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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
28 January 2002

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 3, No. 4

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Hennepin County's African American Men Project

The African-American Men Project needs to include more than just professionals and the non-profit and public sectors, and it must address the problem of the media.

by Jerome F. Winzig

There were some hopeful expectations before the release of the report of Hennepin County' African American Men Project. The impetus for the project came from Commissioner Mark Stenglein, a conservative member of the County Board, and Gary Cunningham, Director of Hennepin County's Office of Planning and Development and a well-respected African-American leader, played a key role in the report.

The report highlights some profoundly disturbing statistics on the 11,000-plus young (ages 18-30) African-American men who live in our urban-suburban county. Forty-four percent are arrested each year. They are 27 times more likely to go to jail than young white men. Only 28 percent of African American males enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools graduate in four years. They are twice as likely to die as young white men.

However, while the report offers some promise in terms of shared blame and shared responsibility for fixing the problem, it does not provide enough vision or insight to set it apart from other such reports on racial problems that have languished unheeded over the last several decades. There are three aspects of the project that are troubling.

First, while the project's 40-member steering committee was filled with eminently-qualified leaders in Hennepin County, its membership was also disproportionately, if not exclusively, made up of professional people. This is problematic because writ between the lines of the report is a disturbing conclusion about the growing disparity between professional African-Americans and what can only be termed an underclass.

African-American men are well-represented locally in so-called professional occupations. Thirty-nine percent of black men in the private sector are professionals ,up from 33 percent in 1990. Twenty-seven percent of black men in the public sector are professionals, greater than the 24 percent of white men in the public sector who are professionals. Since the statistics for African-American men as a whole are just plain terrible, this means there is an enormous dichotomy between the professionals and everyone else.

This dichotomy, which is not significantly addressed in the report, can only be addressed if there is significant representation from people who are not white collar. The steering committee -- and any future efforts -- need representation from the 60 to 70 percent of the population who are not "professionals."

A second disturbing aspect of the project is that the steering committee was heavily weighted in favor of the non-profit and public sectors. Only three of the 40 members appear to work in the private sector. Once again, if there is going to be change in attitudes and opportunities, then the sector of the economy that produces the money that drives the non-profit and public sectors needs to be included or there will be no change.

A third disturbing aspect of the project is that the report gives short shrift to the negative role that popular culture and the media play in how African-Americans are portrayed. There is a quotation from the National Task Force on African-American Men and Boys which speaks of "reclamation of the common good and our common culture."

But there are no forthright statements of how corrupting and demeaning our culture has become, how four-letter words blared from car radios harms a neighborhood, how videos that glamorize sex and drugs and crime -- but never academic success or family responsibility or hard work -- take their greatest toll on those who already live on the edge of or outside the mainstream.

Members of the media -- both news and entertainment -- need to be included in discussions about how our community can help African-American men succeed. This will be exceedingly difficult, because many in the media have abdicated their responsibilities for creating a good common culture and most likely would not be open to participating in such a discussion.

But then, making a significant change in the dismal statistics of this report is an exceedingly difficult task. To our shame, we have let it go for too long, and too many have dealt with the problem by simply moving away to the suburbs. It is no accident that, as the report points out, the greatest difficulties lie in the five poorest, highest-crime neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Perhaps the initiatives suggested by this report could be the beginnings of a new approach.

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