The black male

Shirley Hawkins | 10/1/2008, 5 p.m.

From bustling Harlem in New York to the manicured lawns of Ladera Heights in Southern California, there is a quiet sense of excitement and expectation spreading throughout the black community...a growing feeling that the nation is poised on the cusp of history.
For the first time in this country, a black man-Barack Hussein Obama-is on the brink of capturing the position of the president of the United States.
For black America, the moment is unprecedented. Across the country, black men (and women) are buzzing about Obama in corporate board rooms, barber shops, in the corner office and in church. Mention Obama to an African American male, and there is an undeniable glimmer of pride in the eyes, a taller walk that materializes as the back straightens with pride. There is an undeniable air of hopeful expectation and possibilities-a feeling that change is, indeed, on the horizon.
Even with the voting levers ready to possibly elect its first black president in November-a watershed moment that will undoubtedly impact politics, attitudes, race and class in this country-an Our Weekly survey of black men reveals that many are still grappling with myriad socioeconomic conditions that continue to temper the lives of black males in America.
Despite the unprecedented strides made over the past several decades, author Michael A. Fletcher revealed some startling and sobering statistics in the book Being a Black Man. The percentage of black men graduating from college has nearly quadrupled since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and yet more black men earn their high school equivalency diplomas in prison each year than graduate from college. Black families where men are in the home earn median incomes that approach those of white families, yet more than half of the nation's 5.6 million black boys live in fatherless households, 40 % of which are impoverished. The ranks of professional black men have exploded over four decades-there are 78,000 black male engineers in 2004, a 33 % increase in 10 years. And yet 840,000 black men are incarcerated, and Justice Department projections show that the chances of a black boy serving time has nearly tripled in three decades.
Of those black men who do not graduate from high school, nearly three-quarters of black men in their 20s are jobless or incarcerated, an unemployment rate much higher than that of similarly situated white and Hispanic youths, according to a report from the Urban Institute.
Statistics also indicate that a black man is more than six times as likely as a white man to be slain. The difference is most stark among black men 14 to 24 years old who were implicated in a quarter of the nation's homicides and accounted for 15 % of the homicide victims in 2002, although they were just 12 % of the population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
High incarceration rates, substance abuse, the steady influx of drugs in the black community, AIDS, health disparities, the pervasive specter of poverty and racial profiling-black men acknowledge that these are pressing issues that continue to be harsh realities.
And yet, blacks continue to jump the hurdles to survive and endure. "America is based on the sweat of black people," pointed out businessman Timothy Marks, 39.
Many black men feel they are balancing on a tightrope in America, a slippery tightrope that teeters between a life of productivity or one of peril. "As a black man, you often think that things can go either way," observed Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California. "You could be that guy in the penitentiary, or you could be that guy on everybody's television screen."
"Most people believe in the hyper-portrayed identity you see in the media; the frayed behaviors, the gangster, the down low, the drop out, the promiscuous man," said filmmaker Jenks Morton, whose thought-provoking documentary, "What Black Men Think," dissects the facts, myths and mystique surrounding black men. "But black men are penetrating corporate board rooms, starting businesses, and graduating college and high school at a rate that these larger media conglomerates would not want you to believe."
Yet the stereotypes remain. Black men are still viewed with a sense of suspicion, from the white woman who clutches her pocketbook and fearfully crosses the street when she encounters a black man to the policeman who stops and frisks a brother because he "fits the description of a suspect."
Marks observed, "Stereotypes are generational, partly because the white community is passing those same misguided notions to their children. But Marks remained hopeful that race will take on less significance in the future. "I feel it will dissipate within the next 50 years as the amalgamation process becomes more a part of society," he observed.
"They want to tag us all as athletes or entertainers. All you hear on the news is 'black man robbed' or 'black man raped,'" said Jerry Garnett, a 20-year-old student who attends Pasadena City College. "The media is spitting out regular images of African Americans that are negative. That's why the black man has this image problem."
There is also a troubling divide between the black men comfortably entrenched in the middle class and males trapped in the underclass that continues to grow. "Black people are not reaching out to each other enough," Marks observed. "We have enough influential black men in this country who could reach out and help the less fortunate, but they're not. I wish I knew why."
Dean Jones, 56, founder of the Southland Partnership Corp. in Compton, Calif., observed, "If you compare the black male to the white male, I think we're losing ground. The white, Latin and Asian cultures hold their males in higher esteem. The black culture still does not understand that the black male should be revered."
And yet, despite the grim statistics and the socioeconomic problems, black men continue to demonstrate a steely resilience and enduring determination. Law abiding, God fearing black men seldom receive recognition in the media, but there are hundreds of thousands of hard working black men across the country who take care of their families, remain gainfully employed, worship regularly at church and stress education and high morals to their children.