The black gender gap

February 28, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Pity Beyonce Knowles. Alas, this talented singer, actor and diva-goddess who has no problems in the good looks department has problems finding the right man.

"It's so difficult to find someone out there [who] is compatible when you're a successful black woman," she says in the March 3 Newsweek.

Fortunately, as she graces the magazine's cover with TV host Star Jones and money manager Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management, Ms. Knowles manages to put a good face on her troubles.

The three help illustrate a report on black women and what their speedier rise than black men in schools and in jobs means for work, family and race relations.

As much as I applaud Newsweek's timely attention to black women and their success, its report only skirts the Big Question. It is not why black women are doing so well that should puzzle us as much as why black men are doing so poorly.

There are, for example, many more black students enrolled in college since the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended legal apartheid in America, but a growing majority of them are women. While 35 percent of young black women go to college, Newsweek points out, only 25 percent of young black men do. Some 17 percent of young black men drop out of high school, compared with only 13.5 percent of young black females.

More black women (24 percent) have risen to the professional-managerial class than black men (17 percent), Newsweek reports, and college-educated black women earn more than the median for all black working men (and for all categories of women).

Meanwhile, black prison enrollment, most of it male, has grown. As many as one-third of black males ages 18 to 35 were in prison, probation, parole or somewhere else in the criminal justice system, according to a famous 1995 study by the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

Could there be a connection between those numbers and the fact that black women are almost five times as likely as white women to be still unmarried by age 40?

Some people of a paranoid persuasion blame a sinister conspiracy by "the Man" to destroy the black family. But even if you put on your tin-foil hat and bought into that theory, you also would have to acknowledge that a lot of us African-American parents have become unwitting accomplices in the conspiracy.

And we're not alone. Our society, like many others, tends to encourage girls to be excellent students and boys to be excellent athletes. And it is too often easier for black girls to find excellent role models of strong black women in their mothers than for black boys to find their fathers - period!

For some kids, who see few examples of success other than sports or criminal success, the message is clear: Studies are a girl thing.

The damage sent by this message can be most damaging for boys who see few other economic success models in their life outside of sports or the criminal underworld. Few of these lads make it big as jocks. Too many end up in jail.

"Stereotype threat" is the term that Claude Steele, a social science professor at Stanford University, uses to describe the inferior performance of students on standardized tests when they believe they are being judged as members of a stereotyped group rather than as individuals.

"For a great portion of black students, the degree of racial trust they feel in their campus life, rather than a few ticks on a standardized test, may be the key to their success," he writes in a new book, Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students (Beacon Press), co-authored by Theresa Perry and Asa Hilliard III.

Indeed, the degree of trust our young people feel in their society and its ability to reward their honest efforts fairly can be the key to their success, too.

First, a lot of boys, in particular, need to learn that academic success is not a girl thing. It is a power thing. It is the difference between becoming a mover and shaker and languishing in the masses of those who get moved and shaken.

Education can help get you a better wife, fellows. It can also help you to get a better life.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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