More Challenges for Young African-American Men

Young black men in America have rarely had it easy — but recent studies by researchers at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions indicate the past few years have brought even more new challenges for African-American men. Farai Chideya discusses the issue with Columbia University professor Ronald Mincy and Tawnya McCrary, an advocate for the disadvantaged in Indianapolis, Ind.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Ed Gordon.

Young black men in America have rarely had it easy, but the past few years have brought many new challenges. That according to newly released reports by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions. Those studies suggest increased high school dropout rates, poverty, unemployment, and incarceration are taking a toll on the next generation of African American men.

Researcher Ronald Mincy is a Professor of social work at Columbia University, and author of the study Black Males Left Behind. Professor Mincy joins us by phone from New York. And also with us Tawnya McCrary, she's an advocate who works with black male dropouts in Indianapolis, Indiana. But as the mother of a teenage son, the problem hit home. Tawnya joins us from member station WFYI. Welcome to the both of you.

CHIDEYA: So, Professor Mincy, start out with your report. How is your study different from the traditional approach to exploring the problem? What new factors have come up?

Mr. RONALD MINCY (Professor of Social Work, Columbia University): Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, most experts in the field were convinced that if we had a period of sustained high employment it would draw the most disadvantaged workers into the labor market. And over the next two decades, between 1970 and 2000, we had two of the strongest decades of economic growth our nation has ever seen, interrupted by two brief recessions early in the decades. However, throughout that period, particularly in the 1990s, we saw employment rates among young women--and I'm focusing on those who have not gone on to college--we saw their employment rates increase by about 10 percent. We saw welfare rolls decline. We saw employment rates for most people in the population improve and earnings improve.

However, the employment rates of black men declined consistently throughout these two decades. So that today even after the economic boom, we've seen employment rates for black male high school dropouts are 72 percent and employment rates for black males who have not gone on to college are at 50 percent.

So these are really extraordinary numbers given the economic progress that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, and they raise really important questions about how are we thinking about the ways in which we're helping young people transition into adulthood.

CHIDEYA: What specifically is going on in the structure of American society where African American men without necessarily having a good education are demonized or treated harshly in ways that black women are not, and what does that do not only to those black men but to the structure of black families?

Mr. MINCY: We had a policy in the 1990s to increase the number of women who are raising children alone and to decrease welfare rolls. And in order to do that, we spent $50 billion in the 1990s on job search services, Medicaid, Medicare and most importantly on earning subsidies. So that when women were required to work and their wages were very low, we capped off their wages with an earned income tax credit.

We do in fact exactly the opposite for young men, particularly in black families, and you mentioned the connection to family. About 70 percent of African American children are born to unwed parents. So we have mothers raising children alone, and on the other hand we have young fathers who have mounting child support obligations.

So when they go to work, their earnings are taxed at 17 to 22 percent, depending upon the state. On the other hand, when young women go to work, their earnings are supplemented by the earned income tax credit. Now, I'm not saying that men and women should not be supporting their children. But I think in the same way that we required and enabled young women to go to work, we ought to be doing the same the same for young men.

CHIDEYA: Tawnya, let's get your cut on this issue. You're currently a program coordinator for employment and training at the non-profit Indiana OIC State Council, and that helps support young men who are trying to graduate from high school. You have studied graduation rates in the Indiana public school system. Talk to me first about that, and then let's move on to the personal issue of your son, who is a teenager.

Ms. TAWNYA MCCRARY (Coordinator for Employment and Training. Indiana OIC State Council): In Indianapolis, we have a large amount of young men who are dropping out of high school with no where to go. So they come in seeking to get their GED, and in addition to that they're looking for employment. What I see with young men, you have a lot of urbanized youth, urbanized young men who refuse to pull themselves out of a certain stereotype, which is making it hard for them to gain employment.

What I work with them on is how to change their image, to become more employable, so that they cater to the employer's customer base, as opposed to thinking that they are coming to the employer just to make money.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you say urbanized young men, do you mean the baggy clothes and the voice and all that stuff?

Ms. MCCRARY: Absolutely. Baggy clothes, braided hair, gold teeth, I mean just kind what you would see in a video, I mean that's what they betray and that's the stereotype. You just can't present yourself that way to an employer.

CHIDEYA: What do you say to young men who say I'm just keeping it real?

Ms. MCCRARY: If you want to live in Rome, you have to do as the Romans do. You have to get past that stereotype. Everything is about perception and judgment.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about your son. What struggles did he go through in order to graduate from high school?

