'State of Our Black Youth, 2007'

There are some things a middle-aged white guy isn’t supposed to talk about. Certain places where it’s better not to go. When an organization like Indiana Black Expo publishes a report like its recent “State of Our Black Youth, 2007,” it’s tempting for a middle-aged white guy to treat the information found there like a traffic accident — take a look and move on.

But, supposedly, we’re all in this together. We share this place as citizens and neighbors. So what’s a middle-aged white guy supposed to make of news like this: In Indiana, 78 percent of black children are born to unwed parents, and the rate of teen births for black females is 80.9 per 1,000, compared to the state’s overall teen birth rate of 43.5.

“State of Our Black Youth, 2007” tells us that black children in Indiana are almost twice as likely to be victims of abuse and neglect. According to the report, the rate of substantiated neglect cases involving black youths in 2005 was 14.3 per 1,000, compared with 8.6 for all Indiana youths. Black youths were more than twice as likely to be the victims of substantiated cases of abuse. They were also more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse.  

The social consequences of statistics like these are well-documented and crushingly predictable. The kids this report is talking about are born poor and will probably remain poor, will be alienated in school and barely employable later on. Odds are they will perpetuate this cycle, since teenagers living in single-parent households are more likely to become teenage parents themselves.

Studies compiled by the Urban Institute show that adolescent mothers stay on welfare for long periods of time — more than five of the 10 years following the birth of their first child; that only a little more than half of teen mothers will complete high school during adolescence and early adulthood; and that almost two-thirds of blacks, half of Hispanics and just over one-quarter of white adolescent mothers will still be in poverty by the time they reach their late 20s.

“Teenage parents are disproportionately concentrated in poor, often racially segregated communities characterized by inferior housing, high crime, poor schools and limited health services,” writes the Urban Institute’s Rebecca Maynard. She adds that many teen mothers are the victims of physical and/or sexual abuse. Recent studies of Washington State welfare recipients estimate that half of the women who gave birth before they were 18 had been sexually abused. And the Guttmacher Institute’s National Survey of Children indicates that 20 percent of sexually active teenagers have had involuntary sex. Maynard adds this chilling note: “The male partners of teenage mothers tend not to be teens themselves.”

The state has formed a commission to study this situation. That’s usually the cue for a middle-aged white guy like me to respectfully leave the room. But if the numbers in the Black Expo report are correct, we are in the midst of a crisis that’s not likely to show any improvement for at least another generation. We have to find new ways to talk about this. Let us begin by agreeing that what’s happening here isn’t about cultural diversity; it’s about poverty. A large part of what keeps us from talking as forthrightly as we should about the state of black youth is a kind of political correctness that makes the issue all but untouchable for anyone not directly affected by it.

But by saying this is a “black thing,” or that “one size doesn’t fit all,” confuses cultural value with cultural pathology. It also enables policymakers to consider this a condition beyond their control.

As long as the worst problems associated with poverty — teen parenting, child neglect, sexual abuse — are discussed within a racial context, the powers that be can excuse themselves from the conversation on the grounds that what needs to be done can only be done within the black community. Programs aimed at treating symptoms are likely to follow. But policies that actually address our love-hate relationship with poverty itself, that finally reject our tolerating poverty as a kind of punishment for social inadequacy, will, as usual, be nowhere in sight.

The elders and extended families that traditionally kept kids from falling through the holes in our social safety net are fading from the scene. And the teachers, preachers, social workers and cops whose careers have been consumed by this situation can only tell us about what they are powerless to prevent. One thing’s certain: A middle-aged white guy like me is way out of his depth here.

But we have to talk about this — and keep talking about it. We’re losing our kids.