The Media Narrative of Black Men in America Is All Wrong

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon with My Brother's Keeper mentees in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, February 27, 2015. Larry Downing/Reuters

More black men are going to college than ever before in our nation's history. Black men make up the largest share of people of color in the U.S. Armed Forces. And black fathers living with their children are more likely to take on everyday child care duties than fathers in other demographic groups.

Yet many portrayals of black men in the media continue to focus on the negative. Unfortunately, these outdated stereotypes neglect the breadth and depth of the lives of American black men, who have many roles—including father, husband, mentor and community leader, just to name a few.

President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. The program, designed to combat the persistent gaps faced by men and boys of color, has made great progress, leading to partnerships with communities, corporate and philanthropic leaders and federal agencies. All of these partnerships are working to expand opportunities and tear down barriers that hamper the likelihood of success for men and boys of color.

Programs such as this are essential to continue the momentum that black men have gained in education, employment and other indicators of success. It's high time to focus on the real state of black men in the United States.

Looking closely at the facts, it's clear that black men play an overwhelmingly positive role in their families and communities. Black men ages 18 to 24, for example, are closing the enrollment gap for postsecondary education. Today, 33.9 percent of black males in this age group attend some form of higher education, compared with 41 percent of the entire population within this age group—an increase from 1988, when only 18.5 percent of black males were enrolled in some form of postsecondary education; this compares with 30.3 percent of the overall population.

As of 2014, the share of black males ages 25 and over who have obtained at least a bachelor's degree has more than tripled, rising to 20.4 percent from 6.3 percent in 1976. Meanwhile, the share of the entire population with a bachelor's degree grew from 14.7 percent to 32 percent over the same time period.

The rise in college enrollment rates for black men goes hand in hand with rapidly declining high school dropout rates for black men ages 16 to 24. The dropout rate for black men within this age range fell from 21.2 percent in 1976 to 8.1 percent in 2012, while the national dropout rate fell from 14 percent to 6 percent over this period.

Like the negative stereotype of the black high school dropout, the image of the neglectful, absent black father also requires scrutiny. While there are a significant amount of female-headed households in the black community, research has shown that black fathers take an active role in the lives of their children.

Of fathers who live with their children, black men are more likely to be intimately involved in their lives. For example, black men living with their children are more likely to bathe, dress, diaper or assist their child in the bathroom than fathers in all other demographic groups. Additionally, a survey shows that black fathers living with their children are more likely to help them with homework on a daily basis.

When it comes to serving the security needs of this country, black men make up the largest share of people of color serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. People of color make up approximately 28 percent of military personnel, and black men make up 13 percent of our nation's troops. They are the largest share of people of color who serve on active duty as officers in our Armed Forces.

Of course, we must not gloss over the fact that far too many black men continue to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Of black men born in 2001, one in three have a chance of being incarcerated during their lifetime, while Hispanic men's odds are one in six. White men's odds stand at one in 17.

Yet there is some hope. Although people of color, especially black men, are overrepresented in our prison population, the number of black men in college is almost double the number of black men in jail.

Black men also face higher unemployment rates than all other demographics. As of 2014, the unemployment rate of black men over age 16 was 12.2 percent, while the total population ages 16 and over had an unemployment rate of 6.2 percent. While there have been great improvements in the employment situation of black men since unemployment peaked during the Great Recession, black men have not recovered nearly as fast as the rest of the population.

In 2009, the unemployment rate for the entire population ages 16 and over was 9.3 percent, while the unemployment rate for black men ages 16 and over was 17.5 percent. Furthermore, median weekly income for black men continues to lag behind their white and Asian-American counterparts.

The disproportionate unemployment rate and unequal pay of black men persist as significant obstacles toward achieving a more equitable economy and society.

While the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow continue to plague black men and the black community as a whole, there has been great improvement in terms of education, employment and income, among other areas. Many of these achievements have been supported by progressive policies that have helped lower unemployment, reduce poverty and further educational attainment. Policies such as instituting universal pre-K, requiring paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage and inspiring educational and employment success through the My Brother's Keeper initiative are essential to a more equitable society.

Despite these impressive improvements in various indicators of success, the media continues to highlight a negative narrative that associates black men with violence, crime and poverty. It's time for the media to report the true story—not the outdated stereotype.

Jamal Hagler is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. This article first appeared on the Center for American Progress website.