Last month, the U.S. Justice Department reported the latest prison and jail census, and on average, nearly one in nine African-American men ages 20 to 29 is incarcerated. At the same time, however, Atlanta's Morehouse College, the nation's only all-male historically black college, graduated the largest class in its 139-year history. Overall, there are more young black men in college - nearly half a million in 2003 - than in prison, but the high proportion of black males behind bars is a continuing cause for concern. Fortunately, many black male college graduates are trying to make sure that more of their younger counterparts stay in the pipeline to higher education and not to prison.
Morehouse, the alma mater of many prominent blacks, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., tries to provide a nurturing yet stimulating environment for each of its 3,000 students and is a major feeder for law, medical and other graduate schools. "Achievement is great, but excellence is the best thing," says Sterling Hudson, the dean of admissions and records. "We are constantly challenging our students intellectually and personally."
The dual focus on academics and social responsibility is common to other historically black campuses, including Coppin State and Morgan State universities. But for a young black man, the real push to succeed starts way before college. Drew Stewart, vice president of Morehouse's graduating senior class, grew up in Laurel, and his parents, born and raised in Baltimore, are both Morgan graduates.
When Mr. Stewart was in first grade, his mother fought to have him moved from his assigned class of slow learners to a class of high achievers, where he fit right in.
"I was heavily integrated in everything that was connected to school," he recalled this week, "from staying after school for art club to going along to PTA meetings with my parents." Several peers, however, "weren't really invested in school; they were alienated." The 21-year-old Mr. Stewart, who will start Harvard Law School in August, says, "I always felt like I made a difference in my school. A lot of black men don't feel that way about school - or anything else."
Like some of Mr. Stewart's childhood friends, many alienated youths wind up in prison or jail. The federal and state prison population in June 2005 included 186,600 black males ages 18 to 24 and 150,400 ages 25 to 29. Analysts at the Sentencing Project, a group advocating for alternatives to prison, estimate that one out of every three black men born today will spend time in prison.
As a society, we should be committed to ensuring that such a dire prediction doesn't happen. The implications of high rates of black male imprisonment are devastating for building healthy families and neighborhoods, and we cannot incarcerate our way out of dealing with persistent inequities.
It's no secret that the key is to start young. What's needed are more targeted and sustained efforts to help young black boys succeed, starting in preschool and elementary school. The earlier that young black men can see themselves as worthy, contributing members of society, the better.
Many of Mr. Stewart's classmates either started or participated in mentoring programs with local elementary and middle school students. Sharif Mitchell, 22, a Silver Spring resident who was president of Morehouse's 2006 graduating senior class of 540 students, plans to work as a commercial real estate broker for a couple of years before going to graduate school in business and public policy. But his passion to become an entrepreneur is matched by his passion to give back. He plans to continue working with at-risk elementary school students in Maryland as a tutor and big brother, just as he did during his four years in Atlanta.
"I'm a huge proponent of education, and I want to pass that on to the younger kids, particularly from kindergarten to sixth grade," Mr. Mitchell says. "That's where I can promote change."