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Young, Black, in Critical Condition

May 29, 1988|Jewelle Taylor Gibbs | Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, associate professor at the School of Social Welfare, UC Berkeley, is the editor and major contributor to "Young, Black, and Male in America: An Endangered Species" (Auburn House); arguments in this article are drawn from that book

BERKELEY — Young black males in America's inner cities are an endangered species, constantly threatened with physical, psychological or social annihilation. They have been miseducated by the educational system, mishandled by the criminal justice system, mislabeled by the mental health system and mistreated by the social welfare system.

Their inner-city neighborhoods have become "welfare plantations," their families dependent on government benefits, isolated from the mainstream and unable to escape from the ghetto. They are rejects of our affluent society and misfits in their own communities. Since the march on Washington in 1963, the status of black males, ages 15-24, has deteriorated by most significant social and economic measures. As conditions have worsened, young blacks have grown increasingly angry and alienated from the dominant culture. It is time for policy-makers to ask: What has happened to these youth? Why? And what can be done to address their problems?

Six major social indicators reveal what has happened in the past 25 years.

First, while overall school dropout rates of black youths have improved in recent years, rates for inner-city black males have increased to levels of 40%-50%. In 1980, one of five black male teen-agers was unable to read at the fourth-grade level, thus unqualified for most entry-level jobs, apprenticeship programs or military service.

Second, unemployment rates for these inner-city youths also range from 40%-60%, three times higher than in 1960. Employment rates for black males 16-19 dropped from 42% in 1960 to 36% in 1980. In 1984 nearly half the black youths, 16-24, had never held a regular job.

Third, crime and delinquency are rampant in the inner cities, with black youths accounting for close to one-third of juvenile arrests for felony offenses, yet they represent only one-fifth of the youth population. Most victims are also black--meaning both victimizers and victims are poor and black.

Fourth, drug abuse is endemic in many inner-city neighborhoods, transformed into battlegrounds over the sale and distribution of cocaine and heroin. The drug industry has not only created lucrative jobs for unemployed teen-agers, it has also created a violent life style and a new health menace for black males. Heterosexual intravenous drug users account for more than one-third of the AIDS cases among black males, who now represent one-fourth of all male cases.

Fifth, homicide is the leading cause of death among young black males. A young black male has a 1 in 21 chance of being murdered before he reaches age 21, primarily by a gun fired by another black male. Young black males are six times as likely as young white males to be victims of homicide.

Sixth, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young black males. Since 1960, suicide rates have nearly tripled for young black males; while suicide among whites increases with age, it is a peculiarly youthful phenomenon among blacks.

The "new morbidity," a term coined to describe these unacceptably high youth death rates caused by social rather than biological factors, is particularly applicable to young black males.

Three major factors explain how these problems developed and why they have worsened in less than three decades. First, structural and technological changes in the society have shifted the economy from an agricultural and manufacturing base to a service and high-technology base, requiring a more skilled and educated labor force. As new jobs have moved from city to suburbs and from East to West, urban black youths have had neither the skills nor the mobility to qualify. Without employment opportunities, they have developed an underground economy in drugs, stolen goods and gambling.

A second factor is the growth of black female-headed families--from 22% in 1960 to 42% in 1983. This increase parallels the increase in unemployment among black males and is a major cause of lowered marriage rates in this group. Those who claim that welfare programs have encouraged higher teen-age birth rates are wrong on two counts; black teen-age birth rates are now lower than they were in 1960, but out-of-wedlock birth rates are generally higher in states with the lowest welfare payments and the highest rates of male unemployment.

Two of every three children in black female-headed households are poor; they live in substandard housing, attend inferior schools, lack access to adequate health care and are exposed at early ages to drugs, crime and violence.

The third factor is a conservative political climate that fostered a backlash to civil rights advances and affirmative action programs in employment and education. The national debate has shifted from an active emphasis on policies of prevention and early intervention to a reactive emphasis on policies of retrenchment and rehabilitation.

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