Erik Eckholm has an article in the New York Times on the plight of black men in modern day America, and some of the statistics may surprise you.

¶The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990’s. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20’s were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20’s were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

¶Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990’s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20’s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30’s, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

¶In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

Think about those numbers. And think about these numbers:

Among black dropouts in their late 20’s, more are in prison on a given day — 34 percent — than are working — 30 percent — according to an analysis of 2000 census data by Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley…

…About half of all black men in their late 20’s and early 30’s who did not go to college are noncustodial fathers…

There is a lot of debate about what is causing this state of affairs. Explanations vary from it being an unintentional legacy of Welfare (eroding the nuclear family), the loss of low-skill jobs, the state of public education in the inner cities, to a problem with the black culture itself. But, for my money, nothing has contributed to this problem more than the Drug War and the draconian sentences that go with it.

Mr. Holzer of Georgetown and his co-authors cite two factors that have curbed black employment in particular.

First, the high rate of incarceration and attendant flood of former offenders into neighborhoods have become major impediments. Men with criminal records tend to be shunned by employers, and young blacks with clean records suffer by association, studies have found.

Arrests of black men climbed steeply during the crack epidemic of the 1980’s, but since then the political shift toward harsher punishments, more than any trends in crime, has accounted for the continued growth in the prison population, Mr. Western said.

Racism is part of the problem. “Young blacks with clean records suffer by association” with the floods of parolees that fill their urban neighborhoods. Sending so many black men to prison eventually creates a paradigm where all black men are thought to be either convicts, or potential convicts. And, it hardly needs to be added, that given our judicial system, many of the parolees are not a good influence on the neighborhoods they return to.

Creating low skill jobs in the cities, improving urban education, expanding grants and loans…all of these things are necessary and important. But, until we stop incarcerating 20% of black males that don’t attend college, we won’t make a lot of progress in turning things around in the cities.

Ending the Drug War is the single most productive thing we could do to help black men get a step up in American society.

The Drug War has swept up such a large population of black men that almost every urban black family knows an uncle, or a cousin, that has been impacted. Sometimes they are the victims of drug-related crime, other times their loved ones have wound up in prison. Doing time loses its sense of shame, and therefore the threat of doing time loses a lot of its deterrent effect. There is a certain snowball effect that has occurred. When the neighborhoods are filled with men that cannot find legitimate work because of their criminal record, a failure to look for legitimate work loses its sense of shame. And finding illegal sources of income, being the simpler path, also loses its sense of shame.

In short, the Drug War erodes the culture. It reinforces itself. It legitimizes and excuses crime.

Any comprehensive program that aims to tackle the problem of black male unemployment, must put an end to the Drug War front and center as the single most important piece.

The starting point should be ending mandatory sentencing.

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