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Platform : Black College Men: Lighting a Path

February 17, 1996

Nearly 40% of California's black men in their 20s are in prison, in jail or on probation, according to a major study released earlier this week. In contrast, less than 13% of black men older than 25 have bachelor degrees or better, a percentage thought likely to decline as affirmative action is banned in admissions to the University of California. ERIN AUBRY talked with African American men at several local colleges about how they'd found their own path to higher education and what it might take to get more young men into college instead of behind bars.

RICHARD JOHNSON, 41, junior, Cal State Northridge (psychology and religion major)

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I decided to go back to school a few years ago because a high school diploma isn't enough. I came to California in 1979 trying to make it as a singer and entertainer, but I couldn't take care of my kids on an entertainer's salary. We were on public assistance for a while. I finally ended up at San Quentin working as a correctional officer. That's ironic because I hated the police and the whole criminal justice system as a kid.

The prison job was very stressful, one of the toughest things I ever did. I saw death, violence, racial wars, brain damage, everything. But brothers in prison are very intelligent. We found commonality. I came from where a lot of guys came from. My mother raised 11 kids by herself. I dealt with my brother going back and forth to jail. At the point where I could have turned bad, as a teenager, she moved us out to a better neighborhood. Looking back, I realize I could have been killed like some of my friends. But the spiritual conscience I got from my mom drew a line for me.

There's too much rhetoric among black people now. We have to stop living in the past, focusing on the accomplishments of individuals, and go forward. We have to stop being complacent. There's no white man holding us back, no government holding us back. Since I've been in school, I find myself more conscious. I feel optimistic though I've had a very rough life. I don't want to look over my shoulder one day and say, I didn't finish anything.

KEVIN CHAMBERS, 18, freshman, USC

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My mother stressed education; she worked with me a lot at home, tutoring. That's where my discipline came in, though I don't have as much discipline as I'd like. My father taught me how to behave--what to do, what not to do. If it wasn't for my parents, I'd be in a very different situation. I'm not saying that I'd end up criminal, but I'd be more tempted to do wrong things. My parents and my own stubbornness are my biggest advantages. I won't let go of something until I'm done with it. I was a pretty good student at Washington High. I knew of a lot of guys who got into trouble, but they weren't really friends, the guys I hung out with.

One of the biggest source of trouble right now is unemployment. People must be able to support a family or they'll turn to illegal activity, drugs and things, and that trickles down to the kids. It's a big, long, vicious chain that's mostly perpetuated by drugs. Drug activity keeps people right where society wants them: in their own neighborhoods. People have to move jobs and education.

It's scary even for college students; we're afraid there won't be jobs out there for us. But we're in such a rapidly changing society, there was no other way for me to go except college. You have to have an MBA just to work in McDonald's nowadays.

JIHAD SALEH, 21, junior, UCLA (political science/sociology major with African emphasis)

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Being African-American and Mexican, I learned to appreciate all cultures. My mom made sure I went to day camp at different places in the city, and that I got exposed to different ethnicities. My reality was not just my street, which was in a neighborhood near USC. I didn't feel trapped at home like some people I knew. I also had a great extended family living at home--grandmother, cousins--and a lot of support. I visited my father regularly in the Valley, and that was like going to a whole different culture, too. I've had the chance to travel a lot, to Korea and Europe.

The key word is exposure. Young kids don't see how small they really are in the world. I feel fortunate; a lot of parents struggle to improve their kids' lives. God blessed mine with something a little more, so I feel I have to use my ability constructively. That's why I tutor kids in juvenile facilities. Incarceration is death; I try to help keep them alive. To me, not being active or helping others is a slap in the face of history, to the elders who sacrificed so much to give me the chance at the college. This is my duty now--giving. We can't wait until we get out of school and get a job to give back.

MICHAEL DENNIS, 26, graduate student, American Film Institute

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