Don't blame hip-hop for struggles of black youths

March 31, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- My column about the steady rise in unemployment among disconnected black males, despite the 1990s economic boom, brought several responses that could easily be summarized as: "Page, you just don't get it."

The writers went on to describe how young black males reduce their prospects for success in life by embracing the damaging values of "hip-hop culture."

On that narrow point, they will receive no argument from me. I am the father of a 16-year-old black male. Every day of my life and his mother's is a tug-of-war with the damaging effects of hip-hop culture. (We take it as a small victory that his tastes have evolved upward, at least, from Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent to the more thoughtful Common and Mos Def.)

But let's get real. If hip-hop and all of its trappings disappeared tomorrow, they would quickly be replaced by some other pop cultural trend, just as the blues begat rhythm-and-blues, which begat soul, and so on. But it probably would not improve by a single digit the "real" jobless rate for black male high-school dropouts in their 20s, which recent studies find has soared to 72 percent in 2004, compared with only 34 percent of white dropouts and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. The "real" jobless rate includes those whom the official unemployment rate leaves out, such as prison inmates and others who have stopped actively seeking employment.

Hip-hop is not the problem, although it can make root problems worse. By glamorizing what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" - gangster life, sexual conquests, party drugs, "bling" (jewelry), "ka-ching" (money), absentee fatherhood and the exploitation of women - pop culture promotes what the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a civil rights veteran, calls "weapons of mass self-destruction."

This encourages scholars such as Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson to argue that culture, more than economics or historical racism, explains a new underclass of disconnected black youths. For example, he wrote in Sunday's New York Times, "Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime." Yet Mr. Patterson, like my e-mailers, offers no prescriptions, other than a call for his fellow professors to come up with a "new, multidisciplinary approach" in academia "toward understanding what makes young black men behave so self-destructively."

We need to take the kids under wing and show them how it's done.

I grew up in working-class neighborhoods of mostly two-parent households. The parents were backed up by the tightly knit community's churches, businesses and local government, which offered a wide range of youth activities to keep us busy, particularly during the hours of greatest juvenile delinquency, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

An unfortunate byproduct of the new, hard-won opportunities that the civil rights movement opened up for black Americans was the rapid migration of a new black middle class away from the old neighborhoods, leaving behind most of the unfortunate one-fourth of black America that remains in poverty.

It's easy to bash hip-hoppers. But our children, particularly young black males, need folks who are ready and willing to complain less and pitch in more. Mentor a kid. Adopt a school. Contribute to keep more youth centers open. We can't save all of the kids, but it's better to try to save one or two than to curse a generation.

Unfortunately, it has been too easy for us, the fortunate, to turn our backs on young, low-income males, even as we spent $50 billion to help mothers move from welfare to work.

Washington is showing what President George H. W. Bush used to call "more will than wallet" to help young people. Federal block grants to community programs for youths have been cut, and federal funding for youth employment programs has decreased from $15 billion in 1979 to $3 billion today.

Yes, there's a lot I still don't "get." I don't get why so many of America's children must live with the self-destructive residue not only of popular culture but also of Washington's political culture. If only they could afford lobbyists.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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