The State of Black Men in America


It was my honor yesterday (6.16.11) to be a guest on Real Talk with host Phoenix Starr on  The topic of discussion was the state of Black men in America.  Considering that it was a one hour show, we of course could not fully explore all that such a complicated subject entails.  But we did tackle a lot of issues, with impassioned stories told, statistics presented and blueprints for future action to address said issues.

One of the first things we addressed was the idea that despite all of the challenges, there are some positive stories to tell about Black men.  We are involved in our families, we have taken leadership of our communities, we have gotten involved in the political arena, we are educated and we are working.  Heck, we’re even President of the United States.  However, the major challenge is that we’re not doing these things at scale, and a significant percentage of us are struggling mightily: socially, politically and economically.

One challenge we addressed was the penal system.  Many people don’t realize that the prison system alone is a 37 BILLION dollar industry.  There are people making money off the fact that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with a prison population of over 2.3 million people.  How does this affect Black men?  Although Black people in this country as a whole represent 12% of the population, 35.4% of the prison population are Black MALES!!  Roughly 10% of all Black males are in prison.  This number does NOT represent the rest of the penal system, i.e.: probation and parole.  If this were happening to people who owned television stations and fortune 500 companies, it would be declared a national crisis, and we’d ALL be aware of the numbers, and we would DEMAND that something be done about it as of yesterday.

We also compared those numbers to the education system.  In 2000, 25% of Black men between the ages of 18-24 were in college.  Compared to the percentage of men in prison, one might think “not bad.”  Except when that number is compared to the rest of society: 35% of Black women in the same age group were in college, and 36% of the overall population in the same age group were in college.  As of 2010, only 35% of Black men actually GRADUATED from college.  These numbers are appalling.

We also discussed the continuing impact of slavery on the Black male.  In 2011, many Americans simply don’t want to hear this, and even have a term for it: “pulling the race card.”  Personally, I think that’s an ignorant statement at best, and in itself is racist at worst.  As a former history teacher, I am all too aware of the impact of studying our history in order to understand our present and our future direction.  We’ve all heard the term: “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”  So why do so many Americans hate for us to continue to discuss the impact of slavery?  I think the answer is obvious, but I don’t care to use this forum to try to convince anyone.

What I CAN say is that as a historian I’ve studied the impact of slavery on our community.  I know that a slave woman who was raped by her “master” had some strong feelings towards her husband, who was powerless to stop her torture and humiliation.  As a man, I can only imagine the impact on my male ego of watching my wife abused, particularly in such a personal and sexual way, literally right in my face.  So…what do YOU think these parents passed on to their children about gender roles and the state of the Black man?  What impact do YOU believe that had on the respect Black women had for Black men?  And do you really need a doctoral degree and thousands of pages of research to know the answer?

We also discussed why there is an achievement gap between Black men and women.  There’s lots of research on this, and you’re free to look it up for yourself.  What I’ll say is this: as a student at Andover I had a moment of education I’ve never forgotten, and it occurred outside the classroom.  My roommate, who was from Valley, Nebraska, was walking along the campus with me one day.  A Black girl walked past us, and my roommate asked me if she was “considered pretty.”  At first I was livid.  How could he NOT see how beautiful she was?  (I had a HUGE crush on her.  Lord…high school days).  But when I looked at his face, I realized that he was sincere in his asking.  So I simply said: “Only you know if she’s attractive.  What do you think?”  He responded that he was indeed attracted to her.

Because I answered him so calmly, he relaxed and told me something I never forgot.  He said: “I’ve always been attracted to Black women, but I’m terrified of Black men.”  All of a sudden, for me, a lot of puzzle pieces fell into place.  Of course, this is only anecdotal.  But if you’re unfamiliar with Andover, google it.  Graduates from this school have gone on to become U.S. Presidents, legislators, doctors, attorneys, business leaders, and a wide array of people in political and economic power.  Now, does my former roommate’s sentiments reflect those of Andover?  I think not.  But if even a small percentage of these powerful leaders felt as he did, then given their power and clout, what kind of impact has that had on Black men as a whole?

