African-Americans are in the midst of a social crisis that threatens the very viability of the black community. And it has ominous implications for the nation at large.
The heart of the problem is the literal disappearance of black men. Although black men are conspicuously successful in many arenas of American life, they are -- especially in inner cities -- besieged by poverty, violence, mass incarceration and disease.
A confluence of ills has long conspired to marginalize African-American men and track them into a trajectory of failure. But a flurry of recent studies has revealed that their decline in socioeconomic status is more rapid than previously thought.
"There's something very different happening with young black men, and it's something we can no longer ignore," Ronald B. Mincy, professor of social work at Columbia University, told The New York Times. Mincy is the author of "Black Males Left Behind," a new book that attempts to quantify the extent of their decline. "Over the last two decades, the economy did great," he told the Times, "and low-skilled women, helped by public policy, latched onto it. But young black men were falling farther back."
Among other things, the new studies found:
In the nation's inner cities, more than half of all black men drop out of high school.
In 2004, of the black men who had dropped out of high school and who were now in their 20s, more than 70 percent were out of work. And of those who had graduated high school, half were out of work.
By their mid-30s, of the black men who had dropped out of high school, 60 percent had served time in jail. And of those who had no more than a high school education, 30 percent had served time in jail.
The scholars cite many reasons for this deterioration. Primary among them are bad schools, absent parents, racism, structural changes in the economy and a subculture that glorifies gangsterism.
Perhaps the most distressing implication is the growing gender imbalance between black men and women. The toll on inner-city life is serving to de-populate many black communities of men.
"Where have all the black men gone?" asked a headline last summer in a Star Ledger (Newark, N.J.) piece examining these gender imbalances.
Since the late 1980s, African-American activists have quipped that black men were an endangered species, trying to use hyperbole as inspiration for change.
But it's no longer such hyperbole, and change is more urgently needed than ever.
Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com), and a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.