Young black men in our communities are falling into a deep hole - a hole filled with crime, unemployment and despair. They are falling so far, and so fast, that extricating many of them might well be impossible.
And yet, for their sakes and ours, we must try.
Our personal lives and our many years spent as a Circuit Court judge and college professor, respectively, have caused us to question the destiny of the black community - particularly that of the black male. In December 2004 we independently published articles in a book titled The State of Black Baltimore. While one of our articles focused on the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and its continuing efforts to combat the nightmare of illegal drugs, the other focused on the job market and the overwhelming unemployment and underemployment in many black neighborhoods.
While not yet raising the flag of surrender, we are raising the flag of distress, urging everyone to examine the fate of young black men. If current trends continue, what will be the survival rate of young black males in the next decade? How angry and destructive will they become? Will they be nomadic, loosely attached gangs moving in and around selected neighborhoods, intimidating residents - as some are doing now? Will the stereotype of this urbanized person become worse and adversely affect all black males and the black population in general?
Or, 10 years from now, will they be better prepared to compete in the work environment than they are now, in a nation with less then 4 percent unemployment? What will be the predicament of those who have worked hard to escape the harsh, demeaning and destructive conditions of the "poverty areas" of urban America? Will they have really escaped?
Many problems in the black community can be traced to racism, industrial transformation and other macro-dynamics. But myriad other problems can be traced back to basic values in our community. As children and young adults in the black community of the 1940s and 1950s, we were taught values that were not determined by one's level of education or by a family's economic standing within the community. There was something we all had in common: the same sense of right and wrong.
That is no longer the case. Within the black community, education has become a major determinant of conduct. For example, those who graduate from high school are less likely to be involved in violent crime. Lack of education, coupled with other urban influences including social isolation and unemployment, frequently translates into a particular code of behavior for our young black males. Once our basic values are lost, the sense of responsibility follows.
Recent years have seen an increase in violent and unpredictable aggressive behavior. Many young people have no appreciation for the consequences of their violent ways and, even worse, for the value of a human life. We have seen murder trials that involved provocations that defied logic: an argument over a leather jacket, tennis shoes, cheap jewelry or someone using the "N-word."
Crime, unemployment and even community rejection produce a web of circumstances that leads many young black males to more crime and eventually the life of a career criminal. The gratuitous violence that often passes for "entertainment" does nothing to deter this trend. The conditions creating the "new" poor black male are proceeding at an accelerated pace. The vast distinctions between the educated and noneducated within the black community are woefully apparent, and these disparate groups are growing further apart.
A large proportion of young black males have dropped out of school, have not developed any marketable skills and have limited exposure beyond their immediate surroundings. Many have already produced at least one child and possibly more by more than one female. What can a person like this ever hope to offer to his children, his family, his community or himself?
Further complicating our efforts to save young black men is that many have become persistently dependent - that is, supported by mothers, grandmothers, aunts or girlfriends. Also, many of these women in their lives acquiesce in their conduct.
We have buried our heads in the sand too long. The "walls" separating the haves and have-nots in black America are more evident than ever, and young black men are becoming more concentrated among the latter. However, we cannot give up. There is far too much at stake.
Parents, teachers and community residents are the first line of responsibility. We were there several decades ago. We can be there again. But local, state and federal governments, along with the private sector must also wipe the sand from their eyes if we are to be successful in reclaiming our communities and millions of young black men.
If we want things to change, we must face these issues head-on. Desperate measures are required. Remember, it took more than 20 years before we acknowledged that the "war on drugs" was a dismal failure. Drug treatment concepts did not really flourish until that reality had been faced.
We should be open to exploring new ways to provide positive, nurturing environments for our children. School leaders, and teachers, for example, must accept a partial role in teaching the responsibilities of being parents - and they must be compensated for this role. So much more could be achieved if parental duties were postponed beyond age 21. When parenting is done responsibly, it succeeds against violent entertainment and other destructive cultural forces.
Keeping children in school must become a primary objective of each family. The link between education and material fulfillment must be more fully and frequently discussed.
But educational success will mean little if there are not enough jobs. Very few cities or metropolitan areas can easily survive the loss of tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs over 2 1/2 decades. Many urban areas, including Baltimore, have experienced such losses. We need new entry-level jobs that offer the chance for growth and advancement, be it through empowerment zones, tax incentives or in other ways. The government should step in with job-creating programs, as it has done in the past when warranted. With employment, hope is restored. And hope is what we need most.
Thomas E. Noel is a retired judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and former vice chairman of Maryland's Drug Treatment Court Commission. Charles M. Christian is Distinguished Professor at Coppin State University and author of "Black Saga: A Chronology of the African American Experience." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.