To continue, each of the guests on Real Talk gave anecdotal evidence about why they’ve been successful as Black men in their various fields and as family men.  We discussed how to overcome such obstacles as individuals and as a community.  As for me: 1) “there but for the grace of God go I.”  2) My family was responsible for teaching me about who I am, where I come from, challenges my family has overcome, and what it means to be “a Berlack.”  No school can teach us these fundamental lessons.

We concluded with the idea that government and politics aside (America is the only industrialized nation whose majority believes that government has no role in equaling the societal playing field), it is incumbent upon US to take control of our own destiny.  WE must teach our children who they are.  WE must take control of our own economic and political control.  And WE, as men, must step up to the plate and become the leaders of our families and communities that we are built to be.

I founded The Berlack Method in order to be part of the solution.  We must, however, collaborate and work together as individuals and organizations to engender effective change.  That’s why I collaborated with Caprice Smith and SharperMinds Consultants to create the “Third Thursdays” series of community open forums, and that’s why I’ve also collaborated with Harding Consulting to facilitate “GQ Camp for Boys” for young men aged 10 – 16.  As I did last year, this summer I will teach young males about how to become MEN.  I’ll teach them fundamentals like how to tie a tie, and how to use the game of chess as a life skills teaching tool.

I declare, on June 17, 2011, that the state of Black men in America is one of constant progress and tremendous challenge, and that Black men face both inner and outer obstacles that are mountainous in stature.  As a Black man in an America with a Black President, I stand ready, willing and able to move the state of Black men from challenged to empowered.  What are YOU willing to do?

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3 Responses to "The State of Black Men in America"

  • Willie Nabors says:

    I agree that America’s scarred (or scared) image of the black man can only be changed by a unified and consistent effort from our communities. There must be some accountability on both sides, however. The roots of separation are real and run very deep. Any attempt to dig them up will take concerted efforts, from organizations like yours, families from all backgrounds, and grassroots efforts from schools and churches. We can do it; I have renewed, crazy mutant optimism since we elected a black president. I am not crazy enough to think that it will be easy. My cynicism is birthed from my southern upbringing, where I heard my parents converse about lynchings, and where my mother was fascinated by seeing a white garbage man for the first time in her life, strangely enough, in Andover, MA. I just pray that the experinces I had while at Andover were as enriching for the white/asian/latino/poor/rich kids that I met when I was there. Maybe they learned not to be scared of all minorities, since I was just as uncomfortable around them as they were around me. But the strangest thing about the whole experience with so many people with diverse backgrounds is that we found out that they didn’t really matter as much as we liked to think before we met. We soon just saw teenagers who felt the same silly, lonely, victorious, heartbreaky inquisitiveness that would frame our later lives. Or at least I hope we did. The more folks buy into the common-ness of us, the more we take people for who they are, the less often we will need to dialogue about the disparity between people groups. It will take effort. I volunteer to make it aas easy as possible to see one positive image of a black man, and will help to create an army of new images. Let’s take back the proud heritage that has been laying unclaimed for so long.

  • Special K says:

    This is a very good article and I will be printing it to allow my sons nephews and ex husband to read it. Keep up the very good work. From a Sister to a Brother who cares. You are very much appreciated in our community by the Black woman.
    Special K

    • CC says:

      I too am grateful for your article and I celebrate the commitment you and your family have to their family’s well-being. It is a HUGE part of the solution. Indeed slavery continues to have profound affects on a large portion of Black America. However, I for one do not believe it begins there. I find it more of a by-product of what we did to one another in our Mother Land. Would Europe have come for cheap labor to build their empires had we been more united as a people? Yes, I believe they would have. I have yet to see boundaries in mankind when it comes to greed. That, coupled with the inferiority that lay within white America comparing themselves with their European counter-part, birthed the “peculiar institution” of western slavery. To re-member my own soul to its True foundation, I have had to counter the negative statements, images and beliefs that reigned in my mind with TRUTH and ACTION. We ARE recovering as a people. Vigilance, education, and patience with one another IS our gift to one another and to mankind as a whole. There is no us and them, humanity needs each and every human being to cut their own brand of cancer out so that we ALL grow.

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