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Picture of 2 black Americas emerges

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WASHINGTON— For some black Americans, these are the best of times.

Never have so many owned their own homes and, with unemployment reaching an all-time low, the black middle-class is swelling, says the National Urban League's annual overview on the state of black America.

"Our move toward the economic mainstream continues steady as it goes," league President Hugh B. Price said in an interview. "The strong economy is proving a powerful magnet for growth. But we still have a way to go to achieve parity."

Still, the picture emerging from the report has a downside: Blacks represent a disproportionately high number of adults and juveniles in prison and those dying of cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

Black men trail black women in educational success — and that gap is widening.

In many ways, the report being released Wednesday presents information — on employment and wage gaps, political power, educational levels and child poverty — that is both encouraging and sobering.

Overall, a picture of two black Americas emerges — one an improving land of opportunity and another one mired in deprivation.

"The strong demand for labor has lifted all boats in the American economy and we are no exception," Price said.

The good economic times are transforming the urban landscape as neglected black districts such as Harlem in New York City and the U Street corridor in Washington are sprouting new stores.

"We are seeing Gaps and Home Depots and Sears moving to 125th Street in New York. That would have been unthinkable just a few years back," Price said.

However, the other black America is still burdened by unemployment rates that are more than twice the white rate.

What Price described as one of the most troubling gaps doesn't divide black and white: It is the gulf between black men and black women in educational attainment.

The number of blacks in college has surged by 43 percent since the 1970's. But black women have far outpaced black men in both undergraduate and graduate school settings.

Between 1977 and 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to black men increased 30 percent, while the number increased by 77 percent for black women. For master's degrees, the increases were 8 percent for black men and 39 percent for women.

"The numerical status of African-American men in higher education is a cause for concern," the report says.

Separately, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education said earlier this year that in 1997, the 454,000 black women in the country with master's degrees were more than double the 222,000 black men holding master's.

College student Keonna Feaster, 21, says she sees evidence of that every day.

"I've had several classes that had no black men at all," said the University of Maryland junior. "I know they are on the basketball team but when you are talking about a school with 30,000 students, they can get lost in the mix."

Michael Nettles, a University of Michigan education professor, said part of the explanation is that black males may have more options than black females after high school, noting that black men outnumber black women among college-age military recruits.

"There may be expectations that the family depends on them more than girls to earn the paycheck," Nettles said.

In addition, he said black males are severely underrepresented in advanced placement settings and over-represented in special education classes for students with low test scores or behavior and discipline problems. Teachers, using "extremely subjective" criteria, may harbor lower expectations for black males, he said.

Feaster, a criminology major, said black men often feel colleges aren't welcoming places.

Web site: www.nul.org