Monday, April 23, 2007

Accentuate college's positive, not rap's negative

By Dr. Michael L. Lomax
April 22, 2007

True or false: A college education is more important than ever.

True or false: There are more African-American men attending college today.

True or false: There are more college-age black men in prison than in college.

Give yourself credit if you marked the first question true. People who get ahead in today's economy start by getting a college degree. Almost all the fastest-growing careers require at least a college degree. The college graduate makes twice as much as the high school graduate.

You can also give yourself credit if you marked the second question true. More black males than ever before are applying to college, enrolling and getting their degrees.

The third question? That one is false -- 179,500 black men ages 18 to 24 are in prison. But 469,000 -- more than two-and-a-half times as many -- are enrolled in college.

You often read that there are more black men in prison than in college. But that misleading statistic compares the number of black men in college, almost all of whom are in their teens or twenties, with the number of all black men, of any age, in prison. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

But what about those 179,500 young black men who are in prison? As president of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an association of 39 private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and America's largest minority college scholarship provider, I'm concerned about what we can do to keep them out of trouble and out of jail.

There is one thing that drastically reduces the chances of going to prison: having a college degree. We also know that African-Americans are statistically much more likely to stay in college and graduate if they attend an HBCU like LeMoyne-Owen College, our UNCF member school here in Memphis, or all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta or co-ed Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.

Getting a college degree doesn't start in college. You have to have a good high school education. Far too many African-American males have been tracked into courses that won't ever get them ready for college, as Bill Gates has put it, no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.

There are proven models for helping young black men achieve success in school, and one of them is in Memphis: the KIPP Diamond Academy, part of a national group of predominantly minority, nonprofit public charter and contract schools. (I am on KIPP's national board of directors.) With longer school days and more effective teaching approaches, KIPP students' average test scores equal those for all City of Memphis and State of Tennessee public schools, which have a much smaller percentage of minority and low-income students.

But the path to getting a college degree -- and the sharply improved chances of staying out of trouble that come with that degree -- has to start even before high school. It has to start at home and in the community.

As members of the black community, we are all responsible for refocusing on education, especially college education, as the pathway to professional careers and the middle class. We must teach our young people that in the 21st century, the jobs that are available to applicants with only high school diplomas will not support the middle-class life style, the lives of security, stability and service that we want for them and that they want for themselves.

Part of that refocusing is challenging the seductive, but destructive, role that popular culture plays among our young people. We have to reject the voice of gangsta rap becoming the voice of black authenticity. Gangsta rap is a siren song to young people who don't have better, more constructive male role models who demonstrate positive alternatives to the false bravado of thugs.

The values espoused by gangsta rap are wrong, destructive and lead not to college but to jail. Violence against women -- or anyone-- is wrong. Exploitation of members of our own community through the drug trade is wrong. Living outside the law is wrong. And setting these values to music or weaving them into a gangsta or convict line of clothes is wrong.

A college degree is no magic stay-out-of jail card. Not every college graduate stays out of trouble with the law. And, of course, not everyone without a college degree gets into trouble.

But let me end as I began, with a question: Which path -- the one that leads to college or the one that doesn't -- offers young African-American men the best chance of staying out of trouble and out of prison?

I know my answer.

What's yours?

Dr. Michael L. Lomax is president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.

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