream with no institutional supports and very little functional knowledge about how to succeed, develop, sustain themselves, protect themselves in the mainstream. And so many of them wind up taking the traditional black community mores, folkways, understandings with them into the mainstream and they end up having tremendous difficulties.

A great deal of what I've done with professional athletes over the last 40 years has been to work with athletes in terms of making those kinds of adjustments.

GORDON: Nathan McCall, let me ask you this. We know individuals can make it. We have seen it happen, we've seen it in greater numbers over the last decade in particular. But what of the mass? Do you believe there's any way to make, if you will, a social intervention on black males? Because quite frankly, and we don't often like to say this in public, but we drink too much, we smoke too much, we do drugs too often, we kill each other too often. Can there be a social intervention en masse?

Prof. McCALL: Well, I mean, I think there has to be. And I think what we're really talking about here is a leadership void that is becoming more and more pronounced and apparent every day. Young people typically don't figure out for themselves how to proceed in life. Young people typically learn form leadership. Leadership comes from our families, they come from our social leaders, they come from the church. And you have to look at what has happened, particularly over the last 25 years in our communities, to create a kind of leadership void.

One of the things that has happened is that we've had administrations, political administrations, who have promoted assimilationists, such as Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, people who in some ways work against the interests of black people and are put out there as leaders that black people should emulate.

The other thing is that much of our leadership historically has come from the black church. And the black church has been plagued recently by this preponderance of prosperity preachers who lead congregations to focus more on materialism than to focus on social activism.

GORDON: Harry, what's your thought on that, the idea of a mass intervention, if you will? I've been waiting for that leadership void to be filled for a mighty long time. Individually, I know we can do it, but what about en masse?

Prof. EDWARDS: Well, I think that's a very difficult challenge, for all of the reasons just stated. I think institutionally the traditional black community has deteriorated to the point that there are those who really wonder if we have the wherewithal to re-establish institutional viability? Again, you look at these young black men--they don't belong to the church. You go into black churches, what you essentially find are older black people, mothers and their dependent children and a sprinkling of black men. And most of them, in many ways, are there for the very reasons just stated. It's an entrepreneurial bridge for them, how you get rich.

The important thing here is that without that institutional viability, you have no hooks, you have no way organically of engaging the African-American masses. If you go back and look at even sport, that has deteriorated. And we have always had a tremendous emphasis on sports. One of our major problems during the 1960s and '70s was an overemphasis. But you go back and look, for example, at boxing.

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. EDWARDS: I remember in the 1960s, there was Ali, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Ernie Chavez, Buster Mathias, Cleveland Williams, and there was a sparring partner by the name of Larry Holmes who couldn't even get a shot.

GORDON: Right.

Prof. EDWARDS: He was just a sparring partner for all of them. Who--I defy anybody to name three or four top heavyweights today who could even fit anywhere in that class.

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. EDWARDS: We've deteriorated to that point.

GORDON: All right...

Prof. McCALL: Well, but, more importantly...

GORDON: Nathan, unfortunately, I got to hold you there.

Prof. McCALL: OK.

GORDON: I'm up against the clock. But, listen, I appreciate and admire the work of both of you. Nathan McCall, professor of journalism and African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley in California. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us. I appreciate it, fellows.

Prof. EDWARDS: Thank you.

Prof. McCALL: All right. You're welcome.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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