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.
Black Male Youth
For many, the young black male is seen as the future and hope of black America, and yet they remain a topic of consternation and concern.
“I see a lot of fear in the older people when they encounter a black male,” said a driver with the Inglewood Senior Center. “The older people look at the way they’re dressed–saggy pants, underwear showing, baseball caps pulled to the back of the head-and they believe the messages they’re bombarded with about black males in radio and on television, so they’re afraid.”
While there is a large segment of hard working black men, students and those who are busy providing for their families, some young black men are seduced by the “bling bling” lifestyle, emulating the music videos that extol the “thug life” of fast money, fast women and fast living.
Many black men are attempting to provide alternatives to this destructive lifestyle. “Our African American males are in crises right now,” observed Cliff Johnson, a 35-year board member of the Roy W. Roberts II Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club and a vice president at Union Bank. “A lot of them get caught up with gangs, the family structure has deteriorated, and they don’t have role models. They need nurturing so that they can get through all the challenges and the peer pressure they face.”
In a segment of Los Angeles rife with gangs and poverty, Johnson and Les Jones, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs, are giving back” to at-risk youth. “We provide them with computer training, homework assistance and moral support. We want to show these young people that being smart is as popular as hip hop,” said Jones. “So we challenge them to do their best in life and in school.”
Despite the presence of the club, Jones is well aware of the pervasive influence of gang culture that lurks outside in the streets. “There’s 11 gangs within six miles of the club, so the club provides a safe haven,” and ironically, Jones reported, local gang members will drop off their younger siblings at the site to shield them from the dangers.
And the club has helped turn hundreds of lives around. “We expose our young men to cultural experiences. Many have never been out of the Compton/Willowbrook area,” said Johnson, who said that this past summer, club members took young people to the ocean for the first time.
Jim Smith, executive director of the Youthbuild Program located in Watts, watches attentively as a dozen young men scramble to erect a structure on a dusty construction site. Despite the obvious sweat and toil, there is a sense of purpose etched in the young men’s backs as they lift the structure off the ground.
Smith realized there was a desperate need to help young black men in Watts. “Mayor Tom Bradley appointed me to go into the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts and start the Nickerson Gardens Community Service Center, which provides job training, employment and education opportunities,” recalled Smith, who pointed out that Youthbuild, located at the Watts Labor Community Action Center site, is a national youth development program for youth that provides construction job training and leadership skills for youth ages 16 to 24.
But 20 years ago, Smith said he was startled by scores of aimless and unemployed young men hanging with their “homies.” “They didn’t seem to have any sense of direction. Their whole mission in life seemed to be joining the gang set. I saw the sagging pants and the negative attitudes. They were all about learning how to shoot a gun, sell drugs and make money from drugs,” Smith observed.
Since establishing a Watts branch of Youthbuild, Smith said the organization has helped dozens of young men gain a foothold in society by helping them turn from a sense of hopelessness to a sense of empowerment. “Most of the young black men who come to Youthbuild are high school dropouts who have no strong educational skills and no employment skills,” Smith pointed out. “They’re coming from the street, the county camps and state prisons. But once they come to us, we give them job skills and a sense of direction.”
Troy Campbell, 35, founder of the nonprofit Troyboy Foundation, has also reached out to black youth. Campbell said that his parents’ divorce as a youth elicited unbridled anger that made him turn to the streets. “My natural family was falling apart, so I adopted a gang family. I started selling drugs and making a lot of money on the street. At the same time, I was maintaining a 3.6 grade point average at Verbum Dei High School in Watts.”
Eventually arrested and sentenced to prison for the trafficking, Campbell reevaluated his life and decided to start an organization to empower young men. The nonprofit organization works with young black males in middle and high schools to help them boost their self-esteem. “A lot of these young men are angry because they don’t have fathers,” Campbell pointed out. “We work with these young people so that they can discover their God-given talent. We provide help and counseling and then we help them apply to trade schools, traditional schools, and provide educational opportunities.”
With many black youth searching for role models to emulate, Campbell said that the youth in his organization are cheering on Barack Obama and he feels that if he wins the election, Obama will greatly impact young men in this country. “I believe that seeing someone that looks like you, talks like you and thinks like you will revolutionize black men’s thinking if he is elected president. It’s definitely a historic time, not only in America, but in every urban community across the country.”
Observers have said that young black men who grow up without a father in the home are greatly impacted in a number of ways. Young black men grow exhibit anger, depression and feelings of low self esteem. Federal statistics show that 69 percent of all black children are born to single mothers, more than twice the national average and almost triple the rate of whites.
Others have pointed out that fathers who abandon their children do so as a learned response–one that takes root in childhood. “Guys are doing what they learned at home,” said Tony Dugger, a Washington, D. C. activist. “They care about their kids emotionally, but they don’t see it as odd that they don’t live with them. You can’t tell them they’re doing something wrong because their life experience tells them its completely normal.”
Jeffrey M. Johnson, president of the National Partnership for Community Leadership, a nonprofit group that promotes black fatherhood, observed, “I think there’s a lot of repressed anger, and we as black men deal with it in homicides, suicides, all sorts of illnesses and disease, because most people don’t explode. They implode. The thing I’m left with is the pain. The pain of it all is just excruciating.”
