"Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls" was the headline in the New York Times when Barack Obama first won the presidency in 2008. While that campaign and his subsequent reelection were moves in the right direction, they did not remove the barriers black men in America face.
Host Melissa Harris-Perry and her Sunday panel explored the challenges that impede black men on the road to success, and if it's a product of choices or circumstances.
That pace of incarceration and criminal punishment of African-American men can't be sustained, Joshua DuBois, Obama's former spiritual adviser said Sunday.
"It's actually breaking state and federal budgets now," said DuBois, who wrote about the crisis in a recent Newsweek article.
Whether the system can sustain itself or not, the incarceration ratios are staggering when evaluated by race. The ACLU reported in 2011 that one of every 15 black males aged 18 or older is in prison. Compare that with a one-in-36 rate for Latino men, and only a one-in-106 rate for white males. (See their infographic here.)
UConn professor Jelani Cobb noted on Sunday's show that the implications go beyond the mere criminalization of black men. "This country cannot afford to have 1 in 15 black men incarcerated, not if we have this idea that we're going to be globally competitive and remain globally competitive," he said.
Unemployment in the African-American community is slumping at 13.5%, but this is nothing new. "Government can take responsibility for the fact that there has been double the unemployment rate. The black unemployment rate has been double since the seventies, since they have been counting it," said Kai Wright, editorial director for Colorlines.com.
Despite these problems, there are many who subscribe to the notion that black men just need to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. But is the problem the system that seems designed to impede progress or is the problem in what's expected from African-American men?
"I think one of the things we struggle with around the conversation of black men is the need to either have people be exceptional or be criminals," said Wright.
It's that very pressure to be exceptional that can lead young black men to not believe in limitless possibilities for themselves. This past Thursday, one of the "exceptional" men put it succinctly when talking about his critics when he said:
"For me, I can't worry about what everybody says about me. I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio. From the inner-city. I'm not even supposed to be here. That's enough."
When we consistently focus on the numbers of what either the exceptional African-American men have done or those that have been incarcerated we miss all of the great work of those in between. "When we make those comparisons it opens us up to the idea that nothing has changed since slavery, we've made no progress," said Cobb.
So what can be done for those that haven't made progress? Plenty, according to author and performer Bryonn Bain. "Too often we're not including the folks who have the experience who have lived the experience of being incarcerated," Bain said. "They need to be at the table."
Wright took it one step further. "We also need to hold policymakers accountable. It's about the continuum and what policymakers can do to interrupt that continuum... and us celebrating ourselves."
See the rest of Sunday's conversation below.