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Late last year, I spent about an hour one Saturday evening visiting a group of young men at Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit who had invited me to meet with them. They had read some of my columns, and they had begun an in-house (OK, in-prison) newsletter with the purpose of helping one another cope with their circumstances and to improve themselves. As a matter of fact, the purpose of their group was to lift themselves in whatever ways they could, and to reach out to other inmates in need of a guiding hand and some much-needed support. If there's one thing an inmate needs, particularly those who are trying to walk upright and better themselves, it's a strong support network. It's got to be one of the hardest things in the world to commit yourself to doing what's right when you're surrounded 24-7 by so many who have specialized in doing what's wrong and when you yourself are behind bars for the same reasons as those who keep trying to pull you back.
The young men I met with are a perfect window into the actual lives behind some extremely troubling statistics reported last week in The New York Times, which I'll get to in a little bit. Of course, these guys don't really need to read about how bad things are for young black men they know better than anyone else possibly could. None of them tried to sell me on the idea that they had been unjustly accused, or that they were simply victims of an oppressive system. Although none of them volunteered information about what had landed them behind bars and I wasn't about to ask they freely acknowledged that they had taken some rather serious wrong turns and were prepared to deal with that.
But what they weren't prepared to deal with was giving up on themselves, or allowing themselves to be defined by the confining, and often grossly inaccurate, TV and movie stereotypes many folks have of who they are. Sure, there are some horrible guys in there who have done some horrible things. Some of those may have been in that room with me for all I know. But they are also young men who have grown and matured, and who still have something to contribute.
This is something that Bush and his crowd of blue-blooded elites couldn't even begin to understand. The never-ending struggle of the black poor is about as relevant to Bush as space dust on Mars. Katrina proved that.
Therefore, I was bitterly amused by the president's press conference last week. He said that the economy was doing just great, that the jobless rate was way down, and that, apparently, it's a wonderful life. All we're missing is the theme music from Leave It To Beaver.
Obviously, Michigan was somehow overlooked by Bush's merry band of economists, but that's OK. Whatever. It's also rather obvious that the steadily worsening condition of young black men in America is hidden behind one of Dubya's numerous blind spots, but that, too, is to be expected. Dubya's America, otherwise known as Disneyland, exists with its own set of rules and standards. Reality is not among them.
So let's just for a moment touch on reality, specifically the reality of young black men falling further and further down the socioeconomic ladder. That's exactly what's happening, according to a number of recent studies reported last week in The New York Times. It's getting to where you have to wonder whether this thing can ever be turned around:
"Focusing more closely than ever on the life patterns of young black men, the new studies, by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions, show that the huge pool of poorly educated black men is becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men.
"Especially in the country's inner cities, the studies show, finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined."
According to the studies, the number of young black men without jobs has been skyrocketing. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless, meaning they couldn't find work, weren't looking for work or were incarcerated.
"By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20s were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000."
And, finally, there is this: "Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30s, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.
"In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school."
One brother at Mound who stands out in my memory told me that he had been inside since he was about 17 years old. Today he is just past 30 years of age. I have no idea whether or not he finished high school, but his life certainly seems to add flesh to the Times statistics in just about every other respect. Before prison, he told me, he had quite a street rep; folks knew he was not one to be messed with without serious consequences. It was the kind of rep that a lot of young black kids look up to because it conveys strength and control, being "hard." One of the young kids who looked up to him was his very young nephew, whom he told me he pretty much helped raise. It was clear he loved the kid.
Once incarcerated, he couldn't look out for his nephew as he did when he was roaming the streets. But his absence from the hood didn't end the tales the young cats told about how he had conducted himself while on the wild. He was behind bars, but his rep lived on, and it was this hard-earned street rep that the nephew grew to admire more and more. He took pride in that rep. This bad dude these cats were talking about used to look out for him back in the day. This MF was his uncle, which may have made him feel a bit like royalty. He wasn't a nobody, he was related to somebody with a major rep. The fact that his uncle was now doing time made his street cred that much stronger.
But the longer his uncle remained behind bars, the more time he had to reflect on his mistakes and to admit them to himself. And the more he did that, the more he began to change and to grow. He grew away from the rep and into someone else, someone he could feel more comfortable with and less ashamed of. But his nephew, still on the outside, couldn't understand this transformation. What was happening to his uncle? Was he going soft? His uncle sensed his nephew's disappointment during occasional visits, and he tried to school him on what the real deal was behind those bars. It was not a rite of passage to black manhood. It was not a badge of honor. There was nothing good about it. Don't make this mistake, my nephew. Get away from all that crazy shit while you still can before it's too late.
Today, his young nephew is incarcerated at another facility. That tears his uncle apart because he feels so responsible. And because he still cares, but can't do anything for him.
Lots of stories as painful as this one were crammed inside that small room that winter night, all looking back at me. I had gone there to speak but all I could really do was listen.
The last thing they need to hear about is a study telling them how hard it is to be a young black male in America.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.