Prominent African American scholar and author Ralph Ellison once depicted the Black man as socially invisible in his watershed novel "Invisible Man." His hard-hitting portrayal of life in 1940s Black America suggested that it would take more than a major Civil Rights movement to bring the nation out of its racist past. That was in 1953.
Since then, much progress has been made in terms of Black men gaining greater visibility in the United States. At the anecdotal level, African American men have broken down color barriers in a wide array of arenas — from sports to medicine to the arts to law to higher education to finance — and have risen to great prominence, giving their White brethren a run for their money.
From Barack Obama to Tony Dungy to Thurgood Marshall to Colin Powell to Tiger Woods to Russell Simons to Spike Lee, there are a multitude of male African American role models who have proven that they can compete and excel on the same level as Whites.
But for all the outstanding examples of Black men defying a culture of low expectations — dating back to slavery, which was created by mainstream America — there are many more who are light years away from fulfilling their true potential. They represent the greatest source of untapped potential in the United States.
There is definitely a crisis afoot among African American men that we must stop complaining about and start taking action to resolve.
But instead of dwelling on the statistics, let me propose some recommendations to not only help Black males, but all Americans:
1. Universal early childhood education: All children in this nation should have a right to comprehensive early childhood education, which, as Head Start proves, is very effective in giving them a leg-up when they start school.
2. Greater experimentation with all-male schools, longer school days and mentoring: All-male schools such as the Eagle Academy and Enterprise School in the New York City area, combined mentoring and longer days to help keep young boys focused on education and away from the distractions that could lead them down the wrong paths.
3. More second chance programs for high school dropouts, ex-offenders: These programs aim to bring ex-offenders and disadvantaged individuals who are out of school and out of work back into the mainstream. Such programs help steer more Americans, especially those at-risk, back on track by providing assistance in getting GEDs, skills training and new jobs.
4. Restore the federal Summer Jobs Program to its previous state: At the end of the 21st century, federal lawmakers agreed to "reinvent" the federal Summer Jobs Program that had been in place for decades by changing its status from a stand-alone mandatory program to one of 10 optional youth services programs. Under this reform, cities and municipalities have the option of offering the program or not. It resulted in a major scaling back of this successful federal program.
5. Drive home the message that education pays big dividends in the long run: Parents need to instill into their children the value of education in achieving their dreams and improving their financial security. They must continually talk to their children about how much better off they will be by graduating from high school and college. They must tell them that their opportunities for professional and economic advancement are much greater with a college degree or higher than without.
What we've presented here is a blueprint from which we are urging our nation's leaders to work from. Empowering Black men to reach their full potential is the most serious economic and civil rights challenge we face today. Imagine if our nation tapped the full potential of all the Black boys languishing in the shadows? It would mean greater prosperity for all.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.