WASHINGTON -- A batch of new studies suggesting that black males in the United States are falling ever further behind other groups in health, education and employment has ignited a debate within the black community about who is to blame and what can be done.
"There's a major discussion within the community about what we need to do about black males," said Peter Groff, a Colorado state senator and director of the Centre for African American Policy at the University of Denver.
Traditionally, many black leaders have blamed the legacy of slavery, institutional racism and poverty for the problems faced by blacks in general and men in particular.
But comedian Bill Cosby rejected that approach in two provocative speeches last summer, in which he called on fellow blacks to stop blaming society for their troubles and start looking at themselves.
Attacking urban "hip hop" culture and the collapse of the two-parent family, Cosby challenged those within the black community who opposed "washing their dirty laundry in public."
"Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other nigger as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere," Cosby said.
Cosby's words were welcomed by many senior black figures, including civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, then-director of the National Association for the Advancement of Collared People.
Others, like Groff, take a more nuanced approach that still blames the legacy of racism and poverty for the crisis along with the low expectations many people have for young black men, failures of the education system, a lack of male role models and the "anti-intellectualism" fostered by black street culture.
Whatever the causes, the latest figures paint a bleak picture. For example, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said in December that 51 percent of all HIV diagnoses were among blacks, who make up less than 13 percent of the population.
HIGH INFECTION RATE
The rate of infection among black men was 103.5 per 100,000 individuals -- around seven times that of white men and three times the rate among Latinos.
Black men live an average of 7.1 years less than other racial groups and experience disproportionately higher mortality in every single leading causes of death -- a fact recently seized on by President George W. Bush in a bid to win black support for his plan to partially privatize the Social Security retirement program.
Another recent study by the American Council on Education showed that twice as many black women as men now attend college. Over the past decade, the high school graduation rate for black men has fallen to 43 percent, while that of black women has risen to 56 percent.
"In a relative sense, we are not closing the gap between blacks and whites when you look at the rate of economic and educational progress," said William Harvey of the Centre for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity.
He blamed what he called "American bravado" and a "macho culture" that made education seem irrelevant to many black males and pushed them towards low-paying jobs, the military or the "undercover economy."
A report in June for the Alternative Schools Network found that in 2002 one in every four black men in the United States was permanently unemployed, a rate double that of white men and 70 percent higher than among Asian and Hispanic men.
"What is most depressing about the low employment rates of black men is the high fraction of such men, especially those with limited schooling ... who are idle all year long," the report said.
In its most recent report on the nation's prison population, the Department of Justice found that at the end of 2003, over 9 percent of all black males aged 26 to 29 were incarcerated, compared to 2.6 percent of Hispanics and 1.1 percent of whites.
A study by the Justice Policy Institute showed that black men in their early 30s were nearly twice as likely to have prison records than bachelors degrees.
Some states are trying to address the problem. Ohio established a state commission on African American males 16 years ago. It works to develop programs on health, education, economic development and employment.
But said chairman Leonard Hubert, "if you look at the magnitude of the issues, we would need hundreds of millions of dollars more just to begin addressing them."
© Reuters 2005