“If only…”: Panel shares thoughts on future of black men in America

Six men representing law, education, medicine, ministry & the student perspective offered reflections Thursday about the challenges confronting African-American males in the United States.

Many African-American men face challenges in contemporary society whose root causes stem from a national legacy of racism and oppression, and according to a panel of distinguished black professionals and scholars who spoke this month at a campus discussion, there needs to be a reexamination of the way society perceives those ongoing struggles.

Moderated by Associate Professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr, executive director of Elon’s Center for Access and Success, “Black Men in America—Imagining the Future” explained to many Whitley Auditorium attendees the longstanding inequities illustrated by disparate school suspension rates, prison population rates and lower life expectancy rates for black males compared to their white or female counterparts.

Featured guests were:

  • Professor George Johnson, dean of Elon School of Law
  • Dr. Gerald Trusdale, a Greensboro, N.C., physician
  • Anthony Graham, professor and chair of N.C. A&T University’s School of Education
  • Rev. Dr. Sir Walter Mack Sr. ‘89, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Winston Salem, N.C.
  • Gian Spells, mentoring project, Alamance-Burlington School System
  • Jordan Joshua, a Watson/Odyssey Scholar at Elon University

“As we imagine the future for black men in America, we can’t help but wonder what those futures may be ‘if only,’” Rattigan-Rohr said. “If only African-American men were not so often at the receiving end of negative experiences often traced to all sorts of stressors uniquely tied to their racial minority status.”

African-American men have an average life expectancy of nearly seven years shorter than white men, she said. Panelists reflected on that statistic and suggested the need for more proactive health education programs as well as the need for more African-American men to pursue medical careers.

After all, Trusdale said, research shows that patients are more likely to heed advice from doctors who look like them and black men make up less than 4 percent of doctors in the United States.

“Unfortunately in the black population, a lot of patients don’t seek (medical) help. They don’t have good physical examinations and preventive care, and don’t seek education until something happens,” Trusdale said. “Unless we get more in tune with preventive wellness education programs, I can see this trend continuing.”

Schools are another place of skewed representation. Less than 1 percent of the American teaching force is made up of black men. “A majority of students who come through our schools will be taught and never have an African-American male teacher,” Graham said. “If our young black men, our young black boys, are not seeing these professionals, then they can’t relate to that profession. They won’t aspire to become a part of that profession.”

Johnson noted that not only black men – but all men – are today underrepresented at liberal arts colleges.

“Most of our liberal arts colleges are predominantly female and African-American men are decidedly absent from those areas,” he said. “We have to do a much, much better job at the early stages of encouraging young men to pursue education as a way of developing themselves.”

Yet part of getting to college is keeping African-American children interested in school and education. Many schools have made “in-house” suspension the discipline of first resort for children who may simply be acting out because they aren’t being reached in the classroom.

By helping teachers learn more effective methods for teaching those children who fall behind, Spells said, that kind of suspension doesn’t become a revolving door where students are removed from the room, learn nothing away from their class, and then return even further behind.

Joshua, who takes part in the Elon University student program “Men of Character,” mentors children in a local school. Having a role in those students’ lives is important, he said.

“A lot of them deal with being picked on and bullied. One of the things we’ve noticed is that our presence in those classrooms has changed the way they see themselves,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t take too much time of a man’s day to go and meet with a student and have a conversation.”

Mack said that reaching black men in all aspects of life, whether education, medicine or ministry, involves telling them the “truth.” The same can be said of prison populations compared to college populations. Graham pointed out that more black men are enrolled in American higher education than are incarcerated in jails or prisons. It was a fact that caught most of Whitley Auditorium by surprise.

Common narratives often are inaccurate.

“One of the reasons black men fall out of institutional organizations is because of hypocrisy,” Mack said. “Many African-American men are now discovering that Jesus was not blond-haired and blue-eyed, that history records that he’s more of a darker hue and reflects more of a wooly kind of hair and looks more like a black male. … There’s a hypocritical teaching where black men can’t connect what they’re hearing and what they’re seeing.”

The Thursday evening program was part of a larger series of Winter Term events this month designed to help Elon University students learn more about people of many backgrounds and perspectives as they become global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.

For a full listing of events, visit the Winter Term 2014 website.