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On campus, grim statistics for African-American men

Published January 4, 2004

African-Americans should be afraid - very afraid.

We have many reasons to be afraid, but two that should cause the most alarm are the low number of black men in college and the low number of black men who are graduating from college.

Nationally, a mere quarter of the 1.9-million black men between 18 and 24 attended college in 2000, the last year the American Council on Education reported such statistics. By contrast, 35 percent of black women in the same age group and 36 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were attending college.

A grimmer statistic, according to the American Council on Education, is that the graduation rate of black men is the lowest of any population. Only 35 percent of the black men who enrolled in NCAA Division I schools in 1996 graduated within six years. White men, on the other hand, graduated at a rate of 59 percent; Hispanic men, 46 percent; American Indian men, 41 percent; and black women, 45 percent.

Where are the black men, why are so few on our college campuses and why are so few graduating?

"In 1999 there were 757,000 black men in federal, state and local prisons," according to the Autumn 2003 issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. "In 1999 . . . there were 604,200 African-American men enrolled in higher education in the United States. Therefore, there were 25 percent more black men in prison in the United States than were enrolled in institutions of higher education. Today, black men make up 41 percent of the inmates in federal state, and local prison, but black men are only 4 percent of all students in American institutions of higher education."

Many black and white educators at major colleges and universities, including Amherst, historically black Howard, Swarthmore and Wesleyan, are trying to help end this crisis. Several years ago, the University of Georgia established the African-American Male Initiative, a research program with the purpose of removing the hurdles to college enrollment and graduation for black men.

The obstacles to black males earning college degrees are many, some seemingly intractable. They include inferior public education before college, the absence of black men as role models, low expectations from teachers and other adults, low self-esteem, black men's own low aspirations and their tendency to drop out of high school in disproportionate numbers.

Yes, these are serious obstacles to college enrollment and graduation for African-American men, but, taken together, they represent the least important part of the problem. A role model, for example, means nothing or next to nothing to a child who is ill-prepared to emotionally and intellectually apprehend the significance of the role model's accomplishments.

The seeds for success, especially academic success, are most effectively planted at home. The presence of books in the home and parents who read and discuss ideas and current affairs almost always influence children to read and to care about things of the mind. Too many African-American homes are headed by parents, single or otherwise, who lack interest in the long-term efficacy of education, who do not insist that their children learn.

The efforts of the University of Georgia and others are to be applauded. But a parenting initiative has to be established, an initiative that forces parents and children to become introspective and diligent. At the core of the black male crisis is our failure to assume total responsibility for the destiny of our children - our future. Nearly 100 years ago, educator and civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston said of black people and education: "Without education, there is no hope for our people and without hope, our future is lost."

By any means necessary, black adults must teach black children to take hold of their lives. While we should continue to acknowledge the debilitating effects of racism, we cannot afford to live as victims. We must forge a world of self-determination parallel to that of society's racism, an evil that is not disappearing any time soon.

External programs, such as Georgia's African-American Male Initiative, are good things, but they cannot replace black people's own will to succeed academically. Until we look inside ourselves and change our perspective on education, the grim statistics will continue to pile up, and our men will fall further behind and the dreaded cliche - black males are "an endangered species" - will become a reality.

We should be afraid - very afraid.

[Last modified January 4, 2004, 01:16:08]

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