Ms. MCCRARY: At the end of his junior year, he was down approximately 21 credits. And there are a couple of reasons why that happened. We had changed high schools a couple of times, at least twice, trying to find a school in which he was comfortable in. One of the townships that he was attending experienced a tremendous amount of growth, particularly among the African American population, and they were not racially sensitive, I believe, to what these young black men are going through.

I found that he was getting suspended from school. I was having to go up and talk to the dean at least once a week. So we decided to move out of that township into another township. And he immediately noticed a difference from the staff to the students. Everybody was pleasant, and it just made a tremendous difference in his attitude.

He worked very hard his last year to earn 21 credits. He went to night school, he went to day school, he did online courses, and he graduated on time. But part of that was me as his mother making sure that I instill in him that he was going to get his education as long as he lived in my home and I was taking care of him. Dropping out was not an option, and I refused to reward him for not performing in school.

So at 18, he still didn't have his driver's license. He just got his driver's license after he graduated.

CHIDEYA: Tawnya has obviously really put herself front and center in guiding her son's life. Not every child, male or female, has a parent that who is willing to go the distance like that. What obligations does society have to particularly young men who don't necessarily have a strong support system?

Mr. MINCY: I'm concerned about Tawnya's grandchildren, and I'm concerned about my own grandchildren. So I would rather live in a society where when Tawnya's son marries, his children have the benefit of two parents who will forcefully require of Tawnya's grandchild the kinds of educational goals, career goals and the like.

What the studies indicate is that children who grow up in two-parent families are much more likely to graduate from high school, much more likely to go to college, much less likely to become premature parents themselves. The constitution of African American families is part and partial of this problem. The fact that 70 percent of African American children are born in single parent homes means that you have heroes like Tawnya and my mother to raise young men by themselves, and it really does take two parents working together in a community to make that happen.

CHIDEYA: You can't, overnight, transform the composition of the African American family.

Mr. MINCY: You cannot.

CHIDEYA: So what do you do interim?

Mr. MINCY: I think you do invest in programs that provide the kind of attitudinal and training for young men that OIC is providing and that different programs around the country are doing. As she was speaking, I remember my own son. I have this vision of him walking out of my house, with his Kinte cloth hat turned around backwards, going to study for his SATs. So we have to figure out how to convey to young people that it's appropriate to dress and comport themselves in the way they want to in their own social groups. However, that is not the way to go to the workplace.

FARAI CHIDEYA host:

Tawnya, are you partnered, married, or are you a single mother?

Ms. McCRARY: Actually married at the time, but I have been a single mother. I have five children currently. One of the things that I do, I deal with a lot of men, but I also target women because I feel like women have part of the power to turn this around. Mother's need to take a more active role in shaping and molding their children and stop worrying about what the fathers are or are not doing. There are a lot of single parent households where mothers have the major influence in shaping and molding that child.

I tell my son all the time, I can show you better than I can tell you, and if you work with me, you will succeed. And he's starting to learn not to be so rebellious and to actually work and listen.

CHIDEYA: What needs to be done on a structural level? What role does government need to play? What role do non-profits need to play?

Mr. MINCY: Last month, the Bush administration and the Congress passed a bill that includes up to $50 million for programs that work with young fathers. I just will not rest as long as the Tawyna's of the world and my own mother's are shouldering the responsibility of raising black children alone. I think we do need to hold fathers accountable for the children they bring into the world, and we need to require and enable them to do that.

So this is $50 million. It's not a lot of money. Again, we spent $50 billion helping mothers shoulder the responsibility, so I think we need to work with those programs in ways that engage fathers in the lives of children when they're very, very young, to help them strengthen their relationships with the mothers of the children, to help those who choose marriage to sustain their marriages, so that their kids grow up with two parents from the times they're in diapers to the time they have their college robes on.

So we can take advantage of the small amounts of resources that are now available. I also think that we need to do more investment in employment and training services of the kind that Tawnya's involved in, that change the attitudes of young men, but that also engage employers so that when there are difficulties in placements, the programs come behind and help smooth some of those difficulties out. And in order to do that, we need an expansion of funding in these workforce development programs, as well.

Finally, I think we need to get to this ex-offender problem. Twenty-five to 50 percent of young African-American men are or have been incarcerated. In major cities around the country, incarceration rates are enormous. That hurts not only the employment experiences of ex-offenders, but also of young black men who live in the same neighborhood that they do.

CHIDEYA: Ronald Mincy is a professor of social work at Columbia University. His report is titled Black Males Left Behind. And Tawnya McCrary is a program coordinator at the Indiana OIC State Council. She joined us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. MINCY: Thank you.

Ms. McCRARY: Thank you.

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