At a time when the U.S. economy is on the upswing and more people are finding work, young African American men are falling further behind.
That’s the grim portrait painted by three new and forthcoming books by scholars at Columbia, Georgetown and Princeton universities. The picture isn't new, but the depths of its despair and pathology are.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are about 5 million black men in America between the ages of 20 and 39. The new books, and an earlier one from Harvard, find them losing ground in mainstream American society, despite advances made by black women, presumably part of the same socioeconomic experience.
This vexing problem, caused by a variety of social ills, is equally vexing when scholars consider what causes it.
Among the studies' findings:
- Rates of imprisonment for young black men escalated throughout the 1990s and continued climbing well into the current decade. About 16 percent of black men in their twenties who were not college students were either in jail or in prison.
- African Americans are seven times more likely to go to prison or jail than whites.
- Almost 60 percent of black male high school dropouts in their early thirties have spent time in prison.
- The percentage of young jobless black men continues to increase, part of a trend that generally hasn't abated in decades. In 2000, about 65 percent of black male high-school dropouts had no jobs, either because they couldn't find work or because they were in jail. By 2004, the studies found that number had grown to 72 percent. The numbers for young black men were higher than for whites and Hispanics similarly affected.
Making matters worse, a forthcoming book, which includes a study of nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City, found that black job applicants with no criminal records weren't any more likely to get a job than white applicants who were just out of prison.
Persistence of imbalance
“A lot of people are skeptical that African Americans still face discrimination in the job market. But even in a diverse city like New York, the evidence of discrimination is unmistakable,” said Devah Pager, a Princeton sociology professor, in announcing “Punishment and Inequality in America.” The book, written by Princeton's Bruce Western, will be published in June.
“The 1990s were an eye-opener,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “You had the strongest labor market in 30 years; all things being equal, those were good times for African Americans. A lot of black moms were entering the labor market, but the dads kept dropping out.”
Holzer's new book, ",” was co-written with two other scholars. The third book is “,” edited by Columbia University professor Ronald B. Mincy. A 2004 book, “ ,” found similarly dire circumstances for young black men.
One problem, many causes
Holzer sees many reasons for the bleak situation: unemployment, enduring bias in American life, the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs.
“When you look at what’s responsible, there’s a lot of stories," he said. "The labor market changed a lot. There was a disappearance of good jobs for less educated men. For blacks you have continuing problems of discrimination, job flight from the cities."
“The worst employment problems are in the Northeast areas — Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, the Rust Belt cities where a generation ago black men relied on heavy manufacturing. The fraction of black men in heavy manufacturing has dropped precipitously,” Holzer said.
“Those areas are also among the most racially segregated in the country. It might not just be the disappearance of those jobs — some of the work got outsourced — but also the disappearance of the quality of schools and neighborhoods left behind."
Holzer also cited state child-support systems and more aggressive enforcement of laws against “deadbeat dads,” late or delinquent on support payments.
But for Holzer, the biggest problem is the large number of imprisoned men. “When you have a system where one-third of African American men are in the criminal justice system, you’re going to have problems.”
He says solutions will be rooted in education and employment. “I think we need to emphasize three broad approaches: first, a range of education, training and youth development, especially in middle school and high school, to prevent boys from disconnecting and to prepare them for the labor market.''
“Then we need to improve their financial incentives to accept lower-wage jobs by raising the minimum wage and extending the earned income tax credit to low-income childless adults, especially if they pay child support," Holzer said. "And we should address the specific problems faced by ex-offenders and non-custodial fathers as they attempt to enter the labor market.”
Otherwise, Holzer senses the persistence of a chilling condition among young black American men, what might be called pre-emptive despair.
“You see this disconnection problem, with young boys in their adolescent years starting to drift away,” he said.
“The girls are graduating more. But it's almost as if these young boys look down the road and sense a bleak future and they disconnect early — a self-fulfilling prophecy.”