It’s a startling fact–black men are at risk when it comes to their health. Dr. Bill J. Releford, a Los Angeles-based podiatric surgeon, realized that black men who shunned regular health screenings were dying from diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. “Many black men maintain a “macho” attitude and avoid going to the doctor at all costs.
Releford sounded the alarm and founded the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program (BBHOP), in November of 2007. The BBHOP partners with barbershops across the country to offer free health screenings to African American men.
“African American men have the lowest life expectancy of any segment of the U. S. population,” Releford pointed out. “They live 13 years less than white women, and 7 years less than white men and black women. The health crises of the African American male is further complicated by unemployment, lack of education, racism, and the lack of outreach programs that target at risk African American men. They have the highest amputation and kidney failure rate, heart attack and stroke rate in the country.”
Releford said that black men fly below the radar when it comes to regular check-ups because of the historic fear of the health care delivery system. He pointed to the Tuskeegee experiments in which the U.S. government allowed black men-who already had contracted syphilis-to go untreated so that as their conditions deteriorated, their symptoms could be observed. “Some black men are leery of medical care, especially when you examine the medical atrocities that this country is guilty of.”
The podiatrist said that dozens of black men’s lives have been saved by the health screenings. “We were amazed that during our screenings across the country, many black men admitted that they had never been to a doctor in their lives. We screened brothers who had blood pressure of 210 over 100-and they were in their 30s. We had young men who had undiagnosed diabetics and were totally unaware of their condition. Several men had to be taken directly to the emergency room. Their high blood pressure had put them at a significant risk of having a stroke, or they had diabetes that was too high to be read on our machines. So when you talk about weapons of mass destruction, the real weapon of mass destruction is racism.
Recent studies have shown that if you are African American, that you will receive inferior health care services regardless of income and insurance status. When you talk about terror, let’s talk about the uninsured. Let’s talk about caring for a loved one who has had an amputation, a heart attack or a stroke-that is true terror.”
Roland Bynum, 67, a teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif. and a legendary announcer at KJLH radio in Los Angeles, was stunned recently when he attended his high school reunion and noticed how many of his former classmates were in woefully poor physical shape. “What was astounding to me was that when we took the class picture, the eight black men in the front row were either confined to crutches or in wheelchairs. One was blind. It made me acutely aware that African American men need to be aware of our diet, we need to have an exercise regimen and we need to get regular checkups. It is essential that we see a doctor on an annual basis. We think we are immune to illness, sickness and death because we are so macho, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re dying in record numbers from cancer, heart disease and other ailments that could be avoided if we got regular checkups.”
Nearly 200 young men recently filed into the auditorium at Pasadena City College during the 5th Annual Young African American Males’ Conference sponsored by the Metropolitan Community Action Services Corporation. Quietly turning off their iPods and cell phones, they sat expectantly waiting to hear the keynote speaker, John Harriel Jr., a general foreman at Morrow Meadows in Diamond Bar, Calif.
Harriel, 38, a big, robust man who grew up in South Los Angeles, is a shining example of a once troubled youth who has risen from incarceration to corporate success.
Harriel said he was attracted to easy money and the lure of the streets. “I dropped out of Crenshaw High School when I was a sophomore,” recalled Harriel, who said he joined a gang. “When I was young, it just didn’t make sense for me to be in school when I could be making money in the streets. On a good day, I could sell dope and make $10,000 dollars. My family wasn’t doing so good, so I felt I had to do what I had to do.” Harriel continued, “One of my drug partners also got caught selling dope. He became a confidential informant. In exchange for walking away free, he turned me in. I was sentenced to nine years for drug trafficking.”
Harriel was sentenced to the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Ill. “We feel in our community that it’s a badge of honor to go to prison rather than college. It’s a total miseducation of the mind.
“When I was at Danville, I was still angry at the world,” said Harriel, who felt his emotional problems stemmed from not having a father in the home when he was growing up. “When I was in there I almost ended up almost beating a guy to death.”
Reflecting on his time in prison, Harriel said that one of the things he noticed right away was that most of the inmates in prison were black. “Eighty percent of them came from single family homes, so most of them didn’t have fathers,” Harriel recalls. “A high percentage of them did not even have their general equivalency degrees because they couldn’t read.”
Harriel observed that gang banging, coming from broken homes and the personal lack of discipline were all factors contributing to their incarceration.
The foreman said he finally took stock of his life. “I met a guy in there, Everett Tims, a union electrician who worked the prison grounds. “He took me under his wing and taught me a lot of lessons that I still carry to this day.”
Harriel said that the legal system is stacked against poor black men. “A lot of brothers don’t have money for lawyers, so they wind up taking a plea bargain instead of exercising their rights to due process and going to trial. They don’t have faith in the system because they believe that they won’t be judged strictly on the evidence. They feel they will be judged on their race, background, living conditions and where they sit on the economic ladder.
