New data shows that, in a number of areas — teen pregnancy, violent crime and increasing gradation rates — black youths have made significant gains. Experts say it’s time that the perception matches the reality.
National teen pregnancy rates peaked in 1990 and have been falling ever since. They’re currently down 53 percent for 15- to 17-year-olds and 36 percent for 18- to 19-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For black teens, pregnancy rates fell by 51 percent.
“The decline has been fueled by three factors: more teens are waiting to have sex; they also report fewer sexual partners and better use of contraception,” said Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in a recent report by the organization.
“In short, the credit for this remarkable national success story goes to teens themselves. Unfortunately, precious few adults are aware of this national success story,” she added. “In fact, nearly half of Americans incorrectly believe the teen pregnancy rate in the United States has increased over the past two decades.”
“There’s still a consistent, deficit-focused reporting around young people that supports a negative narrative,” says Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of youth organization The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. “I think that narrative persists because it’s a lot easier to talk about those things than focus on some of the systemic failures that foster these issues in general.”
Teen pregnancy and violent crime down, education attainment up
Reducing teen pregnancy is but one area where black youths are making quiet progress. Between 1990 and 2012, high school graduation for blacks increased from 82 to 89 percent. During that same period, the percentage of blacks 25 to 29 years old who attained a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 13 to 23 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
And despite the recent media clamor over the so-called “knockout game” and this year’s highly-publicized surge of killings in inner-city Chicago, violent crime against and by blacks has fallen sharply since the early 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. In fact, the number of blacks killed reached a high of 39.4 homicides per 100,000 in 1991. In years since, that number has been cut in half. Rates of violent crime committed by blacks also reached a high in 1991 and have been reduced by nearly 50 percent in years since.
In the face of these encouraging statistics, a narrative of black youth locked in crisis persists in mainstream media and the popular imagination. In the wake of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, many across the media landscape took to the airwaves to encourage the nation’s black community to make interventions on behalf of black youth.
In a controversial July “Talking Points Memo” segment on his FOX News show, anchor Bill O’Reilly said in part, “The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family. […] When was the last time you saw a public service ad telling young black girls to avoid becoming pregnant? […] White people don’t force black people to have babies out of wedlock.”
In an informal poll conducted by FOX anchor Greta Van Sustern, 97 percent said O’Reilly was “100 percent right” in his remarks. CNN’s Don Lemon said O’Reilly “didn’t go far enough.”
Days after O’Reilly’s segment, Lemon took time out from his broadcast to issue a five-point plan for black Americans to fix “the problem.” Items on his list included pulling up pants, eradicating the “n-word” and litter in black communities, finishing school and reducing out-of-wedlock births.
Lazarre-White co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BHSS) in the mid-’90s. The Harlem-based non-profit is a comprehensive youth development and educational organization that provides various services for at-risk youth. Lazarre-White says, despite messages in the media, the downward trends for issues like teen pregnancy aren’t surprising. He also cautions that the data, good and bad, be considered in context.
“The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is an evidence-based program, so we know the interventions are working,” he says. “On the other hand there’s a strengthening of the so-called underclass of black folks and within that population, we don’t see the same positive upward trends. So, there’s certainly much good news but problems persist.”
Ultimately, Lazarre-White says black youth, like any other group, deserve the benefit of being considered comprehensively.
“Young black people in this country are like all other young people. Overwhelmingly, they’re doing the right thing. They’re going to school and working to live their lives in a good ethical and moral way. Yet, there is still a media focus on negative outcomes,” he says. “Do we have problems with violence and other issues? Absolutely, but there are also so many success stories and if you look at the total black youth population, what you see is overwhelmingly black young people are doing the right thing.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR.