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If black men have no future, neither does America

August 20, 2014
August 20, 2014

I am now convinced more than ever: The crisis of America is the crisis of the black male.

I once wrote those words in a call for fathers of black boys to see the value in being there for their offspring. The odds are stacked against this American cohort: disproportionate rates of school failure, unemployment, imprisonment, and death by violence.

My hesitation in typing (and thus believing) those gut-produced words came from the fact that the huge immigration of the past 40 years, and the intermarriage that followed it, have made the black-and-white definition of America at times seem obsolete or at least obsolescent.

But incidents of the past months—first in the borough of Staten Island in New York City, and then in the mid-American town of Ferguson, Missouri—have pounded on America a stamp now seen by the whole world: “The crisis of America today is indeed the crisis of the black male.”

Just as I contemplated the need for more attentive black fathers, a 43-year-old black man in Staten Island was choked to death—on video—by a white police officer named Daniel Pantaleo, who could be seen afterward smiling as Garner lay on the ground dying. Police have justified the aggressiveness used against Garner, saying that the black man, though he was unarmed and never made a threatening move toward any of the officers around him, was resisting arrest.

Astoundingly, Pantaleo, who violently choked Garner even as the incapacitated man began to aspirate the words, “I can’t breathe,” not only remains uncharged with any crime, but is continuing to draw his New York City police salary.

Now, with Staten Island and the outraged protests of black New Yorkers in the background, we as a nation and a world watch the conduct of white Missourian officials, who harken back to the ante bellum 19th century, when the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville toured the country and wondered if it would ever be possible for whites and then legally subjugated blacks to live in harmony.

Even though the worst of those times, especially the acceptance of bondage and unrequited labor, have blessedly passed, there remains today a kind of subjugation that keeps a struggling sub-class of black and other dark-complexioned men at the very bottom of society, continually subject to police tactics such as stop-and-frisk (used too freely under the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg in New York City), and also, as we have seen, to violent police actions that lead to their deaths.

And so, understandably today, the media attention being placed on Ferguson is feeding a long-suppressed anger on the part of many black residents of the town.

Michael Brown, the teenager who was fatally shot six times by white officer Darren Wilson, appeared destined for life on the bottom rungs. He was struggling to find a path to livelihood, having gone through a public school system that, by all accounts, foretells all-too-familiar outcomes of stagnancy and frustration for its graduates. If Ferguson police officials are to be believed, Brown was already showing signs of awaiting problems, as they released a video of him purportedly stealing cigarillos from a convenience store near where officer Wilson got into the fatal confrontation with him. (From what’s been said so far, it seems officer Wilson was not aware of the alleged incident in the store.)

Like officer Pantaleo in New York City, Wilson remains free and on the public payroll while the outrage over Brown’s death, called by many blacks an execution, continues to loudly manifest itself in the streets.

Be clear: The crisis of the black male, while the label may theoretically include president Barack Obama, more accurately addresses those black men on the losing side of the income inequality gap that manifests itself even within the sub-category of black Americans.

A whole generation of blacks has risen to levels of enviable successes over the past two generations in the United States, exemplified by US Attorney General Eric Holder and countless others in fields of law, medicine and, yes, even, like me, in journalism.

But there remains an underclass of black men for whom, as a group, the future does not appear bright. At worst, they carry guns and shoot at rivals in their own neighborhoods. On the better side, they sell “loosie” cigarettes, as Eric Garner was said to have been doing; or they steal cigarillos, as Ferguson cops say Michael Brown had done; and even then, they can wind up dead at the hands of police officers who can only be held accountable at the intervention of millions of outraged Americans and others.

The healing methods for these potentially fatal wounds of our society are manifold. One, of course, is the loud, almost Pentecostal declaration of the need for fatherhood. That may come as a natural flow, given proper social pressures and support.

But the more practical solutions lie in the school systems of the country and in non-profits that recognize there is in fact a problem known as the crisis of the black male.

At the City University of New York (CUNY), there is the so-called Black Male Initiative, which manifests itself in various forms on the many campuses of the University, sometimes including Latinos in the name or shunning the race and ethnic designations entirely for something more generically inclusive of all needy males.

Obama, aware of the need to react in some fashion to this male crisis, earlier this year created a My Brother’s Keeper Initiative that has drawn millions of dollars in private funding. In New York City there is the Young Men’s Initiative, organized three years ago by former mayor Bloomberg. (Yes, the same Bloomberg who allowed police to stop and frisk hundreds of thousands of innocent black and Latino males annually.)

Some of the answers to this complex dilemma are close to home. A few months ago, I was home in Brooklyn as my son Damani and his wife Brittny chatted with their buddies Vaughn and Tichanda Thompson. Both couples had two children, and all the children were boys. As they played, and at times grabbed toys from each other, the fathers or moms would intervene. A good time was had by all. My son is a physician and despite the demands of the doctor’s world he literally operates in, he finds time for his “little guys,” who love him deeply.

As for Vaughn, he is the principal in Newark of a school that is part of the Eagle Academy of high schools, of which there are five in New York City.

The Eagle Academy is for males, and most are males of color. A couple of decades ago there was resistance to the idea of having schools for men only, even given the many arguments asserting a societal need. I sense that today the schools are more accepted.

Such efforts are among the most meaningful and potentially successful answers to the crisis we have had with us for more than a century, a crisis that we will hopefully sooth, if not eliminate, in the current century.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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