MORE than 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington in the name of civil rights, the state of black males in America remains arguably the nation's most pressing social problem.
The numbers tell a grim story: In the US, a black man is eight times more likely to be murdered than a white man. He is more than twice as likely to be unemployed.
One out of every 3 young black males is in prison, on parole, or otherwise under the jurisdiction of the US law-enforcement system. Today an American black male is as likely to be in jail as attending college.
Figures like these are a driving force behind attendance at today's Million Man March in the nation's capital, according to experts and the accounts of marchers themselves. For many attendees, the feeling that black males are in crisis, and the desire to make some positive gesture, overshadow concerns about the motives of march founders.
"This march has struck a very resonant chord within the African-American community as a whole," said Earl Shinhoster, acting head of the NAACP, last week.
Undoubtedly the event will mean different things to different participants. To some, it will be a way to emphasize that the majority of black men remain productive members of society.
Motives Aplenty of the Million Man Marchers
To others, it may be a day of reflection on ways to help end the circle of crime and poverty that afflicts a substantial minority of black males from birth.
If nothing else, marchers may be expressing a frustration with their lot that cuts across economic lines. It may be difficult for whites to understand that even successful black males at times experience a feeling of exclusion from mainstream US society.
Sam Walker is a prosperous African-American real estate investor from the Chicago area who plans to attend today's Washington gathering. He says he's been pulled over by police "countless" times when driving his black Mercedes through the affluent suburb of Oak Park.
"I can't get a cab in downtown Chicago," he asserts. "They just drive by me and pull up for the white guy."
Black males whose job requires them to wear a hard hat instead of a suit express a similar anger. Clarence Brown, a Chicago railroad car inspector, says he is frequently pulled over by Chicago police when driving his new car. "They think any black man driving a new car is a drug dealer," he says. "People say the United States is the land of the free. It's not true."
Fighting GOP tide
The rise of Republican power in Congress has only increased the perception among many black males that the US political structure is becoming less interested in their concerns. March organizers say they hope to register thousands of new voters today, in an effort to counteract GOP gains with a liberal black voting bloc.
Traditionally, fewer than half of eligible black male voters have taken part in US elections, points out David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"If somebody would listen to them and mobilize them, just like the GOP did with Perot voters, it could be very significant," he claims.
Still, it's a sense of social crisis, more than a desire for political power, that appears to be a major driving force behind the march. Too many young black men in America are caught up in a cycle of despair, abandonment, crime, and mistrust.
The problem begins with broken homes. A large majority of African-American households are headed by women; deprived of strong male role models, too many black male youngsters see drugs and crime as their fastest route out of poverty. The result is a truly astounding level of incarceration. Last year, 30.2 percent of black men aged 20 to 29 were in prison, or on parole or probation, according to just-released figures from the Sentencing Project. The comparable figure for white men was 6.7 percent.
It is a truism that the primary victims of black male criminals are other black males. The annual murder rate for black men is 72 per 100,000. For white males, the figure is 9.3.
With many of their number lured by the streets at an early age, black males are underrepresented in the US higher education system. There has been some progress: in 1993, 31.4 percent of black men aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in some kind of college, up from 27.9 percent in 1973. But black males "still have a long way to go" compared with other demographic groups, says Dr. Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education. Black women, for instance, outnumber them in college by 3 to 2.
More black males need to become primary- and secondary-school teachers to provide role models and mentor students along the way, says Dr. Wilson. Ironically, more blacks opted for the teaching profession, when other careers were denied them: in 1970, 12 percent of kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers were black, whereas today the figure is 8 percent.
"I visited an inner-city classroom about a year ago, and asked them, 'What's your biggest complaint?'" says Dr. Wilson. "They said, 'We need more black teachers'. I said, 'How many of you are planning to go into teaching?' Not one raised their hand."
While the top-scoring black male students can now more freely become lawyers or business professionals, black males remain disproportionately represented in the unemployment lines and at low-paying jobs.
According to the Census Bureau, the average annual unemployment rate for black males is 12 percent, as opposed to 5.4 percent for white males. And fully 20 percent of black males aged 18 to 64 lives below the poverty line. For white men, the figure is 7 percent.
*Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Chicago.
STATUS OF US BLACKS AND WHITES
In prison or on probation in 1994 (ages 20 to 29)
Blacks: men 30.2%; women 4.8%
Whites: men 6.7%; women 1.4%
Victims of homicide
Blacks: men 72 per 100,000; women 14.2 per 100,000
Whites: men 9.3 per 100,000; women 3.0 per 100,000
Unemployed (Average annual rate)
Blacks: men 12.0%; women 11.0%
Whites: men 5.4%; women 5.2%
Living below poverty line (ages 18 to 64)
Blacks: men 20%; women 32%
Whites: men 7%; women 10%
Sources: US Census Bureau, US Department of Education, and The Sentencing Project