WASHINGTON — When gang violence in Chicago exploded in 1992, Jawanza Kunjufu, an education consultant and author, found a church on Chicago's south side and began a mentoring program for troubled black boys.
One of the early program volunteers was a tall, lanky community organizer named Barack Obama.
"He was very dedicated, easy to work with, a good organizer and a team player," Kunjufu recalled of the idealistic future president.
For two years, Obama helped counsel, tutor and change the way at-risk boys saw themselves and the world around them.
When President-elect Obama takes the oath of office Jan. 20, many are hoping that his historic term likewise will change the way that many Americans view black men — and the way that some black men view themselves.
For years, rap lyrics, music videos and even news coverage have portrayed young black males as urban predators who wear a propensity for crime, violence and other negative behavior like a badge of honor.
That gangsta persona, along with low academic achievement and high incarceration rates, has sown a negative image that, for some, taints the majority of black men for the actions of a few.
Over the next four years, as America becomes accustomed to watching a black man lead the nation, it's natural to assume that some of these racial stereotypes and animosities will subside.
Is it realistic, however?
Robert Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, has studied negative media images of black men. He said that before Obama could break down racial stereotypes, he must lead an economic recovery and deal with race directly — something he's done only under duress thus far.
"It would be a shame if he missed the opportunity to talk about it explicitly," Entman said. "We need more racial dialogue, and he's in a great position to lead it. And I think it's going to take that. I just don't think him being himself will make a big difference in racial attitudes" toward blacks.
That's because many people — white and black — will view Obama as an exception to the stereotype while continuing to believe that the stereotype is accurate.
That tendency is what James Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, calls "subtyping." It's simply creating a slightly less negative category to accommodate information that counters the stereotype.
"Many people, especially whites, will subtype Obama. In other words, 'He's not like the average black male,' " Johnson said. "And if you look at him, he's not. He's a Harvard-trained attorney and, let's face it, it'll be very easy to see him as a special case."
It's a phenomenon that even blacks wrestle with, said Courtland Lee, a University of Maryland education professor who's written extensively on issues that affect young black men.
"Among many African-American males that I've talked to, they say, 'Obama got to where he is because he "acts white." ' You can tell them, 'You can be anything you want. We've got Barack Obama in the White House as proof,' and the response comes back, 'Yeah, but he acts white.' "
Johnson agreed. "When I go to schools and talk to young black male scholars, the issues and challenges they face aren't from racism, they're from other black kids who suggest they aren't really 'being black.' To be a 'brother,' you have to be thuggish, so what happens is that many of these kids dumb down to sort of fit in."
Kunjufu, who's written numerous books about raising and educating black boys, said viewing academic success as a goal only for nonblacks was a form of self-hatred.
"The billion-dollar question is 'Will the Barack Obama phenomenon change this concept?' Because I'm an optimist, I'm going to say yes. I think many African-Americans will feel a lot more comfortable pursuing academic interests because of what's happening with Barack Obama becoming president. There's no longer a ceiling anymore. The sky's the limit."
Reaching those heights will require much work, however.
Statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation bear that out:
- Black males ages 15 to 29 make up 14 percent of all young men in that age group but account for more than 40 percent of prison inmates.
- The percentage of young black men in prison is nearly three times that of Hispanics and nearly seven times that of white men.
- Less than 8 percent of young black men are college graduates, compared with 17 percent of whites and 35 percent of Asians.
- The unemployment rate for young black men is typically more than twice the rate for white, Hispanic and Asian men.
- Young African-American men die at a rate that's at least 1.5 times the rate of young white and Hispanic men, and almost three times the rate of young Asian men.
Brian Smedley, a vice president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal research center on issues that affect African-Americans, said the data reflected a crisis among black men that was exacerbated by a lack of opportunity and structural inequality in schools, housing and jobs.
Obama was reluctant to address issues of racial inequality during his campaign, and many think that if he focused attention on the plight of young black men, he'd face cries of racial favoritism.
"Anything he does that looks in the eyes of white America like he's helping black people is going to backfire politically," said Lee, of the University of Maryland. "That's just the reality of it.
Smedley and Kunjufu think that Obama can do so without a backlash, however.
"If he frames it as an issue of expanding opportunity to all and directing resources and opportunities to communities that are most disenfranchised," Smedley said, "he could do that in a way that could enjoy broad support across the country, because opportunity is such a deeply held American value."
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