As many Illinoisans sing the praises of black men like Barack Obama, it's good to remember the thousands of African-American males whose splintered lives stand in sharp contrast to the high-achieving junior senator from Illinois. Stunted by low school attendance, widespread unemployment and disproportionate rates of incarceration, these men are frequent fixtures on street corners, idle, aimless and as disconnected from mainstream society as a dead cell phone.
The plight of such men has been the focus of decades of research, but three studies released this year delved much deeper into the problems than most.
Punishment and Inequality in America by Bruce Western for the Russell Sage Press sheds fresh light on the harmful social and economic consequences of this nation's mass incarceration policy. Black Males Left Behind, edited by Ronald B. Mincy for the Urban Institute Press, explores how and why the plight of poorly educated black men didn't improve during the economic boom of the 1990s.
Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men by Peter Edelman, Harry J. Holzer and Paul Offner for the Urban Institute Press, seeks to offer policymakers a road map for boosting education and training opportunities for these men and helping them overcome barriers, such as prison records, that hurt their movement into the world of work.
Together, these studies depict inner cities as places where more than half of all black men do not complete high school, where 72 percent of black male dropouts in their 20s had no jobs in 2004 and where jails or prisons were the addresses of 21 percent of black men who were in their 20s and not in college in 2004.
These trends, researchers say, are occurring in part because of structural shifts in the economy. Factory jobs that were the economic lifeblood for the fathers and grandfathers of many of these men have vanished or moved to distant sites away from the urban core. Crime and drug peddling have become substitutes for legitimate work for many of those left behind. They usually end up in prison and discover on their release that finding work as unskilled ex-cons is a lot harder than it used to be, some employment experts say. Life becomes a revolving door of crime, drugs, prison.
The dilemma of these men isn't made easier given that public programs to address poverty since the late '80s have focused almost exclusively on cutting welfare rolls and putting women to work. Mincy underscored that point in March, when he told a New York Times reporter the nation had invested $50 billion to try to help women move from welfare to work, but "we are not even beginning to think about the men's problem on similar orders of magnitude."
If many of these findings and concerns are a revelation to Illinoisans, it's probably because they haven't been paying attention to earlier studies about their state. At the start of the new century, the highly regarded Chicago Alternative Schools Network — which tries to catch kids who fall through the cracks in traditional public schools — began sounding the alarm after commissioning a series of studies by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Among other things, researchers, led by Andrew Sum, found that government statistics only scratched the surface in revealing the depth of the economic depression among black men in Chicago and many other inner cities. Looking beyond official unemployment data, the researchers found that an astounding 44 percent of black male dropouts and 42 percent of black men between the ages of 55 and 64 were idle the entire year.
Others who have tried to call attention to the worsening plight of low-income men in Illinois include Illinois' U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who has been holding forums on black males around the country since 2004. The Chicago Democrat has pushed legislation for demonstration projects aimed at providing transitional housing and jobs for former prisoners, as well as support for children of incarcerated parents.
He notes that the poverty rate for black men in Chicago stood at 28 percent in 2000, higher than the rate for black men in all other major cities. In addition, Illinois' incarceration rate in 2001 was 1,889 per 100,000 for black men, compared to 251 per 100,000 for whites. At least one in four black males in Chicago has been looking for work and cannot find it, while the high school dropout rate for black males in Chicago schools rose to nearly 26 percent. If that sounds bad, consider the situation in East St. Louis, where recent dropout numbers are said to be twice those in Chicago.
The findings in the three new national studies, then, shouldn't surprise Illinois, home to 1.9 million blacks who make up about 15 percent of the population. Most of them live in Chicago, where they make up 36 percent of the city's population of roughly 2.8 million people. Other Illinois communities that have relatively large black populations include East St. Louis, whose population of 31,000 is almost all black; Decatur, where 19.5 percent of the population of 80,000 is black; and Cairo, where 61 percent of the 3,600 residents are black.
Illinois' black male middle class is growing, but not nearly as fast as it needs to grow. Only about 13 percent of black men in the state are college graduates. Black men comprise about 6 percent of private sector managerial and professional jobs. These men (and women) have made strides in private sector work partly as a result of the push for broader economic opportunities for blacks during the affirmative action years of the 1960s and '70s.
It was during those years, a period when the economies in Illinois cities like East St. Louis were more robust, that black activists like Frank Smith fought hard to expand job opportunities for black men. Nowadays, he's leading a much quieter employment revolution, having traded in his dashiki and afro haircut years ago for desk work as the job placement coordinator for East St. Louis Township. Smith scoffs at the widely held conservative viewpoint that many black men are idle because they simply do not want to work. He says such arguments overlook the structural barriers that stand in the way of employment for some of these men.
One common barrier, he says, is a public transportation system that doesn't always take low-income people where jobs are available. An example of that occurred in the Metro East area when Display Graphics, a manufacturing firm in Pontoon Beach, wanted to fill 300 job openings. For many blacks, a bus ride stood between them and those jobs. That's when Smith and a group of local officials leaned on public transit officials to provide bus service from downtown East St. Louis to the manufacturing plant.
This allowed men like Michael Adkins to find what was, for some, their first legitimate lines of work in years. A former inmate who remains on probation with little genuine work experience during much of his adult life, Adkins was tired of hustling and felt lucky to earn $6.50 an hour on the assembly line at the graphics plant.
