Washington -- Influential African Americans blame different factors for problems facing young black men, from the breakdown of family structure to a lack of support from schools, churches, law enforcement and the community.
But they all agree that young black men are in crisis.
During a panel discussion Tuesday, comedian and author Bill Cosby joined others in an attempt to identify strategies to help black men succeed. Cosby, who has been a controversial figure in the black community since he said, during an NAACP celebration two years ago, that black parents are failing their children, still places the majority of the blame for the struggles of young black men on their parents.
Others in the group, including Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums, blamed a host of other factors, including a lack of support from schools and law enforcement, as well as the dismantling of black community structure when the black middle class fled in numbers from urban areas.
Studies show 1 in 4 American black men is unemployed, more black men are in prison than in college, and 1 in 4 inner-city black men does not finish high school.
The panel discussion, titled "Paths to Success: A Forum on African American Men," was organized by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard University and the Washington Post. It was held in Washington and broadcast live by Webcast.
Kaiser Foundation President Drew Altman started the discussion by saying things are not as bad as they seem. He said results of a survey of more than 1,300 black men revealed that 60 percent believe it is a good time to be black in America, and 79 percent said they are optimistic about their future.
Cosby could barely contain himself while Altman reviewed the poll.
"I am not interested in statistics that tell me things are not as bad as they seem. Things are horrible," Cosby said. "I have met people crying about what is happening, but there is no solution yet. Our children are trying to tell us something, and we are not listening. I don't care what the statistics say."
Ras Baraka, an activist and former New Jersey politician, said the flight of the middle class from inner cities has made it difficult to define black culture, and agreed with Cosby's critique of the statistics.
"To say that things are OK speaks against the fact that we are not graduating, that we are being murdered and have high unemployment," Baraka said. "I think these kids are angry because they are isolated and alienated in their community, and they are powerless.
"We don't have the support that other communities have. We have to begin to take care of our families. We deserve the same kinds of things that other Americans deserve."
Dellums said every institution in society is failing young men of color, and said being expelled from school puts black men on a path that often leads to prison.
"When we kick a young black man out of school, we are sending them into oblivion," he said.
Alvin Poussaint, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said the problems black men face begin early and that black children are twice as likely to be expelled from preschool than other students.
"Racial profiling is starting at 3 or 4," he said, adding that the behavior that results in young black children getting expelled is sometimes the result of corporal punishment at home by parents.
"There is a high level of child abuse and neglect," he said. "There is an overuse of beating kids, and research shows the more you beat them, the angrier they get."
Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for Advancement of Women and former president of Planned Parenthood, blamed the lack of a solid black community on integration.
"We were dispersed as a people," she said. "We don't have a black community anymore. There has to be a reformation of what family means and what community means."
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a delegate for the District of Columbia, said she shared Cosby's rage, arguing that 70 percent of black children in the country are born to single mothers.
She said a failure of government, black leadership and religious figures also contributes.
"The African American church is AWOL," she said.
Two honor students from Washington attended the panel to talk about what worked for them. They both said family was what helped them succeed.
"It all starts in your house with parents and the people raising you," said Wayne Nesbit, a high school salutatorian who was brought up by a single father. "My father stayed on me and enforced education.
"He said you gotta stay focused."
His friend, Jachin Leatherman, who was valedictorian at the same school, said his parents started talking to him at a very young age about the value of education.
"They told us over and over, the key to success is to set goals and not get sidetracked."
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