Education is the key to breaking black men and youths out of a vicious cycle of crime and unemployment, African-American leaders said Thursday at the close of the annual NAACP convention.
The plight of black males, which have above average rates of joblessness, incarceration, HIV infection and lower rates of educational achievement, was one of the themes of the six-day convention, which was attended by more than 5,000 members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"We are losing a generation of our children," said Sandre Swanson, who heads the California Assembly's Select Committee on the State of Boys and Men of Color, at a panel discussion. "These young men need help and to know we care."
Panelists noted that the problem originated with the loss of manufacturing jobs that minorities relied on for decades. Moreover, government jobs, which employ 21 percent of blacks, are also now shrinking with government cutbacks, political analyst Jamal Simmons said.
The result is that minority youth have turned increasingly to crime.
About 10 percent of black men born in the 1940s have served time in prison during their lives, said Yale University law professor James Foreman Jr. That figure doubles for black men born in the 1960s. African-American males now comprise 40 percent of the nation's prison population.
Swanson noted that 70 percent of parolees return to prison because they are paroled to isolated communities where there are few jobs, or schooling or training opportunities.
"We have to get as much education in front of them as we can," he said, adding that he is sponsoring a bill to get community college classes in prisons. "The most successful tool against recidivism is education."
The national unemployment rate in July for black males is 17.9 percent, as compared to 8.1 percent for white males and 11.9 percent for Hispanic males. For college-educated black males, the figure drops to 6.5 percent, which is still higher than the 2.9 percent rate for college-educated whites.
Foreman, who noted that the overwhelming majority of prison inmates are high school dropouts, said that besides pushing black students to graduate, the quality of urban schools must be improved in order to give youths the skills they need in today's high-tech job market.
Half of black high school students do not have access to advanced level courses, such as calculus, physics and advanced placement English, he said. Even if students do not go on to college, they need higher level courses to develop essential critical thinking skills.
"The employment question is fundamental," he said. "There are no more jobs on the line at the Ford plant. Those kids have to be educated to go to college, even if they don't go to college."
Swanson said he is also working with labor unions to offer more apprenticeships to minority youth and to employ more ex-felons.
Simmons urged the audience to mentor youth, saying the successful people he knows credit one person in their lives who encouraged them to pursue their aspirations.
"The doors of opportunity are open to black people but it can still be challenging to go through them," he said.