The Sudden and Unexpected Life of the Educated Black Man

Black American progress and the culture of the youth are often at odds with each other, but what is seen by the majority as a problem might not actually be one.


There was a legitimate fear of black literacy throughout the majority of this country’s history. The South Carolina Act of 1740 stated that any education of slaves to read or write “in any manner of writing whatsoever” was a crime punishable by about $2,000 in today’s currency.  The Virginia Revised Code of 1819 was more harsh than mere monetary fines; demanding that “all meetings or assemblages of slaves…for teaching them reading or writing under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly,” this crime was punishable by the apprehension of a slave owner’s property, with corporal punishment on the offenders of twenty lashes. Most states had similar laws on the books, as black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system, which relied on slaves’ dependence on masters.

When slavery ended, black Americans were not suddenly welcomed with open arms into institutions of higher learning, or any schools of learning whatsoever. It would take nearly a hundred years, amidst scores of arrests, physical abuse, imprisonment, and death, before the Supreme Court would recognize a black person’s right to receive the same education at the same schools at the same time as white people. Even then, segregation remained. While de jure segregation was stopped by the federal government due to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, meaning law enforcement could no longer sanction segregation, it remained in effect de facto after the ruling. This was especially apparent in the South, where blacks had to dine separately from whites, go to separate schools, were prohibited from using department store dressing rooms, and were forced to drink from separate water fountains and use separate restroom facilities. It was December 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred in Alabama, causing a major national political and social movement that moved law enforcement into a position of multicultural recognition. The majority of bus riders in Montgomery, AL were black; city regulations required whites that boarded buses to sit in the front row seats, filing the vehicle toward the back.  Blacks had to board from the rear.

On June 5, 1956, the federal district court in Montgomery ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s bus laws and the enforced segregation of black and white passengers, both at the state and city levels, violated the Fourteenth Amendment of Constitution of the United States, which stated that all persons regardless of race were to be given “full and equal benefit[s] of all laws”. While total federal enforcement of equal rights was not implemented until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the seeds for full civil rights began with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and Browder v. Gayle.  Without the events that occurred in Montgomery, law enforcement’s response to de facto segregation may never have evolved. The legal recognition of equal rights meant that law enforcement was forced to look at how citizens were being treated and how the community as a whole was being protected, regardless of race, and blacks were afforded the opportunity. at least in theory legally, to learn with the same opportunity as other Americans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was 50 years ago. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, was passed less than 50 years ago. There are a large number of people who were alive during this tumultuous period of the country, but memories are short and urgency for action is even less so. We are no longer making headlines by protesting for equal rights. When the fight for equality in receiving education stopped, so did the coverage. There was no longer an excitement or astonishment at seeing a black person graduate from a well-recognized college. The James Merediths of our country could enroll at a university without the President of the United States needing to send 5,000 troops to intervene in the subsequent violence that erupted.

As the years progressed, and integration was no longer a movement but a way of life, the country’s pop culture started to recognize the rise of the black middle class. Shows such as The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (among a very few others) depicted life in in the suburbs and above, where a black doctor or judge could raise college-bound kids and no one thought twice of it. Music acts could provide chart-topping hits without relegating the women in their music to misogynist objectivity. But even with pop culture briefly reflecting how every day life for the “mainstream” black was profitable, the black middle class and their residential enclaves were nearly invisible to the non-black public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos. Post-civil rights optimism erased upwardly mobile African Americans from the slate of interesting groups to study, and little focus was given to how educated blacks progressed and persevered in a social and political environment that was not beneficial to them.

Instead of focusing on the positives of black men, the media and the government focused on the negative ghetto environment. Rather than focus efforts to help those in poor situations due to hundreds of years of neglect and abuse by providing greater funding to neighborhoods most in need, the poor black male was seen as the enemy. And in response, the poor black male embraced this popular view, wearing the stereotype as a badge of honor, and it became seen to the general public as the identity of black culture.


