Movement Grows To Rescue Black Males 'in Crisis'
Atlanta--When hundreds of black professionals gathered here this month for a national symposium on the black male in crisis, several men wore brightly colored strips of African kente cloth draped over their suits.
While the suits bespoke a level of economic success that had enabled many to leave troubled black neighborhoods, the scarf-like kente strips symbolized the sense of community now prompting many to return.
The Atlanta conference and the 450 predominantly middle- and upper-middle-class African-Americans who attended it are evidence of a rapidly growing movement within the black community that is trying to rescue a generation of black males threatened by high rates of homicide, suicide, and unemployment; by low levels of educational attainment; and by crime and substance abuse.
Already this year, nearly a dozen national meetings have been convened to focus on the black male.
In addition, several mentorship programs and research institutes devoted to the black male have been established. And public schools, black churches, universities, businesses, and community organizations are working to coordinate and intensify their efforts to help.
"People are gradually being pulled and pushed because of the glaring statistics," said Herman L. Reese, a consultant to the Southern Education Foundation who coordinated the conference in Atlanta.
"We all have to pitch in," he said. "It just has gotten that bad.''
Nelson O. Onyenwoke--director of the Center for the Study of the Black Male at Albany State College in Georgia, which, along with the sef and the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame Foundation, co-sponsored the symposium--asserted that the term "black male crisis" is a misnomer.
To focus narrowly on the black male misses the point, he said, adding that the crisis encompasses the black family and the black community, and has long-term implications for society as a whole.
"We're talking about losing a lot of human capital," Mr. Onyenwoke said. "If we don't rescue them through early intervention and make them contributing members of society, the costs to the nation will be much higher."
'Responsibility To Act'
Leaders of black organizations said in interviews last week that the increased activity on behalf of the black male is motivated, in part, by a growing perception among African-Americans that the federal government and the white community cannot be counted on to help.
"We cannot survive as a community without revisiting and reversing the trends which, without significant intervention, spell doom," Elridge McMillan, president of the s.e.f., said in his opening address at the Atlanta symposium.
"The responsibility to act," he said, "is ours."
The conference, titled "The Black Male in Crisis: Solutions for Survival," was intended to spotlight successful programs that might be duplicated elsewhere.
Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman of the board of the college hall-of-fame foundation, said his organization was also using the Atlanta conference to help mobilize the 3.5 million graduates of the nation's 117 historically black colleges. That "tremendous force," he noted, accounts for 70 percent of black lawyers, 85 percent of black physicians, and 90 percent of black educators.
"We have heard too many times from people that there are more black men in prison than in college," Mr. Dortch said. "We're smart enough to know that you don't solve these problems alone, but we think the black colleges should be at the forefront."
Mr. Dortch said his foundation, together with the s.e.f. and Albany State, plan to establish an Atlanta-based national clearinghouse to coordinate the efforts of such groups as black fraternities, sororities, and professional organizations.
A similar umbrella organization dedicated to research and advocacy on behalf of black men was established by 240 black educators, community leaders, and scholars meeting in Kansas City, Mo., last summer.
Called the National Council of African-American Men, the Washington D.C.-based organization plans to lobby on behalf of legislation that will increase black male employment and help black youths stay in school, according to Richard G. Majors, the council's chairman.
Also last summer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and about 100 other organizations created a new coalition to deal with social and economic problems in the black community.
James D. Williams, director of public relations for the n.a.a.c.p., said the National Association of Black Organizations is likely to give high priority to addressing the status of black males.
The increasing interest in the black male is evident in a number of other recent developments:
- Conferences and symposiums on the topic have been held by a number of groups, including Morehouse College, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and the National Urban League.
- Mentoring programs have emerged in several cities to connect black men with children. One notable program, Project 2000 in Washington, is run by Concerned Black Men Inc., and trains men to serve as teaching assistants in elementary-school classrooms.
- Research institutes devoted to black males were created at Albany State last year and at Morehouse College in Atlanta last spring. Morehouse in July published its first issue of Challenge, a new journal of research on black men.
- Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio in 1989 established a Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males, which issued its first report in June.
The Georgia Senate last winter unanimously passed a bill establishing a similar commission, but the measure died in a House committee.
- The Lilly Endowment identified in its strategic plan for 1990-93 minority males as an area of focus, and it has established a national advisory committee to assist it in determining how to address minority male concerns, according to Willis K. Bright Jr., program director in charge of community development.
In August, Lilly, along with six other foundations, held a meeting to discuss how they might collaborate to address the problems faced by black males.
- U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan has established a $1.5-million program to provide grants to community coalitions, conferences, and demonstration projects that target minority males.
By the end of the month, an h.h.s. spokesman said, the agency will announce 25 grants of up to $50,000 each for coalitions and 25 grants of up to $20,000 each for conferences. Next year, the agency will also award grants of up to $250,000 for demonstration projects.
- The Prince George's County, Md., school district was urged in a report in August to reduce class sizes, hire more black male teachers and administrators, and replace its "Eurocentric" curriculum in an effort to boost performance by black males.
Need for Action
Although many black leaders express satisfaction with the large amount of discussion focusing on black males, they say they are impatient with the relatively slow growth of coordinated activity and programs.
"In every magazine you see, you see 'the dilemma of the black male,'" Mr. Reese of the s.e.f. said. "So, what do you do in America? You have a conference."
"It has to go beyond conferences [and] into programs," he added. "We have to be prescriptive."
To increase the level of activity designed to help black males, Mr. Reese and other speakers at the Atlanta conference called for the coordination of efforts by black churches, businesses, and urban school systems.
At the heart of efforts to have black America help its young males, symposium speakers stressed, must be a constant appeal to middle- and upper-class black adults to give the efforts their time, talent, and money out of a sense of responsibility and debt toward the black community.
Several speakers said the task may be somewhat challenging because many successful blacks have lost touch with poor communities.
"In many school districts now," said Thomas N. Todd, a noted black civil-rights lawyer from Chicago, "middle-income black children never see poor black children."
Many blacks have "used education and economic development as an escape, rather than a bridge," he added. "We ran to other schools, and we abandoned black schools."
Nevertheless, research indicates the presence of a vast resource of potential black support for altruistic "self help" efforts.
In a 1986 survey, the Joint Center for Political Studies asked a nationally representative sampling of African-Americans about their philanthropic behavior and found that 67.3 percent reported giving money to a charitable organization and 50 percent reported having done volunteer work the year before.
"These problems, if they are going to be resolved, are not going to be resolved by Congress," Mr. Dortch said. "They are going to be resolved by people working with other people, rolling up their sleeves and working with the target populations."