“Not only that, but most of the people who prosecute them don’t even look like them. A lot of times, the white prosecutor will say something to the brother like, ‘Look-you’re looking at 15 years, but if you take this plea bargain for three years, you’ll get less time.’ A lot of brothers fall for that. So you get convicted without going to trial, and then you wind up with a felony on your record. Before you know it, you have two or three strikes.”
Peering out into the audience of young male faces, Harriel intoned, “If you don’t get your education, you will not be productive.You need to grow up to be providers and protectors in your community. Please do not take the route I took, because most of you will not be able to survive.”
Businessman Marks observed, “More black men will fall prey to incarceration. The prison system is about money so they have to fill the prisons to make money. The less opportunities they have for black men, the more prisons they will build.”
For generations, blacks have stressed that education is the key to the future. Others who start nonprofit agencies urge their young charges to study hard.
Last year at View Park Preparatory school, 100 % of the graduating students were accepted into college, an unprecedented accomplishment by any standard.
Filmmaker Morton observed that education has always been the key to a better life for black people. “Our grandparents were told they had a better chance of being a waiter, porter or mopping floors than bettering themselves through education. And our grandparents rejected that message and continued to stress education from generation to generation,” said Morton.
The filmmaker discovered that society held stereotypes of black men when it came to education. “I interviewed a crossection of the black community and asked them if there were more black men in jail than in college. “The response was overwhelming: most believed that there were more black men in jail,” said Morton. But according to Morton, in the year 2005, the Department of Education found that there were 1,049, 648 black men in post secondary degree granting institutions, non-duplicated head count. That same year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics counted 801,995 black men who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, mental institutions, and house arrest. Many times, these are duplicated head counts,” Morton sated.
Dr. Bettye Walker and her husband, Hildreth Walker, founded the African American Male Achievers Network Inc. (A-MAN), in Inglewood 16 years ago to expose black youth to the world of science. The walls of A-MAN are filled photos of former graduates and thank you cards written to the Walkers-there are also countless certificates and honors won by the students at numerous science fairs.
The Walkers said they use science as a motivational tool to prepare young people to become outstanding citizens. “We service 1,200 children a year. Many of our students who graduate from the A-MAN Program are accepted in colleges and universities throughout the country, many are attending Stanford, Northwestern, Harvard, Morehouse and Howard.
“We let our students know how important they are and that they have all of the talents and attributes they need inside them-they just have to bring it out and we do that by building their self-esteem. Then they can lift their heads and feel proud because when they have high self-esteem, it builds their confidence. You should see the light in their eyes, and and the wide smiles when they realize that, ‘This is something that I made.’ They realize that no matter what happens that no one can take their abilty from them. That no matter what happens, they will still have that knowledge.”
Michael Ellison Lewis who serves on the board of stewards at First AME Church, said that although black men will undoubtedly be confronted with obstacles and sterotypes, he is confident that black men will continue to survive and thrive. “The state of African Americans in this country is strong,” Lewis maintained as he surveyed the church’s parking lot. “Historically, black men and women have come a mighty long way from where we started from. Certainly, racism is still with us. Financial discrimination is still with us. In spite of all the problems that have been placed on us as African American men, I long ago resolved to myself that I could make it in spite of those obstacles. There’s still a great disparity as far as black people acquiring home loans, especially with the financial disasters taking place in the United States today. But look at how far we’ve come-African Americans who were once enslaved are helping to elect a black man as president of the United States.”
“We as black men-as a black race-have to run harder, jump faster and work harder to achieve the same success in America,” said Sadou Brown, 36, a hairstylist. “In every aspect of life in America, it’s always harder for us as a people. We black men in America are still targets for discrimination, but we have the upper hand because we have a knowlege of discrimination so we see it coming before it actually gets us.”
Torre’ Brannon Reese, founder of “See a Man, Be a Man,” an afterschool program for at-risk black males, said that black men will continue to remain resilient despite the myriad circumstances that come their way. “Black men are the world’s strongest, most gifted and talented males. He has an amazing ability to survive and prosper under the worst possible circumstances and is a living example of the power of the human spirit. Several great ancestors’ legacies attest to this: Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Sam Cooke, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many more.”
Larry Mallory, 58, said that despite racism, blacks were still doing better today than a decade ago. He points to Obama as an indication of racial progress. “I’m very happy that Obama is running for president. But because of racism, some people are still going to vote for McCain because he’s white. One of my friends said a white co-worker told her, ‘It will be a cold day in hell before I put a spook in the white house.’ Now to me, that’s totally asinine.”
Kelvin Anderson, a parking lot security guard, said his heart was filled with pride that Obama could take a seat in the Oval Office and become the first black president of the United States. “It’s historic, its wonderful. But we need to go to the polls and make it happen, including the ex-convicts, even people on probation,” he observed.
Marks continued, “Black people need more positive role models, not athletes or entertainers. We have doctors, lawyers, and garbage men who are working hard every day and setting a good example. Those are our heroes, too.”
Pausing, Marks added that despite obstacles that might come their way, black men must, and will, stay strong. “No matter where you go, you’re going to have people judging you. But no matter what, you must have faith and believe in yourself.”