Economic growth during the past four decades has brought gains to most Americans, including ethnic minorities. But African American men have lagged behind.

Black men, some 17 million of them, make up about six percent of the U.S. population. Unemployment and incarceration rates historically have been high for this population group.

But Ralph Conner, Government Relations Manager for the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based policy research organization, says new reports indicate that the plight of African American men may be getting worse. "The one that most people are talking about is the National Urban League State of Black America report. And that particular report cited that 72 percent of black men coming out of high school are unemployed," says Conner. "In the Chicago area, we have Northwestern University. They've recently done a study that found that one in four black men aged 20-to-64 did not work for 12 straight months in 2002, while one in 20 black men are incarcerated and 75 percent are not attending college."

These rates are more than double than those for whites, Hispanics and black women. Ralph Conner says studies also show that increasing numbers of black children grow up without fathers in the home. According to Conner, these reports indicate that black men are increasingly disconnected from mainstream society.

Persistent Shadow of Discirimination

Carl Bell, a professor of public health and psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago, blames persistent discrimination for much of the problem. "Black people are confused about racism," says Bell. "They cannot tell if they are being accepted or tolerated. They cannot tell if they are in control or the system is against them. And as a result of those confusions, they inhibit themselves. Because you never know, 'Did I get this job because I am a token or I am a part of quota, or did I get this job because I deserve it? Can I break this glass ceiling? Can I avoid being selectively prosecuted?'"

Professor Bell notes that about three-quarters of black male high school dropouts in the United States are unemployed, compared to about one-third of their white counterparts. So, he says, many cannot support a family. And some analysts say that a loss of the traditional bread-winner role has turned many black men to violence.

In addition to victimizing one another, many African American men are abusive to women in their communities. Studies show that African American women suffer more abuse and are more likely to be killed by men than women in other racial groups.

Many analysts argue that discrimination has not caused the rise in violence within the African American community. They say it does not explain why black men, especially young men, have fallen behind in recent years. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, desegregation and affirmative action for minorities have offered African Americans political and economic opportunities.

The Role of Education

Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of several books on African American issues, links the problems to education. "We are now facing a dropout rate among black males from high school of over 50 percent in many cities around the country," says Poussaint." And when they lack a high school education, they are more likely to end up jobless. So you have a situation where the jobless rate for black males is very high. And associated with that has been an increase in the number of black men who are in prison. With the unemployment, many look for alternative ways for making money. And unfortunately that leads to a lot of anti-social and even criminal behavior."

Professor Poussaint says racial integration has never really taken hold in American public schools because after the racial upheaval in major American cities, many whites moved to the suburbs. Professor Poussaint says this has led to voluntary segregation in many public school districts, which means that black children in poor communities often receive inadequate educations. 

"But even in that situation, the black girls tend to outperform the black boys in a school situation. And some people are concerned that the school system is less compatible for boys than it is for the black girls who are achieving at a higher rate. And it is reflected now in admission rates to colleges and professional schools where black women outnumber black males two-to-one," says Poussaint.

Poor education, drugs, absent fathers, a decline in the availability of low-skilled jobs in America's inner cities and popular rap culture that glorifies swaggering masculinity over hard work have all been cited as causes for the plight of young black men.

Some analysts also blame African American community leaders for not holding their young men more accountable for their actions. The Heartland Institute's Ralph Conner says the government needs to refocus its efforts on programs that foster self-reliance. "I think you have to look at Departments of Labor and Education and that they need to put more of a thrust on charter schools and alternative schools, voucher programs and things where you have community colleges working with high schools," says Conner.

"But the critical thing is you are going to have to take on this whole hip-hop [culture] syndrome and realize that the problem is that we have too much invested in entertainment, which leads young people to a life of crime and drugs and glamour that comes form a life of crime and drugs and the untold wealth that can be made of the misery of drug business in the inner city," says Conner. 

Many scholars warn that the plight of young black men in America affects the whole society and call for a concerted effort by government and community leaders to address the problem.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.