director Spike Lee recently appeared as a lecturer in the Pen Warmed in Hell series
at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn., he used his lecture to
deride "gangsta" rap lyrics and videos.
"When I was growing up in Brooklyn, one of the things you could still be respected
for was being smart," Lee said. "That is one thing that has completely changed.
Black kids are actually mocked for being successful in school. That's being white.
Smart is being equated with being white, and black is being equated with being
Lee's statement is one of importance, especially if you take a look into the black
male population and question why so few of them are seeking a higher education.
According to the American Council on Education, "a meager quarter of 1.9 million
black men between 18 and 24 attended college in 2000." What's even more discouraging
is that the American Council on Education affirmed that "the graduation rate of
black men is the lowest of any population."
So where are the black men, why are so few on our college campuses, and why are
so few graduating?
There are many factors that can be attributed to the crisis with black males in
higher education. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back to the
1950s and 1960s. A special report, "College Degree Awards: The Ominous Gender
Gap in African-American Higher Education" states that "black men in the 1950s
and early 1960s knew that the pursuit of higher education would not result in
increased employment opportunities."
The report also said that, "rather than seek advanced education, black men entered
the work force usually in menial positions or at hard labor." Even though this
was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, can it still be used to understand the predicament
going on today with black males and higher education?
Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis
in African American Culture," argues that "you have more young people not just
wanting to be financially secure, but wanting to be instant millionaires by the
time their 30… They point to people like Puffy as an example that it can be done.
Or Shaq. Or Kobe. Or Allen Iverson."
While the fast money-making images that are perpetuated throughout the black community
serve as a factor, other factors can contribute as well. "The Ominous Gender Gap
in African-American Higher Education" further explains that "the culture of the
primary and secondary education system seems to favor young black girls over young
Moreover, the report affirms that "the ongoing struggle against discrimination
and indifference has been far more serious for black men than for black women."
It also details the ways in which this discrimination has an impact on employment
for experienced black males.
"Over the years, race discrimination in employment has been far more intense against
black men," says the report. This obviously has the effect of narrowing the pool
of employment opportunities for qualified black men."
James Bracey, a young black male in college, believes that his fellow "brothas"
are not seeking higher education because they either "see no future in college
or they see the quick money of hustling on the streets and get caught up."
Even more striking is the numbers of black males in the prison system compared
to the numbers of black males in higher education. In 1999 there were 757,000
black men in federal, state, and local prisons. During this same year, there were
604,200 black males enrolled in higher education in the United States. This is
striking if you break down the statistics; there were 25 percent more black men
in prison in the United States than there were enrolled in institutions of higher
learning. Today, black men make up 41 percent of inmates in the federal, state,
and local prisons, but black men are only 4 percent of all students in American
institutions of higher learning.
When looking into factors that help explain why black males are not attending
college, you must examine the black family. Research shows that there are literally
millions of cases in the United States today in which there is a total absence
of a black male role model for young African-American men in the home and at school.
Furthermore, over two-thirds of black babies are born to unwed mothers. Thus,
in two-thirds of all black households there is no father or other strong male
role model to educate young black males on the virtues and benefits of higher
In addition, the media images that are constantly on television play a part as
well. When you turn on your television, the media's portrayal of successful black
men concentrates on athletes and entertainers. These are occupations that involve
getting rich quick and require little formal education.
Lee also believes that the media portrayal of blacks has changed.
"Twenty-five years ago, white media's portrayal of black stereotypes made television
easy to ignore for black youths, but now the glorification of violence, drugs
and sex is enticing," Lee said. He went on to add that "we're at a time now where
young black males grow up and want to be pimps."
So how can this crisis with black males and higher education be rectified? The
National Urban League's Institute for Opportunity and Equality has taken up a
concerted effort in trying to find some concrete solutions to the challenges facing
black males by convening a national Commission on the Black Male.
One of their major sentiments in trying to get more black males in college is
the belief that strong affirmative action policies on the part of employers in
America will provide a large part of the answer. Some feel that black males will
persist in seeking higher education only so long as they perceive that the educational
effort is worthwhile and that serious job opportunities lie ahead.
Furthermore, the Urban League is trying to partner with the Commission of the
Black Male to have a series of town hall meetings in different parts of the country
and with different kinds of audiences.
In early November they met with more than 300 high school and college students
and adults on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta. The event was held in
conjunction with the Atlanta Urban League, Morehouse College, 100 Black Men of
America Inc., National Fatherhood Initiative, Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social
Work, Concerned Black Men of America, and Atlanta Public Schools. The primary
purpose in this Commission of the Black Male is to establish an informed dialogue
in order to develop better solutions.
This is truly an epidemic that has been affecting the black community for many
years. Perhaps Spike Lee summed it up best when he spoke about life's struggles
"Life is about struggle," he said. "I think every successful person has to struggle…
That's one of the things about all of these reality shows that I don't like: God
coming down from on high and handing people things. Life isn't like that. You
have to accept that struggle is what it's all about."
Getting rich quick is not the answer. Young black males in America need to realize
that securing an education is the best bet for financial security.
Jenise Beaman is a junior Journalism/Professional Writing
major at The College of New Jersey. She is Health editor of unbound. She has
also been involved in writing for her high school newspaper as well as TCNJ's
student paper, The Signal.