Urban League President John Jacob said the other day what a lot of us are slowly coming to understand: that one of black America's very special problems -- more pressing even than the federal government's abandonment of the fight for racial equity -- is the plight of the young black man.
Jacob's remarks came at the release of this year's edition of "The State of Black America," a depressing account of abandonment, despair and economic retrogression. But he singled out as "especially devastating" the problem of black male unemployment.
It may be accurate to say (though Jacob didn't quite say it) that the fate of black America -- particularly of the black underclass -- is inextricably linked to the fate of black boys and men. And if that is true, there are some monstrously hard times ahead.
Black men in America's ghettos have long since been relegated to the ranks of the unnecessary in the general economy. They are increasingly useless -- frequently far worse than useless -- to their own communities and even the mothers of their hapless children. There are, of course, exceptions to this dismal pattern, but to a frightening degree the inner-city black male has been transformed from potential asset to active threat.
It begins, as Jacob understands, with joblessness. Young men who are unemployed and who come to take unemployment as the routine state of affairs soon become unemployable. The disconnection of young men from the world of honest labor sends its devastating ripples through the entire community.
Jobless and hopeless men are worthless as husbands (no matter how many babies they sire), and the result is a staggering growth in the number of fatherless households. Boys who grow up in these households may reach adulthood without ever seeing a functioning family headed by a husband and wife, and, the result is that neither they nor the girls they subsequently impregnate have any real idea of the function of a father as role model, helpmeet or disciplinarian. Neither the young men nor their women expect anything from them, except the role of drone.
Jobless and undiciplined boys spawn fatherless communities and then, because moral and economic irresponsibility tempts them into crime, they come to prey on their own communities. Finally they become a threat to the entire society.
That is what has happened with the black underclass. The poorest 20 percent of black families, Jacob reported, lost 22 percent of their purchasing power from 1984 to 1985, even while the nation's economy was improving. White joblessness was, by the end of 1985, down to 5.9 percent. For blacks, it was 14.9 percent.
Jacob recognizes, with the increasingly vocal band of black conservatives, that a good deal of the problem confronting the black underclass is beyond the ability of government to solve. But, unlike many of those same conservatives, he understands that there are things that the government can and must do, even while it wrestles with deficits and the effects of balanced-budget legislation.
Thus he has called for the establishment of a National Youth Employment Program that includes education, training and work components; a Universal Employment and Training System to guarantee skills development and work for the unemployed, and a full-employment policy that will include economic expansion and job-targeted tax incentives.
"The State of Black America -- 1986" correctly takes the Reagan administration to task for its abandonment of civil rights enforcement and its ruthless assaults on affirmative and other corrective policies.
It isn't just the administration but the whole society that must be made to understand the dreadful implications of male joblessness in the inner cities. The danger is not just to the already devastated and demoralized underclass but to America. The problem grows rapidly worse, and time is running out.