03/27/2006 03:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The University of Prison (Part II)

A lot of readers weighed in on my previous post on the disastrous plight of too many American black men. Not all of the comments were pretty. Like so many issues in American society, debates about race problems too often race to extreme and fixed positions. Thinkers on the left and the right too often dive for safe, time-honored cover on the edges of the battlefield. The truth, however, always lies out in the open. When I said that Society failed those jobless young black men who rotate in and out of prison and impregnate at will, that does not mean that they are in any way excused for failing their community, their families and themselves. Yet if over half of young black men in our inner cities drop out of high school, 72% of those are unemployed and sixty percent will have spent time in prison before they reach thirty then the problem is a little more serious than just telling them all to shape up or ship out.

Just as light has to be studied both as a collective wave and as a stream of discreet photons, so do we have to study any society as both a group that tends to respond in certain predetermined ways, and as a collection of individuals possessing free will.

Here's more of what I wrote in the Los Angeles Times back in 1992:

"In our community we are so timid about criticizing each other that we have been slow to castigate the stupid, evil acts of gangbangers and other random black thugs who terrorize other black folks. This silence, or worse, rationalizing, is especially common among white liberals and middle-class blacks, like myself, who don't have to fear stray bullets.

If we truly loved these young men, we wouldn't make excuses for their idiocy. Trying to rationalize all their behavior by blaming it on inept social policy only makes sense if you think of them as animals who are hopelessly and irredeemably set in their ways.

Malcolm X is the shining counterexample. Not a child today in the 1990s in this country is as disadvantaged as he was-growing up in the Depression, his father murdered, his mother mad. True, he slid effortlessly into a life of crime. Yet he pulled himself out. He redeemed himself.

After his conversion, he said every thinking human being has a choice. He loved his people and knew we could do better. When he called us "brother" and "sister," you felt he wasn't just mouthing a fad.

With that imposed kinship, however, comes responsibility. If your brother or sister comes home one day and says, 'I couldn't find a good job so I've decided to sell crack,' you don't just nod and mumble, 'Times are hard, I sympathize with your decision.' No, you scream at them, tell them they weren't raised that way, forbid them from poisoning their own people. Malcolm X never coddled us. He was our harshest critic because he loved us so much as a people."

Professor Orlando Patterson wrote a wonderful essay in the Sunday New York Times on some of the reasons why so many inner city black men have dropped out of the mainstream work force. He writes:

So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.
Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is -- or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

I think professor Patterson is on to something key. As a people we have been promised equality since January 2nd, 1863, the day after Lincoln proclaimed our emancipation. The history of black people in America is one of promises made and promises broken. A door opens for a while, like during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and millions make the leap to the first rung of the ladder. Then the door closes again and those millions left behind this time are doubly, triply cynical and nihilistic. There is tremendous energy in that pent-up anger that finally finds not only outlet but focus in the glorification of gangsterism. In 1986 the rappers N.W.A. shout "Fuck the Police," and America's time-honored love affair with the rebel, the outlaw, rewards the absolutely most destructive and anti-social behavior imaginable with untold riches, and bitches out the yin-yang.