The very idea of a black unemployment crisis would start to sound as antique as expressions like “interracial couple” and “token black” if we could just lose two of the things currently plaguing black America.
First, we have the most crippling myth distracting the black community. I don’t mean the idea that Snapple has tried to sterilize black men or that AIDS was cooked up in a laboratory. I mean the narrative that goes: “It used to be that a black man without an education could go to a car plant and get a job that he could raise a family on. Today, you have to have college to have a middle-class life, and college is too expensive.”
This myth neglects how easy (and cheap) it is to get vocational training at a community college, and to get a job that doesn’t require a B.A. but pays a living wage and sometimes more. We have to think out of the box here – although in this case, “out of the box” is right under our noses.
Did the guy who last repaired your furnace go to college? And do you think he’s starving? In fact, don’t you get the feeling he makes about what a plumber makes? (He does.) What about cable installers? Auto mechanics? Building inspectors?
In any city, there are ads all over public transit for vocational programs teaching people to do these things – sometimes I wish more of them would feature young black men in the photo instead of black women, Latino or even Slavic sorts. Quite simply, it’s not true that modern America is so cruel a place that people who don’t go to college will scrub toilets, although this idea is now an op-ed page boilerplate. The Obama Administration is giving special funding to community colleges. This is, ladies and gentlemen, civil rights legislation under a different name. Let’s take advantage.
Second – although this one is a longer shot – we must get rid of the ‘War on Drugs’. The sad truth is that part of the reason the word doesn’t get out as much as it should in black communities about how men can get good jobs without college is that an alternate career always beckons: selling drugs on the street at a major markup.
No, all young black men don’t sell drugs. Most do not. However, a great many of the young black men counted as unemployed are not homeless or living off their mothers. Thousands of such men, for example, come back to a typical large city from prison each year. And most of the nasty inner-city shooting incidents you read about are related in some fashion to drug sales and patrolling turf.
The ‘War on Drugs’ myth is a corollary of the first myth I mentioned because both myths imply it’s so unlikely a black man will find a job without a B.A., that it’s inevitable, understandable and even proactive for him to turn to “Them Corners.” I will never forget when, at an event on black men in crisis, a panelist mentioned that black men selling drugs exhibit discipline in showing up for their work and the well-heeled black women in the audience applauded. They were operating under an assumption that these guys were doing their best – or at least deserved a break.
Maybe they do – in that as long as selling drugs is an available option for people of that demographic, a certain healthy number will take advantage. More than a few of the people reading this would, under similar circumstances. Let’s face it, it’s an easy choice – even if potentially dangerous. It’s comfortable to stay within one’s social orbit, and always tempting to be offered the possibility of becoming a kingpin.
Get rid of the ‘War on Drugs’ – which has been futile in all departments – and sell drugs as a controlled substance (yes, including the hard stuff), and there would no longer be any profit in Them Corners.
The trade would dry up within weeks – and suddenly, for the first time in 30 years, we could get a look at what young black men of humble circumstances are really made of. I know what they’d do – they’d start getting legal work. Their siblings, cousins, and children would watch them doing it – and in one generation, there’d be no more black “crisis” to muse over.
The question is whether we can get the word out on how to get a job without college before the War on Drugs is ended. Opportunity isn’t what it was a few years ago, to be sure. But recessions pass, and people promulgate ‘The Myth’ even when the economy is flush anyway. It’s the responsibility of all of us to counteract ‘The Myth’ and start working with the world as it is.