Measuring the effects of media on human behavior is a difficult enterprise. Researchers generally acknowledge that the cognitive development and behavior of youth are influenced by a wide range of institutions (i.e., schools, religion), social relationships (i.e., parents, peer groups), and economic factors (i.e., poverty). But it is apparent that for most of its history, the entertainment industry, which young black culture has long been associated with, has produced images that distort and misrepresent the complexities of the African American experience. Current media representations can be best described as paradoxical: blacks are simultaneously successful through physical attributes, while lacking strong (or even average) cognitive aptitude.

Media, both positively and negatively, socializes youth into behavior that impairs their ability to mature into socially responsible and productive citizens. As black youth have experienced greater access to the products and services manufactured by the mass media industry (in part due to parental absenteeism, part due to the lack of non-school social activities in urban neighborhoods, and part due to the proliferation of consumerism in the culture), one may question the effects of mass media stereotyping on the self-esteem and cognitive development of black youth. Media executives tend not to place black actors in dramatic roles; blacks are most likely to appear in genre formats (i.e., situation comedies, variety shows) that are non-serious, light-hearted, and non-threatening, then become overrepresented in television sports broadcasts and crime reports in the news. As such, the athleticization and criminology of the black image reproduces and popularizes long-standing myths about biological and intellectual differences between blacks and whites.

These media portrayals affect the self-esteem and cognitive development of African American youth. While black youth live in a world of unprecedented material abundance, conspicuous consumption, and media advertising, their poverty stricken status severely limits their ability to participate in a rapidly expanding consumer culture, thus leading to personal frustration, social stigma, and alienation. The growing consumerism that is portrayed in the media leads to pursuits of the possession of compensatory status symbols (i.e., luxury cars, expensive sneakers, designer clothes) in order to help them negotiate social stigma and economic marginalization. As such, educational pursuits as a means of success are less emphasized than material and monetary attainment, with the correlation between higher education and economic success an alien concept.

The most impactful genre of young black culture has been hip-hop. The formation of hip hop culture illustrates how dramatically the relationship between black youth and the media culture industry has changed in the context of profound social, economic, demographic, and spatial transformation. Hip hop music has at once enabled black youth to cultivate a complex body of ideas, world views, and representations that generate poignant expressions of social critique, but while its early years could be defined as neo-black nationalist, pop music, and even feminist, a majority of artists in recent years instead choose to promote excessively violent, nihilistic, and misogynistic material. While the 80s and early 90s included rap portrayals of college parties, hopes for future success, and political frustration, much of today’s material has none of the social and political empowerment of the past. The only empowerment evident is wealth, and how quickly one can obtain it.

The commodification on hip hop culture, the focus on black athletic abilities, and the proliferation of black male criminology in the news has lead to a belief within the black community and the general population at large that there is a scarce, if not extinct, number of college educated black men. Many prominent black men have expressed their frustration with the direction of education among black youth. Russell Simmons popularly posited that black men in America have three choices: unemployment, dropping out of high school, or incarceration, and the three options aren’t mutually exclusive. And he has a point: the popular conception is that 50 percent of black boys do not finish high school, with 60 percent of male dropouts eventually incarcerated; meanwhile, one in three black males will face prison time, while compromising 48 percent of the inmate population.

These numbers, coupled with the culture we propagate to the masses, make things look bleak for the future of black men as valuable contributors to America.

Collegial Realities

There is no denying that the situation for black men in the United States is tenuous at best. Black males are incarcerated seven times more than white males and are more likely than any other race group to be victims of a violent crime, including homicide. The fear and mistrust that the media portrays is reflected in national crime statistics, and while the finger can easily be pointed to the lack of opportunities due to the immense social, political, and legal barriers in our history, there is still the matter of personal responsibility and understanding that should never be ignored.

So is the situation completely dark for a population segment that seems mathematically predisposed to not succeed? No. Every decade, the number and percentage of black men who earn a college degree increases. In 1990, the proportion of black males over age 25 who had completed college was 11.1 percent. In the year 2000, it was 13.2 percent. By 2010, 15.8 percent had completed college. This means that by the year 2020, by rounding the percentages up and applying simple trend logic to the pattern, the percentage of black males over 25 who will have completed college will be at 20 percent. Another way to predict where we’ll be by 2020 would be to take the average percent increase or decrease over the past 50 years and add to the 2010 figure, which would yield 19 percent by 2020. Whatever the method, the trends clearly show that by the year 2020, about 1 in 5 black men in the U.S.  will have at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university.

