Black Eye for Black Males Doing the Right Thing

Commentator Joseph C. Phillips says the recent hand wringing over the state of black males focuses on the undereducated, law-breaking portion of the population that gives other black men a bad name. Phillips is an actor and a columnist living in Los Angeles.

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ED GORDON, host:

The plight of black men has been well documented. High rates of unemployment and incarceration are often cited as growing problems among African-American males. But commentator Joseph C. Phillips says some of the statistics used to make this argument are inflated.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Commentator): Recently, The New York Times reported on the deepening plight of African-American men, detailing a list of afflictions, including lack of employment, education, and high incarceration rates. Quote, “black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is portrayed by common employment and education statistics.” End of quote.

The article went on, quote, “finishing high school is the exception. Legal work is scarcer than ever, and prison is almost routine.” End of quote. Coincidentally, last March, Reuters news service reported on a similar crisis among black men in the United States, and detailed a similar list of ailments. I tell you, we have got to stop meeting like this.

Now, contrary to the provocative headlines, the crisis to which both articles allude is not among all black men. A closer reading reveals the deepening plight is specific to a particular group of black men, namely poorly educated black men living on the margins of criminality, many running from childcare responsibilities, and, this is key, not looking for work. Most black men have not been involved in the criminal justice system, do not drop out of school. And the majority of black men are not dodging state authorities because of back child support payments.

Are we really surprised when men who do not take care of TCB, as Aretha sang, suffered disproportionately than those that make better choices in their lives? Of course, some will find the notion that the overriding determinant in the plight of black men today is behavior unrestrained by moral codes of conduct distasteful, even lacking in compassion.

However, let us consider the irony that, as we engage in this discussion, the nation is also in the midst of heated debate about the influx of illegal immigrants crossing our southern border, and their impact on our economy. With brown skins, few skills, little education, at least no formal English education, they don't even speak the language, these immigrants are flocking to cities all over the country and finding work, even if it's only manual labor.

Now, it's one thing to say rather than dig ditches, I prefer to look for work in my chosen profession. It's something else all together to say I'm a high school drop out with a prison record, no skills, and kids in need of support, but I will not dig ditches.

And so, perhaps we have articulated the true crisis, which is not one of black manhood, but is instead a crisis of an American culture that now accepts as normal, even excuses men who choose not to go to school, choose to live on the margins of the law, choose to act irresponsibly in their sexual relationships, and choose not to work. There are admittedly many factors that contribute to the reasons we make the choices we do, and I don't wish to oversimplify.

I also don't imagine we will all sit down over beer and chips and solve the problem. However, I would submit that any solution must include a return to traditional moral doctrines formally taught in the public school system, in addition to the home and the church. Sure, jobs programs can offer a helping hand, but ultimately, it's up to individuals to change their individual lives.

And a racial framework cannot guide that change, it must be driven by a spiritual one. The changes necessary to improve lives are supported by values that are neither Afro, nor Eurocentric, but are universal principles of moral conduct. No, righteous living does not make one immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. However, less we plan to meet here each March and sing the same old sad songs, we might consider it as a first step on the road to recovery.

GORDON: Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles. This is NPR News.

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