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The widening racial divide

Andrew Nesi | Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This is a column about black Americans.

It’s not political; it’s not prescriptive. I don’t know what to do about the facts I present below, nor do I know how to answer the questions they pose. But I’m certain they matter. If nothing else, they illuminate the American racial division that too many of us still deny.

It’s almost embarrassing to have to write a column that observes something so obvious. But, unfortunately, columns that argue the truth of racial distinction in America are still necessary.

1. According to filmmaker Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewin’s documentary, “The Boys of Baraka,” 76 percent of black teenage males will not graduate high school.

2. Author Jawanza Kunjufu has said that approximately 32 percent of black families today have a father in the home.

3. And it’s not just Baltimore – a 2001 Manhattan Institute study reports that less than half of black teenagers in Georgia’s DeKalb County graduate from high school, whereas 77 percent of white teenagers do so. (Latino teenagers graduate at a jaw-droppingly low rate of only 29 percent in DeKalb County).

4. Even those who graduate high school fall behind white citizens. As DeWayne Wickham noted at a Democratic debate earlier this year, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 the unemployment rate of black high school graduates … was 33 percent higher than the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts.” You read that right. The unemployment rate for black graduates was higher than that of white drop-outs.

5. In 2006, the National Urban Institute’s annual “State of Black America” report found that the median net worth of black households was 1/10 of the median net worth of white households ($6,166 versus $67,000).

6. According to a 2003 study by the Department of Justice, 32.2 percent of black males born in 2001 “are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, if current incarceration rates remain unchanged.”

7. Wickham again: “According to FBI data, blacks were roughly 29 percent of persons arrested in this country between 1996 and 2005 … Yet at the end of this 10-year period … blacks were approximately 38 percent [of those in prison].”

8. According to one study in 2000, black seventh- and eighth-graders were three times more likely than their white counterparts to have had sexual intercourse (37 percent versus 11 percent). By 12th grade, meanwhile, 67 percent of black teenagers had engaged in intercourse, compared to 46 percent of white teenagers.

9. In a presidential debate at Howard University, John Edwards observed: “African-American women are 25 times as likely to be infected with AIDS today in America than white women.” In the same debate, Hillary Clinton noted that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women ages 25 through 34.

10. Zero: the number of black professors I have had at Notre Dame. Zero: the number of black males in my section in my dorm. Zero: the number of black undergraduates in three of my four classes.

We shouldn’t need Jena, Louisiana, or Hurricane Katrina to remind us that racial difference still plagues our country. As Leonard Pitts, Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, recently observed, “It feels as if in recent years we the people have backward traveled from even the pretense of believing our loftiest ideals. It has become fashionable to decry excessive ‘political correctness,’ deride ‘diversity,’ ‘sneer at the ‘protected classes.'” We, too, easily become passive about racial disparity – even deny that it exists – when it doesn’t glare at us in the form of explicit legal discrimination.

As I wrote at the start, I don’t know what to do about statistics like this. A good start, though, is to increase awareness. By “increasing awareness,” though, I don’t mean holding a trite “Awareness Week” that involves table tents in the dining halls and multicultural dinners that include ethnic food and performances by ethnic dance groups. I don’t mean selling Jena 6 T-shirts or planting signs across campus or even writing columns acknowledging the importance of these statistics. I mean that day-to-day interaction about race has to change: People cannot get away with saying that opportunity in America is equal across racial lines.

More importantly, the above statistics mean that people cannot dismiss racial distinction as based solely on class differences, rather than racial discrimination. When white high school dropouts are employed at 133 percent the rate of black high school graduates, there is an explicitly racial problem. When I can spend a full day in my dorms and my classes without seeing a black student, there is an explicitly racial problem.

The political ramifications of this glaring problem are a question for another column. But just because we sometimes lack spectacular examples like Jena or Katrina, we can’t continue to deny that the problem exists.

Andrew Nesi is a junior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. As you read this, he is probably on his way to Walt Disney World for a research trip. No, seriously, he is. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.