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Talking sense about a new 'lost' generation: young black males need society's attention.

On Fathers' Day last June, New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis gave himself a break. He was not going to write another piece on the problems of young black males, he said. He just wanted to rejoice on his first Father's Day as a dad, and he hoped he could hand down to his son some day an end to the crisis talk about black men in America.

During the past two years, while political leaders have buried their heads in the sand, Errol Louis and his black fellow journalists--reporters and columnists for the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Jersey Journal of Jersey City, N.J., The Miami Herald, National Public Radio among others--have shoved the ugly facts in our faces: Our society is sacrificing a generation of young black men on the altar of popular culture.

The "hot" spokesman of the moment is Juan Williams, NPR correspondent, Fox News analyst and author of Enough, an attack on the "phony leaders" and "dead-end movements" that undermine black America. His springboard is Bill Cosby's 2004 address on the golden anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision ending school segregation.

Mr. Cosby blamed blacks for their own problems: the 50 percent school dropout rate; the highest percent of a racial group in prison; the 62 percent of black children born of unwed mothers no longer embarrassed to be unmarried and of young men no longer embarrassed about fleeing the responsibilities of fatherhood. Mr. Cosby said young people putting their clothes on backwards, "pants down around the crack" were a sign of something wrong.

Bob Herbert's Times column reminded us in December 2005 that nearly a third of black men in their 20s have criminal records, and AIDS has become the new black Plague. The discussion peaked in March this year with Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson's New York Times op-ed suggestion that black males flunk out of school because they are terminally seduced by the "cool-pose culture." Ensnared in this "Dionysian trap," they hang out on the corner, enjoy sex and drugs, and imagine themselves as hip-hop heroes and star athletes.

I write this from an urban media hub where a stack of tabloids and local papers feed me a diet of "Most Wanted" perpetrators, killers in prison smocks and handcuffs, drug dealers, rappers shot by rappers. Most often the mug shots are black. I write not from some academic ivory tower but from many years teaching in urban universities and now at a college with perhaps the most diverse student body in the nation. I write from long walks and bike rides through the poorest neighborhoods, where one of our students was murdered this summer.

The May 8, 2005, issue of The Star-Ledger disclosed that in South Orange there were 37 percent more black women than men. "Where were the men? Dead--killed by one another, or in prison or the military." A year later The Star-Ledger profiled 14 black teenagers killed on the streets of Newark. "Some were good kids. Some were not." Last month's Philadelphia magazine records 320 homicides, concentrated in a few neighborhoods, for 2006.

What can be done about this? In Philadelphia the proposal is to confiscate illegal guns: Forced to leave their guns home, the boys are less likely to answer imagined insults with a bullet in the face.

The black media commentators--Bob Herbert, Leonard Pitts Jr., Errol Louis, Clarence Page, PBS's Tavis Smiley, and especially Stanley Crouch--have not shrunk from the fight. Rap, says Mr. Crouch, is "cultural swill." He is scathing on the "brutal coon shows in which pimps and gangsters are glamorized" by performers who are actually gangsters themselves and thus end up shot or killed. MTV, he says, dehumanizes black people as "pimps, whores, potheads, dope dealers and gangbangers" and presents these images as "real" black culture.

Juan Williams's advice to young blacks? Graduate from high school, don't listen to siren calls to be a rapper or athlete, don't get married until in your 20s, and don't have a baby until you're married. Bob Herbert would call a summit of wise men and women.

But this crisis affects every American. The indifference of whites--and so-called black political leaders--to black community disintegration has allowed a critical election to pass without a word on the catastrophe. Today a white candidate who agrees with Mr. Cosby or Mr. Crouch and proposes a socioeconomic plan to address the disease would be called a racist by black demagogues and a "tax and spend" liberal by the right. But true leadership, said Adlai Stevenson, must "talk sense to the American people."

Let's start with urban education. Jesuits and other religious and secular groups have pioneered successful inner-city high schools like Cristo Rey and middle schools like Nativity Miguel that emphasize the work ethic, personal attention and discipline.

But this crisis calls for a broader attack. Don't play MTV on campus televisions. Impose dress codes on all students like the code of historically black Hampton University in Virginia, which instills "integrity, and an appreciation of values and ethics": no caps, hoods, do-rags, jackets, T-shirts or shorts in class, cafeteria or offices. I'll add: no drinks, chewing gum or cell phones in class. The convict-style costume is the black male's message to the world outside his head that he refuses to join the larger community. Schools should teach him otherwise.

Treat black and white males as if they are all smart enough to read literature. Give them a crash course in reading from the first day--including Dickens and Dostoevsky. Teach them to write poetry and recite Shakespeare and listen to and sing Bach and Mozart. Require a C average before they can play on a team. In short, teach them to be gentlemen.

[Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is a professor of humanities at St. Peter's College in Jersey City.]
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Title Annotation:Opinion & arts
Author:Schroth, Raymond A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 15, 2006
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