When I graduated from college more than 70 years ago, there were by far more women than men in my graduating class. The same was true in my mother’s generation. And as I listened to her describe the situation in her own time, I began to get some understanding of the tentative, if somewhat difficult situation that transpired then. My mother told me that there were twice as many women in her class in college in 1898 than there were men. She declared that in order for him to put his daughters beyond the reach of white men—from his point of view, sexual predators—her father sacrificed and sent his daughters to college, leaving his sons to fend for themselves as sharecroppers, small farmers and laborers.
None of her brothers went to college. My father was the only one of seven sons who went to college, and that was at the urging of his white teacher in secondary school, who insisted that in the Indian territory there was a need for educated young Black men and she urged my grandfather to send my father to college in Tennessee. And he was the only one out of seven sons who went to college, while there was no question that his two sisters would be going to college to escape the degradation that being without an education might have subjected them to, conduct which my grandfather did not want them to experience.
Several generations ago, it would seem that young Black men were compelled to forgo post-secondary schooling—indeed, if they were fortunate enough to get that far—in order to make certain that their sisters had an opportunity to get beyond the reach of sexual predators. This created a tragic imbalance that posed a serious threat to the integrity and the stability of the Black family that persists to the present day.
There are doubtless many underlying causes that account for the desperate plight of Black males today. I do not argue that one is greater than the other, or that some have been more decisive than other causes. The tragedy is that they have created a problem for the 21st century that is as urgent as any that one can imagine. And this problem has insinuated itself into American society and has placed American society in the midst of some of the larger problems having to do with immigration, outsourcing and the myriad of other social and cultural problems that we face today.
Of the many dimensions and examples of the disparity, none is more glaring than the disparities in matters related to health care. What is remarkably cunning and even hypocritical is the account of health disparities of Blacks that one reads in the press and even in some official reports, as though these disparities are the result of the natural weakness of Black men because of race. Cardiovascular disease does not have a higher incidence because a man is Black; it is related in no uncertain way to more clear-cut experiences that they have in insults and discriminations of all sorts and because of a much less likelihood than whites to secure medical treatment on a regular basis. It is much like the greater likelihood of a Black man receiving a jail term because he deals in crack and is subject to the three strike law than a white dealer who deals in the more expensive drugs and does not serve jail time automatically even if he is convicted three times.
It is not the nation’s slave policy, even before it was a nation, that sealed the fate of the country. It was the nation’s erection of an apartheid society, after slavery, that made our nation and that made these young people pariahs of the land, thus hanging a chain of dishonesty and hypocrisy around the nation’s neck. It was a national economic policy that withheld from them the opportunities to train for better jobs requiring the technical skills and special responsibilities that modern America could provide. In depriving them of this opportunity, the nation deprived itself of much needed manpower and condemned this group that had played such a valiant role in building the nation to the lowest possible place in the social order. And it was national policy, after all, that permitted the citizens of this country to badger these young people, goad them and humiliate them to the point that they could not be easily reached.
But all young Black people, young Black males, must be reached, through legislation, through goodwill, understanding and compassion. The test of an advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but in how many law-abiding, hard-working, highly respected and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce.
John Hope Franklin, Ph.D., is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History and for seven years was professor of legal history at Duke University’s Law School. The above is an abbreviated version of his keynote address at the conference “Black Male Youth: Creating a Culture for Educational Success” presented by The City University of New York on April 26, 2006.
By John Hope Franklin, Ph.D.