To empower and help black men reach their full potential is the most serious economic and civil rights challenge facing many today.
A report from the US Criminal Justice System shows statistically more African-American men are behind bars than in college classrooms. Many use the idea to perpetuate the need to fight an unjust social system while others use it to continue to condemn the failings of black men. But, the question is, is the reality of what people see merely ill-fated perception?
FOX13 News took the question to our viewers and several well-known political, civic and education professionals in the community. We decided to look at the issue after posing the question to several people; most gave me the same answer, often without hesitation.
According to the Bureau of Justice statistics one out of every three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. The figure stands out. It's alarming and if perpetuated enough it becomes ingrained to be the standard by which a person is measured.
Here is the truth: US government figures from 2012 show more than 1 million African-American men were enrolled in college last year compared to more than 800,000 men in prison and jail. It's a profound statement especially when you focus on one race of people, in particular, black men. To quote a turn of the century philosopher, "Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."
Even in 2013, with the success of the first African-American president, successful black businessmen, entertainers and athletes when the question is posed to black people on the whereabouts of most black men in college or incarceration.
The reality is, for black men specifically; to climb out of a chasm of slavery, Jim Crowe, and disenfranchisement continues to be a fortress of poverty, a lack of education and knowledge.
Here is the irony, even asking black people, only this specific race assumes more blacks are behind bars than sitting in a college classroom. The reality is more black men are in college than in jail. But, between statistics, stereotypes and the media many say the idea will forever be perpetuated.
"We highlight the negative more than the positive," said Pastor Keith Norman of Broad Baptist Church. "We tell the negative more than the positive, so if you tell the negative more than the positive, you show the negative more than the positive, that's the perception created."
"As long as the system has indoctrinated people on the inferiority, criminally, the undesirable element of the African-American black male, then that's what people, whether they're sitting on jury, whether they're the judge, a lawyer or school teacher or whatever, they're going to bring that baggage with them," added pastor and historian Mead Walker.
History shows there was a time before the Civil Rights movement where a two-parent household in the black family surviving together was the norm. Shortly after that time, there was a change within the black race.
"At that point blacks were able to move out into Germantown and move to, it's a good thing, not a bad thing, but they forgot to keep sending money back in the neighborhood," said New Olivet Baptist Pastor Kenneth Whalum.
If you wake up every day engulfed in a community where all you see is starvation, death, degradation, poverty, disenfranchisement eventually you become a part of your community.
Pastor Walker says as society changed family values started to slowly erode but in the black community the erosion accelerated. By the 1980s, social programs were drying up, racial disparities in sentencing were increasing, and blacks still weren't making financially what their white counterparts were making forcing some to search for easy money with grave consequences.
"When you talk crack cocaine and the unfair sentencing of crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine, and even though the substance and the very damage are the same, we had a president that went forth with the law 5 to 1, 25 to 1 in some instances sentencing project, where we realize now this law is wrong, but many of the African-American men are still in jail," said Pastor Norman.
A spiral which many black men have yet to walk away from; in many families there are only first generation graduates from high school and possibly college. Many households are not led by a father but a single mother as the only role model.
"A lot of these young men, the first contact they have with a black male is either a police officer, principal, school teacher or lawyer," said Arthur Horne, attorney.
The numbers from the Justice Department reflect what many blacks are up against:
The numbers are startling, but the reality is the US Census estimates there are more than 6% of black men in college and less than 5% are in prison. Several mentors and pastors admit change begins when we as a people reach out and support each other.
"One time we could blame white folk we could blame the system, we are now the system now, it now becomes a matter of holding each other accountable. We're just not willing to do that," said Pastor Whalum.
"We've got to change media systems, we've got to be honest about what we report and why it's being reported the way that it's being reported," added Pastor Norman. "We've got to talk about social welfare and social justice and have real conversations about that."
One historian says what is very clear; people of color have indeed experienced adverse impact on themselves and within their community from barriers in employment, the justice system and negative stereotypes. He says eliminating racial disparities begins with overhauling criminal justice policies and to fundamentally change the movement for racial justice in this country.