Today, young black males drop out of high school less and enroll in college more than any other generation in history. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the status dropout rate for black males in 2010 was in the single digits at 9 percent, compared with about 20 percent in the year 2000. Yes, the 50 percent number quoted above is often used, but the fact is there are discrepancies between the graduation rate, dropout rate, and census estimates. When compared to census estimates, the graduation rate appears to overestimate failure, and the dropout rate seems to underestimate failure. From the CPS annual School Enrollment Survey, we can estimate that among the half not graduating with their cohort, 5.8 percent get a GED. Using the ACS, we can estimate that approximately 12 percent of black males are graduating late–but still graduating. Therefore, if we use the census estimate of non-completion for black males (20 percent), we can account for about 38 percent of the 53 percent who are not graduating with their cohort. The remaining 15 percent is likely due to random error, including students transferring to schools outside of their district.

There is also the issue of population. The black male population in the United States is much lower than the white male population. When looking at pure percentages and not the number of bodies in seats, black males enroll in college at a rate that is comparable to that of white males. In fact, if all 1.2 million black males who are currently enrolled in undergraduate programs eventually graduated, the total number of black makes with college degrees would increase by 71 percent, nearly achieving parity with white males.

Essentially then, there is no objective evidence that black males are more prone to failure today than in previous generations. And the often-stated notion that more than half of black males dropout, or do not graduate, may not be true.

These numbers reflect the future. These numbers represent the hope for a greater and more positive outlook for a people that has historically had the deck stacked against them. These numbers show that things do not always have to remain as they were.


The educated black male has been here all along, and there are more of us as the years go on. Should we be proud of the numbers indicating the rise in college graduates over the course of several decades?

Emphatically: no.

There is no pride to be found in being less than our capabilities allow us. There is no strength in living by our weaknesses. There is no happiness in actions that those who sacrificed so much for us would frown upon.

The numbers could and should be better. The stereotypical culture of the young black adult male, from web sites like World Star Hip Hop popularizing “ratchet” culture to music that continues to perpetrate the violent black criminal stereotype to the lack of media portrayals that reflect the lives of the middle class suburban black family, continues because we allow it to. The worst of us, the loudest of us, are often the ones we, and everyone else, looks at the most. And our eyes are wide open, staring the the lowest common denominator and willing to accept the fate that precludes the black American experience rather than take accountability for the ignorance of how we can better ourselves.

The legal discrimination of blacks seeking education was not even a lifetime ago, but the ability to do less to promote a culture of crime and more to embrace education has been there for much longer. We need to develop the improvement of career counseling and advisement in predominantly black high schools, providing mentorship programs for all levels of student. We need to develop a college-bound curriculum so that we can decrease the number of black male college dropouts. We need to advocate for initiatives that support young blacks who want to work hard to earn an education and provide more value to our country.

The more we succeed, the more our nation and the more our world succeeds.

And the subculture of self-hate, criminology, and consumerism must die.

There was a time when we would fight and bleed and die just for the opportunity to learn how to read. There was a time when we fought tooth and nail just to be able to obtain a good education. Now too many of our young men and women throw it away with pride. We celebrate our ignorance. We open our arms to the lowest common denominator while laughing at those of us who strive to achieve the dreams our parents and grandparents died for. Too many of our young ones spit on the graves of our ancestors just for the appearance of keeping it real, while the only thing real is their proving that the racists and misanthropes and the ghosts of slave owners were right all along.

What we need to do is continue to do our part to spread positivity. To promote education as the key way to get ahead in this country. To put more emphasis on using our brains rather than just our brawn. To make scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson our heroes. It’s going to take a cultural shift in how we raise our young ones, a sociopolitical movement to develop education programs outside of the public school system, and some old fashioned good parenting to let the next generation know they can be better than we ever were.

The educated black man need not be sudden. He need not be unexpected. He simply needs to be. And we can stop falling into our self-created hole by giving the youth of today a glimpse of tomorrow so they can build their dreams with pride.