"I had made bad choices," he says.
"I used to rob, shoplift and engage in other crimes to support my habit."
Nowadays, Smith says, "Black folk are lost in a maze. If a guy's not employed, he's going to find other means to make a living — selling drugs, for example. It's like a lost generation out there. Many of them grew up as crack babies. Now the crack babies are the parents."
Even so, many of Illinois' unskilled black males are trying hard to stay out of jail. One is Darrell Johnson, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade and is just now seeing a little light in his life.
A handsome young man of 20, Johnson is dressed one Friday morning in baggy jeans, an Izod shirt and a signature silver medallion that glints under fluorescent lighting inside Tomorrow's Builders Charter School, where he's a senior. He has been called on to head a discussion about leadership. He handles the assignment with such ease it's no wonder he hopes to attend college instead of pursue a career in the building trades once he completes his studies before December (the school hosts two graduations a year). The oldest of 10 children, Johnson grew up in a family where neither of his parents completed high school. Last year, one of his brothers was murdered, and over the years, he says, seven or eight of his close friends have either been killed or sent to prison.
For young men like Johnson, Tomorrow's Builders Charter School holds every troubled kid's wish. The school is part of the Emerson Park Development Corp., which has been working for two decades to rebuild a caring community through its school component, an impressive market-rate housing program and other initiatives.
"Being the oldest child in the family," Johnson says, "I've had to teach myself a lot and make a lot of decisions, not all of them good. I'm grateful for the help and guidance I have received from people like Mr. Willis and others."
"Mr. Willis" is Keith Antone Willis Sr., the school's down-to-earth principal and mentor. He maintains an easy rapport with the students without losing his ability to command their respect, even as he shifts from academic jargon to street talk. As he lectured to a class one recent morning, he mentioned four principles that students needed to make it through the school: Maintain good attendance, maintain a good attitude, work hard and "Don't piss Mr. Willis off."
Willis and other school officials say the key to their success with the youngsters stems partly from providing the love, empathy and respect many of them yearn for and don't always receive at home and in traditional schools.
Illinois Rep. Wyvetter Younge, who has a well-earned reputation for espousing forward-looking programs to uplift declining urban communities, says there needs to be more focus on preparing wayward black men for work in the construction trades and other vocations, more investments in drug rehabilitation and more after-school programs. The East St. Louis Democrat also wants to instill in black men an ownership culture to give them a stake in society and make them want to follow the rule of law.
Roger Walker Jr., head of the Illinois Department of Corrections, says Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration has set up some pilot programs to address job training, recidivism and drug abuse among Illinois prisoners. One is the program at Taylorville Correctional Center where inmates learn construction skills by building housing components for Habitat for Humanity as part of a partnership coordinated by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Another is the governor's Sheridan National Model Drug Prison and Reentry Program that provides intensive drug treatment, along with vocational skills, in preparation for jobs once they leave prison. Walker says 69 percent of the state's inmates are behind bars for drug-related crimes. He adds that inmates in the Sheridan program have a reincarceration rate that's 50 percent lower than other groups and that more than half of Sheridan parolees are working full-time.
Still other suggestions come from free-market proponents like Ralph Conner, government relations manager for the Heartland Institute, a libertarian policy research organization in Chicago. He says it's time for blacks to do more to set up businesses in inner cities and take the Booker T. Washington philosophy into the prisons to teach inmates trades and character development to help reduce recidivism. "We have to let them know there's an American mainstream that they can enter if they prepare themselves academically and vocationally."
In addition, Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist who heads the Community Mental Health Council & Foundation on Chicago's South Side, says the problem of racism shouldn't be ignored in discussions about the way the system treats black males.
"There's this punitive approach that poor black people are flooded with risk factors in place of a belief that they're going to be OK," Bell says. "We need to start building corrective, protective services — the way programs like Boys and Girls Clubs and some churches are now doing — around youths, rather than dehumanizing and body slamming them."
There's no denying a lot more needs to be done, especially at the federal level, to keep men out of prison and help them become productive citizens, says Jack Wuest, executive director of Alternative Schools Network. Consider this: It costs $21,600 a year, on average, to house an adult in a Department of Corrections facility. Wuest says it costs on average about $10,000 a year to educate a school dropout, most of whom need two years to earn their diplomas. Put another way, helping some offenders earn a high school or college diploma would be cheaper than giving them room and board in the pen. Some say that shift in funding priorities would mark a start toward improving the plight of unskilled black men.
Others argue that society can't solve a social problem as huge as the one afflicting dysfunctional black men by throwing money at it.
But why not give it a try for a change? Who knows how many Barack Obamas might emerge from the experiment?
Robert Joiner is a former editorial writer and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Award-winning photojournalist Max Bittle took the pictures that accompany our cover story. Bittle, a 21-year-old photojournalism major at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, also takes photographs for his hometown newspaper, the Carterville Courier. Bittle, a junior who had a seven-month internship at the St. Petersburg Times, has won honors in both the academic and professional arenas. In December, he was named winner of the National Press Photographer Association's Student Clip Contest. More of his work can be seen on his blog at Maxbittle.blogspot.com.
Illinois Issues, September 2006