Two days ago I suggested that the national drama about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin was obscuring one of America’s most serious problems: the plight of young black men.
Yesterday, while President Obama was out stoking the flames of racial enmity, Michael Gerson wrote a fine column about the problem that everyone is ignoring:
One issue in particular cries out for attention while receiving almost none. Our politics moves from budget showdown to cultural conflict to trivial controversy while carefully avoiding the greatest single threat to the unity of America: the vast, increasing segregation of young, African American men and boys from the promise of their country.
America is in the process of managing, accommodating and containing a crisis that should be intolerable. More than 50 percent of young black men in inner cities are now dropping out of school — making high school graduation the exception to this dismal new rule. They consequently lag behind other groups in college attendance and graduation. Their rates of incarceration are disproportionately high and rates of workforce participation disproportionately low. “For virtually each outcome considered,” Harry Holzer of Georgetown University has written, “young black men now lag behind every other race and gender group” in the United States.
The problem has gotten worse for decades, in good economic times and bad. Others benefited from the tight labor markets of the 1990s. African American men did not. By 2004, more than half of all black men in their 20s were unemployed. And the size of this problem gets consistently underestimated, since employment figures exclude the incarcerated. A problem that seems insoluble is thus rendered invisible.
For Barack Obama it’s a grand opportunity to fulfill the promise of liberalism and to help his most loyal constituency.
If the reelection of President Obama is to mark a new era of liberal governance, let’s at least have some causes worthy of the liberal moral impulse. The one advantage of a social challenge on this scale is that it offers broad opportunities for creative policy: promoting early childhood education and parenting skills; encouraging youth development and mentoring; expanding technical education and apprenticeships; fostering college enrollment and completion; offering greater opportunities for national service; extending wage subsidies to low-income, noncustodial fathers; reforming sentencing and easing prisoner reentry. When there is a canyon to fill, just about everyone can usefully take a shovel.
A large presidential initiative on this topic would have an influence beyond policy. It would encourage understanding for some Americans who currently attract little of it. It would allow Obama to solicit conservative input and engage religious institutions. And it would be a powerful way to dispel the second-term blues.
On this as on many other issues, Barack Obama is more demagogue than leader. His great skill is manipulating the national mood. To do as Gerson suggests would require political courage and leadership. Up until now Obama has never shown any. There is no reason to believe that he will start now.