Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, called on participants at Clemson University’s Men of Color National Summit to “bust the myth, break the stereotype” when it comes to men of color in America.
Taking the stage as the opening keynote speaker, the former mayor of New Orleans attacked a stereotype he said is perpetuated by images in the media that black men fall into one of two categories – remarkable successes on the athletic field or ensnared in the criminal justice system.
“What is the myth and what is the stereotype that has become so pervasive and so permeating in America today that sometimes we adulate and glorify the stereotype?” he asked. “The stereotype has creeped into our fashion. The baggy pants look is nothing but a prison garb.”
“I want to frame my message this morning on a very, very simple proposition. And that is when it comes to black men and brown men of color in the United States, we must bust the myth. We must break the stereotype.”
He said those myths and stereotypes remained pervasive despite an abundance of African Americans succeeding in politics, business, academia, arts, music, and sciences. Morial cited local examples of African American men “who bust the myth,” including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott; U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democratic leader in the House; and Steve Benjamin, mayor of the city of Columbia.
But Morial said “we can’t respond to the stereotypes with rhetoric and emotion devoid of facts and figures.”
Morial cited statistics that there are 600,000 more black men in colleges and universities than in prisons across the U.S. and that enrollment of blacks in college has surged from 700,000 in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2011. Despite increases in enrollment, he noted that graduation rates for blacks remain too low and must be improved by tackling issues such as affordability and support.
And he attacked the suggestion that a majority of black men sell or use drugs. White youth, Morial said, are five times more likely to use most kinds of illegal drugs, and yet blacks are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned or incarcerated for drug use or trafficking.
As for black-on-black crime, Morial said black-on-black murders declined significantly since 1990s in America. While there remains too much crime and killings, he said, “it’s not a fact those rates have been rising over the past 20 years.”
Morial called on dismantling, destroying and rebuilding what he called “this broken 21st Century apartheid system called the criminal justice system.” America cannot be a nation with highest rates of incarceration in the world and expect to be an economic power if we leave any human being behind.
“We can’t gain momentum to close the achievement gap, to reform criminal justice system, to improve academic outcomes for black men and boys and brown men and boys in America if somehow there’s this lingering belief that no matter what we do nothing will change. And that lingering belief is fueled by stereotypes that have, yes, their antecedent roots in slavery and the system of segregation, degradation and discrimination. We must bust myths in America today.”
He closed his address Thursday morning challenging the standing-room only audience to focus during the month of May on black youth graduating from high schools and colleges.
“I want you to join me also in saying it’s time for a just deal for black men and boys of color in America, a just deal,” he said. “Not a new deal. Not a square deal. A just deal.”
He said such a deal should include that we “encourage, insist and demand” that every child in America has access to quality pre-school instruction beginning at the age of three.
“That we seek to achieve elementary, middle and high schools in this country that offer the same AP courses, have the same science labs, have the same quality of extracurricular activities, whether they are in the suburbs or high income neighborhood, or whether they are in inner city or whether they are in rural South Carolina,” he said. “And we must insist that no school’s physical plant looks like, smells like in any way a prison cell.”
And, he added, that we must insist that high school graduation and college matriculation and completion is the goal and is the objective.
“This conference, this meeting here today is about walking and not just talk. This conference and meeting here today is about facting and not just acting. This conference and meeting today is about making a difference in the lives of our precious, our beautiful, our talented young people,” he said. “These young boys, these soon to be men, they are our progeny, they are our future. Ladies and gentlemen, they are us.”
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